This review originally appeared in E180, October 2007.
BioShock is one of the experiences of the year, but certainly not unreservedly. It is at once a joy and a disappointment, achingly ambitious and cravenly conservative, and ultimately a complete triumph in one sense and a nagging failure in several others.
It begins in exceptional fashion: you’re in a plane, and then youíre in the middle of the Atlantic surrounded by pieces of a crashed plane. After you’ve found your way to a nearby lighthouse, entered a bathysphere (the ubiquitous method of transport in BioShock) and are descending to an as-yet-unknown place, a combination of rhetoric, neon and the fascination of the unfamiliar combine for something truly jaw-dropping.
The first hour of BioShock is much like this: a combination of game design and cinematic flair that is intoxicating. You’ll creep up behind hunched splicers as they mutter over corpses, overhear arguments, and find diaries that hint at a grander narrative. You’ll find and use a plasmid, and be introduced to the Big Daddies and Little Sisters. The scope of the production, and indeed of Rapture, seems limitless.
In fact, if BioShock were to be reviewed based on its first two hours alone, it would be game of the year material. It has several moments that deserve high praise after this, particularly a prolonged encounter with a crazed artist, but these are unfortunately surrounded by moments of mediocrity. BioShock’s problem is that it simply can’t maintain a consistent standard outside of its exceptional opening and occasional highpoints, as in between it resorts to the hoariest game conventions to pad things out. The suspicion that this is an uninspired FPS with inspired presentation takes root, and is rarely contradicted.
Though the environments are noticeably distinct, it’s perhaps the lack of variety within them that is most noticeable. The people who once lived there were apparently of only five different types: by the end you’ll know the attack patterns inside out and dismiss them without either challenge or care. The various security devices are dealt with in exactly the same way from first to last. Even the Big Daddies prove surprisingly easy to dispatch, with a simple one-two punch of plasmid and grenade launcher seeing them fall after four or five repetitions.
Doom had more enemy variety than this. Most painfully, the Little Sisters and Big Daddies don’t interact with the world in any believable way. There are scripted encounters with splicers that you’ll witness, and certain animations which can be touching, but if, for example, you kill a Big Daddy then leave the Little Sister next to her dead protector, surrounded by splicers who’ll do anything for the Adam she holds, she won’t be touched. In fact, the movement routine of splicers will merrily take them through her position, scraping their weapons on the floor and not even looking. The promise of interacting with a grand world in which you’re surrounded by creatures with their own agendas is hollow.
In fact, BioShock offers little that’s new in any area outside of its setting, and the much-vaunted Little Sister dilemma is an unmitigated failure. Games cannot offer moral choices, but they can create a moral context for your in-game actions. BioShock doesn’t, primarily because it quickly becomes clear that there is a right option to choose and what that option is but also because, if you play the game through twice, the effects of your actions are invisible, and even in the one location where they should be obvious have had no visual impact. Worst of all, the immediate result of your choice turns out to be a green blood moment.
Against these disappointments, BioShock’s story is accomplished and Rapture is a remarkable world to move about in. There are contradictions; why would the currency of Rapture, founded by Andrew Ryan as a self-sufficient enclave free from the influence of ëthe man in Washington, be the dollar? But the atmosphere of encroaching water, cramped corridors and destroyed beauty is such that these irritants are subsumed. Part of this atmosphere derives from the voice-acting, which is of a remarkably high standard throughout, almost without exception, and raises the bar for future games. Unfortunately, BioShock goes downhill very badly after a key moment in the plot, and it’s painful because the specific narrative moment leads you to believe that Irrational was aware of the nature of the experience it was creating, and had pulled one of gaming’s greatest masterstrokes. But the remainder of the game acts in exactly the same way as what has gone before, and that epiphanic moment ends up parodying BioShock itself.
That would be an unkind note to end on, because BioShock offers a lot of quality beyond the problems that exist within it. But it is a game of ‘if only’. If only the mechanics matched the atmosphere. If only Rapture was a less linear world to move through. If only BioShock was the wholly brilliant experience you know, from your moments within it, it could have been.