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September 30, 2007

Bioshock: a beautiful place to get shot in the face

Video games tend to be easy to describe. Plots usually go something like this: “You’re humanity’s last hope against an evil alien menace,” or “Collect the golden rings to save the country of Mythlandia,” or “Stack these colored blocks in rows.” Bioshock is a little different, to say the least. The best way to describe it is that you play as a man forced to fight his way through a gigantic city located at the bottom of an ocean which is populated by homicidal mutants, creepy little girls who harvest the stomachs of corpses and eat them, gigantic men in diving suits with femur-sized drills for hands, and—perhaps worst of all—Objectivists. Welcome to Rapture, billionaire Andrew Ryan’s city, which was supposed to be some sort of Libertarian utopia at the bottom of the sea and ended up as a twisted cross between Resident Evil and Alice in Wonderland.

The game begins when your plane crashes in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and you find yourself swimming toward an ominous-looking tower before taking a bathysphere into the depths. From there, the game continues with a very “down the rabbit hole” feeling. The player is sucked into this world of Rapture, and its terror and lunacy are pulled off perfectly. Very few video games have succeeded in creating such an intricate and well formulated ambience around the player. The sound, the lighting, the color schemes, the dialogue, and even some purposefully tacky in-game advertisements all combine to create a stunning, seamless world. Not since Half-Life 2 have I been so engaged in the environment created by a video game, and not since Doom 3 have I been so seriously spooked. To be honest, I think Bioshock does it better than both of them.

Despite all of Bioshock’s beauty, it has some definite flaws. Chief among them is the ending, which is painfully out of place and seems to have been lazily stolen from some other, far lamer video game. Another flaw is the “surprise twist” that was much too predictable and only confused and complicated what could have been a really interesting and profound story. It honestly felt like the writers got to a certain point in the story and then hired M. Night Shyamalan and Michael Bay’s mutant progeny to finish it. Fortunately, the game’s wonderful ambience and some of its more interesting characters really shine through, preventing this problem from coming even close to ruining the feel of the game.

Game play in Bioshock is pretty standard for the most part. You wield the typical weapons of the first-person shooter: pistol, shotgun, machine gun, rocket launcher—with a few twists. What really makes the game interesting is a host of special powers you can acquire called “Plasmids.” They give you the ability to shoot fire from your fingertips, freeze attackers in their footsteps, or pick up objects and throw them with such amazing force that it’s possible to kill your enemies just by throwing Bibles at them.

Plasmid abilities aren’t anything you haven’t seen before in other games. However, since they offer such a wide array of different powers, it helps to keep the player from falling into a boring routine and cruising through the game.

It takes somewhere between 12 and 15 hours to make your way through the city of Rapture, which makes it a little long as a far as first-person shooters go. Unfortunately, without a multiplayer mode (unless you have Xbox Live or bought the game for your computer), there’s not much to do with the game after that. Playing through again is fun, but the game loses a lot of its initial magic after all the suspense is gone. This is a definite rental, and anyone with an Xbox 360 or a computer with a graphics card more powerful than God should look into it.