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BioShock (Xbox 360)

Rated: 18.

Story: It's 1960 and, after the passenger plane you're traveling in crashes at sea, you swim to a small island which acts as the entrance to the underwater city of Rapture. Created as a capitalist utopia free from socialism, censorship and organised religion, Rapture is a sprawling Art Deco wonder where the dream of freedom has gone disastrously wrong. Most of the inhabitants have been driven mad by using too many gene-altering drugs, those in authority battle for power, and water is starting to pour in. As an untainted outsider, the opposing factions seize on you as a means to salvage something from the wreckage...

Gameplay: Realistically, you could play this as a straight first-person shooter. Rapture is full of psychos who would like nothing better than to kill you. Your only option is to kill them first and there are plenty of guns lying about. Just running around shooting things would be missing the point, though. Bioshock can be as much an adventure as a shooter. You can hunt out hidden resources, hack the automated defenses to help you, listen to the audio logs left by doomed citizens, 'research' enemies' weak spots using a special camera and acquire magic-like abilities using genetic upgrades.

Save System: Manual save of exact position at any time, coupled with an auto-save at the start of each level.

Comments: The question of whether videogames are art is perhaps a topic for a future Dear Dave. The answer is 'yes', obviously, but I'm sure I can string a thousand words out of it somehow (and maybe even throw in a couple of hilarious anecdotes about vomiting children while I'm at it). For a start, there's the possibility of examining the unique aspects of videogames, such as the ability to shape the experience via interactivity. Then there's a discussion to be had about where videogame artistry can go wrong by mimicking other media and real life too closely. Beyond that, I suspect there's plenty more to think about as well. One certainty, however, is that BioShock is liable to loom large throughout. It is the closest a videogame has come to traditional art. It looks fantastic from both a technical and stylistic standpoint, it deals overtly with philosophy and morality, and it acts as a springboard to new thoughts and ideas.

A different question, however, is, 'Do people want to play art?'

The answer to this is less obvious. The reaction to BioShock seems to be split between those who explored and experienced and those who just ran around shooting things. Everyone agrees it's good - they just can't agree quite how good.

There are a few legitimate issues with the game.
  • Certain levels and tasks feel like padding.
  • Everything proceeds in a very linear fashion. The levels themselves are sprawling but the sequence of tasks is pretty much set and there's never any need to return to previous levels. Also, the player's actions don't affect the story until the end.
  • BioShock has been billed as the spiritual successor to System Shock 2, one of the finest games ever. Unfortunately, it's a little too closely related. It's been polished up, stream-lined and given a different setting but it feels more of a sequel than an evolution. There's not much new and some of the stream-lining feels like dumbing down.
  • It's too easy.
It's the final one of these issues which is the most problematic. It's possible to muddle through BioShock on normal difficulty without a particularly excessive number of deaths even if you're rubbish at first-person shooters like me. Worse, dying just means a quick teleport to the last resurrection chamber you passed, anyway. Within seconds you can be back in the fight, good as new, while enemies remain wounded. Since death is only the most minor inconvenience (it's more embarrassing than anything else) and ammunition is plentiful, there's little incentive to be creative with the genetic abilities. This is a shame, since experimenting with telekinesis and the cyclone traps which launch enemies into the air and all the other powers is one of the best parts of the game. It's usually quicker just to shoot things, however.

Similarly, it's easy to skip over a great deal of the rest of the experience. Much of the atmosphere and story comes from listening to the audio logs but finding them requires thoroughness and patience. Why bother, however, when the game so readily forgives sloppiness and haste? It can be demoralising that brute force and persistence are just as effective as skill, thought and planning. The latter are more fun but can feel too much like effort in some of the less inspired areas.

BioShock is a revelation in terms of style and setting. At heart, though, it's still just a first-person shooter. Turning it into an adventure requires some work on the part of the player. If you're prepared to experiment and explore then you'll find it's a classic. If you just want to shoot things then you'll prefer Half-Life 2.

Conclusion: Not the best game ever, possibly not even the best game of 2007, but a great game nonetheless and a landmark in terms of mature story-telling and artistic design. The first game since Knights of the Old Republic that I'm seriously considering replaying (on 'Hard' this time and probably with the resurrection chambers turned off).

Graphics: Superb. Fantastic water and flame effects, lots of detail and it all runs smoothly. More than that, beyond the technical proficiency, the scenery is actually interesting to look at. I found myself continually stopping just to look out of Rapture's windows.

Beware of the bug that causes huge stuttering, though. This should be fixed by the patch downloadable off Xbox Live. If not, clearing the cache on loading up the game should do the trick. (Hold down LB and RB together immediately after launching the game from the 360 dashboard and don't let go until after the red 2K logo appears).

Length: Medium.

Rating: 5/5.

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