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BioShock Hands-on

We wander into Arcadia and see Rapture open wide.


We've already expressed the excitement and horror of suddenly finding yourself crashed in the open ocean with only a lone foreboding tower rising from the blackness of the deep as salvation. We did so while delving into the various aspects of BioShock's strange nature as a first-person shooter including the various plasmids, tonics, and weapons that will help you survive in the underwater circus of despair that is the fallen utopia of Rapture. If you want to know many of the basics ideas behind BioShock, we highly recommend visiting this earlier article outlining the first couple of levels that introduce the various techniques of survival while setting the stage for what could be one of the most original and satisfying original fictional worlds we've seen in gaming to date. While we spent a little time familiarizing ourselves with the controls in these earlier levels, we spent most of our time in the lush section of the underwater city of Rapture dedicated to all things plants known as Arcadia. And yes, we did this in the PC version of BioShock, a version that's not simply a mere port for all of its interface changes and slight mechanical differences. Be forewarned that this preview presents minor story spoilers in the sections about Arcadia so if you'd rather keep the surprise of visiting Rapture on your own schedule, go ahead and skip past the "Welcome to Arcadia" section for more info on some different plasmids, the crafting system, weapons upgrades, and PC specific info.

Irrational was concerned about people thinking the game was linear because of the early levels. These, according to Irrational's Ken Levine, were created to give players at least a tiny bit of direction while introducing some of the bizarre facets of the underwater world of Rapture. How plasmids are equipped and function, the use of eve, hacking security, weapon use, and the nature of the various inhabitants are all laid out for you to follow without feeling lost. Because they wanted to present ideas in a certain format and order, they felt it better to make early levels linear in nature. We can tell you from experience that these first levels absolutely help. Simply jumping into later levels is like falling into a blistery meat grinder. When we finally swapped into the fourth level of Arcadia, we were grateful for our sessions in an easier location.

Welcome to Arcadia, Time to Die

We were able to wander to and fro and even needed to access a map to find our way around the lush labyrinth of Arcadia. Backtracking was pretty common and there were several routes around the very green area. While the map in this level wasn't Oblivion huge or anything, there were definitely more than a few areas to traverse to find all of the necessary components to piece together the Lazarus Vector.

Upon arrival to Arcadia, the felonious Andrew Ryan is there to greet you with his dastardly plot to suffocate you by destroying the city's oxygen supply. Arcadia just happens to hold the lion's share of the oxygen producing trees needed for Rapture to survive as a whole. Seeing his opportunity to destroy you while potentially destroying plenty of other inhabitants as well he begins gassing the plants with a deadly mist. Your only ally Atlas quickly spouts the location of a botanist in the zone that can reverse the effects using a substance known as the Lazarus Vector.

After reaching the lab and talking to the woman over the com, she requests that you retrieve some specific flowers needed for the concoction which can be found in a flooded garden. As you might expect, it's a little more difficult than simply frolicking through an open field picking daisies and setting a picnic. Unfortunately for you, once you retrieve the flowers and bring them back to your new lady friend, she's killed by Ryan. While managing to provide a clue that allows further progression in the level, your potential ally is most definitely removed from the picture. After some simple puzzles allow for you to figure out the rest of the formula to save the day, it means traveling back out into the rest of Arcadia, collecting ingredients while dodging enemies, and then participating in a knock-down drag-out fight with Ryan's minions while the Lazarus Vector is dispersed. While we didn't reach the fight ourselves, we did see it demoed for us and it looked like one hell of a crunch.

Wanderlust and Violence

Hearing about the open nature of Rapture's levels had us wondering how large these zones really would be. Those expecting some sort of Oblivion experience have been barking up the wrong tree but the levels are definitely large enough to get lost in. Multiple levels with side passages and meandering pathways can make Rapture a confusing place to visit. Thankfully you'll have a map to help navigate the area. Unfortunately, the areas are filled with bad guys.

One of the very first bad guys we found, after following the sound of voices, was a nasty splicer than can teleport around and throw fireballs at will. The disturbing teleport ability allows them to disappear in a splat of blood and reappear only to light you on fire. They're right bastards that aren't exactly easy to kill but thanks to the Winter Blast plasmid, you can target them and freeze them in place to kill with a few wrench whacks or a shotgun blast. If that's not your thing, you could also use Target Dummy to make the security guns in the area attack him. Or you could simply try to take him down using conventional weapons.

And that's the thing Irrational is trying to get across. This is a first-person shooter, but it's presented in a way that allows you a lot of choice in how you approach hostile situations. One of the ways they're making sure their action titles stays in motion is with re-spawning enemies. Their idea is that Rapture is populated with a ton of these splicers simply wandering the corridors looking for more Adam. So once you clear an area, more are going to eventually show up. Not only does it keep the action going and give you the feeling that you're never going to be safe but it also allows players to accumulate more wealth and items to use in the crafting system.

Regardless of the treasures you find, the real pleasure is going to be in the dynamic fights. These things get serious hairy and change nearly every time you play so you just don't know what you're going to get. "There are some scripted scenes in the game but I knew an AI was going to walk down a flight of stairs and I knew that he could potentially turn hostile to me," explained Irrational's Ken Levine."So I decided to set a tripwire across the stairs and electrocute him on the way down. And all the sudden this f*****g other splicer with a wrench comes running down the stairs at me cause he came out of nowhere and my really expensive tripwire was going to get wasted on this f*****g wrench guy. So I take out my pistol and miss! Miss! Finally I hit him in the head, he goes down, and limbos underneath the tripwire barely missing it! It was so thrilling because I was setting up a situation where I was exploiting my knowledge of the game and it still didn't work. It was a great lesson the game taught me about what kind of game it really is."

