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Critical Reception: 2K Boston's BioShock

This week's edition of Critical Reception examines online reaction to 2K Boston's BioShock for the Xbox 360 and PC, a unique and groundbreaking first-person shooter that critics call "an essential gaming experience."
This week's edition of the regular Critical Reception column examines online reaction to BioShock for the Xbox 360 and PC, a unique and groundbreaking first-person shooter that critics call "an essential gaming experience." Anticipation ran high in the weeks leading up to BioShock's release, with many citing it as one of the Xbox 360's most important titles of the year. Though such high expectations have the potential to turn against a game upon its release, BioShock's superlative 97 out of 100 review score average at Metacritic suggests that almost all audiences should be pleased by the final product. Like many of the BioShock reviews compiled at Metacritic, Andrew Pfister's at 1UP.com is scored at a perfect 10 out of 10. "By the time [BioShock] ends," he says, "you'll likely feel quite different about how you interact with games, and more importantly, how they interact with you." BioShock's organic gameplay approach is its most intriguing aspect, according to Pfister. "As much as anything, BioShock is a conversation," he posits. "The game speaks to you in the usual 'go here, shoot this' language, but it also expects you to provide the answers to some relevant and surprisingly personal questions." Pfister explains that players are given the choice of killing helpless characters for personal gain, and that BioShock's implementation of "Big Daddy" protector enemies makes the choice more complex than what might be expected. "The Big Daddy, the soul of BioShock, isn't a pure moral mirror," he writes. "Saving the girl for less Adam doesn't make you a saint, and harvesting her for more Adam (killing her in the process) doesn't mean you need to look into counseling. Not by any means." Pfister continues: "But it's the interaction that's interesting: Do you actually feel guilty or sympathetic? By saving her life, are you as protective of her as the Big Daddy was? Do you just not care because it's only a videogame?" "What's remarkable about BioShock is that, however you answer these questions, it's legitimate," Pfister concludes. "If you allow it, the game can get into your head as much as you can get into the game." Charles Onyett at IGN is also impressed, and rates BioShock at 9.7 out of 10. "BioShock is Irrational's finest offering to date," he says. "You'll find options for combat as intricate and enjoyable as the story and characters are to interpretation, something that only a handful of games can ever claim to offer." "Combat [...] presents a huge array of options," Onyett praises. "Each weapon in the game has three types of ammunition, all with varying effects. Then you've got a range of plasmids, genetic enhancements to your character that allow for magical attacks, as well as myriad types of tonics you can equip to augment plasmids' effectiveness or buffer your character in other ways." Onyett also describes BioShock's control scheme in detail, and finds that it performs exceptionally well. "Player movement just feels natural, with the right speeds for turning and aiming," he notes. "The Xbox 360 version has a light auto-aim element added to help out with the thumbstick's inaccuracy when compared to a mouse but don't fret--the fights still require a degree of skill." "There is art here," Onyett asserts. "BioShock stands as a monolithic example of the convergence of entertaining gameplay and an irresistibly sinister, engrossing storyline that encompasses a host of multifaceted characters. This is an essential gaming experience." GameSpot's Jeff Gerstmann suggests that BioShock transcends what is normally expected from a first-person shooter. "Sure, the action is fine, but its primary focus is its story," he emphasizes. "All of it blends together to form a rich, interesting world that sucks you in right away and won't let go until you've figured out what, exactly, is going on in the undersea city of Rapture." Gerstmann's 9-out-of-10-rated review shares much of the same praise found in other reviews, though he notes that one specific gameplay element may be a turnoff for some gamers. "When you die, you're reconstituted at the nearest vita-chamber and sent on your way with your inventory intact and most of your health," he explains. "This isn't a reload, so everything is as you left it, even the damage that you've already done to any surviving enemies." The result? "On one hand, you're free to try out new things, like plasmid and tonic combinations, with no penalty if you equip some bum techniques. On the other, there aren't any real gameplay consequences, so playing with skill isn't rewarded." "This, along with three selectable difficulty settings, leaves you with the impression that the game was made to cater to a wide audience, but the hard difficulty setting doesn't actually impact things like artificial intelligence or force you to play any more skillfully to succeed," Gerstmann further elaborates. "The enemies still mostly run at you mindlessly while attacking, occasionally getting into scraps with one another or breaking off to find a healing machine, but they take longer to kill and hurt you more when they hit." Gerstmann warns that this flaw may end up harming the experience for some. "If you're the kind of player who just wants yet another action-packed shooter, BioShock probably isn't for you," he says. "Its weak link is its unsatisfying no-skill-required combat, which might aim this one just over the head of the average Halo fan." However: "BioShock's real strengths are as a compelling work of interactive fiction, and as a unique ride through a warped world with some great payoff built into its mysterious plot." Some reviewers argue that BioShock's lack of difficulty is necessary for the sake of accessibility, though, and so far, all agree that its strengths in plot and gameplay more than make up for its shortcomings elsewhere. Those expecting a typical action-oriented FPS may be disappointed, but critics maintain that most gamers will find BioShock a worthy investment.

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