Septemeber 20, 2007

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Bioshock (Windows XP, Xbox 360)
2K Games, Aug. 21
By Xander Scott news@hippopress.com

By creating an underwater city that looks like something out of a Dick Tracy comic book, 2K Boston/2K Australia has managed to raise the bar on what should be expected from a video game. Their baby, a little ditty called BioShock, might be the first of its kind: a game with a wholly original and compelling storyline.

With almost zero exposition, the game’s lead character is literally dropped from the sky (his plane crashes) onto the gates of Rapture, a secret underwater city designed and built by Andrew Ryan, one of those crazy idealistic billionaire types who believed he could create utopia. Unfortunately, not five minutes into the game we discover that something has gone horribly wrong in the city, and its people have been trapped below the surface for who knows how long. You’ve stumbled into the middle of a war.

Now, before you get all uppity regarding the physical impossibilities of an underwater city, this is exactly where the brilliance of the game’s design kicks in. By setting the game in January of 1960, and then using amazingly detailed graphical design to drive home the art-deco style of the era over and over, the designer creates a vibe that immediately brings to mind old-school, Jules Verne-style science fiction (classic Doctor Who episodes are actually a closer fit time-wise, but you get the idea). As with any good piece of fiction, disbelief is suspended almost immediately.

Not to ruin the plot, which is honestly better than most anything you’ve seen in the theater this past summer, Ryan’s vision of utopia is world of pure capitalism, where “the sweat of a man’s brow” belongs to no one else, not God, not the government, and certainly not those less fortunate. Then, in the midst of his world, someone invents something morally reprehensible, and it tears the world apart from the inside. Literary snobs aren’t going to believe it, but BioShock is the perfect mirror image in theme to George Orwell’s Animal Farm. We’re talking about legitimately compelling social satire here. In a video game. No, really, we’re not being sarcastic.

You’d think that with all this highbrow stuff going on, the game play would suffer, but it doesn’t. Jaw-dropping graphics and professional voice acting further immerse you into the world, and all the first-person shooter trappings gamers come to expect are here in spades. Pistols, tommy-guns, and shotguns are readily available, as are a host of “plasmids,” tonics that genetically alter the user to become capable of superhuman feats. While shooting stuff remains as satisfying as ever, what will keep you moving forward through the game are the scattered audio tapes you find from the citizens of Rapture as you unravel what allowed this city to tear itself apart. Finding one of these becomes more exciting than the next snazzy upgrade to your arsenal.

As a solely one-player experience, BioShock is more like a great book you can’t put down than a social frag-fest like the Halo series. Half-life is the only real comparable peer, but even that modern classic borrows more heavily from pre-existing works. Let’s sum it up this way: characters in the game give you a compelling reason to kill defenseless eight-year-old girls for nothing more than personal gain, then place you in the position to do exactly that. Will you pull the trigger? After all, it’s just a game ... A+Xander Scott