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Imagine a beautiful, fantastic dream brought to life. Now imagine that dream maturing, growing, but then losing its way and devolving into anarchy, putrefying in its own decadence, slowly marinating in its own cruelty. That's the story of Rapture, a hidden city built at the bottom of the Atlantic ocean where intrepid players of 2K's Bioshock will be trapped.

Lurking in the shadows are the city's former inhabitants, who have changed into something more (and less) than human. Add to the mix phenomenal graphics, action and some political ideas with real heft and you've got an incredible game on your hands.

Bioshock was released back in 2007, so this review is hardly new, but the game has recently been released as a 'Playstation Classic' for the very reasonable sum of $20, which is well worth the asking price. This reviewer found many reviews for this game online, but very few serious reviews of the game's political message, something the game deserves.

Bioshock owes a lot to the game that invented the 'survival horror' genre, Resident Evil. It differs from that franchise in a number of interesting ways. For one, the Resident Evil series was mostly mystery and some shooting. Bioshock is a DOOM-style FPS with much more action. There is no third person perspective, so you never see what your character ("Jack") looks like. You see only his two hands. His right hand carries a weapon, and his left hand.... well, we'll get into that in a moment.

Like DOOM, players will be required to strafe while enemies fire at them, take cover behind obstacles, and know which weapon to use on the various enemies you will encounter. Again, Bioshock builds on the FPS concept by allowing players to use the environment to their advantage and allow for some creative problem-solving. There are oil-slicks that can be set on fire, and it is possible (often quite wise) to avoid encounters altogether by sneaking past enemies. Players can set traps, improvise weaponry and use the game world's natural features to their advantage. There's also a resource management aspect to the game -- players will need to manage their use of ammunition, depending on their tactics.

And then there's the story -- players are dropped into a strange world with no explanation except what they can piece together from audio recordings littered throughout the city. Real-time exposition is given by radio transmission from in-game allies and enemies, but as the game progresses the player will realize that they are not likely to be getting the whole story.

Visually, the style of the game is striking. The entire story unfolds in the 1960's, more than twenty years after the city of Rapture was built. The city evokes the smooth, aircraft-inspired Art Deco movement best seen on ocean liners of the 1940's and the Chrysler Building.

The city was designed by the game's main enemy, Andrew Ryan, a composite of Howard Hughes (a crazed genius), Tony Stark and Ayn Rand, author of 'Atlas Shrugged' and creator of the 'Objectivist' philosophy. Ryan is a master engineer who used his almost unlimited fortune to bring this impossible city into being. At the game's start the player survives a plane crash, finding an entrance to Rapture on a small lighthouse in the Atlantic. Upon entering a bathysphere and descending, a flickering television screen comes to life and Ryan explains his motives:

"I am Andrew Ryan, and I am here to ask you a question. Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow?

'No,' says the man in Washington, 'it belongs to the poor.'"
'No,' says the man in the Vatican, 'it belongs to God.'
'No,' says the man in Moscow, 'it belongs to everyone.'

I rejected those answers. Instead, I chose something different. I chose the impossible. I chose... Rapture."

Players are treated to a beautiful view of a vast underwater city, complete with neon signs, skyscrapers, and sea life darting between the buildings. It looks like Manhattan, just transported underwater, with transparent tunnels connecting buildings, and bathyspheres for transport. Ryan continues his exposition, ending with his philosophical goals for the city:

"A city where the artist would not fear the censor,
where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality,
where the great would not be constrained by the small.

And with the sweat of your brow, Rapture can become your city, as well."

Sounds great, right? Of course, the moment your bathysphere arrives in the city it is attacked by a mysterious human-like creature that starts to peel apart the steel hull of your bathysphere. There are protest signs and placards, blood-spattered walls, jumbled piles of luggage and other signs of political unrest. Something went horribly wrong in Rapture, and more and more details are uncovered as players progress through the game.

Without giving much more away plot-wise, Andrew Ryan collected the best and brightest from every field of human endeavor (science, art, industry, athletics, etc.) and recruited them, inviting them to join him in Rapture. They made some incredible leaps forward in the field of science, allowing the residents to genetically modify ('splice') themselves, and a kind of arms race began. Imagine the results if 'Keeping Up With The Joneses' meant modifying your genetics to give yourself pyrokinesis?

Given that Ryan had the help of the best minds in the world, the Art Deco-inspired architecture has a distinct steampunk feel, jutting valves, and 'calculation engines' in place of computers. It makes for a jarring, unique game world. The various weapons the player finds also have a steampunk feel -- a shotgun, for example, looks like your typical shotgun, but with various steam fittings and high-tech bits grafted onto it. But it's really the genetic advancements that Rapture's inhabitants achieved that affect the main storyline.

Players will have no choice but to genetically modify themselves in order to progress in the game, which means buying 'plasmids' from vending machines. There's a comical jauntiness in the advertisements for these genetic modifications that are reminiscent of Fallout 3. All the ads feature a cartoonish man, who snaps his fingers to use his telekinesis plasmid to avoid a nagging wife, etc. as a way of selling the product. It's crass commercialism spliced with genetic manipulation.

