Revisiting Rapture: A Review of “BioShock”

This post focuses solely on the original BioShock, recently remastered for PS4.

It’s been nearly a decade since BioShock was initially released, simultaneously garnering vast critical acclaim and considerable fandom, as well as becoming a landmark of video game storytelling, atmosphere, and art design. Of course with its success came sequels, and so BioShock eventually grew to be a three-game series with BioShock 2 following in 2010 and BioShock Infinite in 2013. 2K Games has recently re-released the series in one complete package with updated graphics for PS4, Xbox One, and PC — but is it worth revisiting Rapture?

BioShock is a First-Person Shooter (FPS) from 2007, and until a couple weeks ago when I played through it again, I fondly remembered it as being one of my all-time favorite video games. I hadn’t touched it since its initial release, though, and while I still find many things to love about it, it’s in its gameplay that that old age really begins to show. BioShock’s gameplay didn’t blow people away back in ‘07, and it definitely won’t be turning any heads now.

But no one ever praised BioShock based on its gameplay, and that’s not the reason it’s so well-regarded. The setting; the characters; the story — that’s why people love BioShock. All of these aspects hold up just as well today as they had nine years ago.

BioShock firmly plants you in the first-person perspective of your character, Jack, and never splits you from that point of view. At the outset, you’re the only survivor of a plane crash in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. As you swim away from the wreckage — with vast openness all around — you spot a lighthouse up ahead. This lighthouse sits in the middle of the ocean, seemingly hiding from the rest of the world. You step inside, and find it to be the entrance to an underwater, man-made city called Rapture.

I mentioned earlier that the characters and setting are some of BioShocks best traits, and so it’s fitting that perhaps the game’s best character is its setting. The game takes place in 1960, more than a year following the city’s collapse. Rapture was once a sprawling city of wonder; a true utopia primed for society’s elite. Rapture was built under the notion that they didn’t need government rule. The patrons of Rapture could live and do as they please. With such freedom, it didn’t take long for Rapture to fall. Utopia turned dystopia.

Increased scientific advancement in Rapture early on led to the discovery of ADAM, a material that can alter a person’s genetics and give them enhanced power. Some of the abilities include telekinesis, or the capability to shoot flames and lightning from your fingertips, and you slowly unlock these powers for yourself over the course of the game.

Rapture’s population soon couldn’t get enough ADAM, and with growing class disputes looming as well, the citizens of Rapture revolted against the city’s founder, Andrew Ryan. In defense, Ryan created an army of genetically modified soldiers called Splicers (former civilians-turned-murderous-junkies) who feed on ADAM and will do whatever it takes to get it.

Upon entering Rapture you’re greeted over radio by Atlas, a man who immediately sees you as Rapture’s savior. He kindly asks you to save his family and overthrow Andrew Ryan, assisting you towards your goal. Atlas is the knowledgeable man on the inside, helping you along your journey by giving you tips and filling you in on the intriguing backstory of Andrew Ryan and Rapture. You slowly learn more about Rapture both through Atlas and the collectible audio diaries scattered throughout the environment. These recordings are precious in BioShock. Each recording recounts a small tale of despair, terror, and wonder told by select citizens of Rapture in the final days before its collapse, effectively developing the incredible world with each new tape.

BioShock contains one of the most engrossing stories ever told within the medium’s relatively short history, and it works just as well today as it did when it revolutionized the industry almost a decade ago. There’s plenty of compelling twists throughout, with the central one being a fascinating commentary on player choice in video games. This twist speaks to how players blindly follow objectives that are force-fed to them one by one, never to stray from what the narrative tells them to do. BioShock‘s narrative remains captivating all the way up until it’s disappointing finale, in which the game wraps up too quickly following a final boss fight that’s much too easy to beat.

I wouldn’t want to live in a world where BioShock doesn’t hold up graphically, so it’s worth reporting that the environments of Rapture are in fact still gorgeous to look at even after all these years. Publisher 2K Games enlisted Blind Squirrel Games to handle the graphical updates on the series. And while the studio didn’t do very much to enhance the graphics besides updating the resolution to display at 1080p and consistently run at 60 frames per second, BioShock still remains one of the most impressive looking games ever made due solely to its stellar art design.

The world of Rapture is so vibrant and so rich with history, that the environments themselves tell much of the story of what happened to Rapture. “Happy New Years” banners hang from the rafters above where corpses now lay, propaganda and graffiti lining the walls. The Splicers themselves are terrifying; their silhouettes just escaping your sight in the darkness of Rapture’s many corners. Then there’s what is likely the most iconic figure of BioShock, the Big Daddy, which are still a marvel to look at and interact with.

The Big Daddy is your most formidable foe in BioShock, and you’ll happen upon dozens throughout. These enemies come encased in heavily armored, hulking diving suits, equipped with suitably powerful weapons. Big Daddies defend Little Sisters, corrupted young girls whose sole purpose in Rapture is to collect ADAM from dead Splicers. You may not want to confront Big Daddies, but you’ll need to defeat them in order to get the ADAM from the Little Sisters. ADAM works as a currency you can spend at vending machines in some areas that will allow you to upgrade your powers. The engagements with the Big Daddies are the most enthralling combat situations in BioShock, especially when you find yourself fighting between a group of Splicers and a Big Daddy all in one death-defying moment.

With most every aspect being handled properly and with special care, it’s not surprising that BioShock sounds great as well. The audio diaries and dialogue you hear over the course of the 10-12 hour game is phenomenal and successfully sells the narrative of Rapture. The music is excellent as well, as there’s a fine mix between an orchestral score that fits the eerie mood and in-world radios that play 1950s hits that help capture the era.

BioShock holds up about as well as I’d expected it to nine years after release. The gameplay quickly becomes tedious, and it doesn’t control all that well when compared to modern FPS games, but it’s the surrounding elements that solidifies it as one of the all-time greatest video games ever made. That’s not me even saying that subjectively, either. I do believe it to be one of my favorite games, sure, but even objectively, BioShock is leagues ahead of many of its peers (even those being released today) in terms of storytelling, setting, art design, sound design, and atmosphere. 

So yeah, Rapture is definitely worth revisiting.

— Michael Lane, Blog Editor


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