I expected Bioshock to be a great game. A fantastic setting, amazingly consistent atmosphere, responsive combat, and a gripping story await anyone who inserts Bioshock into their console’s hard drive. I even expected things to get tense as I found myself face-to-face with one of the now legendary Big Daddies and even question my own morality in a philosophical Ayn Rand-based narrative. But no amount of composition or conjecture was really suitable. Nothing can prepare you for Rapture.
While Bioshock starts off with a bang as a moment of tragedy turns into a prolonged horror event, by the time I reached its end it was one of the most satisfying gaming experiences I’ve ever encountered. With a story centered around the intersection of morality and philosophy, Bioshock made me emotional, angry, confused, amazed, perplexed and determined multiple times throughout its narrative’s twists and turns that brilliantly introduces you to a new world filled with unforgettable characters before turning everything on its head and making you question everything you’ve learned about not only antagonist Andrew Ryan and his underwater city of Rapture, but also the player’s character Jack and even the player him or herself. Other than a select few RPGs, no game has left me as dumbstruck yet simultaneously satisfied as the credits rolled, and its masterful storytelling is a big part of that.
As great as the well-paced narrative is, though, everybody knows the star of this show is Rapture itself. A sprawling underwater metropolis straight from the mind of business magnate Andrew Ryan, Rapture is a city built away from the rest of society in order to free it from government reach, religious persecution, and other perceived ailments of society. Unfortunately for the citizens of Rapture, Ryan’s Libertarianism coupled with unregulated scientific experimentation led to the creation of plasmids which, when injected, can morph a human’s genetics to create a literal God capable of supernatural powers but also often hurls the individual into a never-ending psychotic break. Now, the once gorgeous underwater city has become a terrifying ghost town filled with an insane army of splicers at Ryan’s command. It’s definitely not the kind of place you’d want to visit in the real world, but as a setting for a video game Rapture is unmatched. From Jack’s initial descent into the megapolis following an unfortunate plane crash into the middle of the ocean, Rapture is like a living, breathing organism filled with wonders and unspeakable horrors alike.
I often found myself staring at the neon lights and huge windows gazing through the sea like a tourist on a theme park ride. But Rapture is no Disney World; as a normal man forced to experiment with different plasmids in order to survive against the city’s legion of crazed inhabitants, Jack must fight for survival every second with virtually no warning of what could be lurking around the next corner. Thankfully, Bioshock does a great job of making combating these threats a blast with a number of different superhuman abilities that range from amusing, to absurd, to ultra-powerful. I particularly loved shocking my opponents before smacking them with my trusty wrench or snapping my fingers only to watch the nearest splicer burst into flames. I also found the game’s gunplay, and particularly its weapon variety, infinitely satisfying. Each gun from the simple pistol to the powerful shotgun are not only beautifully designed and critically important in different situations, they’re all very snappy and responsive and perform different tasks well. Unlike with the plasmids, where I ended up choosing a select few as my favorites, I found myself switching between all of the gun options constantly to conserve ammo (which is often scarce) to combat different enemies and situations.
As much of a character as Rapture is, 2K Boston does a fantastic job of developing a truly memorable cast of characters around Rapture. Chief among them is Andrew Ryan himself who, for the majority of the game, is an untouchable God capable of disrupting Jack’s path at every turn while still finding the time to condescendingly question your progress throughout your numerous attempts to take him down. Jack’s one accomplice Atlas is also an intriguing character complete with a mysterious background yet seemingly willing to bet everything he has, even his family, on your successes. The different boss characters Jack encounters throughout Rapture, particularly Sander Cohen and Dr. Steinman, are also well-defined and significantly built up as you chase them through their respective domains within the underwater city. But no enemy you face comes close to the impact of the lumbering Big Daddies and their tranquilizing accomplices, the Little Sisters. Both tragedies of unmitigated genetic alteration, the Big Daddies and Little Sisters form a symbiotic relationship that is at once horrific yet somehow endearing. Unless a Little Sister is threatened or an ill-fated splicer foolishly picks a fight, Big Daddies are gentle giants that mournfully lumber around Rapture looking for ADAM, the material used for creating splicers. But when triggered, they are the most intimidating enemies you will ever face. I will never forget my first encounter with a Big Daddy; I took a potshot at him from a distance, hoping to snipe him out before he had the chance to retaliate. But my bullets were like gnats against his bulging armor; he lunged at me with blinding speed, and I was dead in seconds wondering how I could ever hope to fell such a beast. With a tragic history that slowly uncovers as you progress through the story, fascinating personality, compelling correlation with the little sisters and deadly combat efficiency all wrapped up in an iconic steampunk look, the Big Daddies are without a doubt my favorite enemies I’ve ever encountered in a video game.
I could go on about the many triumphs 2K Boston accomplished with Bioshock. The game’s sound design (particularly while wearing headphones) is unmatched by any game I’ve ever played. The game’s original score mixed with hits from the ’40 and ‘50s by The Ink Spots and Ella Fitzgerald a la Fallout is gripping. The game was also an absolute graphical showcase upon its release in 2007 and still looks fantastic today (particularly on the remastered version available in the Bioshock Collection). The level design evokes Metroid Prime with its winding corridors and compelling secrets. The character customization through Plasmid configuration, on top of a decent crafting system is on the level of elite RPGs. Even hacking enemy robots and turrets is a fun challenge through the game’s innovative pipe-based system. But the bottom line of all this is really that Bioshock is a one of a kind masterpiece that simply must be played by anyone even remotely interested in this medium.