Identify Yourself

This randomness and level of choice by the player isn't simply confined to how a single battle is tackled and that's one of the most important things to remember. One of the other system that helps with the character building are the various machines scattered around the environment. These include genetic banks, vending machines, crafting stations, and weapons upgrade consoles. The largest and probably most important is the genetic bank which allows you to switch out plasmids since you'll only have a certain number of slots.

As I mentioned before, we developed an affinity for Winter Blast. Not only is it good for setting up the kill for smaller enemies, but it also can immobilize big daddies for escape opportunities or at least to allow a momentary respite from the terrifying attacks they throw at you. Winter Blast also comes in extremely useful for hacking security turrets, cameras, as it slows down the fluid that runs through the Pipe Dreams-like puzzles of the hacking mini-game, which makes hacking much easier than it might have been otherwise. But while Winter Blast certain was very useful to have around, keeping it in our repertoire of Plasmids meant sacrificing other potentially useful abilities such as Target Dummy which attracts the ire of any security items in the area to whatever is targeted. The shock plasmid of course deals damage, stuns enemies, and can damage multiple enemies when used in water. Enrage can make killing enemies easy since the enraged enemies will kill each other as well. There are so many fun choices that it becomes really hard to decide which of the plasmids you want to take with you. The same thing goes for tonics like one that allows you to search dead bodies a second time for the chance at more, or different, loot. They're all very useful and you can only equip a certain amount of them at one time.

Identifying who you are in the game world also comes from your choice of preferred weapons. Scattered around the environment are weapons upgrade stations. The tricky thing about these is that you can only use them once which means you'll have to choose which of your weapons you're more interested in using often. Once you've picked which weapons to focus on, it's a little easier to use the various items you find on dead bodies and crates at the crafting stations in order to create items and ammunition. It's all about choice here and it showed in our short time with the game.

Don't Forget Where You Came From

For PC gamers, the knowledge that Irrational had put the 360 version of the game first came as a surprise. It's obvious that Irrational is not leaving their long time PC fans behind. The interface has been given a complete overhaul from the 360 version to make it much friendlier in the space of PC games. Everything from weapon selection to the interface used to swap plasmids in and out has been changed and optimized for the keyboard and mouse set-up on the PC. "The PC version is further behind the Xbox version," said Levine. "but it's further behind because we have more time on it since we don't have to submit it to Microsoft so early." The changes we were shown during the demo were welcome considering the number of PC versions of games that don't get the proper attention. While not final, the interface worked very smoothly and we were more than happy with the functionality. Even little things like being able to select the gun using the number keys and ammunition type for that weapon by hitting the key again makes things quicker. We're also pleased to say that they added in an entire drop down menu for the weapons on top of that which allows mouse selection of weapon and ammunition. Those little touches are in more than one place.

But the interface isn't the only difference between the console and PC skews. As PC players would imagine, the gameplay changes a bit when you suddenly have a mouse and keyboard to blast enemies. It's not necessarily in the way you'd imagine however. Levine explains, "We're in this funny space right now where we turned off the aim assist and found that it's actually a little bit easier to hit people on the 360. Do you actually want it to get harder on the PC? Maybe, because the people that have the big shooter rigs generally want that." We certainly noticed that the game wasn't incredibly easy even though controls were plenty responsive. Enemies in general are aggressive and really want to kill you and sometimes it can be difficult to hit enemies with certain weapons or plasmids, though that's something Irrational is working on. "The pace of the game asks you to be hitting those enemies more frequently," continues Levine. "Some of the plasmids are intended to be intent weapons that home in on their targets rather than twitch shooter weapons. It makes the shooting on the console really nice but in some cases makes it too hard on the PC so there are some tweaks that have to be made."

When asked if he thought some PC players might be turned off by the company's departure from the numbers of traditional RPGs being shoved in your face, Levine commented, "They could be a little turned off, but this is why we've said this isn't an RPG. This is about 'How does it express itself in the simulation?' We don't reveal the numbers because we don't think it's too relevant. It used to have the numbers there, but it doesn't belong in this game. Cold, fire, electricity, wind are all simulations rather than mathematical equations for damage. BioShock is about being in the world with a huge amount of control over your character."

The Rapture is Coming

Irrational is getting very close to releasing this hotly anticipated title for the PC and Xbox 360. This is undoubtedly one of their most ambitious and expensive projects to date as a company. "This was a big risk for us and Take 2," says Levine. "We're still good bang for the buck in terms of development dollars but hopefully success will mean we can make more games like this. I like them like this and I'm tired of corridor shooters and I want different stuff. We're too young an industry to get settled and I think we're getting settled. I love games like Company of Heroes because it sort of said 'You know what? They're not just little pieces on a board.' It changed the way you thought about RTSs. I tried going back to play other RTSs afterwards and I just can't go back. It's just awesome and that's what I want BioShock to do. I want it to have the same effect on shooters that Company of Heores had on me, that Half-Llife had on me, that I just can't go back."

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