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ups: Beautiful graphics, water effects are stunning, immersive world, excellent voice acting and scripting, music is eerie, it's ten times scarrier in the dark
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A 'Rapturous' Hands-On
preview
game: BioShock
posted by: Chris Martin
publisher: 2K Games
developer: 2K Boston
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date posted: 04:07 PM Wed Aug 15th, 2007
last revision: 12:57 PM Fri Aug 17th, 2007


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RAP*TURE
  • 1. ecstatic joy or delight; joyful ecstasy.
  • 2. Often, raptures. an utterance or expression of ecstatic delight.
  • 3. the carrying of a person to another place or sphere of existence.
  • 4. the Rapture, Theology. the experience, anticipated by some fundamentalist Christians, of meeting Christ midway in the air upon his return to earth.
  • 5. Archaic. the act of carrying off.



The surprising thing about Rapture isn't that it has managed to be built during the Cold War under the Atlantic Ocean (which would be, were it real, a magnificent feat of mankind's durability), but that it maintained as long as it did. If we have learned anything from dystopian novels - Animal Farm, 1984, The Handmaid's Tale - it's that these things don't last. It starts with a crack in the armor plating - or in the case of Rapture, which resides at the ocean floor, a crack in a window. Water begins to bear through the crack and into one room, turning the once fabulous art-deco architecture into a moldy, aqueous tomb.

Rapture is, perhaps, not a place to live, but a place to die. Just as one prepares to visit the Halls of Valhalla (or so the saying goes, at least), Rapture is the place Cold-War fascists go when the world doesn't want their kind around anymore. The ideal behind the fictitious Andrew Ryan's undersea world, 'A man is entitled to the sweat from his brow' isn't anarchism, and it isn't communism, but it takes partially from these ideologies. Or maybe it's more cultish than either political ideology, the way Ryan had brought all these people with him, eventually, to die with him.

Of course, this is all heresay. I have not yet seen that Andrew Ryan is dead or dying, or, apart from several still photographs and sculptures, evidence that he is a physical presence throughout Bioshock. Many people are dead, however, and I suspect the worst. Ryan is a "Shodan" presence in many ways - screens flicker with his face, his tenor echoes off the metal security doors, and he seems to control security. His need for human contact yet need for seclusion from the outside world is one of the character's major contradictions and dichotomies.

I guess it is a human want - to not be alone in one's misery and death. But when things go wrong, and the denizens of Rapture begin to change from overuse of Plasmids (the game's type of energy), you can hardly call the "splicers" "human".

But Rapture is about "sacrificing your humanity," according to Andrew Ryan, for the return of perfection and enhancement. It is 1960. After a quick full-motion video in which your plane crashes over the Atlantic, you'll be swimming in the most realistic water you've ever seen in a videogame, surrounded by a gorgeously rendered ring of fire. Quickly, you notice something startling - this isn't full motion video: I'm playing this. Once your mind gets a grip on that, you can swim for the safety of what looks like a lighthouse, but turns out to be the port to Andrew Ryan's underwater utopia.

Welcome to Rapture.

The first thing you notice about Rapture is how beautiful it is. Bioshock, running off Unreal Engine 3 technology (the same technology that brought us Gears of War) is mind-blowingly beautiful. Credit given where credit's due: it's the texture work, the lighting, the music, the water and level design that stun, but immerse you together in the world. But it's also the interaction with characters that draws one in. We talk about immersion quite secondhandedly - insinuating that there are games out there that don't quite get this "magic" of design right. There are, but Bioshock seems to be working on a different level - a level that few designers have managed to achieve - where, if you don't think of Bioshock as "a game" it could be the creation of storytelling at the highest level of dystopian fantasy. It is a game rooted in new-historical fiction, a genre in which several writers have gained academic acclaim - one comes to mind in the form of "It Can't Happen Here" by Sinclair Lewis (a semi-satirical novel about a world where FRD doesn't get elected.) And were it not for the shell format of the video game, I could see it being in manuscript on such a level.

Digressions aside, the game world is wonderfully felt by the player. The man looking for his family, known as Atlas, guides the main character through short-wave radio and serves as a kind of "Daedalus" character (from Deus Ex), but he is much less enigmatically so. He asks you to help him find his family in return, you hope, for escape.

The demo that became available on Xbox Live earlier this week allows you about seven minutes of gameplay, enough time to get a hand on the world around you, and several gameplay elements that we've been shown in videos all over the internet.

That is, you get to use Plasmids. The two available in the demo are Electrobolt and Incinerate Plasmids, which do pretty much what you'd expect. After the horrifyingly real "discovery" of a Plasmid for the first time (in which you literally jab the hypodermic needle into your forearm) you're treated to a cutscene that (not to spoil it) is rather creepy and involves someone called "Mr. Bubbles". As we've seen in videos, you can use the fire plasmid to light people on fire, and the electrobolt to stun or even kill enemies (provided you aim at an enemy standing in a puddle of water). The damage in the game seems just right, especially if you're on normal or hard mode, and through upgrades (which you aren't able to do in the demo) you'll be able to make that damage (along with other skills) increase.

One of the most frighteningly genuine experiences in the Bioshock Demo is the story - the way it seamlessly integrates into the shooting, and how not all the game's elements are handed to you, but are sitting around as extra audio tapes. You'll have to explore thoroughly to see and hear it all.

Some of the scenes are graphic, and some are creepy. My favorite has to be the scene where the Big Daddy comes to the Little Sister's aid. You won't fight a Big Daddy in the demo, but you'll come uncomfortably close to the diving-suit-wearing monstrosity.

The controls of the game feel very natural if you're used to first person shooters. Right analog is look, left is move/strafe. The right trigger fires or uses a weapon while the left uses or fires a plasmid power (like Electrobolt). The bumpers shuffle through the respective weapons and powers.

The hud is thankfully minimal and au natural, which allows the player to focus on the world instead of a bunch of numbers. The only indicators are the player's life bar and med-kits available (which is a red bar with a number at the left) and the player's EVE bar and additional hypos available (which is a blue bar with a number at the left). EVE is the game's "manna" and most gamers will be familiar with cliche blue color.

What we're expecting:

The game demo was largely linear, which was surprising given that the game is promising to be a very open-ended experience. But I assume that it is more-or-less the "introduction" sequence before the game "opens," as it were, it's mythical gates. Expect the game to be much less linear when we have the final build.

Another thing I noticed is that because we've all known how to burn splicers and wait until they extinguish themselves in water before electrocuting them the demo got a little dry after a while. But the variety of Plasmids overall will help this, obviously, as will the ability to upgrade your abilities and preferences.

Hacking security bots is decidedly easy, and I'm not yet sure of the trade-off of doing so. The time limit (before the tube of liquid spills) will likely get faster and more difficult to finish in time, and the security will likely get tougher and tougher as the game progresses, but in this interim it feels a little simplistic. We'll see if the difficulty keeps it from becoming overpowered.

I really hope that the game doesn't hand-hold as much as it does in the demo. Things you "need" to pick up glow gold, while plasmids are a bright red. The colors make it so that people won't miss important items, but also feels like you're on rails. But, again, when the game gets more open-ended this will likely be a silly claim.

I'd hate to really spoil the demo for anyone before it is played - as it really does need to be played for ones self. It's true, the demo is pretty damn awesome. The end, especially, is a thrilling moment and one that I will not soon forget.

Bioshock will be on store shelves August 21st.

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