Few games could live up to this sort of hype. BioShock isn’t just a great first-person shooter, it’s a landmark game – even, some claim, a true work of art. Certainly, it’s the sort of game that comes along once every couple of years, and makes every other game in its genre look timid, lacking real guts or imagination. This isn’t merely a question of benchmark-raising graphics or revolutionary technology. It’s a question of vision.
That vision is evident in every grand hall or submerged corridor of Rapture, the game’s undersea city setting. A crumbling utopia, built deep beneath the ocean waves by a rich industrialist demagogue, Rapture is the undisputed star of BioShock, even if its tunnels are leaking, its life-support systems are failing, and its inhabitants deranged by addiction to advanced, gene-altering substances. Wrapped in art-deco style 1930s fashions, Rapture is arguably the most sumptuous world ever seen in a PC game, functioning both as a coherent slice of retro sci-fi and as a jaw-dropping spectacle. From the artificial gardens to its pounding industrial core, it’s staggering.
Brought to life by the Unreal 3 engine, Rapture has given BioShock’s designers scope to unleash dazzling water effects. Walk through a cascade and your vision distorts as the water washes over. Elsewhere, rippling pools reflect their neon-lit surroundings in breathtaking fashion. Those with a DirectX 10 graphics card can enjoy enhanced lighting, shadow and water effects, but – believe us – the differences are small. On a regular DirectX 9 system, BioShock still looks stunning.
BioShock follows firmly in the footsteps of thoughtful first-person shooters such as System Shock and Deus Ex, but outdoes both with a dark, gleefully manipulative storyline, told through urgent radio messages and fragments of spoken-word diaries. Most games can barely rise to the level of the average Chuck Norris action flick, yet BioShock can reference Ayn Rand and Orwell or question free will, free-market economics and scientific ethics without once sounding stupid or pretentious. Here the biggest “wow” moments in the game aren’t the set piece action moments, but the plot twists.
For many people, the key to the game will be the genetic enhancements, or “plasmids”. These enable you to freeze, electrocute or incinerate members of the hostile “splicer” gangs that roam Rapture, sow disruption in their ranks or use telekinesis to throw their bombs straight back at them. You can get so far using pistols, shotguns and a trusty Tommy Gun, but the more plasmids you have, and the more powerful they are, the easier it becomes to survive. However, plasmids rely on two resources. One – Eve – is readily available, but the other – Adam – must be “harvested” from the “little sisters”, strange child-like waifs who wander Rapture. Are the little sisters human? Should you do what you’re told and harvest, or should you go without? The game lets you make up your own mind, but your actions have consequences.
Meanwhile, the game finds ingenious new solutions to old gameplay problems. An annotated map, lists of objectives, onscreen markers and an optional hint system keep aimless searching to a minimum. Some might complain this makes the game easy, but the paucity of ammunition and the numbers of splicers and security machines ranged against you contradict this. Nitpickers might also add that the game’s AI is hardly revolutionary. While a few opponents use teleportation powers or grenades to vicious effect, most don’t go beyond all-out assault. Still, this sort of behaviour is in keeping with their deranged personalities, and the ferocity of their attacks never fails to shock.