Sunday, September 09, 2007
BioShock: Limited Edition (Xbox 360) Review
Like most media, the gaming industry is saturated with developers who pump out quick and dirty clones of other successful titles in an attempt to simply turn a buck. We all know it, we all deal with it, and hell, we all purchase some of those crap titles from time to time simply because there's nothing else to get. Yet on a very rare occasion, a title is released that breaks that pattern, that tries to be different, and that is very good at doing it.
Thank God for BioShock.
I've been following the development of BioShock for years now, pretty much since it was first announced, and I can honestly say I have not been this excited about a new game release in years, not since Doom 3: Resurrection of Evil (Xbox). It's been nearly two years, and while some great titles have been released in that time frame, I haven't purchased a game on its release date since then.
That's not to say that BioShock is perfect, mind you. Like any title, big or small, it has its share of problems, but I can honestly say that BioShock is presently one of the 3 "Must Have" titles for anyone with an Xbox 360.
As most of you no doubt know by now, BioShock is set in 1960, and begins with the passenger plane that you're aboard crashing into the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Miraculously, you find a lighthouse nearby and being the only structure for who knows how far, you have no choice but to swim to and enter it. Thus begins the player's decent into Rapture, for in that lighthouse is a Bathysphere that takes you below the ocean to an amazing underwater city that was built by a man named Andrew Ryan, though it is very quickly apparent that all is not well in this utopia, and you become dependent on a man named Atlas to simply help you survive, as he guides and advises you through a shortwave radio that you've picked up.
BioShock is a first person shooter with role playing game and survival horror elements mixed in. It's developed by 2K Boston and 2K Australia (formerly Irrational Games), and is dubbed as the spiritual successor to the 1999 PC release, System Shock 2. 2K Games totes BioShock as being a unique, genetically enhanced first person shooter, that it's the Shooter 2.0, and while it certainly is unique from most shooters released in the last several years, those statements are clearly a marketing ploy since almost everything unique about it has been done in System Shock 2. Most gamers of today have never played System Shock 2, however, so a shooter with RPG and horror elements mixed in will be new to this generation of gamers.
Having cleared that up, BioShock is the most unique shooter you will have played in years. Built upon Epic Games' successful Unreal Engine 3, BioShock simply looks beautiful. The game is very unique with it's art deco styled underwater city, and the environments, how detailed they are and how wonderful the game's water looks, as it seeps in and floods every inch of Rapture, is a large appeal and part of the atmosphere. And like System Shock 2, atmosphere is what this game is all about.
BioShock is heavily story driven, and you piece together much of the story with various audio logs scattered throughout the city. It's not always very realistic where you find these logs lying around, but the concept unto itself is such a great one from System Shock 2, and borrowed by Doom 3. Through these logs, you slowly discover that something horribly wrong has happened in Rapture, and the citizens of this city have become twisted and insane through the use of genetic modifications. As you progress, you'll also need to modify your own body as well, using either Plasmids (like spells from an RPG), or Tonics (passive stat or ability boasters), and they'll let you do things like shoot lighting from your hands or blend in to your environment.
The presence of Plasmids adds a nice dimension to the game that isn't present in most shooters, and are a great compliment to your traditional weapons. Almost immediately you get a Wrench (which remains quite useful throughout the whole game), and you'll also pick up the standard fare of a pistol, shotgun, machine gun, etc. What's great about BioShock though is that you can upgrade your weapons later in the game using specific "Power to the People" machines, and increase ammo capacity, damage output, etc. This is a very cool concept carried over from System Shock 2, but unlike System Shock 2, you're weapons don't degrade or break with use!
Also taken from System Shock 2 is the concept of Hacking and vending machines. Scattered throughout the game world are vending machines that offer ammo, Medkits, Eve Hypos (that replenish Eve, which is like Mana, letting you cast your Plasmids), etc. You can try to hack any vending machine, or even Turrets or Security Cameras, that you find in the game, which will lower their price, or turn them friendly towards you. Hacking is achieved via a mini game where you need to quickly swap out pipes to properly direct a flow of water from point A to B. Fail and you get a shock, loosing some Health. Fail and have the flow hit an Alarm Tile, and an alarm is tripped and Security Bots fly in to try and kill you (which you can also disable and Hack, turning them to your side). Should a Hack prove too difficult, however, you can simply buy it out should you have enough Money, one of the two resources in the game.
