The year is 1960. When a passenger plane suddenly crashes in the middle of the Atlantic, its sole survivor breaks the fiery surface to find himself staring at a mysterious lighthouse. Alone as the tail section of the wrecked plane finally sinks into the murky depths, he makes for the lighthouse steps and the safety a dry interior will surely bring. However, upon entry, what he instead finds is a gateway to a mysterious underwater city, one man's bold vision to create a world away from the rule of government and the scrutiny of religion, where science and technology can forge forward towards genetic perfection without the parasitic shackles of shallow-minded restraint. Welcome to Rapture.
Yet Rapture now lies in ruins, its once bustling corridors, halls, and walkways teeming with Splicers, genetic freaks violently obsessed with the attainment of Adam, the flowing lifeblood of Rapture, the very root of its self-destruction, which is harvested from the dead by the eerie Little Sisters and their guardian Big Daddies. Met via short-wave radio by Atlus, a Rapture resident seeking a way to rescue his trapped family and secure a return to the surface, the player is tasked with aiding and assisting in order to further their interlocked freedoms. It soon becomes clear, however, that in order to survive while unravelling the city's mysteries, the player must also begin splicing Rapture's dangerous genetic Plasmid enhancements into his body while seeking out the Little Sisters and the invaluable Adam they carry with them.
Usual videogame reviews offer the reader sensible and structured build up, exercising considered and constructive evaluation of the subject matter in a tiered compartmentalised delivery that culminates smoothly with a closing summation and a percentage score award. But then, this is not a usual review, and BioShock is far removed from a usual videogame. So bearing that in mind, let's cut to the chase and offer explanation afterwards: We award BioShock a mind-melting score of 98%.
And why? The summer has been a veritable software dirge that has all-but sapped the very soul from the industry thanks to shamelessly poor titles such as Shrek the Third, Hour of Victory, and Transformers: The Game, all of which have waltzed into the setting sun with thoroughly undeserved revenue. However, every trough has an accompanying peak, and a bright ray of hope has this weak abruptly split the cloying darkness as autumn approaches, providing a burning beacon boldly proclaiming that some developers and publishers remain dedicated to creating truly wondrous videogame experiences.
Regardless of whether you own an Xbox 360 - though hopefully this review may contribute to swaying any lingering platform indecision - BioShock from 2K Games simply must be raised aloft by all those who come into contact with it - for the greater good of videogaming's future. While that may sound somewhat melodramatic, the stark reality is that far too many videogame studios are churning out bland, uninspired and wholly mediocre products that occupy exactly the same retail price point as BioShock yet are unequivocally eclipsed by it in every way imaginable. Indeed, sitting goggle-eyed through the astonishing 15-20 hours of underwater immersion on offer in BioShock only serves to magnify exactly how much we, the ever-faithful consumers, are being repeatedly short-changed with most of our software purchases.
But what is it that sets BioShock apart from its equally-priced rivals? What does it have that other great first-person shooters do not? What qualifies it as a bona fide frontrunner for Game of the Year even though the likes of Halo 3, Mass Effect, Assassin's Creed, and Super Mario Galaxy have not even been revealed?
First of all, BioShock screams pure uncompromising quality from its opening frame to its closing cinematic and only ever builds on that ethos of quality as the game progresses. Truly, from the moment the player emerges into the sprawling underwater city of Rapture and its breathtaking submerged vistas, it is crystal clear that every succeeding footstep is to be cherished, every environment to be savoured, and every narrative morsel to be ravenously devoured.
For the first third of the game, BioShock feels comfortably familiar in its delivery, unfolding as a relatively linear - though staggeringly beautiful - standard-issue first-person shooter. Yet, as the player becomes acclimatised to the surroundings and the gameplay mixture of traditional weaponry and genetic Plasmid powers, 2K Games promptly begin twisting the structure, the tension, and the narrative.
Gradually, more and more opportunities for variety and personal preference are integrated into the experience, along with vast satisfying level areas that draw the player away from scripted goals in order to explore every available nook and cranny. Never before in an FPS has the RPG-esque pilfering of corpses, trashcans, storage containers, desks, and cupboards for anything remotely valuable and/or useful been so relentlessly compelling. And that's mainly down to the fact that Rapture is an idealistic Utopian dream destroyed, portrayed through an uneasy blend of chaos and ruin where hunting down food scraps and mechanical leftovers is just as vital to success and survival as the ever more powerful Plasmids, essential boost Tonics, and cobbled home-made weaponry upgrades. Nothing in Rapture is wasted. Everything has a purpose and function.
