Somehow over the years I managed to remain ignorant about the story, mechanics, and overall world of Bioshock. The only thing I knew was that it contained horror elements, and that it was immensely popular. So recently I played it for the first time, after a close friend assured me that I had been missing out on something special.
What I experienced was an action-driven shooter, with bizarre undertones of capitalist criticism, and a dose of unusual comedy injected in. This multi-faceted approach, coupled with the detailed design of Rapture and its disturbed inhabitants, is what makes Bioshock so much fun to play.
Underneath the retro-future aesthetic, Bioshock is a first person, story-centric shooter that I can't help but think draws inspiration from Half Life. Then, of course, it has the ridiculous weapons like the chemical thrower and the grenade launcher that make me think of classic Doom. And who could forget the Plasmids, which offer the player spell casting abilities not unlike Hexen.
On top of it all, there is the bizarre relationship between the Big Daddies and the Little Sisters, something that I don't want to think about too deeply. This, coupled with the old-timey inspired soundtrack and the fact that everything takes place in a city at the bottom of the ocean, serves to make Bioshock a clear homage to the shooters that came before it, with its own thumbprint stamped on.
The level design is, by far, my favorite element of Bioshock. When I think back on my play through, I remember finding myself beneath a wooden pier in the lower wharf, fighting off splicers with water leaking through the area, and wooden barrels floating about. Even in the opening segment as the bathysphere takes the player through the ocean, with creatures swimming all around, we get a small taste of all the areas the game has to explore. It's the game's way of saying: welcome to Rapture. Now go smash things up.
Also memorable is the iconic battle with Spencer Cohen, the man who forces the main character, Jack, to kill his former apprentices. This was the first moment where I questioned the benevolence of the main character, who unwittingly kills at Cohen's request.
More memorable, however, was the area of Fort Frolic, Cohen's personal playground and the all around location for Rapture's pleasure and amusement. This place, among others, confirmed my theory that the game is somewhat designed to be like a haunted amusement ride.
One of my first impressions of Bioshock was the thought that if Disney ever sought to create an evil animatronics’ ride, it might resemble something like Bioshock. Part of that theory had me questioning the core design of the game. Why does it feel like everything is set up so conveniently for me to be where I need to be? Why does it feel like I'm the center of something here?
That feeling of paranoia, of course, reaffirms the later plot of the story. Why does everything drive the main character forward, much like a ride? It's uncanny to think that our unassuming character finds himself in a plane crash that, of all places, lands at Rapture's entrance. And luckily for him, Atlas is there to guide him (pun intended) to his destination.
The answer is, of course, that there are no accidents here, and that everything from Plasmids to Jack's arrival in Rapture was engineered by the evil Ryan to bring his illegitimate son back home. I'm here to say that I am a sucker for a good conspiracy, and Bioshock had me wondering all along why everything seemed to work in Jack's favor.
The game was not without its stutters. While playing on my PS3, I did notice some frame rate issues. That being said, I appreciated that the menu offered me the option to prioritize frame rate over graphics, or vice versa, because the occasional blurriness while turning mid-game was somewhat headache-inducing.
I passed on several opportunities to buy the re-mastered version of this game, simply because I already owned it on PS3. I imagine that the newer version has a much smoother frame rate than the version I played. This also reminds me of my experience with Borderlands 2 on the PS3, a game that I truly loved but was unable to finish because I found its pacing to be too chaotic and its visuals too difficult to view. I wonder if the re-mastered version of Borderlands 2 is easier on the eyes?
There were times when I wanted the enemies to slow down. Sometimes I'd find myself trying to explore and enjoy the visuals, but there were almost always enemies to contend with. The detailed level design begs to be viewed, and I found that difficult with splicers and security devices always coming to crash my party.
In retrospect, Bioshock is still fun to play today, and it is easy to see why it received so much praise when it released back in 2007. The level design remains my favorite part of the game, and my only major criticism is that it was too fast-paced for its own good. Sure, there are hardcore shooter fans who will choose speed and action over stealth any old day. As for me, I prefer a bit of silence mixed in with my action.
I have to admit that playing Bioshock has given me a renewed interest in single-player first-person shooters. Maybe it's time to boot up Half Life like I've been promising myself for a while now.