Format: Xbox 360 Genre: First Person Shooter Released: 2007/2010 Developer: 2K Games
OK, so I’m sort of breaking the rules a bit here by doing two games in one post, but seeing as I made up the rules in the first place, I think I’m allowed to break them every now and then. The truth is, I just couldn’t choose between these two games: on the one hand, the story of BioShock 1 was fantastic, with an excellent twist in the tale, but on the other hand, BioShock 2 was a much better game, with some excellent tweaks that made the whole thing much more enjoyable to play than its predecessor. So they’re both in. So there.
But why are they so good? In one word: Rapture. The decaying underwater city is so brilliantly realised that you feel almost compelled to explore it, if only to uncover the stories behind the magnificent – now crumbling – art deco skyscrapers so incongruously rooted to the Atlantic seabed. Of course, entering the world of Rapture requires you to leave your disbelief suspended at the door, and anyone who foolishly asks their hosts how they managed to build an entire secret underwater city using 1940s technology will be politely but firmly asked to leave; however, if you can manage to turn off your scepticism, Rapture is a wonderful place to lose a few hours in.
By far the best thing about the first game was the city’s founder and leader, Andrew Ryan. One of the first things you see after entering Rapture (following one of the best opening scenes of any game, ever) is an enormous statue of Ryan clutching a banner that reads: “No Gods or Kings. Only Man.” It’s a philosophy that runs through the entire game, with the idea that Rapture was founded by Ryan as a sort of cult of egotism, wherein the finest minds from all over the world could excel in an environment that’s free of interference from state or religion.
Interestingly, it was only when researching this post that I discovered that Ryan’s philosophy is actually based on that of the Russian-American novelist Ayn Rand, who developed a philosophical system called Objectivism. In the novel Atlas Shrugged (the name of which might ring some bells for anyone who’s played BioShock), she lays out “the role of the mind in man’s existence—and, as a corollary, the demonstration of a new moral philosophy: the morality of rational self-interest.” The novel itself describes how “the most creative industrialists, scientists and artists … retreat to a mountainous hideaway where they build an independent free economy”; substitute mountains for ocean and you’ve got Rapture in a nutshell. Ryan’s philosophy also has shades of John Stuart Mill, who believed that social liberty could only be achieved if the people were freed from “the tyranny of political rulers”.
Intriguingly, the antagonist of BioShock 2 is a philosopher at the other end of the scale – rather than self-interest, Sofia Lamb leads a cult based around altruism. Sadly though, Lamb isn’t a patch on the character of Andrew Ryan, and it’s telling that one of the best bits in BioShock 2 occurs when you come across an animatronic ‘Pirates of the Carribbean’-style Ryan as part of a propaganda fairground ride called ‘Journey To The Surface’. I couldn’t help wishing that Ryan was in the second game a bit more as I listened to his robot alter-ego warning of the tyranny of the state, which he claims will tax you to death and steal your children for the armed forces (all illustrated with some wonderful dioramas featuring the giant hand of government hovering over hardworking American families).
As you can tell, the story of the BioShock games is certainly a cut above your average first person shooter, but it’s all too easy to get carried away with the philosophy of it all when in actual fact most of the game is based around brutally killing wave after wave of horribly mutated madmen. The introduction to the IGN review of BioShock 2 sums it up nicely:
One of my flat mates, not a gamer but drawn to the sound and fury, sits down to watch me play. “Is this Quake?” “No, it’s called BioShock 2.” “Uh-huh. But it’s like Quake, right?” “Um, not really – it’s about the nature of man” – BLAM! Aaargh! – “and the effects of trying to create Utopia “BIFF! Aieeeeeeeeeee! “in an art-deco city populated by artists and scientists” CHUDDA-CHUDDA-CHUDDDA-YeaaaaaaaaAAAAAAaaaaAAA-SPLAT” and inspired by the philosophical theories of Ayn Rand and John Stuart Mill.” I messily ram my giant drill-arm into the face of a screaming, swearing mutant in a party dress, and then we both fall silent as we watch the blood fade from the screen. He looks at me, brow furrowed. I relent: “Yeah, it’s kinda like Quake.”
