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.