Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: 2K Boston/2K Australia
After creating Irrational Games in 1997 and releasing System Shock 2 in 1999, Ken Levine was at a loss. Together with Irrational, he’d already attempted to pitch another entry in the System Shock series, but had been roadblocked by EA, who cited the poor financial performance of his last game as reason enough to kill the franchise. Irrational and Levine kept themselves ticking over – releasing one game, Freedom Force – and working on multiple other projects that were never released, for one reason or another. All along, Levine wanted to go back to what he knew best – a story-based FPS that challenged the status quo of what was becoming a stagnating genre.
In 2002, a tech demo surfaced from Irrational – based on Unreal Engine 2, the game was set in a space station, and had a much more political, sci-fi gothic ambience than the final project. Levine and his team decided this sci-fi direction wasn’t true to their vision, and scrapped the project… almost. Word had gotten out that, at long last, the spiritual heir to the System Shock legacy was in the works. Pressure fell upon the shoulders of Irrational, and when BioShock was formally announced in 2004, the similarities between System Shock and the game that would eventually launch in 2007 were palpable.
BioShock isn’t just another first-person shooter – yes, there are weapons that can be selected, and yes, everything is perceived through the eyes of your unnamed protagonist. But that’s where the similarities end. Even the way BioShock guides you through its levels was innovative back in 2007. For the majority of the game, the crumbling dystopia of Rapture is a sandbox, operating in zones that you can work through at your own pace; all of which is compounded by the not-quite-realistic art direction, a visual coating that has preserved the game from the erosion of age, a compliment not often given to 3D games.
Buckled water pipes, cracked glass and the ravaged gardens of a failed paradise hide more secrets than just little rooms with collectibles in – which was the trend in FPS games at the time. Levine’s storytelling prowess leaks into every facet of the gameplay – the strategy-friendly Plasmids that complement the brute firepower of the guns each have their own little origin, their own place in the evocative world of Rapture. The hidden rooms, the side-quests, the audio tapes that litter Rapture’s sub-aquatic ruins – each served a gameplay function and a narrative one. Each enemy type – from the myriad Splicer classes to the hulking Big Daddies to the foreign-yet-familiar Little Sisters – felt like they belonged, like they weren’t just another randomly placed enemy animated with the same old AI.
While there were bosses punctuating the main story (each of which was thoughtfully alluded to in the build-up, given form by the paranoid rants of Rapture’s crazed survivors), the main challenge in BioShock came from the Big Daddies; steampunk goliaths that tapped into the survival-horror inspirations Levine had decorated the game with. Once you wander into a room and hear the rotting wooden floorboards creaking beneath the weight of a Big Daddy’s diving-suit boots, a very human sense of fight-or-flight kicks in; you know you could probably kill it, and then choose to harvest or save the Little Sister it has in tow, but that would deplete your reserve of Eve – Plasmid fuel – and eat through your scant ammo. Because even though your collection of Plasmids would allow you to set up traps and lead this Big Daddy on a chase that would chip away at his health, ultimately you will be backed into a corner with this thing, and it will devolve into a firefight.
This brutal, run-and-gun gameplay contrasts noticeably with the literature influences that inform its story. At its root, the game is about altruism versus objectivism – taking cues from Ayn Rand’s divisive Atlas Shrugged – and does a fascinating job of stacking the two philosophical arguments up against each other. Even before the infamous twist is revealed, BioShock generates a sense of something being horribly off; a permeating feeling of dread that something’s not quite right. As a player, it spurs you on; you want to harvest as much Adam (Plasmid power, effectively) as possible, upgrade your guns to the max, save or destroy as many Little Sisters as you can because you know – God, do you know – that something wicked and terrifying awaits you at the centre of one of the most complete gaming cities ever to reach our screens.
Why It’s A Future Classic
BioShock isn’t just the work of a collection of incredibly talented developers – it’s Ken Levine’s magnum opus, the most well realised of all his projects to date. It took everything that made System Shock great, and brought that to console gamers, mapping mechanics and controls to the gamepad in a manner that was both familiar and ostensibly new. BioShock is self-aware; it took the first-person shooter and deconstructed it, observing all the tropes that were driving the genre to stagnation. ‘A slave obeys’, it tells us, as we smash our own father’s head in with a golf club – an activity we had no choice but to perform. It took the assumptions developers (and players) had made about the FPS protagonist, turned them on their head, and fired them back at us. We can’t think of any games that have done it so well, so masterfully, before or since.
You can read the original article in issue 131. Buy it now from GreatDigitalMags.com
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