Is BioShock on PS3 the first example of a developer showing off the downloadable content before we get to see the game? The PS3 version's Challenge Rooms - announced and demonstrated to the press at E3 in July - were our first chance to see 2K's blockbusting underwater mind-bender in action on Sony hardware. The Ferris Wheel level, where players have to rescue a Little Sister by picking through the crumbling environment for electricity to transfer to a control panel, is a neat example of what 2K hopes to do to extend the game's appeal once the credits have rolled, but, shorn of the arguably vital context of the single-player game, it's a peculiar introduction. The assumption was that everyone has played BioShock.
Which is an odd position to adopt for a publisher, 2K Games, prepared to deploy four - that's four - separate development teams to bring this long overdue port to its new home. Perhaps, in hindsight, it's also enough to infer the Challenge Rooms will end up on other formats in the future. After all, if you're a publisher fighting off a takeover bid, you probably want to maximise the potential of the things you do.
But never mind that. For those of you who have been waiting patiently to experience the game for the first time - and congratulations if you've avoided spoilers, because BioShock discussions have flooded the internet almost as violently as the water at the gates threatens to invade Rapture, BioShock's underwater city - this is probably the more relevant preview: our first chance to play the celebrated single-player adventure on our own PS3 and explain what you stand to face.
The first thing you face, of course, is the now almost obligatory wait for the game to install, a process that deposits 4980MB of data on your PS3's hard disk and takes just over ten minutes to complete, with little more than a few witty Rapture-related adverts and some twinkling piano music to pass the time. This is quickly forgotten, though, as you choose your difficulty setting and experience BioShock's stunning introduction for the first time, assuming control of the unnamed player character up to his neck in the ocean amidst the wreckage of a burning plane - a scene so visually impactful that one of our friends, playing through it on PC for the first time, thought the game had crashed during a cut-scene because it hadn't occurred to him something so pretty would be playable.
After a brief swim to a peculiar tower beyond the burning jet fuel and sinking tail section, the first of many scene-setting interactive story sequences takes hold, woven into your general movement and exploration in much the same way Half-Life pioneered and with as much sense of pace and clever use of visual cues. You descend into Rapture, experiencing the triumphant introduction designed by the city's champion and ideological architect, Andrew Ryan. As Ryan's monologue reaches its climax, the music swells and the veil of a sea-floor mountain range is cast aside to render the city's epic scope, but by the time you reach your destination, it's clear that things have not gone to Ryan's plan.
The early sequences of BioShock play out rather like a survival-horror game - a mood that ultimately shifts sideways into suspense and action, retaining its capacity to startle - as your apparent guardian Atlas gets to know you over a short-wave radio and guides you through your first encounters with the stars of the show: the murderous, broken-headed splicers; the gene-harvesting Little Sisters and their protectors, the metal diving suit-clad Big Daddies; your mixed arsenal of genetic modifications and old-school projectile weaponry; and the biggest star of all, Rapture itself.
DualShock3 and Sixaxis lend themselves perfectly to the controls - with an initial sensitivity to the dual-stick FPS controls that we haven't felt the need to tweak, although you can, and vibration for the DS3 - and allow you to switch between plasmid gene attacks like electro-shock and the standard wrench, pistol, shotgun, crossbow and so on. As your range of plasmid attacks grows, the fun is in deciding how to approach a given situation or, if caught short, how to improvise your way past enemies without sustaining too much damage, and being thrown back to the nearest Vita-Chamber - Rapture's respawn points. There are many different ammo-types, and traps to master, and the different sections of Rapture diversify in tone, foe, layout and pace to force you down tactical avenues you haven't considered.
As you scramble past splicers and meet the even more tortured former savants who twisted Rapture into its present Chelsea grin, you also claw away at the edges of the game-world, accumulating diaries that tell the stories of various citizens caught up in what were - as you come to realise - the last days of the utopia. Rapture was celebrated for being a complete environment, and that owed so much to these audio recordings, along with the voice-overs, from the dialogue and the splicers talking to themselves (stand and listen) to Ryan's excoriating monologues. The diary recordings you collect to learn more about the city seldom feel as forced or self-conscious as they do in other games that adopt a similar approach, and as you claw at the corners of the world seeking clarification you feel even more a part of it, not less.
All the while, the PS3 delivers the Unreal Engine 3-enveloping graphics with as much flair as its Microsoft counterpart. Rapture's punctured art deco interiors are flooded by showers and rivers lashed by red warning lights as they tumble through the cracked ribs of broken ceilings onto lacquered, gold-trimmed floor tiles covered in grime and scum. The architecture's unlike anything you've seen in an FPS game, sacrificed to scene-setting decay, completed by posters advertising obscure technology, plasmids and cigarettes, everything sagging with the wealth of rot; the frameless tubes of the view-screens still flickering and banners still hanging to articulate Ryan's philosophies. "Altruism is the root of all wickedness," and so on. Detail levels are as high as we remember, and the Options menu includes v-lock and frame-lock toggles for players who find fault with the tear-free 30Hz default setting.
Even violent combat with multiple splicers, or jarring transitions (the early tunnel breach from wreckage sinking from the surface; the entrance of the Big Daddy; the ambush as you approach Neptune's Bounty), come and go without a single mood-shattering blow to the frame-rate. Whether you're toasting splicers by electro-shocking the water around their ankles or, later, throwing everything you've got at a Big Daddy and scrambling to avoid its drillbit arm-piece and ferocious lunges, it's smooth.
Where BioShock drew criticism first time around was in large part because of something it would be unfair to discuss with newcomers (bottom line: it's worth experiencing, however you feel about it in hindsight), and the underlying pattern of gameplay you ultimately fall into: feeling your way around with the map, hunting down secrets, counting up your Big Daddy kills and keeping one eye on how completely you're exploring your options. PS3 owners who embrace the latter part of it (you either will or you won't) at least have parity with their neighbouring systems, including the free downloadable content added to the Xbox 360 version since release and, thanks to Sony's Trophy system, a range of accomplishments to for which to gun. Or splice.
There are 53 specific Trophies (some obvious, some secret) and a 54th Platinum Trophy in the build we've been given, which is either finished or very close to it, for a total of three more than the Xbox 360. Apart from the Challenge Rooms (which might account for the extra two non-Platinum additions, and will be post-release add-ons anyway), there's also a new Survivor mode, where the difficulty is increased right from the off - both in terms of enemy AI and the damage they sustain when you strike them, with several early splicers who used to take one whack from the wrench on Medium now only succumbing to four or five, and Vita-Chambers providing less of a safety net in health terms.
But despite the inevitable willy-waving that accompanies the four-dev cocktail of augmentations in this port, the important point is that the core game - the BioShock that won so much acclaim on PC and Xbox 360 - is not only intact, but just as well-articulated by its new host format. The PS3 has struggled in the last year to climb out from under the weight of poor third-party ports, and the many logos and acknowledgements that greet you when the disc first hits the Blu-ray drive are a testament to how fiercely 2K has fought to avoid the grim censure of that accusation. Once again we'll defer to our more forensically-minded Face-Off department for the final head-to-head judgement, which you should be able to read around the game's 24th October release, but early impressions of this last-minute build are as technically strong as the ones we formed when we first journeyed into Rapture last summer.
And that's good news if you miraculously are able to face BioShock for the first time, unburdened by foreknowledge of what you're about to play through, because however it makes you feel when you've fought your way to the end of it, Rapture is the sort of place videogames are seldom capable of sending you, and the PS3 deserves a shot at it.
BioShock is due out on PS3 on 24th October. Look out for our review around then.