2K Games represents a curious phenomenon if you've been in gaming for a while. It starts with an action-RPG called System Shock, developed by Looking Glass Technologies in 1994. Something of a cult classic, it was followed up five years later by System Shock 2, one of the last games Looking Glass would ever produce.
There's a reason - System Shock 2 was not a hit. It was thought by many to be a fantastic game, even better than the first, but it never sold especially well. It was actually co-produced with Irrational Games, formed by ex-members of Looking Glass. Irrational's survival helped keep the game in the public eye, but more importantly, it was supported by fan mods that kept it up to modern standards. As a result, more people are familiar with the game today than ever originally bought it. Although Irrational would lose the System Shock license and become 2K Boston, its new game BioShock thus has high standards to live up to.
Under the waves
You might infer from the title that it's trying to replicate System Shock, and you'd be right. Take the setting: once again, you play a lone individual thrust into a doomed, self-contained environment, with your primary nemesis taunting you via radio.
The details have changed considerably, though. The year is 1960, and instead of being a space traveller, your character is the survivor of a plane crash who happens to wash up at a lighthouse - rather odd considering you're in the middle of the Atlantic. It turns out to be the entrance to Rapture, an underwater city built to house the best and brightest in a capitalist utopia. Its residents have turned on each other for some reason, and your ultimate goal is to escape ASAP, since both the residents and the ocean are threatening to kill you.
The most distinguishing aspect of this utopia however is its genetic makeup. Virtually everyone has been modified by things called "plasmids," which are injections that grant powers like lightning or telekinesis. Your character is quickly forced to inject a plasmid himself, and soon becomes dependent on them, since they allow him (i.e. you) to survive in situations that would otherwise be impossible.
But here's the thing: you can't just load up on plasmids and fire away. Their use is fuelled by "Eve," a blue substance also found in needles. What's more, the number you can equip simultaneously is controlled by "Adam," which you deliver to vending machines - capitalism at work, folks - to upgrade your body. Adam can likewise grant extra bonuses, such as Eve whenever you use a first aid kit.
This leads us to the core gameplay element, the Little Sisters. These girls are essentially tiny Adam factories, who harvest what they need from the bodies of the dead. Because you can't produce Adam yourself, you have to hunt down Little Sisters to upgrade your abilities. They're being guarded, however, by the Big Daddies, giant monstrosities that are nearly invulnerable. So even though a great deal of time is spent exploring Rapture and killing more mundane foes, the need for Adam means devising clever ways of killing Big Daddies, at least without dying in seconds. There's also an ethical dilemma related to the Little Sisters, which I won't reveal to avoid spoilers.
The main attraction of BioShock is liable to be story, as with System Shock 2. Rather than treat the game like a movie, 2K has made it a mystery, revealed gradually in bits and pieces. The vehicle for this is voice recordings, another holdover from SS2. It still works extremely well though, since it lets you keep on playing while conveying a "haunted" feeling that contributes to mood. Decent writing and appropriately melodramatic acting help.
One of the things that most surprised me is that the story is actually about something beyond a ninth-grade level. Rapture isn't just a capitalist utopia, it's an objectivist one - as if the pursuit of "enlightened" self-interest weren't a big enough tip-off, characters in the game have names like Atlas, Fontaine, and Andrew Ryan, an obvious nod to Ayn Rand. The plot and setting form a critique of Rand's philosophy. It may not be the most profound one, but it's a vast improvement on what usually passes for a "deep" narrative.
It also has to be said that BioShock looks amazing. On the PC, at least, it uses Shader Model 3.0, which helps add sheen (and decay) to the elaborate Art Deco design of Rapture. I can't stress the beauty of the levels enough, really. Everything is so meticulously constructed, so purposeful, that it sometimes feels as if you're walking through the cutscenes of lesser games. The water effects also surpass anything currently on the market, even without DirectX 10 enhancements. I would have tested these, but I was unwilling to risk an install of Windows Vista for one title.
In terms of gameplay balance, there's hardly anything that could be asked for. The blend of exploration and combat is nearly perfect, never too hectic or slow. You do end up consuming Eve and first aid a bit too often at Hard difficulty, but that's almost to be expected. 2K has meanwhile seen fit that even at Hard, you don't necessarily have to harvest every Little Sister you encounter to be powerful enough for the later game.
The interface should be commended too, because it manages to allow a lot of flexibility without bogging things down. Switching between plasmids and weapons is as simple as clicking the right mouse button, for instance, and when you search bodies and containers, you pick everything up with a single key. PC gamers have the advantage of using a mouse in the hacking sequences, making them much less awkward. Anything that might involve serious interaction typically gets a separate interface that pauses the gameworld.
What few problems there are in BioShock start here. The interface, and to an extent the gameplay, sometimes seem overly simplified, as if the original vision of the game were diluted to work on the Xbox 360. Having played both versions, it's disconcerting that the PC has only a single meaningful change in control, despite having several times the number of commands available. Likewise, aspects of System Shock 2 that gave it depth - such as inventory limits and numerical stats - have been virtually eradicated from BioShock. I could be wrong, but I suspect this was done to save development time, and because it would slow things down for the action-heavy world of console gaming. If so, it's akin to a minor betrayal of PC gamers.
Ironically perhaps, the game is still too faithful to its predecessor. Beyond just voice recordings and plot similarities, some gameplay elements are clearly tweaked versions of their SS2 counterparts. Plasmids are ultimately new Psi powers, and it's rather convenient that you manage your powers through hypos and machines, since that's exactly how it worked before. For that matter, I'd like to speak with other characters in person eventually, as it's hard to develop emotional attachment over radio. I realize that 2K Boston essentially wanted to make a third System Shock, but if you're going to make a break, you might as well go farther.
Finally, a word has to be said about copy protection for the PC version. BioShock requires Internet access to "activate" before you can play, despite the fact that it's exclusively single-player. As if this weren't ludicrous enough, you're limited to a finite number of installs per copy. I'm sure both measures help deter piracy, but they can never defeat it, and it's a potential obstacle to legal customers. Let us play what we paid for.
Fortunately, all these flaws do is put a minor blemish on a well-formed diamond. This metaphor is a bit more meaningful than usual. BioShock is one of the best games of 2007 for any platform, not so much because it offers new wonders - there are a few - but as a result of meeting high standards, as any diamond should. For its price of admission, BioShock will definitely please you.