I'll set my stall out now: Bioshock is an incredible gaming experience, yet it's not an incredible game. Yes, Rapture is a singularly beautiful place to be. Yes, it's literary inspirations have been, in the main, faithfully represented. Yes, the foreboding and claustrophobic atmosphere will titillate for a fair portion of its duration. Yet Bioshock still manages to leave you feeling ever so slightly dissatisfied.
Despite the many reports of an FPS rich with freedom and emergent gameplay, the city is undoubtedly the star here. From the moment you delve into Rapture's failed society in that rusting bathysphere it's clear Bioshock has an aesthetic pedigree most other shooters - sorry, most other games - can only dream of. Neon bleeds onto walls, water cascades elegantly from fissures in the ceilings, and puddles reflect the last bursts from flickering light fittings. The consistency of Bioshock's mechanics is equally impressive - with mid-20th century themes influencing everything from the many in-game announcements right through to incidental touches such as advertising placards.
Visuals are only half the story, however. The atmosphere is laden with the stench of imminent danger - from the crumbling, unkempt architecture straining to keep the Atlantic at bay, to the pained cries of the Splicers ricocheting through the dank corridors - everything serves its purpose in reminding you that you're trapped and there's an army of genetically modified freaks lurking in the shadows. The opening half-hour of gameplay is pretty much unrivalled in its ability to scare the wits out of you, with some genuinely disturbing voice-acting complimenting the bleak aesthetic perfectly. Only Condemned has tapped into my primal fight or flight instinct as effectively; thankfully, that's where the similarity ends.
Unlike Condemned, Bioshock does have a proper game and coherent plotline to bind all the violence and atmosphere together. Mixing traditional ballistics with genetic enhancements, Bioshock encourages you to sculpt your character to suit your style of play. The various types of upgrade will allow you to more effectively negotiate Rapture's dangers and more efficiently plunder its secrets; whether it take the form of a combat upgrade or a more stealthily-minded hacking tonic, how you employ your resources should impact upon the playing experience.
Your only means of gathering the necessary genetic upgrades to survive lays within the mysterious ADAM, which serves the ironic dual role of the main source of your problems and your only tool for escape. It's here we meet the uber-hyped Little Sisters, tiny girls tainted by genetic alterations who wander Rapture's halls in search of more ADAM. Taking their ADAM from them would be simple if it were not for the Big Daddies, their hulking bodyguards whose sole concern appears to be the girl's safety. They both remain benign in your presence until provoked, but unfortunately for you, provoke you must. The Big Daddies are ferocious in combat, their huge diving suits providing ample cover from your attacks. These fights to the death are almost always a battle of attrition, so med kits and ammo aplenty are the order of the day.
Following your victory, the girl sobs by her fallen chaperone's corpse, and now the big question arises - take all the ADAM and kill her, or take half and set her free' It's really not as big a deal as the game leads you to believe, and the game does find parity in terms of rewards, so maybe not the huge dilemma it's been portrayed as. Admittedly, the first time you're faced with this choice cold logic is at odds with your own conscience, yet sadly, like so much of Bioshock, this initial stimulation wanes with it's eventual rote nature.
My main gripe with people who place Bioshock in the same bracket as, say, the obvious choice of Deus Ex relates directly to it's most talked about features. Whilst each and every upgrade will make your survival easier and enhance your enjoyment, they do not fundamentally change the way you approach a task by necessity. The 'choices' are limited to a very narrow spectrum of 'electrify the bad guy/burn the bad guy/throw something at the bad guy' etc in terms of active combat, and the more stealthy hacking elements, whilst admittedly almost impossible later in the game without the requisite upgrades, can be navigated with hard cash or the plentiful auto-hack tools, which almost defeats the satisfaction of upgrading.
It's not just that this ADAM/upgrade feature has been overplayed, I also feel it cops out in the end. All your upgrades are interchangeable in slots, so whilst you'll never be able to hold all your cards at once, you are free to swap them around as and when required. This means that if a task isn't suiting your current configuration, you can alter your character to better compliment the situation. Not good to my mind. In games which implement this RPG/FPS dynamic perfectly, the upgrades you use should influence the gameplay, not the other way around. It kind of breaks the flow a little as there is almost always an obvious 'best' way to approach matters. For example, entering a new environment you spot several conspicuous puddles of oil on the floor; it's abundantly clear you should have your 'incinerate' plasmid equipped to make life easier. Yes, you could negotiate matters differently, but there's not the ying/yang equilibriums evident in better examples of the genre. So it's either trek back through the level to change slots, or play through with that niggling feeling you could have done this better.
This really is important, as replay value is practically nil in Bioshock. Aside from the Pokemon factor of xbox live achievements, you will see and experience almost everything on offer first time round. I would have preferred a real choice as to how my character progressed, without the comfort of knowing I can bank my upgrades for later on. I'm sure 2K would have loved to do this given time, but it seems they spent so long crafting plot and environment that the actual mechanics of Bioshock's set pieces couldn't be developed to the necessary level. Because of this lack of a defined 'style' of character progression, a second play through feels indistinct from the first.
I'm not trying to rip on Bioshock. It's a highly competent story-driven FPS with many more features and oodles more atmosphere than almost any of its contemporaries. And it is enormous fun. Yet it has issues with pacing, character development, A.I. and the raw mechanics of shooting which can't be denied. The devs say it's a shooter first, yet it doesn't shine if distilled to that level. Reviewers say it's up there with Deus Ex, yet it can't fuse the RPG elements and the gameplay with even half the coherence. Unlike the searing clarity of the artistic and acoustic elements, in terms of gameply it seems a little confused with what it really wants to be.
8 / 10