With the new abilities spliced into themselves, players will use their left hand to use plasmid-based abilities. They can set things on fire with pyrokinesis, freeze enemies, and so on. The image of the left hand changes accordingly. For example, when using the pyrokinesis plasmid the user's left hand will appear charred and flames will lick between the fingertips.

Some of the abilities players will be able to graft onto their players are more fun than effective. One ability allows the player to release a swarm of stinging insects from their left arm, which attack enemies, allowing you to escape or attack at whim. There's telekinesis, which can be used to 'catch' projectiles and send them back at attackers, grab objects, or even throw enemies into other attackers. Players can also graft more passive genetic modifications onto themselves, like natural camouflage, which allows a player to change the color of their skin, chameleon-like, so they can better evade (or surprise) Rapture's denizens.

Clever players will use weapons and plasmids (and the environment) to get ahead. For example, this reviewer found an explosive barrel, covered it with proximity mines, and then used telekinesis to hurl the barrel at an enemy, giving me a better chance at taking it down.

The game is also very beautifully orchestrated. While Rapture itself is beautiful, the shadows and sounds bring the claustrophobic nature of an underwater city to life. The 'splicers' (as the remaining inhabitants of the city are called) roam the hallways, reacting to the player's presence by announcing creepily, "... I can hear you..." Players who try to hide may succeed, and watch the splicer wander about, trying to find them -- possibly wondering aloud if maybe they dreamed hearing a noise? The splicers also set up traps and work in groups, and there will be times when an apparent corpse sits up suddenly at a player's approach and an ambush is sprung. The splicers laugh, taunt, crawl on the ceilings -- and some can even teleport.

Rapture also has a security system that must be evaded. There are security cameras, stationary turrets and flying drones to be avoided, destroyed or hacked. Yes, the steampunk-inspired systems of Rapture can be hacked by players. The game designers took an interesting approach to hacking -- each attempt at hacking either a vending machine or security system component requires that the player complete a puzzle. The interior components to be hacked are what you would expect froma steampunk-inspired world: an electric liquid flows through a matrix of pipes. To achieve the hack you must move around pipe pieces (an elbow joint here, or a vertical length there) to make the liquid flow to the 'exit' tile of the matrix. It requires some skill. A failed hack attempt hurts the player physically or even alerts the security system!

A clever player can hack a security camera, which will then act to defend the player from enemies. In this way the player can slowly make their way through one zone of the game, hacking the system so that if any splicers try to approach from behind they will be attacked by Rapture's security system, which can range from cannons, flying drones and machine gun turrets. Or, a player that can hack very well could draw enemies (including the game's most iconic monster, a Big Daddy) into their hacked security zone as an ambush.

As creepy as the splicers might be, the most dangerous residents of Rapture are the 'Little Sisters' and the 'Big Daddies'. The Little Sisters are little girls in smocks that frolick and wander through Rapture's decay. The Little sisters carry syringes to extract blood from dead splicers. Seemingly unaware of the state of the city, they wander about freely, giggling and playing. Each Little Sister imprints upon a 'Big Daddy' -- a hulking diving-suited creature that protects the Little Sister from any potential danger with their lives. That includes the player and any nearby splicers. Splicers attack the Little Sisters because the children extract a substance called 'ADAM' from corpses. ADAM is necessary in order splice new abilities into yourself.

Players who get up the courage to take on a Big Daddy and defeat it will have to decide what to do with the Little Sister. They can harvest her, which ends her life but yields a lot of ADAM, or they can rescue her, which turns her back to normal. It seems that the medical advance that allowed for genetic splicing required the creation of the Little Sisters. Of course, players who don't harvest the Little Sisters receive less ADAM, and thus must be that much more creative in order to survive.

Bioshock is a great game burdened only by a ham-handed attempt to say something meaningful philosophically. The game designers borrowed tremendously from the life and written work of Ayn Rand -- the controversial creator of the Objectivist philosophy -- but managed to miss Rand's actual meaning in order to make the game's plotline more fantastic. Had they used the principles without trying to ape Rand's ideas it would have turned out better. For ordinary gamers who haven't read much of Rand, or even heard of Rand, the game will just be 'deeper' philosophically than most games. For those (like myself) who have read Rand and held her ideals (even with their flaws) in some modest regard it will seem as though someone who didn't really understand Objectivism (or merely scanned through 'Atlas Shrugged') took some of the more exciting concepts and tossed them into their very well-made video game like Bac-O-Bits on a salad. Great salad, granted, but don't claim that Bac-O-Bits are actually bacon.

As an example of just how much was borrowed from Ayn Rand, the 'evil' creator of Rapture is Andrew Ryan, a rather clumsy anagram for 'Ayn Rand'. Ryan's biography is cribbed wholesale from Rand's life. In the recordings discovered in the game it is revealed that Andrew Ryan was born 'Andrei Rianofski' in Russia where he witnessed the communists rise to power, emigrated to America, changed his name and then developed his own personal code of ethics. That's essentially Ayn Rand's biography, verbatim.

It would really require a separate essay to address Bioshock's handling of Objectivist ideals, but Bioshock, despite its clumsy handling of Rand's work at least made some effort to make their game's conflict more complex than your typical video game. Film critic Roger Ebert recently declared (and then sort of recanted) that video games could never be art.

After playing Bioshock to completion, I would have to say that video games can indeed be art.

Reviewer's Overall Rating: 

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