Version tested: Xbox 360
Promise is possibly the most powerful weapon in videogames. The promise and possibilities that a title like BioShock dangles tantalisingly in front of us keeps us all hanging on in there, keeps us believing, keeps us pre-ordering. Even when the shelves are awash with me-too pap, cheap knock-off licensed fodder and hyped sequels, a title like this stands out like a beacon of hope amid a sea of mediocrity. No pressure.
But we all know from long experience that promise can be a bitter curse - one destined to magnify any minor disappointments when we finally get the game out of the cellophane and fire it up. A game is never as good as its hype, or so history seems to rub in our face over and over again. Some of us even try our best to avoid getting caught up in the hype bubble, so that, for once, we can actually be pleasantly surprised about how good something is without having it rammed down our throats by hysterical marketing and frothing commentators. Believe me, even as a reviewer - especially as a reviewer - you're always on your guard when it comes to the Next Big Thing. Disappointment comes practically gift wrapped for your displeasure.
So to have any shred of doubt surrounding BioShock comprehensively swept away within the first ten minutes, well, you feel like dancing. You want to tell people about this game who you know won't even care, just because it makes you so giddy inside. Before we get into the nitty gritty, here's the deal: Bioshock doesn't just meet your expectations, but completely redefines them forever in ways you never even expected - in ways that games used to in the past, routinely. The hours spent playing this masterpiece were the perfect encapsulation of why videogaming is such a favourite waste of time for so many of us. Thrilling, terrifying, moving, confusing, amusing, compelling, and very very dark. BioShock isn't simply the sign of gaming realising its true cinematic potential, but one where a game straddles so many entertainment art forms so expertly that it's the best demonstration yet how flexible this medium can be. It's no longer just another shooter wrapped up in a pretty game engine, but a story that exists and unfolds inside the most convincing and elaborate and artistic game world ever conceived. It just so happens to require you to move the narrative along with your own carefully and personally defined actions. Active entertainment versus passive: I know which I prefer.
The kicker is that for about 80 per cent of the time spent playing BioShock, you have absolutely no idea who you are or why you're even there. As players of the celebrated 360 demo will know by now, you're a castaway involved in a plane crash. You're in the sea. It's the middle of the night. There's floating burning debris all around you. And, oh look, there's a mysterious structure that just happens to be sticking out of the water with an entrance. What are the chances? Rather than bobbing in the ocean dying of hypothermia questioning this conundrum, you swim over, clamber out and head inside. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
In this strange subterranean otherworld of 'Rapture' exists a crumbling utopia gone very badly wrong. A leaking, decaying, but still recognisably beautiful art deco-styled outpost where a section of privileged society sought an even better life below the waves. A place where biological enhancements offered its high living population the carrot of physical perfection. Somehow, this relentless desire for morehas sparked a devastating civil war which destroyed their idyllic existence. There's a lesson there somewhere...
The thing that strikes you instantly about BioShock and Rapture as a place is the stunning atmosphere it manages to conjure - it really is quite unlike anything else in the way Irrational has managed to immerse your senses in a way you always hoped a 'proper' next generation title would. If you were looking for a reason to invest in a high end AV set-up, then this is definitely it. It justifies every last penny you can throw at it, because it's no exaggeration to report that not only does BioShock boast the most staggeringly beautiful environments you've ever lain eyes on in a videogame, but adds infinite depth to them through the absolutely astonishingly well-crafted audio that accompanies the experience. The significance of BioShock currently being console exclusive to the 360 can't be underestimated. If you don't already own a 360, you'll most certainly find your resolve weakened to breaking point - and failing that, you'll want to make your PC dance to its tune.
There are so many deft touches at every turn within Bioshock that's it's almost as fun to watch as it is to play. You'll probably spend the first few hours inside Rapture just playing tourist to your own amazement. Nothing's overcooked, and there's this constant feeling that you're wandering through the work of true visionaries. At times it's like walking through a living painting, where every creation makes you want to stop in your tracks and just breathe it all in. Walk up to some of the character models (take the Dolls, for example), and you'll swear they couldn't be infused with any more life than if they were sat there in the room with you staring you out over a Mocha. It might well be created with a modified version of the Unreal 3 engine, but it's got to the stage where you don't even care about the tech so much as the creativity eked out of it all. You almost don't want to know about what's behind the illusion. You're too wrapped up in it.
