Welcome to Ghosts of Gaming Past — here we’ll be reviewing older horror games, classics and non-classics we missed when they were originally released. Have a game you’d like reviewed? Send us an email.
Written by Jason Nawara, @JasonNawara
Would you kindly get past the fact that everything that could ever be said about BioShock has possibly already been said, and lend me your eyes for one more article about one of the best games ever made? Thank you. As we head below the surface your ears may pop. It’s normal. Chew some gum and you’ll be feeling right once we get you a Ryan Club Beer Ale down in Fighting McDonaugh’s Tavern.
I feel truly lucky to be able to go back and play System Shock 2 and now BioShock in these Ghost of Gaming’s Past posts. When you’re in the wild world that is reviewing video games, you don’t often get the pick of the litter when it comes to assignments. Experiencing these two games back to back, well, it’s like being forced to look at the Sistine Chapel. It’s marvelous, and aside from a few cracks on the surface, it’s perfect.
I’m taking this unique opportunity of playing SS2, BioShock, and then Infinite after this seriously, because I feel like few experiences like this exist in the gaming medium. Series creator and, for lack of a better word, showrunner, Ken Levine released a near-perfect game in System Shock 2, but it was ahead of its time.
In BioShock, Levine balanced his story and gameplay perfectly, and coupled his refinement with technology that finally caught up to his vision. Outside of a somewhat slow middle and a silly boss battle in the finale, the game’s pacing and story are utterly perfect. This is a game that makes you believe that you are in a Jules Verne nightmare, leagues below the sea in a crumbling metropolis filled with mutated and murderous souls. It reminds you that video games are indeed art.
No doubt you’ve heard of Rapture, even if you haven’t played BioShock. It’s important to reiterate that Rapture is more than just a fictional setting in a video game, it is a very real landmark in my personal favorite art form. Ken Levine’s opus, I’m happy to say, is just as fresh in 2013 as it was in 2007.
Submerging into Rapture, a vast underwater city created by industry magnate Andrew Ryan, is absolutely breathtaking – no pun intended. The leaking water flowing through the hallways of the rotting city is eerily beautiful, and with the news that we will be visiting pre-civil war Rapture in the upcoming BioShock Infinite DLC: Burial at Sea, it makes you consider surviving scientist Brigid Tenenbaum’s words of “this used to be a beautiful place” with a little more sincerity compared to a playthrough in 2007.
The Rapture we see through the eyes of Jack, a man who is seemingly caught up in the cliche role of stumbling upon a group of people that must be saved/killed, supposedly at random, is nearly destroyed. Jack, who crashes above the city in 1960, then makes his way down in a bathysphere, unfortunately plays a big role in adding to the destruction. Even if he gets quite a bit of help along the way.
I would rather not go into plot points, even years after launch, so would you kindly reserve all discussion about spoilers to the comment section?
Even on the aged Unreal Engine 3, the game still looks phenomenal. The neon lights that bounce off the water puddled in Rapture’s dilapidated apartments glimmer with hope amidst utter hell. The water flows down flights of stairs hypnotically, and the rudimentary physics (for 2007) still work well and are engrossing.
I feel like I’m using the word ‘perfect’ a little too much here, so I will hit up the thesaurus just to mix it up. If only a Plasmid existed to heap praise on a title without sounding redundant. The sound design, voice acting and the way the audio diaries are presented are utterly sublime. Little talking heads in a box have never worked so well, and still haven’t. This is taking all of the tried and true methods of conveying plot and story and turning them upside down in a way that you can’t believe works so perfectly.
Gaming has been stuck in a rut as far as exposition is concerned, and Ken Levine takes the overused methods of delivering dialogue to the player and somehow uses the cliche in order to be fresh. It’s brilliant, and after multiple playthroughs of listening to the characters explain their sometimes dire situations in Rapture, they becomes more than just a blurb of information to get you to the next goal, they become real people who inhabited this once great place at the bottom of the ocean.
