Bioshock was a genre shifting masterpiece upon release.
Looking back, there are some cracks in its foundation that stand out a bit more obviously today after so many reiterations and refinements have been made to first person shooters on the whole, but that the experience is still such a rich, deep, and enthralling one is a testament to how incredible it originally was.
Bioshock is first and foremost the story of Rapture, an underwater utopia plunged into chaos by its own design of rejecting traditional ideology. It was a city created to be a safe haven for the most ambitious and intelligent people of the world to tap into their full potential; to experiment and create, free from the burden of morals and law found in the world above. Along with this came the discovery of a gene altering drug known as Adam, which when injected alters the hosts genetic code and bestows superhuman powers to them, from shooting fire from your fingertips to telekinesis and mind control. In a city removed from natural order restrained only by owns own ingenuity, the thirst for power eventually led to the city’s demise.
Entering this decrepit city as a castaway from a crashed airplane is among the most impressive and memorable opening sequences to any video game I’ve ever played. It’s a perfectly executed series of events, informing you both of what the city once was and the nightmarish hell it became in a matter of moments, before leading you into an astonishingly well crafted world that devours you whole in its overpowering atmosphere. Everywhere you look there are callbacks, visual cues and audio diaries that retell what life was like in Rapture, and how it got to be the way it is.
ONE OF THE MOST IMPRESSIVE AND MEMORABLE OPENING SEQUENCES I’VE EVER SEEN
The sense of place and level of detail carved into the environment informing you not only what Rapture was, but what it represented, is an astounding achievement in world design and environmental narratives. There’s never a room that feels out of place, or an oddly written character; it all fits together in this twisted world of objectivism steeped in the writings of Ayn Rand, so successfully realized it’s almost frighteningly easy to see how a city like Rapture could potentially come about.
Much of this is presented non-verbally, with art deco banners and store fronts, dated vending machines, and various subtle hints at Rapture’s history peppering the environment and bringing it to life. The disturbing sounds and dialogues of the splicers inhabiting the city add a level of characterization to enemies that turns them into more than soulless targets, providing a glimpse into their backstories and bizarre relationships, and at times making me hesitant to actually kill them (at least until they tried to).
The world design is so strong in fact that it largely overshadows the core narrative of your character, one which stays in the background until roughly 2/3 of the way through, and then ends in a rather disappointingly cliched manner. It’s not to say it’s bad, as when the plot finally comes to the forefront it does it in a way that’s startling and unforgettable, but it seems almost secondary in many ways to the numerous auxiliary stories you hear as you make your way through rapture. It’s there to keep the experience on a straight path, but it’s not what drives it.
ENGAGING WORLD DESIGN COMBINES WITH DEEP, REWARDING COMBAT MECHANICS
With how much depth and originality was given to creating this remarkable world, it’s a remarkable feat that just as much work has been put into Bioshock’s combat mechanics. Utilizing plasmids, the same substances that turned the citizens of Rapture insane, adds a host of combat options to the standard gunplay, often working in tandem with each other to open the game up for dozens of different tactics that makes combat almost like a puzzle as you mix and match the tools at your disposal to find the most potent combinations (one of my favorites was the “one-two punch” of electrocuting a splicer, the enemies of the game, and then delivering a hefty hit with the wrench). Being able to carry an entire arsenal with you further broadens your capabilities, allowing you an immense amount of freedom in how you approach encounters and with it coming a welcome amount of variety.
The inventiveness and distinction of each enemy you face layers on yet another element to combat encounters, from the different ways splicers react to you and each other (from running straight forward, arms flailing, to climbing the walls and dropping down from above), to the intense encounters with Big Daddies: huge enemies outfitted with an enormously powerful drill and far more speed an maneuverability than there colossal diving suit bodies would have you believe. These fights are brutal and require you to more carefully time your attack and fine tune your strategy, often using the environment and traps you set to your advantage as a head on approach is almost certainly suicidal.
The few areas that Bioshock trips up on are largely the result of the existence of its more mechanically sophisticated sequel, which streamlined the tedious hacking minigame and added dual wielding to make combat faster and more fluid.. They aren’t huge issues in the overall picture, but it does make returning to the original harder than I’d imagined and would likely seem a bit clumsy to those who played the other two games first (which I would certainly advise against).
Despite all the years since its release, very few games have managed to match the scope and creativity of Bioshock’s world and mechanics (even its own two sequels). It’s an astounding achievement in every area of its design, and the sort of game that would be fair to consider something of a requirement to play. It’s among the most amazing games I’ve ever played, as well as one of my personal favorites that I see myself continuing to return to as without fail I fall back in love with it again.