The other resource is called Adam, which is gathered from the corpses around the world by the Little Sisters, sick looking little girls who carry around long needles. You need Adam to upgrade yourself with new Plasmids and Tonics purchased from Gatherer's Garden machines, and in order to get the Adam, you need to either Harvest or Rescue the Little Sister. In order to Harvest or Rescue her, however, you first need to deal with the Big Daddy, her protector and one of the most challenging enemies in the game. The Big Daddies come in a few different varieties, but all of them are equally tough, especially early on, and you'll often have a hard time taking one down. Once you do, however, you can Harvest (and therefore kill), the Little Sister and get a lot of Adam, or Rescue her and only retrieve a bit of Adam, It'll be more difficult if you take the moral path since you'll have less Adam, but you do get other rewards that will offset some of this difficulty.
And speaking of Difficulty, this brings me to the Vita-Chambers. One major con about BioShock is that the game is ridiculously easy. Throughout the game world there are these machines called Vita-Chambers, and should you die, you will be instantly brought back to life in one of them with some Health and Eve, and you can simply run back to where you were and continue attacking the enemies who killed you, enemies who do not heal. This means that, should you choose to, you don't need to use a single Medkit or Health Station in the entire game, and can simply let the Vita-Chambers bring you back to life all the time. Granted, while I wouldn't have been able to defeat some of the Big Daddies without them, there should at least be some kind of penalty for using a Vita-Chamber, such as a cost of Money or even Adam. In BioShock, death has no meaning, but they didn't even include a fun mini game with this system like they did in Prey.
On the Normal difficulty, at least, most of the enemies you face aren't too difficult, but it's the variety of options that you have to dispense them which makes BioShock so much fun. If you see them in water, you can cast Electro Bolt and fry them, you can set up Trap Bolts (trip wires) and snag them as they run at you, Hack a Health Station and watch them die as they try and use the Station to heal themselves, there are just so many unique ways to approach combat!
You can also take a more traditional route and simply blow them all the hell with your Shotgun, Grenades, etc., but even general combat is spiced up with different ammo types. The Pistol, for example, has standard bullets, Armour-Piercing Rounds, and Anti-Personal Rounds. Each kind of bullet is more effective on certain kinds of enemies, and you learn which by taking research photos with a Research Camera you come across a little into the game. Researching your enemies is again a nice, untraditional concept and it pays off for you to take the time to do it. Not only will you do more damage to your enemies and learn their vulnerabilities, but you'll also get rewards in the form of unique Tonics.
One of the three kinds of ammo for a weapon is also Inventible Ammo. This means that you can not purchase more via Vending Machines, but you can create more at U-Invent Machines that you find scattered throughout the levels, and you make these ammunitions with junk, nuts, wire, and casings, that you find in containers around the world or on the corpses of your enemies. Many objects in BioShock can be searched, adding a nice level of interactivity to Rapture, and you can also find goodies like Food and Alcohol to help restore a bit of Health and Eve. Just don't drink too much booze to quickly, or you'll get yourself drunk (a nice visual and audio effect).
Enemies themselves are varied and unique, with different kinds of Splicers, the former citizens of Rapture, for you to fight. While not the brightest bunch on Normal, they're certainly around aplenty and enemies do respawn, so be careful when traversing back through areas you've already been through. One thing I love about the enemies is the varied character models. While in other shooters you may have a basic enemy Grunt, and different kinds are usually denoted by a palette swapped colour scheme, in BioShock there are half a dozen plus unique character models to one kind of enemy. That means that many Thuggish Splicers, for example look different, and there's a strong mix of both male and female varieties. That really lends a great deal of believability to the world of Rapture.
