As great as a combination of Half-Life, System Shock, and Jedi Knight sounds, ultimately we come face to face with the fact that while those games all added something new through their gameplay, BioShock does not Ė it merely borrows the elements best suited to tell its story. Ultimately BioShock is a first person shooter, which means a lot of shooting, fighting, and if you chose the appropriate difficulty level, planning of fights.
At his disposal the player has conventional weapons and plasmids. The weapons are nothing we havenít seen before Ė wrench, revolver, Tommy gun, shotgun, grenade launcher, and so on. Each weapon has three ammunition types, which are generally specialized to hurt certain kinds of enemies. Plasmids are basically like Force Powers from Jedi Knight Ė they are earned as upgrades throughout the game and come in varying degrees of power. Many are designed to deal damage or help you deal damage, but in different ways, some quite clever. See enemies in a pool of water? Your electroshock plasmid is going to be quite effective in that instance, but your fire plasmid will be a waste. Plasmids can also have special effects, like Enrage, which causes an enemy to attack his fellows, or one that makes security cameras attack him. Thereís also a plasmid that will hypnotize Big Daddies and make them defend you for a short while.
In addition to Plasmids there are Tonics which have passive effects that help the player in hacking, stealth, melee damage, damage resistance, and so on. The possible combinations of these along with the Plasmids can help specialize your character. Are you going to be a melee monster or do you prefer to deal damage from a distance? Will you take advantage of your hacking abilities or rely on scavenging materials to make automated hacking tools? Thereís a fair bit of customization available and multiple ways to play the game. What seems like a useless plasmid or tonic the first time around can be a key feature the second.
The gameís story is told primarily through the radio and tape recordings, but really just about everything in the game helps say what happened. Advertisements, random commentary from characters, writings on the wall, writing in blood Ė they all help contribute to the story and your understanding of what happened and what is happening.
Although ultimately BioShock is really just a bunch of collection and FedEx quests, it is clever enough about it and the atmosphere is so engrossing that you never have quite the time to worry about it all. The developers are generous about losing Ė itís almost like playing a LucasArts adventure game where you canít really find a way to end a play session. If you die you can reload or the game respawns you nearby at a vitachamber. Enemies wonít reset in hitpoints after you respawn, so that Big Daddy that you blew the last of your ammo and health on can be beaten down with the wrench if youíre determined enough, though that rather destroys the tension and atmosphere.
BioShock is remarkably good at guiding the player through. There are hints on the map screen and an arrow guides you through the few times you really might need it, but itís all put together so well that I was only confused at one point of the game and thatís when I didnít know to press the call elevator button (and what a fine evening with Sander Cohen I had after that).
Not that itís all perfect
BioShock isnít a flawless gem of game design, however. In addition to the rather standard weapons, the lack of variety can also be seen in the enemies. Yes, Big Daddies are cool Ė wicked cool in fact Ė but the rest of the villains in the game are pretty much all the same archetype. There are five or six types of splicers and the sentry bots. Thatís it. Even the boss at the end of the game is a bit of a letdown from a gameplay perspective, though the actual design is a fantastic in-joke.
The way the difficulty ramps up between levels seriously needs to be looked at. Basically, every few sections of the game, your enemies suddenly double in hitpoints. Thus, you end up using more Eve, more ammo, and more health fighting them. Thatís it.
The difficulty levels themselves are quite suitable, though we do wish there was one between Medium and Hard, since Medium felt a touch too easy and Hard led to one too many ďthereís no more ammo in this level, let me respawn ten times and beat on this Big Daddy with the wrenchĒ situations. For most gamers, Medium will be a nice compromise, where the game is tense and difficult enough that planning fights is worth it, but not so hard that youíll be frustrated or ruin the illusion by respawning constantly.
Now before I go to the spoilers, for those of you who havenít played BioShock yet, will you kindly let me exhort you to take your time. Yes, rushing through will let you see the big story quickly and the temptation is there to skip all the little pieces, but enjoy your experience. Put the pieces of the puzzle together, look around, donít get tunnel vision.