I feel like I've been put in the role of spoiler lately. For example, contrary to what you may have read elsewhere, Windows Vista is just fine, thank you very much, and a wonderful upgrade for Windows XP users (read my review). And Apple's so-called "Jesus iPhone," the iPhone, isn't all it's cracked up to be, contrary to those silly and hugely positive reviews you read back in June in the "New York Times" and "Wall Street Journal" (see my iPhone review). Sometimes, the conventional wisdom isn't wisdom at all, and what I've read elsewhere about the products I use regularly doesn't match up with my real world experiences. Such is the case with BioShock, sadly. It's a fine game, with an exceptional presentation. But it's not the be-all, end-all experience that other game reviewers would have you believe, and it's certainly not the best game of all time, or even the best game to grace the Xbox 360. As is so often the case, you just can't believe the hype.
That said, BioShock is still quite noteworthy and a compelling title for fans of first person shooters who are looking for something a little different and, dare I say, a little more complicated than the typical shoot 'em up. Maybe more than a little complicated. In fact, the biggest problem with BioShock is that it's far too convoluted: There's just too much you can do, and it detracts from the game's excellent plot, setting, and superb presentation.
And my, that presentation: This is what the game reviewers were raving about when they lost their minds and starting handing out the "Perfect!" and 10 out of 10 ratings in a flurry when the game first appeared last month. Clearly, these guys had never gotten beyond the first 30 minutes of game play when they awarded those scores, because BioShock slows down under the weight of all the silly weapons, special powers, and the multitude of upgrades you can make to both. But before that happens, you'll be treated to what is the video game world's first truly immersive experience since "Half-Life 2" appeared on the PC many moons ago. (See my review of the original Xbox version of Half-Life 2 for details.)
The world of BioShock takes place in a mythical fork in history, when in the late 1950's, an eccentric billionaire named Andrew Ryan founded a utopian undersea city called Rapture, where man would not be limited by the societal rules of the world above. Rapture was to be populated by scientists not constrained by the moralities of the world, artists not constrained by the limits of mans' imagination, and a populace who would rally around the many advances such a society could make. Given the science fiction/horror setting of the game, everything naturally then went horribly wrong in this misguided utopia. And by the time your in-game character is introduced to the shadowy, dangerous world of Rapture just after the 1960 New Years Eve celebration, the remains of the city are populated by scarred, genetically altered freaks, eager to kill.
The BioShock experience
This decrepit city is presented in beautiful art deco detail, and the developers do a splendid job of introducing the player to both the game's controller system and the fantasy world itself, using a mixture of imaginative and stock sci-fi/horror archetypes. As noted above, the first 30 minutes or so of the game are pure wonder, and I found myself thinking that I had finally found a game to match and perhaps surpass the immersive and believable alter-reality of Half-Life 2. This was, sadly, not to be. By the time you reach the halfway point in BioShock, you'll find yourself wandering aimlessly around Rapture, mindlessly following the onscreen navigational system and relying all-too-often on the game's built-in hints, integrated level maps, and Vita-Chamber rejuvenation tanks, which conveniently spare you from having to re-play critical and dangerous parts of the game. The truly scary moments occur less and less frequently.
And then, with a growing sense of unease, it happens: On the Fort Frolic level, in my case, it was suddenly unclear what needed to happen so that I could continue. And no amount of wandering around, or walking up to non-openable doors, again and again, ever revealed what I needed to do to keep playing. The game came to a screeching halt, leaving me wondering where it all went wrong.
If you don't give up, you'll see it: On the level I got stuck on, there's an elevator, with miniature door controls, lost amid what is otherwise a huge and bombed-out environment. And now that I could continue, after have wasted hours wandering around, I wondered if I even wanted to anymore. You see, this game, which starts off so wonderfully, gets quite tedious towards the middle. In this way, it reminds me of those Sierra graphical adventures from 20 years ago: They were graphically stunning (for the day), but you'd always get stuck on a single thing, and if you didn't do this one thing right, you couldn't continue (or in the case of some games, successfully finish the game at all). Thus does wonder turns to frustration.
All work and no play makes BioShock a dull game
Mucking it all up further is your ever-expanding roster of things to do. I know it sounds silly to complain about a game that's packed with too much stuff--all too often, games are hollow and uninteresting, even when they look great--but BioShock piles it on past the point of reason. The enemies are numerous and multi-dimensional, with a wide range of attack types and background stories. There are bosses and mindless drones, called Splicers, who are essentially failed genetic experiments. There are creepy but predictable horror elements, like the requisite demonic, wide-eyed little girls--here called Little Sisters--who are guarded by super-powerful "Big Daddies," groaning, underwater-armor-suited monsters who will bull rush you and beat you into submission if you get too close to their cares.
The combat is insane, more so as the game progresses. You get several weapons, each of which can be modified in numerous ways and use several kinds of ammo. You also get a variety of special powers--like throwing flames or electricity, each of which too can be modified and enhanced in numerous ways, and used in deadly combos with more traditional weapons. There are a variety of machines to interact with, including cameras and many devices with simple puzzles and hacks, auto-hacks, gadget inventions, and more. It goes on and on and on and on, and after a while, your head just starts to spin as you ask yourself, what the heck was I doing again? There's so much going on that whenever you switch weapons or special powers the game has to pause just so you can navigate the ponderous menus. Geesh.
Complaints aside, BioShock may be the best looking game I've ever played on the Xbox 360, and yes, I do include the Gears of War single player campaign (see my review) in that comparison. Rapture is lushly realized, and it's not just the amazing graphics, but rather than overall experience, which includes creepy sounds, an amazing musical score that seems to kick it up a notch at all the right moments, and that special and indefinable something that just makes the world of the game oh so believable. The water effects, in particular, are brilliant, helping sell the underwater world of Rapture as reality. At the very least, grab a demo version of the game just so you can see what it really looks like, or rent the game over a weekend. It's amazing enough that you need to experience at least part of it.
I first bought into the world of Rapture because of BioShock's commanding combination of plot, atmosphere, and environment. The presentation is a tour-de-force, it really is. But then 30 minutes passes and monotony sets in. There's absolutely no replay value to this game and no multiplayer content at all. And these issues, ultimately, make BioShock considerably less enthralling, overall, than my original, hair trigger response may have suggested. That's a shame, but then it's not every day a game this deep and rich comes along either. Long story short, if you're looking for a great shoot 'em up, this isn't it. If you want more--a lot more--BioShock delivers in spades, maybe too much. This game would be better if it were a lot shorter and contained a lot less in the way of weapons and power-ups. It's just too busy for my tastes, and too monotonously long. Recommended.