Simple things take on a new significance. Engage in something as basic as a firefight with a Splicer and the smoke of their gun can often leave you bathed and confused in the most convincing haze imaginable in your hapless attempts to give chase. Wade into a pool and the whole thing ripples; water dribbling down your face, as it splashes and refracts light in a manner that seems almost too natural. Not now. Not yet, surely? But here's BioShock in August 2007, looking for all the world like a game that's landed fully formed from a couple of years in the future. It's a game that's going to make a lot of rival developers either very excited or very depressed indeed over the coming months as they come to terms with how far ahead this game is - not just in technical terms, but in practically every other angle as well. Admittedly, the very nature of the tight, enclosed environments help give Irrational the extra headroom it needed to really pile on the detail levels, but that's not the only reason. There's genuine talent and vision at work here.
So, yes, the atmosphere and artwork is undeniably the thing that effortlessly grabs hold of the player, but BioShock is so much than an immersive tech demo poster child thanks to the amount of credibility that's been infused into every part of the game world: be it the combat, the exploration, the narrative, or the puzzling. It's a game that breaks down so well however you want to deconstruct it. And unlike so many shooters, this isn't a game that wilfully funnels you through narrow environments. The overarching nature of the game is still admittedly linear, but it's the kind of linearity that allows the player to poke around to your heart's content, and flit back and forth as and when you fancy sniffing out a few more secrets from a previously neglected area (and believe me, there'll be plenty). It's a game that will entice you to look at its map to explore, scavenge and go off the beaten track. And it's not just about the treasure hunt, either. With its subtle audio narrative forming as you go along, there's an even greater incentive to take you time - not only to discover yet more hidden audio diaries from the lost inhabitants, but because you're almost always rewarded for your explorational persistence.
As beautiful as Rapture looks from a furtive glance around its ornate marble-lined halls, whoever is left wanted to make damn sure that anyone attempting to unravel its secrets would meet swift retribution. Behind all the gloss and glorious attention to detail lies a game that, at its core, is just a shooter that wants to make things as fun and diverse for the player as possible. Security camera systems trigger flying sentry cannons. Tripod-mounted turrets spit hot lead the split second you poke your head around a corner you're not supposed to. Strange, mutated 'Splicers' hunt in packs at every turn. It might look like a quaint, crumbling underwater museum that's full of intrigue, but it hides secrets that only the extremely determined will get to find out.
Bypass all these extreme security measures and you might have the pleasurable company of those legendary 'Big Daddy' creatures that you might have seen hanging out in your local game emporium (or is that just a commentary on the West's obesity epidemic?). These lumbering galoots, jealously stomp through the puddles on an inexplicable mission to guard syringe-wielding pre-pubescent girls known as 'Little Sisters'. Decked out in a rusting diving suit and uttering low scowls of discontent, they're not the kind of opponents that offer a fair fight. They're unexpectedly nimble, and armed with uncompromisingly brutal attacks - they're not the kind of foe that you're going to be able to take down without an almighty battle of wills. BioShock isn't a game that ever wants to make things easy for you. It tests you almost to force you to experiment - and that brings its own rewards.
That said, one of the most appreciated design decisions is how BioShock handles death. If you lose your health, there's never any need to restart from a checkpoint - essentially what happens is you get regenerated in a nearby pod, and carry on the fight from where you left off. Not only does this reduce frustration immensely, it means there's a kind of meaningful continuity about proceedings - the kind that has never existed in any shooter. Although this might sound like an awful cop-out in theory, in practice, it's a master-stroke, and one that'll help people carry on when otherwise they might well have given up.
