System Shock 2 showed us that the FPS was capable of being both a potent format for storytelling and a highly effective horror experience as well. Bioshock, the spiritual sequel from Ken Levine and largely the same team, follows in exactly the same mold. Except instead of being launched into space with a crazed AI, you're dropped into a giant underwater city made and controlled by a very devout follower of Ayn Rand's "Objectivist" principles.
The game is set in the early 1950s. In the 1940s, industrialist Andrew Ryan built the underwater city Rapture in a remote part of the Atlantic as his personal refuge from the "tyranny of government parasites." It was basically intended to be free-market libertarian utopia. However, the discovery of sea slugs that excrete a fluid (called ADAM) that gives people mutant X-Men powers turned everything upside down. First Ryan wound up in an open war for control of Rapture with smuggler Frank Fontaine (who funded the research of the scientist who first discovered ADAM), then things went to a special level of crazy when it turned out that the use of the ADAM long-term caused addiction and serious mental and physical deterioration. Long story short, Rapture is now a city full of ugly, insane mutants with a broad array of psychic powers.
You get dropped into this hellhole by virtue of a plane crash. Once inside, you get contacted by Atlas, one of the seemingly very few sane residents of Rapture left. He offers to help you navigate your way to safety, provided you first get to and save his wife and child, who are trapped in a submarine docked in a hostile area. Before everyone turned crazy as hell, ADAM was adopted as an everyday item of the society, so common you can find vending machines around that give you psychic powers to use, as well as the typical suite of FPS weapons. The catch is that it costs ADAM to learn new abilities, and ADAM is now in extremely short supply. The primary source of it is Little Sisters, mysterious little girls that travel around harvesting ADAM from dead bodies and storing it within themselves. Aside from being basically invulnerable, however, the Little Sisters are always accompanied by a Big Daddy, the game's iconic diving-suit-clad antagonist. Big Daddies initially look clunky, but engage one in combat and you'll soon find they move faster than you, have a broad array of deadly weapons, and exceptional aim as well as high resistance to damage.
This leads to the game's one moral conflict. You learn early on that the Little Sisters are just innocent little girls, and are given the means to either save them from their fate, or kill them to "harvest" the rich stores of ADAM in their bodies. You get more ADAM immediately from killing them, though saving them nets you periodic gifts of ADAM, money and weapons. In one sense, it's an actual functioning moral choice, as it represents an immediate shortcut for the weak-willed v.s. a better long-term reward for the disciplined. By the same token, however, it's rendered almost meaningless by the fact that you eventually get roughly the same amount of ADAM in the end anyway, saving them just makes you wait for some of it. Also, the game also does not have nearly the resource scarcity that System Shock 2 did; it's very much less difficult, and you can get away with skipping most Little Sisters entirely, despite the game's dramatic warnings to the contrary.
That's going in a bit of a negative direction, though, which I don't mean to. In terms of storytelling and an immersive, unique, creative environment, Bioshock is one of the best experiences ever, and it's worth a purchase and a visit just for that alone. There's literally no other game environment like Rapture, and the 1940's Art Deco look is one rarely seen in gaming (aside from Fallout Guy), much less mixed into a psycho zombie dystopia. As with System Shock 2, the sound work is amazing, and the voice acting here is largely some of the best ever in gaming as well. Sheerly for all these qualities the game is a must-play.
Really, there's only two things I can think of about the game that were not entirely enjoyable. One is simply that it's built on the Unreal Engine, and aside from the sometimes floaty physics that always come with it, the enemies don't physically respond to damage at all. Like, hit them with a grenade launcher shot while they're running at you and they just keep coming through it. Part of this is for horror effect, I'm sure, but it's the kind of thing that just gets silly and frustrating because it feels like you're playing a multiplayer deathmatch, especially combined with the fact that every single enemy has Aimbot on and hits you with every shot if you're even a tiny bit exposed, as well as moving really fast and doing all kinds of military strafing and combat rolls. In spite of all this the game still isn't really hard, just irritating at how completely without variance it all is sometimes. The other issue is that, like many games, it seems like the end portion of Bioshock suffered from budgetary and deadline crunches and feels rushed and incomplete. The game ends with an extended and tedious "escort mission" that I can't really describe without spoilers, but there's a great link below that breaks down why it sucks if you care to. I guess the final boss is alright, if a bit disappointingly simple, but the game's endings seem like such a rushed afterthought.
The game does end on something of a sour note, but the first 80 to 90% or so of it is marvelous, and the package as a whole is still one of gaming's most interesting and involving experiences.
* Good analysis (spoilers)
* Making a Big Daddy costume
* Gameplay Video
* Zero Punctuation review