When I’m deciding how eagerly to anticipate a new game, the first thing I examine is the developer’s track record. Irrational Games has a history of releasing quality PC games with MetaCritic scores in the 80-90 range; these games include System Shock 2, Tribes: Vengeance, SWAT 4, and Freedom Force. All of these games were solid, and many consider System Shock 2 to be a classic, but none ever struck me as a must-buy, on the level of Oblivion or the PC release of Half-Life 2.
The team at Irrational is aiming raise the bar even higher with their ambitious survival-horror first-person shooter, BioShock. Ken Levine, creative director of Irrational Games, claims that the FPS genre has not evolved since Half-Life 2; he expressed that he thinks BioShock will redefine the FPS and raise people’s expectations for it.
Here is the story of the BioShock universe: in 1946, many of those at the top of their fields went on strike against their leaching inferiors and retreated to their own enclave: the submarine, self-contained city of Rapture. The city functioned for a few years as a capitalistic utopia, until scientists discovered that a certain variety of sea slug produced pure stem cells, called Adam. Adam could modify people’s minds and bodies, and cure any illness; it was so valuable that it became the currency of Rapture. A civil war broke out between Andrew Ryan, the city’s founder, and a rival entrepreneur, over control of Adam; by the time Ryan won, all of the city’s inhabitants were mutated and dependent on Adam, like a drug. Also, the sea slugs were all destroyed, forcing Rapture’s denizens to recycle Adam from the dead.
The main character of BioShock discovers Rapture by accident, when his plane crash-lands into the open ocean, near Rapture’s lighthouse. He descends to the ocean floor to discover a malfunctioning, decaying city that is slowly being reclaimed by the sea. He faces the hostile or indifferent inhabitants of the city, who by now are all genetic freaks struggling to reclaim Adam from the dead; he must also confront the collapsing city’s security systems and the figure of Andrew Ryan himself.
The genetic freaks inhabiting Rapture fall into the categories of Splicers, Big Daddies, and Little Sisters. The Splicers are aggressive former humans, formerly of Ryan’s army, who have been mutated by Adam until they resemble creatures out of nightmare. They attack any non-Splicer on sight, to murder them and steal their Adam. Different Splicers have varying genetic powers and weapons; some can crawl on the ceiling, and some are able to throw fire and teleport.
Big Daddies and Little Sisters work together to harvest Adam from corpses; Little Sisters are young girls in party dresses who are equipped with tools that draw blood from corpses; they drink it and extract the Adam internally. Big Daddies are creatures in heavily-armed diving suits, who roam the halls of Rapture, protecting the Little Sisters. The Big Daddies will only attack you if you threaten the Little Sisters; otherwise, they will just ignore you. You will have no choice but to fight the aggressive Splicers, but how you relate to the Little Sisters is the central choice of the game: you can exploit them for their Adam or you can help them.
Other adversaries in the environment are mechanical: when a security camera spots you, small, helicopter-like security bots, armed with machine guns, will flood your surroundings. The simplest way to halt the stream of bots is to destroy the security camera, but your character will also be able to spend Adam to hack security terminals and either turn off the flow of security bots or turn them to fight his own adversaries.
Supplies, which are desperately constrained, consist of ammunition and Adam. Various kinds of ammunition can be found and used in the six different modifiable weapons, and Adam is used to purchase Plasmids from vending machines. Plasmids, which can also be found on corpses, provide X-Men style mutant powers. Examples of Plasmids include those that enable you to teleport, use telekinesis to pick up objects, produce Splicer irritant to direct Splicer attacks, temporarily boost your speed, shoot fire, or direct a swarm of wasps. There are a number of additional Plasmids, totaling 50 in all.
The AI is not scripted, enabling a variety of interactions between your character and the AI. For example, when you kill a Splicer, Little Sisters will emerge from the pipes where they live in order to harvest the Adam. If you get too close to a Little Sister, she will scream, and a Big Daddy will arrive to place himself between you and the Little Sister; if you back off, the Big Daddy will leave you alone, but if you persist, you will be attacked. If you throw a Splicer Irritant Plasmid onto a Big Daddy, any Splicers in the area will attack the Big Daddy, who will fight back.
The environments in the game are a melding of art-deco opulence and underwater decay. Irrational hired a special water effects programmer to perfect the appearance of spraying, cascading, and standing water throughout Rapture, which is being inexorably invaded by the sea. The luxurious locations throughout the city, such as living quarters, shops, a restaurant, and a hospital pavilion, are smeared with blood and dimly illuminated by the flickering lights. The graphics, courtesy of Unreal Engine 3, are as high-quality as you would expect from a recent XBox 360 title-especially the water effects.
I’m looking forward to BioShock, which appears to be a fantastic survival horror FPS, set in an interesting and original environment. The combat and puzzle-solving looks very flexible, considering the strong AI, interesting foes, and all of the different Plasmids available. This could be a new high-water mark for Irrational Games.
More information: The official web site for BioShock is http://www.2kgames.com/bioshock/. There’s an irritatingly slow Flash version of this site that you should avoid. If you must visit this site, use the HTML Low-Bandwidth version. Instead, though, I would recommend viewing the following videos on www.gametrailers.com: “Developer Walkthrough” and “Hunting the Big Daddy.”