Throughout BioShock, you're essentially tooling yourself up in a progressively elaborate fashion - but in a way that suits the way you want to play it. In common with 2K's other big summer shooter, The Darkness, it's a game with a dual approach to how you go about taking down your enemies. On the right trigger you have various conventional firearms, like the standard pistol, shotgun, machine gun, grenade launcher and so on, but they're a mere taster for what you're capable of.
Meanwhile on the left trigger you have the ability to call up your growing arsenal of biologically enhanced 'Plasmid' attack powers, such as electric bolts, freeze rays, telekenisis, fireballs, or more cunning ones that 'enrage'your opponents against one another, or allow you to fight with Big Daddy on your side, and such like. But even well before you're blessed with all sorts of options, the degree of tactical choice dawns on you. Within just a few minutes of playing the game you'll suss out that you can conjure quick one-twos that leave enemies vulnerable to being stunned by electricity, followed by conventional weapons fire to finish them off. But with a bit more experimentation, you'll notice you can frequently turn the environment to your advantage, too. Wait for an enemy to stand in water, for example, and zapping them with electricity becomes a whole lot more effective. Likewise, that oily patch you might other wise have overlooked becomes a flaming wall of death when ignited at the right time. It's a game all about being observant and experimenting - and when it all comes together, it offers possibly the most thrilling combat in any FPS you've ever experienced. The scope to do things your way is simply mind boggling, in such a way it makes regular shooters look pathetically dated and uninspired by comparison. To say that 'no two players will experience the same game' is bang on the money.No wonder we've been disillusioned for so long about the genre - this game offers up everything we've been hankering after: intelligence, invention, inspiration.
But some of the most effective methods of attack at your disposal can often be the simplest. For instance, zapping security drones, cameras and sentries with electricity enables you to take them out of action for a crucial few seconds - at which point you can either choose to leg it out of harm's way, or get closer and press X to fire up a simple but addictive hacking 'minigame' so that their sole purpose is protecting you, rather than hindering you.
With a little bit of patience and persistence, you can methodically turn the tables on your enemies by turning the entire level a death trap- which has the effect of also making the whole game a lot more fun to invest time and energy into. Better still, these grid-based hacking minigames are an awful lot of fun in their own right, tasking you with linking together pipes from an initial start point to a pre-determined end point. At the beginning, all the tiles in the grid are flipped faced down, and it's up to you to quickly and methodically create a path by quickly flipping the tiles over and switching them until you find the pieces you're looking for. With the flow of energy creeping inexorably down the pipe, you're under the cosh to get it all linked up in time - so if you're not into tile puzzles, this method of security evasion might not be for you. If, however, you do enjoy them, it proves to not only act as a welcome break from the action, but a wonderfully useful means of making the environment work for you.
Inevitably certain sections of the shooter hardcore will grumble loudly about the lack of multiplayer. It's a fair point, but the most obvious riposte is are there not enough shooters out there that cater for this niche? Would Bioshock even benefit from the kind of tacked-on me-too multiplayer that most FPS titles sport like some sort of apologetic 'will this do' badge of dishonour? We'd much rather Irrational focused all of its energies on providing its audience with the very best that single player gaming has to offer than water down the experience by wasting time cobbling together yet another take on Deathmatch and CTF, thanks.
And with that out of the way, all that remains is to insist that anyone with a PC or a 360 goes out and buys this wonderful game on the 24th of August (or sooner if you happen to live near the street date-breaking US retailers), and send a message to the entire games industry that this is the kind of game that people want. BioShock is the ultimate rarity: not only does it live up to its lofty promise, but exceeds it through simple, old fashioned talent and imagination - not to mention verve, style,class, wit, and sheer bloody-minded ambition. It takes the tired, worn-out FPS genre by the scruff of the neck, reinvents and bend it out of shape in such a breathtaking fashion that it's going to take something very special to top this in the months and years ahead. For a game to be so outstanding in one department is one thing - to manage to tick every single box from graphics to audio to gameplay depth to atmosphere and innovation is pretty much unprecedented. Seriously - if you don't find something to love about BioShock, we'd recommend a trip to the nearest doctor to check if your heart's still beating.
10 / 10