BioShock took me two playthroughs to fully appreciate. I played it for the first time over a year ago but never wrote a review because I was unsure if I was really grasping the hype of its “classic first-person shooter” status despite falling in love with its aesthetic the moment I heard “If I Didn’t Care” by The Ink Spots on an in-game radio. On this second, recent go-around, however, I couldn’t help but marvel at 2K’s idiosyncratic revitalization of the FPS genre.
BioShock famously (and infamously) implements narrative elements within its gameplay, but since I have expressed many times that I do not play games to experience their narratives, my main point of interest lies in BioShock’s true centerpiece: Andrew Ryan’s Rapture. The unremittingly brutal, subterranean, dystopian cesspool known as Rapture exhibits one of the most memorable settings in the realm of video games. BioShock’s immersion is unmatched thanks to such an inspired location, and it’s hard to imagine what the game would feel like without its aesthetic pleasures.
BioShock is more than just an aesthetic, however. It is an endlessly unrelenting and hostile FPS with slick controls and enough creativity to overwhelm the player who takes the helm of Jack, the silent protagonist. Most of the “revitalization” I referred to comes from its never-before-seen FPS elements.
The first of these elements is plasmids. Jack will hold a weapon in his right hand and a plasmid in his left. Plasmids range from blasting electricity in order to stun enemies (known as “splicers”), to casting fire in order to gradually damage enemies, to placing target dummies in order to distract enemies, plus a large variety of other thoughtful abilities.
Plasmids can be inventively used in the environment, too. If there’s a group of splicers standing knee-deep in a pool of water, just electrocute the pool to kill them all. Drums that leak oil onto the ground are perfect to set ablaze with the incineration plasmid. And the telekinesis plasmid is useful for gathering supplies lying in hard-to-reach places. All of these examples prove the versatility and inventiveness of plasmids.
The player can also strengthen themselves via weapon upgrade stations scattered throughout the game and by collecting and spending “ADAM:” a highly sought-after chemical substance found in Rapture that the player can only collect by harvesting or rescuing “Little Sisters,” but these Little Sisters are protected by the ruthless killing machines known as “Big Daddies” (see cover art at the top for reference).
As you can tell, BioShock has a well-thought out upgrading system designed so that the player must earn their way to reward. Harvesting Little Sisters earns you more ADAM. Rescuing them earns you less in the moment, but reaps more rewards in the long run. (This idea of making a moral choice is the greatest source of BioShock’s narrative controversy, and frankly, I don’t feel like going into it.)
ADAM allows you to purchase plasmids, tonics (essentially micro-upgrades divided into three attributes), health and EVE (the energy needed to use plasmids) increases, and more slots to carry plasmids and tonics. Items such as ammunition and first aid kits can be bought with regular money; it’s the rare sight of ADAM that proves more valuable in strengthening Jack, aka the player.
Never does this upgrade system feel overly complicated, and scavenging is finely balanced so that the player never feels too powerful or omnipotent, even in the later parts of the game. Even hacking vending machines — reminiscent of a flash game — for cheaper purchases is another fun and challenging side task.
Splicers have an array of abilities, from throwing Molotovs, to crawling on the ceilings, to playing dead, and more. They are guaranteed to send a chill down your spine at first sight, adding a crucial horror element to the game’s ambience, and there are nearly no dry moments since they constantly spawn. Hostile entities include bosses, security cameras and turrets (which can be hacked to benefit the player), and the aforementioned Big Daddies, who are sure to drain a few health kits from the player’s stash.
One cool feature is the camera, which acts as one of the player’s eight “weapons.” The player can take pictures of enemies — which may seem counterproductive, but bear with me — to “research” them. Once the player earns enough of these “research points,” they’ll go towards benefitting the player. For example, take enough pictures of the “spider splicers” (the ones that crawl on the ceiling), and the player is allotted the ability to deal more damage to that particular type of splicer. The same goes for about every enemy.
The main reason I was unsure of BioShock’s hype a year ago was for its dynamics, which don’t always actively shift. Much of the objective-based gameplay is following an arrow to a location and killing any splicers you meet along the way. It sounds boring when I put it like that but it really isn’t. Only a terribly knit-picking player would understandably call this a true flaw. 2K counters potential tedium by creating simple map layouts littered with details and constant threats tucked into the corners of the game’s twisting corridors and lifelike structures. The only time I ever felt slightly and inexplicably bothered or bored by the game’s lack of any real evolvement (and this is true for both of my playthroughs) was the “Arcadia” area, the third major area.
Besides probably one dull section, BioShock is a bravura of foreboding immersion and never-ending chaos. It manifests what may be my favorite aesthetic of any video game with its 1960 setting, containing oldies-playing radios and a cleverly worked-in consumerist approach. I will never get tired of Rapture’s engrossing terror. Oh, and as far as the “Ayn Rand Objectivism” and “ludonarrative dissonance” implications go, I don’t care.