If you were one of the 60,000 frazzled souls that traipsed around the vast halls of E3 last week, you might wonder why you never stumbled across Bioshock on your extensive travels. If you've checked any of the coverage of Irrational's spiritual successor to System Shock 2, just about everyone is excitedly screaming 'Game of the Show' in the faces of anyone who'll listen.
Even a well-respected game developer pulled me to one side at Heathrow to enthuse wide-eyed about Bioshock. It's that sort of game. People want you to know about it, and how exciting it looks. How different it is from virtually anything else you've seen. They want you to know about one of the only games shown off at E3 with interesting concepts, an intriguing storyline - a game that's not simply another tech demo with 13 year-old play mechanics creaking underneath. They might even mention the stylish art deco environments, and the unhinged character design, or mutter about freeform game design that gives the player a huge degree of freedom. But, in reality, most actually find it pretty difficult to neatly summarise what we were shown without just trawling out a long list of events that make it sound like any number of geeky gaming experiments that the masses will totally miss the point about.
The main difficulty in talking about Bioshock without coming across like a frothing fanboy is that it does things differently, and almost every moment of the 20 minute demo needs careful explanation to frame it in the kind of context that does the spellbinding demo the justice it so richly deserves. On the surface it's an extremely gorgeous Unreal Engine 3-powered first-person shooter, but that's a bit like saying Ronaldinho's pretty handy with a football.
Lost - at sea
Although it wasn't really touched upon in the demo session, the background to the game is that the central protagonist is the sole survivor of a plane crash who chances upon a nearby lighthouse that just happens to be in the middle of the sea (for reasons we presume we'll discover later). When he reaches the lighthouse he discovers the remains of some sort of underwater utopia called Rapture - an idyllic 1940s vision of capitalism built in an ornate art deco style.
The inhabitants of this aquatic nirvana were chasing some sort of genetic enhancement dream, but somewhere along the line it all went horribly and tragically wrong - a fact that becomes immediately apparent once the demo session gets underway and we're given a tour of this crumbling, leaking, but still-beautiful environment where a society once lived out their dreams.
The unfortunate humans that have managed to survive are utterly addicted to genetic enhancements that they once took merely to improve their looks and so on. But in playing around with genetics and trying to improve their physical abilities as well, it's all backfired rather badly - so much so that they've mutated to the extent that they now merely exist to roam the desperate remains of Rapture in search of genetically enhanced material known as ADAM. With killing others and extracting ADAM the only option available to these junkie mutants (like the swift moving Splicers), Rapture is a pretty dangerous, sinister and harrowing place to be - and the perfect setting for a remarkable looking title that you don't mind attributing the wooly next-gen tag to.
The ADAM family
Despite the fresh streaks of blood on the tiled floors, not everyone's hell-bent on murder, as the demo proves early on. Introduced to a curious, lumbering aquatic suit-wearing character referred to as 'Big Daddy', we're informed that these gentle giants serve as the protector of the 'Little Sister', a bug-eyed frail-looking long-haired young girl who only wishes to extract ADAM from the corpses of those already dead (with a huge hypodermic needle, no less). Neither have any desire to attack you, but if you're foolish enough to show aggression to either you'll have to deal with the consequences. Should you approach the little sister, the big daddy immediately grunts his disapproval and gives an unmistakable 'back off' gesture to you. Take it any further and he'll give you a huge shove - but whether he'll actually attack beyond that wasn't shown.
What we do know, though, is that the ADAM that little sisters store will also be your source of the stuff, with the genetic material apparently required for you to adapt to this strange new environment. Looking after these odd looking, cowering, skinny girls will also help you out later in the game - though quite how wasn't up for discussion.
In terms of how you apply the 'plasmid' upgrades, the remnants of the carefree genetic-altering age that caused this mess is still evident, with jolly 'Plasmi-Quik' vending machines dotted around (rarely, we're told) that allow you to effectively swap out abilities as and when you need them. The promise is of experimentation, but how this will play out in practice we can only cheerfully speculate about at this stage. The chances are the choices you make at the Plasmi-Quik stations will have a crucial bearing on the options available to you when you tackle any give situation.
An eye for detail
Wandering through this creepy, leaky environment, it's immediately apparent just how much effort has gone into creating a believable world. Full of typically moody next-gen lighting, the dimmed ambience sets the tone for what's to come, but it's by no means a grubby, unpleasant place to explore. It doesn't look like it's been long since all the trouble started, and it's easy to see how salubrious it once was, with ornate furniture all around, but with streaks of fresh blood around and puddles of (incredibly realistic) water forming all over the place, you're left in no doubt that this isn't the best place you could have washed up. Frankly, it looks like the place could collapse before long - perhaps it will.
In fact, whoever's left seems to want to make it their business to make sure your stay will be a brief one, with makeshift gun turrets tied to the backs of chairs being one of the early obstacles to negotiate, while flying security drones patrol other areas. But with use of the 'plasmid' upgrades you'll be able to augment your abilities in a pseudo RPG manner and work your way around such hazards. In this instance, we're shown how you can dodge the gunfire of the turret by fixing yourself up with a speed boost implant and dashing past it. Later you'll find some armour piercing shells and take it down - but was it the only solution? Probably not.
The spirit of open-ended gameplay (which fans of System Shock 2 will remember with great fondness) within Bioshock promises allows the player to discover different solutions to the same problems on a regular basis. For example, you might actually prefer to shell out cash to disable a security system rather than waste precious ammo destroying it. In other situations you might be able to hack the hover drones (which, curiously, appear to be outboard motors with pistols strapped to them) so that they fight on your side - it's all there for you to work out for yourself.
Later in this all-too-brief demo, we're shown a section where the big daddy and a little sister are digging ADAM out of another corpse, while a lurking Splicer blocked our passage into an adjoining room. In order to slip past them, the demonstrator administered some Splicer irritant in the direction of the big daddy to get a lurking Splicer (crazy looking agile female Jester things that crawl on ceilings) to become fooled into thinking it has an enemy to attack. Of course, the contest wasn't exactly a fair fight, but it ensured that the two were otherwise engaged while we slipped right past them unnoticed.
This same "AI ecology" principle (as Irrational's calling it) means that once you know what rules the characters adhere to, you can pervert their behaviour in other interesting ways, such as fooling a big daddy into thinking you're a little sister - thus protecting you to the death - while another example showed how you could remove a guarding Splicer by using a security beacon ability to draw the security bots into attacking it. Almost every minute of the demo had something truly impressive about it, and left you in no doubt that Bioshock will be something special.
With a fantastic attention to detail, the game also leaves clues for the determined player, such as audio logs from dead citizens of Rapture. In the final section of the demo we're shown a record store with the knowledge that a particular musician we need to flush out of hiding has an obsessive hatred for a rival. Once in possession of that recording, viola - one crazed composer literally faces the music.
And with that, the demo session ended, leaving attendees slack-jawed and wanting more. Whether Irrational can deliver on the obvious promise on show here is something we'll find out in time, but for now what we've seen so far has ensured we'll be paying full attention from now on.
Bioshock is due for release on Xbox 360 and PC from 2K Games in 2007.