It’s a rare vidgame that makes you want to stop shooting and appreciate the scenery. “Bioshock,” one of the most anticipated non-sequel videogames of the year, takes place in Rapture, a dystopian undersea city so intricately detailed and well thought out that players will find themselves completely immersed. Hardcore gamers will eat up its endlessly customizable weapons and powers, but “Bioshock” has the opportunity to break out if a broader audience gets wind that Rapture may just be the most amazing fictional world created in any media this year.
Action takes place in 1960 as a mysterious man named Jack crash-lands in the Atlantic by the entrance to Rapture, an art deco-influenced world that’s in tatters. City’s founder, Andrew Ryan, is an Ayn Rand stand-in who built a purely capitalistic society free of regulation and charity. Though Ryan proclaims his vision in an introductory film, it’s the visual details that fill in the backstory. Banners read, “Altruism is the root of all evil” and “A man creates, a parasite asks, ‘Where’s my share?’ ”
The same philosophy permeates the gameplay. Though it doesn’t have zombies and blood, “Bioshock” establishes its horror credentials through creepy details like a scratchy recording of “If I Didn’t Care” echoing in the distance as players investigate abandoned laboratories, arboretums and auditoriums.
It doesn’t take long to realize that Rapture went wrong when its population developed genetic engineering to give themselves amazing powers. That’s useful for Jack, as he gains the ability to freeze or burn enemies, use telekinesis and disable automatic security systems. But the game’s creative director, Ken Levine, is also making a not-so-subtle point about the consequences of an unregulated society.
The result is a city whose surviving population is comprised of genetically modified freaks controlled by Ryan, who believes Jack is a CIA or KGB spy sent to destroy him. The only people Ryan doesn’t control are the game’s most fascinating characters: the “Little Sisters,” genetically engineered girls who drain power from Rapture’s dead citizens; and the sisters’ hulking robot protectors, nicknamed “Big Daddy.”
Unlike most games, where fights are carefully scripted, “Bioshock’s” enemies operate with their own artificial intelligence. Though there’s a goal necessary to continue through each area of Rapture, how and when the players take on the enemies is largely an individual choice, since they’re constantly moving around with their own agenda. Big Daddys, who players occasionally must destroy to steal the power from a Little Sister, are perhaps the most interesting challenge, since they’re difficult to destroy but never fight back unless provoked. Players need to make sure they’re well armed and in a strategic location before taking one on.
For gamers who revel in “powering up” their characters, the game offers literally dozens of weapons and abilities that can be endlessly combined to get through levels in new and fascinating ways. But anyone with a modicum of gaming experience will find it’s not too tough to get through the “easy” or “normal” settings based purely on perseverance. Even the most experienced gamers may appreciate that, because “Bioshock” is ultimately less about killing enemies than appreciating the twisted beauty of its world.