It is the masterful sense of constant evolution throughout the game that will, this reviewer predicts, see BioShock scoop many of the coveted Game of the Year awards at the close of 2007. Although the above-mentioned titles (and many others besides) are likely to impress in spades and deliver fabulous thrills and adventure upon their arrival, it is truly difficult to envisage that a groundbreaking rarity such as BioShock could be not only matched but surpassed during a single calendar year. Of course, these claims exist to be proven false, and the game industry will be all the richer should another game do just that between now and the dawn of 2008.
Beyond the masses of gameplay variety open to the player as Plasmid powers, Tonics, and weaponry galore gradually builds, it is the core story of BioShock that perhaps stands out as the game's single most defining feature. Beyond the briefest of explanatory opening scenes (and a slick closing rendered sequence) BioShock's mysteries are told entirely through the discovery of scattered tape recorders that hold the emotive experiences of some of Rapture's doomed residents. These superbly acted explanations, combined with the helpful directions and advice of Atlus, mean that gameplay immersion is virtually absolute and not one in-game cut scene ever invades upon the near seamless flow.
It's also worth noting that BioShock is almost entirely devoid of loading screens, with each of Rapture's impressive environments completely open to the player after the initial loading segue - no annoying pauses through doors or corridors, just uninterrupted action, exploration, and enlightenment.
What truly lifts BioShock past its existing competitors and prior genre greats such as Half-Life, is that it draws the player deeper into the devastation of Rapture by coupling them to the Little Sisters on a progressively more tangible emotional level. 2K has accomplished this by rendering the Little Sisters invulnerable until their Big Daddy escort has been dispatched, which is no mean feat during the first few hours of the game when Plasmid effects are in their infancy. Once free to finally gather the Adam so desperately needed to widen Plasmid selection, the player then faces a tough moral decision: harvest the full amount of Adam from the now terrified Little Sister, an action she will not survive; or save her from the monstrous possession holding her captive, which grants a sense of heroic self worth at the cost of only a fraction of the Adam.
BioShock offers up two separate endings, and two separate gameplay standpoints based upon how players act when faced with the gut-wrenching decision between the repeated murder of helpless little girls in return for quick and devastating power, or a more carefully structured but nobly attained set of Plasmid abilities. Either way, the player emerges as the only winner seeing as the polar opposite approaches mean that BioShock offers up a tantalising second play through that delivers enough diversity as to render the experience almost completely refreshed in terms of core balance and intensity.
Technically speaking, the game runs almost flawlessly with no discernable chop or stutter - even amid the most frantic of action sequences. But, a 2% drop on the final score exists to indicate that, contrary to popular belief, the 'perfect' videogame does not exist. Indeed, while BioShock comes mighty close to attaining the unattainable, we're not 'entirely' blinded by our own drooling adoration to notice the occasional blunder or oversight. For example, the gameplay difficulty level is at its greatest during the first half of the adventure, when Plasmids, Tonics, and weaponry are still fairly basic. Once the player is suitably evolved, it is somewhat disheartening to see Big Daddies fall a little too easily, as do the more challenging of Rapture's Splicer community, in the face of such an astounding arsenal of gathered firepower. Also, the ability to save anywhere at any point, while undoubtedly handy, also makes the game a touch too easy. And, finally, following automatic re-spawns the currently selected weapon occasionally decides to inexplicably adopt an autofire life of its own - needing the player to quickly change to another weapon to conserve ammunition.
However, other than those largely minor quibbles, BioShock is, on the whole, a wondrous testament to how videogames should be made, a gaming gem so perfectly polished it seems only natural to question its unfailing brilliance as you view it from all angles. With an engrossing storyline that never disappoints and supporting characterisations of the very highest calibre, the mystery of Rapture unfolds throughout richly layered artistic design - thus far unmatched across the current generation of consoles - and faultless gameplay variety that's all-but unparalleled in the entire first-person shooter genre.
The hype and hyperbole surrounding BioShock prior to its release left 2K with a steep uphill climb to avoid seeing its game labelled as merely 'good, but not as good as promised'. The final product is by far and away the very pinnacle of first-person shooters, with 2K achieving those heady heights by braving to not just push against established genre barriers and expectations but to rip them out and place BioShock atop the pile as a landmark pseudo-RPG first-person shooter that will be a benchmark of quality for many years to come.