Version tested: PlayStation 3
It says something about the impact of a game when downloadable content for it comes prefaced with a plot continuity disclaimer. BioShock's Challenge Rooms, which was released exclusively for the PlayStation 3 last week for GBP 6.29, does just that.
These three self-contained arenas - one focused on combat, the other two on puzzles and exploration - do not, we are explicitly told, form part of the BioShock storyline. They are a "BioShock product", intended to be enjoyed entirely on their own merits. It seems obvious, but it's probably worth saying all the same. The antique beauty, melancholy atmosphere and dark philosophising of 2K Boston's game have so enraptured some players that they could get lost looking for meaning in the simplest non-sequitur.
In fact, they needn't have worried. Despite their odd rules, these three scenarios could quite easily have slotted into the main game's grand narrative as interludes. Atmospherically, they're perfect. A sinister "Chamber of Thrills" theme neatly ties the Challenge Rooms into BioShock's world. A ruined, malfunctioning carnival fairground, where a deranged ringmaster sets twisted and tortuous tests of cunning, makes sense and strikes a chord with Rapture's fallen utopia.
Surprisingly, it's in their mechanics that the Challenge Rooms, some of them at any rate, sound a bum note. They're clever, memorable, carefully designed and visually lavish - but sometimes, they're not very BioShock.
This is most evident in the first room, The 'I' in Team. This tasks you with rescuing a Little Sister from a Big Daddy without using weapons or damage-dealing plasmids. It's set in a malfunctioning shooting gallery, which probably gives you some clue to the answer to the riddle of how to take down a lumbering, moaning, heavily-armoured lunk without any offensive abilities.
But here's the thing - the room doesn't exactly ask you to solve that riddle yourself. It doesn't allow you to experiment with Plasmids and invented items, even within its tight restrictions, before you arrive at a solution - which would be the BioShock way of doing things. Instead, it gives you only the precise tools you need to solve the puzzle in exactly the way the designers have imagined and leaves a small but intricate trail of causes and effects - partially-disguised locks and keys - for you to follow to the letter. It plays more like the descendant of Metroid and Zelda than System Shock.
It's satisfying in its own way, but once it's done - which won't take long at all - it's done. When it comes to aiming for the Expert Trophy (completing the room in less than three minutes), you'll be looking to shave seconds off the required route rather than extemporise shortcuts or more daredevil solutions. Similarly, earning the Collector Trophy (find a number of hidden red roses) on this and the other two rooms is a matter of dogged, nook-and-cranny legwork - although the roses are hidden with more devious skill than most Easter Eggs.
The next puzzle room, A Shocking Turn of Events, is at least less linear. Here you're required to save a Little Sister from the top of a malfunctioning Ferris wheel by electrifying its controls six times. You're ultimately given more ways of doing this than you need, and after your second success, they're available to you in any order.
Exhausting all of them for the Master Electrician Trophy is the most satisfying pure puzzle in Challenge Rooms, and the choice of tactics and open design make saving time for the Expert Trophy a more cerebral exercise too. It's still a shame that some of the solutions are a simple matter of combing every corner of the level for items, or using the one genetic mutation available to you in a rather obvious manner.
The third Challenge Room, Worlds of Hurt, is a very different proposition, and closer to our expectations. Here the focus turns to combat, and carefully measured doses of the genetic experimentation and player resourcefulness that made BioShock's name.
In Worlds of Hurt, you have to free a Little Sister from a circular prison by besting the enemies in the eight chambers that surround it. You're given a large range of weapons after the first, but aside from that, you're drip-fed Adam (BioShock's genetic currency) and money to buy plasmids, ammunition and supplies, as well as picking up weapon upgrades and invention supplies as you go.
The rooms themselves - teasingly and usefully revealed under glass before you drop into them - have surprising variation and scale, pitting you against enemies of one kind or many, or in automated mazes of turrets and drones. On Easy level the enemies are a pushover, but you'll still have to be frugal with your ammunition and other resources.
On higher difficulty levels both brain and reflexes will be comfortably stretched by this brilliant, bare exposition of BioShock's multiple mechanics. Worlds of Hurt gives you the maximum amount of choice possible and forces you to exercise it with imagination and care. Unlike the puzzle levels, it's highly replayable, as you'll want to try out multiple strategies, possibly aiming for the Tough Guy Trophy which only allows you to use Plasmids, Tonics, the Wrench and the Research Camera - but possibly just for the sake of it.
Challenge Rooms is a short experience, but for the relatively small price-tag, it's intriguing, unusual and handsomely crafted. The signposting in particular is done with humour, flair and great sleight-of-hand, as you'd expect from the creators of the original game. You'd also expect it to be gorgeous, and it is - the new settings have all the wrecked glamour and unsettling Deco doom of the main game, with superb, cinematic use of lighting in particular.
But Challenge Rooms doesn't quite live up to its potential. With the Plasmids and Tonics, 2K Boston created a vast, unique and immensely powerful toolset for this kind of condensed, thinking-man's-shooter - but it hasn't figured out how to fully exploit them yet. The puzzle rooms are a drop in the ocean, featuring only a couple of basic, prescribed examples. On the other hand, Worlds of Hurt doesn't have the focus to force players to think laterally and dig the most out of them.
By contrast, Valve's Portal took one tool and extrapolated its potential with devastating and sustained brilliance - leaving just enough room for players to come up with multiple solutions along the way. In its two puzzles especially, Challenge Rooms feels like no more than the first, hesitant step to evolving something similar for the BioShock universe - something we still believe is entirely possible. We hope this isn't the last we see of the concept.
7 / 10