Believe The Hype

The word went out last week that the official launch trailer for BioShock would be aired last night on SpikeTV, along with a special “surprise announcement” immediately after. Cue the Tivo! The trailer itself was fairly underwhelming and not terrible compelling, but that special announcement? The demo for BioShock is available on the Xbox Live Marketplace now.

That strange sound you heard last night at 9:45 p.m.? That was the sound of countless games firing up their Xbox 360's and simultaneously hammering Microsoft's servers to get at it. The downloads were running so slow that I gave up and let it run overnight so that it'll be there in the morning for me to try out before work, which I did. So, how is it?


Believe the hype. This is a game where they took risks and were ambitious as hell, and it paid off. This is a first person shooter unlike anything I've ever played, and stands to be one of those all-too-rare genre-defining games.

The game takes place in the 60's, set in a giant underwater city that was built in the 40's and 50's by a wealthy industrialist named Andrew Ryan (who looks to become the main antagonist of the game.) All the architecture is very art deco, reflective of the time it was built, and there is an impressive attention to detail. Even the in-game menus and dialog boxes have that same art deco feel to them. At the same time, there's a certain level of technological advancement there that gives the game a retro-futuristic, even steampunk feel. In a market where gamers tend to brush aside anything that doesn't, as Adam Sessler once put it, look like “Trent Reznor's vomit”, going with this retro look certainly came with some risk, but they make it work.

There is an impressively strong atmosphere to the game, goosebump territory all the way. Being set underwater there is no light except what is man made, and the areas of light and dark are used to great effect. The shadows, bits of fire and smoke, and leaking and dripping water are all combined to create a world that sucks you in and holds you there, on edge the whole time. Not to short the sound design though, this is a game that sets the tone as much by what you hear as what you see.

This environment is not just used to create a giant haunted house, a la Doom 3 and it's ilk. They use those juxtapositions of light and dark to help guide you though the game, keeping you from ever feeling lost or confused as to where you should be going next. Small explosions of sudden bursts of water leaking in are thrown in to say “Hey! Look over here! This is important!” so you never miss an important clue or hint. You are introduced to the game play mechanics and helped through the levels in a natural and gradual manner, so that you never feel as if you're being instructed or hand-held.

The game's underwater setting was hugely ambitious. Water is one of the most difficult things to pull off convincingly with current technology, as we're nowhere near being able to model fluid dynamics in real-time yet, but they pull it off. The water effects are stunning. It flows, drips, splashes, and fills rooms just like you'd expect it to. And it has a tangible presence in the environment, you move slower if you're trudging through water. It blurs your vision momentarily when you walk through it. As a bonus, this also lets them exploit one of the weaknesses of modern 3D shader technology: the way it can make everything look shiny and wet if applied in excess. Things look all shiny and wet, and that's exactly what they want.

Your primary enemies for the game are “splicers”, citizens of the underwater city of Rapture who have been driven mad by genetic experimentation. These, along with some random security robots, are the main cannon-fodder that is thrown at you in great numbers, but you actually feel a tinge of guilt for having to kill them. They were once human, and bits of that humanity still seep through their maddened exterior, enough that it feels just a little bit wrong to be slaughtering them wholesale.

There are also “Little Sisters”, some form of genetically modified little girls that roam around harvesting genetic data from the dead, and their “Big Daddy” guardians. The Big Daddies are the tough guys of the games, and will apparently require a great deal of skill-both physical and mental-to defeat. These characters are introduced to you slowly over the course of the demo, you never directly encounter them. But, you'll be anticipating and fearing the time when you eventually do.

The game play mechanics themselves will be pretty familiar to anyone that's played a first person shooter before. You'll have the usual litany of traditional weapons, such as a wrench or pistol, but the real offensive power comes from “plasmids.” Plasmids are injected into your body and give you a form of super powers, albeit in limited quantities. In the demo, you get to use electricity and fire, but there will be a much greater variety over the course of the full game. Yeah, electricity and water. You fill in the blanks. Good times.

As for the multiplayer, there is none. Another bold move by the developer, Irrational Games. As part of an ever-shrinking minority among gamers who have little or no interest in multiplayer gaming, I applaud the single player focus. Rather than tacking on an ill-conceived multiplayer component just to satisfy those who want it, they left it out entirely and directed all their attention at making the single player campaign everything it could be. Well done. You want multiplayer? Go play Gears of War, or any of the other myriad of games that has it, where the single player component frequently feels tacked on. BioShock is not for you.

If the rest of the game is as good as the first 45 minutes or so that is in the demo, this will be one of those must-have games. Forget Halo 3, this is your reason to buy an Xbox 360. There is no PlayStation 3 version planned, and the PC version will require beefier hardware than most will have, so the 360 should be the platform of choice for this one.

Next Tuesday can't come fast enough.