2008 may be "the year of PlayStation" in Jack Tretton's E3 phrase, but for some PS3 owners "the year of PlayStation" might as well be the time it takes multiformat games to arrive on Sony's flagship console. But before you lynch us for saying so, we're well aware that patient PS3 owners have found the gap can work in their favour - the spit and polish-filled hydraulics of time elevating competent games to a more accomplished level - and with the standard set by the likes of Overlord: Raising Hell, developers are keen to present their overdue PS3 conversions as special editions with all sorts of extras.
Hence 2K's announcement at E3 last week that BioShock - of all games - will be receiving exclusive downloadable content on PS3, pricing TBC. A story-driven first-person shooter plotted with half a mind in Atlas Shrugged and designed to echo the qualities of undersold PC shooter System Shock 2, it's not exactly crying out for new levels and a downloadable Brucie Kibbutz costume. Or so we thought. But after ten minutes watching 2K producer Melissa Miller demo one of the new levels, we've changed our mind. "We're not trying to retrofit some new level or new story into the existing game," says Miller. "We're very respectful of the original experience."
And when you think back to that original experience - beyond the battle of philosophies in a punctured fantasy at the bottom of the sea - its success was as a versatile action game that let you solve puzzles and kill your enemies using whatever combination of weapons, traps and genetic enhancements held the most appeal. You swam out of the oil-slick of a plane-crash in the middle of the ocean, descended into the city of Rapture - a society established to host and enable the best and brightest people in the world - and crisscrossed the gradually-flooding former utopia battling its crazed citizens with a mixture of conventional weapons (shotguns, crossbows, a wrench) and genetic modifications designed by seafloor scientists unencumbered by surface ethics: an electric-shock discharge, for instance, or telekinesis. The plot choices provoked the most headlines, but the gameplay choices were more important.
The single-player campaign, described above, inevitably remains, although we're not shown much of it at E3. The Challenge Rooms are the focus, and come across as tributes to the elaborate puzzles of Portal, designed to utilise BioShock's strengths in a different way. "The fact is, you can play through the single-player game however you want," says Miller. "You may have used weapons, you may have used a lot of gene tonics and constantly switching them out, and me personally I used the plasmids all the time.
"Challenge Rooms make creative use of all these tool-sets in new and fun ways." They "retain the flavour of Rapture", she says, but they are discrete. "We've kind of been joking around that they're the pulp adventures of Rapture," she says, and to illustrate this we're shown how the levels will presumably be presented to the player - via comic book covers bearing names like Sander Cohen's Chamber of Thrills. To access the contents, you'll download from the PlayStation Store and go straight to them from the main menu.
In the E3 example, a Little Sister (Rapture's lifeforce-harvesting brats are as cute and sinister as ever) is trapped at the top of a Ferris wheel, and you have to save her by sending half a dozen jolts of electricity through the busted control panel to bring her basket to the ground. "In-keeping with the problem-solving nature of the Challenge Rooms, we actually don't give you the most obvious electrical tool in BioShock: there's no electro bolt plasmid anywhere in this level," Miller explains as her colleague explores the on-screen atrium. "So the player's going to have to think very creatively about all the ways they can get electricity in the game and get it over to the control panel."
The first of these is easy - a single round of electric buckshot provided at the spawn-point - but the level quickly pushes the player in other directions. One room is home to an iron safe, but it turns out to be booby-trapped, and electrified trap-bolts rope off the exit. Fortunately there was a telekinesis plasmid pickup on the way in, so the player coolly unhooks the bolts without touching them and redirects them to fry the safe, blasting it open in the process to reveal a crossbow with its own trap-bolt - good enough to put another jolt of electricity through the control panel. This is followed by a bit of light mountaineering, riding an elevator to a balcony and then dropping a level down onto a small platform to collect a static-discharge plasmid. Static discharge is like an electric shield, lashing out with a jolt whenever you're struck in melee combat - and the level inevitably introduces a few splicers - Rapture's warped citizens - to help with that.
There's a few more jolts still to go, but Miller and colleagues end the demo to make way for another developer in 2K's showcase hour. "This is only a portion of the full add-on content," Miller says before she disappears. "We're not speaking about any other portions today but I can tell you they encompass a wide variety of gameplay - from puzzle elements such as we're demonstrating today to the more traditional combat that BioShock is known for."
They'll also take advantage of the PS3's Trophy system, we learn subsequently, with Trophies tied into things like the speed with which you complete the levels (a timer's ever-present in the top-left). "Systems like Researching, Modifying Weapons, Hacking, and Crafting [in the single-player] are all loaded with awards," 2K Marin's Alyssa Finley told the US PlayStation Blog on Monday. "A meticulous player will find themselves up to their armpits in prizes." Writing on the Cult of Rapture website, Andrew Rudson from Digital Extremes (one of four studios contributing to the PS3 port, along with 2K Boston, Marin and Australia), had previously explained: "Each Trophy is graded based on its relative difficulty: bronze, silver and gold being the most difficult. Additionally, there is one platinum Trophy [in the game], which is automatically unlocked after you've earned every other Trophy."
The game is still unoptimised when we see it at E3, but it runs at a fair old pelt - 30 frames-per-second seems to be the norm, despite a few dips. As ever, it will take a more forensic examination post-release to get to the bottom of the 360, PC and PS3's comparative performances, but given the amount of resource being thrown at what's effectively a very late cross-platform port, you feel 2K will push as hard as possible to achieve parity.
And Miller and her colleagues are loath to stop tweaking and playing with the potential of plasmids, genes, puzzles and Rapture, even including interactive carnival games near the Ferris wheel that allow you to win additional EVE hypos, which power your plasmid usage.
It's not the most exciting feature ever, and the level we've seen is actually quite contrived, but if the devs achieve their goal of driving players to better explore the depths of BioShock's discrete mechanics and continue to evoke comparisons to Portal, they may achieve the unlikely feat of driving 2007's most controversial 10/10 shooter back into 2008's best-of lists via downloads and Trophies. Fine, we're probably being overly optimistic with that, but that happens in Rapture, and we won't be upset about having to head back there later to contemplate 2K's work on this conversion when the game comes out later this year.
BioShock PS3 is due out later this year.