Thankfully, the fighty shooty bits are just as engaging as the thinky story bits, particularly in the second game, in which you play a rogue Big Daddy (that chap in the diving suit on the front cover). At certain points during each level you can acquire a Little Sister, who can be set down to gather ADAM from handy nearby corpses (which is exactly as gruesome and weird as it sounds). However, ADAM-gathering attracts wave after wave of Splicers, and probably the most enjoyable part of the game for me was peppering the room with meticulously placed traps before starting the gathering process, then watching in satisfaction as my hapless enemies were variously speared, electrified, incinerated or catapulted into walls.
However, the one criticism I have of the BioShock games is that the RPG elements and action elements don’t always gel together quite as well as they should. I love all the background story – in particular the many audio diaries scattered all over the city, which flesh out the ideas and motives of the main characters – but all this careful characterisation doesn’t quite sit comfortably with the reality of the central gameplay, which involves hordes of mutant humans doing their best to kill you as soon as you walk into a room. I mean, surely there should be a few more ‘normal’ humans dotted about? Or even some slightly less homicidal ones? It would be nice if – just once – you walked into a room, and instead of the room’s inhabitants attempting to burn you alive as soon as they catch sight of you, they just turn around and say, “Hello, you must be new here! Fancy a biscuit?”
I’m afraid that just saying that everyone in Rapture has gone ‘mad’ – hence why they’re all trying to murder you – just doesn’t really cut it. Being ‘mad’ doesn’t automatically turn you into a ruthless killer – perhaps the developers could have added in a few Splicers who just like to sit on park benches surrounded by carrier bags full of ‘treasures’ collected from public bins, or maybe there could be a few Splicers who, rather than gunning down any strangers who walk into view, instead just feel compelled to turn the lights on and off five times before leaving a room.
Still, despite this, the story remains excellent, and the first game has an excellent twist at the end, which you can read all about on the spoiler-tastic Wikipedia page (obviously don’t look if you plan to play the game). Sadly though, my enjoyment of BioShock 1 was rather tarnished by the way I played the game – most of my BioShock sessions took place late at night after my girlfriend had gone to bed, so I had to play with the sound turned right down to avoid waking her. Subsequently, I missed quite a few of the key plot details, some of which I only just found out about after reading the Wikipedia page a few moments ago, and which, had I picked up on them at the time, might have made my BioShock experience even better than it was.
[Thankfully, I now have some headphones.]
The story of BioShock 2 is still head and shoulders above most games, but unfortunately it doesn’t quite reach the heights of its predecessor (even though the ending is a lot better in my opinion). The Minerva’s Den DLC, on the other hand, has an absolutely brilliant story that I think surpasses both of the main games – the ending was one of the few occasions where I’ve genuinely been moved by a computer game. It’s just a shame that Minerva’s Den is likely to be the last time we’ll be able to explore Rapture… Although the rather exciting trailer for BioShock Infinite has both Ian and me far more excited than grown men really should be at the prospect of a new video game about floaty islands and robot horses.
Finally, I couldn’t end this post without mentioning the rich vein of black humour that runs throughout both games, in particular the brilliant little cartoon clips you receive whenever you purchase a plasmid upgrade. Anyone familiar with Vault Boy from the Fallout games will recognise the twisted humour of these irrepressibly cheery 1950s-style advertising shorts: the video below is a compilation of each and every one of them (make sure you have the sound turned up to catch the fantastic voiceover).
Oh, and I also came across the pic below during my travels along the information superhighway, and I just had to include it – it’s a BioShock bento box. Brilliant.
You can see more weird and wonderful bento boxes here – who knew the humble bento box could be such an inspirational art form?