Talking about the enemies also brings me to the game's sound mix. Like System Shock 2 and Doom 3, BioShock features a beautiful and immersive sound mix on all levels. The voice acting, be it from audio logs or the random mutterings of the Splicers, is superb, the classical score is touching and very fitting, and as you traverse the corridors of Rapture, it pays to _listen_ for the sounds your enemies and the environment make, as well as to be cautious on how much noise you're making. BioShock is as much an aural splendor as a visual one (I loved hearing some of the classic System Shock 2 sounds, like the Hypos).
BioShock is also a lengthy game by today's shooter standards, clocking in around 20 hours of play. One thing that disappoints me, however, is that there are a lot of back and forth FedEx type missions, and while some of them, especially later on, really enhance the story and take it in interesting new directions, a few of the earlier ones felt tacked on simply to increase the overall play time of the game, and this lead to some pacing issues around the midway mark. Once you get past those, though, and especially once you hit the game's great story revelation, it's all psychologically engrossing from then on.
My only other major gripe about the game would be with the handling of the Plasmids and Tonics themselves. Depending on how many slots you've purchased, you can only have 2 to 6 Plasmids, and 2 to 6 of the three kinds of Tonics active at any one time. This alone doesn't bother me, as it allows for player choice and customization, but in order to swap the Plasmids and Tonics you're using around, you need to find and use a Gene Bank Station, which stores all your unused Plasmids and Tonics. I don't like the Gene Bank and I often found myself too lazy to go and use one, even though they're scattered everywhere.
BioShock may have RPG elements, but there is no traditional class selection at the beginning of the game, instead having the player use these Gene Banks to decide how they want to play, but I honestly found this concept limiting as it meant you needed to do some back tracking to find a Gene Bank to customize yourself to handle a situation you just learned is around the corner. I firmly believe that the lack of a real class system and the use of Gene Banks will limit the re-playability of the game.
2K Games has been great with their community support for BioShock, and this can certainly be seen with how they approached the game's Limited Edition. 2K Games was originally going to release a standard version of the game only, however they put up an online petition asking the gamers what they wanted, and if they would get X amount of signatures by such a date, then they'd publish a Limited Edition of BioShock. They got the required number of signatures in 5 hours.
They then put up a poll and asked gamers what they wanted to see in the Limited Edition, and 2K Games included the top three items from that poll: A Big Daddy figurine, a Making Of DVD, and a Music CD. They also held a contest for a fan to create the cover art for the Limited Edition, and overall the packaging for the BioShock: Limited Edition is great; very high quality and a much nicer design than the standard release.
When it's all said and done though, personally, I've found that this is the first Limited Edition I've purchased for an Xbox console that wasn't worth it. The DVD is mainly spoiler free, but it's just a bunch of talking heads with no real game footage or development footage shown, and while some of what the developers had to say was interesting, it was actually boring. The Big Daddy figurine is cool, but it's just another figure that I really didn't need, and the music CD, 3 remixed tracks by Moby, isn't something I'm going to listen to again and again and I would have preferred the game's actual musical score (which was released for free by 2K Games online). 2K Games also released the game's concept art book for free as an online PDF, and when it's all said and done, what I consider to be the best collector content were the free downloads that everyone can get.
For the game itself though, BioShock is an amazing experience. It is a wonderfully detailed, atmospheric, and story driven game world that's both frightening and sad at the same time. The developer's spent a great deal of time developing Rapture and it's people and situations, and the sheer amount of flexibility offered to the player reflects this. While it does have it's faults, a game this engrossing and generally unique is quite the Godsend today, and it is certainly a must have title and the first great game to be released in 2007.
Words alone can not properly convey the experience that BioShock has to offer, and I strongly urge you to go out and buy BioShock. I promise you, you will not be disappointed at what it has to offer.
On a completely unrelated topic, this review is the 1000th post here on Arbiter's Judgement. I'd like to thank myself for the hard work I've put in over the years. Oh, and I guess I should also thank that lazy schmuck of a co-poster Staff whom we see once a year or so.