Your gallery of enemies and supposed allies couldn’t be more colorful or well-written. Sander Cohen, the insane artist, yearning for perfection. Frank Fontaine, the gangster who wants Rapture for himself, or myriad of fallen citizens dressed in New Year’s Eve celebratory garb. They all convey a sense of history and realism that other games can only hope to achieve.
I reviewed this on PC, but I switched between an Xbox 360 controller and the mouse and keyboard setup. Both work well, and I’ve beaten the game purely using both setups. Normally, I would say the gamepad is better than the keyboard or vice versa, but both control methods work equally well in my opinion. You aren’t going to miss out on anything switching to a certain scheme, and the action is tight. Now, in my opinion.
The Plasmids work so well, and experimentation is organic. Setting traps for splicers, taking control of the mind of a Big Daddy, or even enraging a splicer so he attacks another one of his genetically modified comrades works extremely well. I love how you can enter a room, look around, then set up a specific strategy or perimeter for your defense. The RPG elements that carry over from System Shock 2 are still there, such as upgrading plasmid slots that range from straight offense, to passive abilities such as electric skin, or better hacking abilities. The game promotes experimentation and mixing and matching of Plasmids, and I encourage players to step outside their comfort zone to try out some different Plasmid loadouts purely for the fun of it. It’s worth it.
This game is less of a shooting gallery than BioShock: Infinite, but the action is still intense. I guess I just feel like the kill or be killed scenario down in Rapture makes more sense than Columbia, but I will save that for the next review.
My favorite part about BioShock is something that has yet to be repeated in the gaming industry: the roaming, optional boss battles. Yes, the Big Daddies that roam the city, protecting the Little Sisters, are indeed optional (aside from one key area), except the game will be pretty damn tough if you don’t take them down and choose to either harvest or save the Little Sisters for their Adam, which is the lifeblood of the Plasmid system. I will say this much; saving them is better in the long run, but I enjoy the plot differences when you switch it up.
Taking down a Big Daddy is an intense situation. He’s there, hulking and slowly stomping his feet, echoing down the flooded avenues of Rapture, but he won’t attack you until you engage him. This allows you to be as strategic as you’d like with the encounter. Go in guns blazing, or set up some electrified wires or hack some robots to fight on your side. It’s up to you, and I love it.
This game begs to be played through it multiple times. It’s almost like you can’t appreciate, nor see everything you could or should on just one playthrough. A message scrawled in blood on a wall, a Ken Levine mainstay, may be missed, or perhaps a key audio diary detailing the fall of Rapture on New Year’s Eve can add so much to the experience. I almost feel like you need to slow down, and truly take in the world Irrational built, then destroyed.
Like System Shock, but unlike Infinite, BioShock makes you listen for clues (mostly just elevator passcodes), and like I said in the System Shock 2 review, I love this sort of immersion in the game. Sure, there is a golden arrow that guides you — on the lower difficulty settings — so it’s slightly easier than SS2 (isn’t everything?), but at least we get this bone thrown to us weird gamers who want less hand holding in our experiences.
The RPG elements return from SS2, as I stated above, but the inventory system does not. You have near-unlimited space, and your huge pockets can fit are ridiculous amount of weapons and gear. I don’t really like this, as the idea of gearing up for battle really interests me, but you very rarely find yourself wanting for a weapon in Rapture.
Another contentious point of BioShock is the respawn system. Rather than outright dying and having to reload a save point, you can immediately respawn nearby in a Vita-Chamber. All of your gear is there, and the action continues on, hot and heavy. Some hated this, some loved it. I’m a little in-between. I can appreciate wanting to get the player right back in the action, but at the same time; why is Jack Immortal? And why aren’t the splicers using this godly Vita-Chamber?
The Final Word: Aside from a few small gripes, we are dealing with one of the best games ever made right here. Something that Andrew Ryan himself would strive to create. The visuals, audio and gameplay are all there, and combined with one of the most outstanding plots in game history, you have a piece of work that stands the test of time. Now, would you kindly go pick up Bioshock on Steam or in the used bargain bin and replay it? It’s a work of art Sander Cohen would strive to create in Andrew Ryan’s formerly great city.