The PS3 is going to receive some excellent games this winter, the likes of Resistance 2, LittleBigPlanet and Killzone 2 (out in February of the new year), all likely to improve the PlayStation 3's odds in its ongoing tussle for market-share with the Xbox 360. However, the best PlayStation game of the season is probably already with us, and has been for a couple of weeks. Yes, I do of course speak of 2K's adaptation of BioShock for Sony's console.
Released in 2007 (gaming's golden year, according to some), BioShock was the most lavishly praised of the year's major releases - and that's saying something given that the same 12 months saw Halo, The Orange Box and Call of Duty 4 realigning the goal posts to the detriment of less ambitious releases. At the time, our very own Stevie described the game as "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."
Fifteen months later, does Stevie's premonition about the game's seminal status hold water? In a word, 'yes'. BioShock for the PlayStation 3 is like listening to a classic Beatles album. You know you should be broadening your horizons by giving newer artists a chance, but deep down you're also sure that some things are very difficult to equal, let alone better.
For PlayStation 3 owners who have carefully dodged through the reams and reams written about BioShock on the Xbox 360, well done, you've made the game experience a lot more enthralling and immersive by not knowing every facet of the plot and the world prior to playing. For all its various holes (which are still no worse than the chasms present in acclaimed TV series' likes Lost or Heroes), the plot is still at the heart of what drives BioShock. You don't know who you are, or where you are, and you're thrown into an incredibly unique and complex world, which you must explore, understand and over which you'll eventually hold vital sway.
The game opens with your mysterious protagonist on a plane in 1960, which promptly crashes leaving you swimming for the safety of a bizarre lighthouse-like structure in the middle of the ocean. Journeying beneath the waves in a Bathysphere, you find yourself in the underwater metropolis of Rapture, a Utopia gone wrong, founded by the industrialist and visionary Andrew Ryan, who appears to have lost control of a populous now addicted to DNA-altering drugs. Rapture was once paradise for those with money, motivation and talent (Ryan having rejected all forms of standard morality and hierarchy, left up on the surface), but now the city has descended into madness... and a strange Irish chap called Atlas wants you to help him find his family, and escape the primordial violence that has destroyed this once formidable place.
The first thing you'll notice are the visuals. Perhaps never before has a gaming landscape been so richly and convincingly realised as Rapture. This is a city built in 1946, and you can tell; even the outlandish technical innovations unique to the world convincingly integrated into the Art-Deco pomp. Clearly, 2K's artists had a field day creating such a unique and compelling landscape, which players will find a veritable joy to explore; new intrigue around every corner, as you gradually piece together the story of Rapture's rise and fall. Along the way you'll meet some highly realistic characters, key figures in the town, some who are alive, others dead. These influential figures often leave recordings lying around (excellent voice-acting throughout) that offer Heart of Darkness-esque insights into themselves, and Rapture as a whole.
Of course, while the plot, the world and its unseemly array of inhabitants all offer solid justification (at times you'll be on the edge of your seat, itching to know about this, or that), the real meat of the gameplay is still in the combat. Some might question the game's RPG credentials, and they have a point, but the bio-enhancing Plasmids, skill-improving Tonics and even the research camera, do all play crucial roles in making progress more than just running-and-gunning. There are multiple ways of killing the games various Splicers (electric-shock them in water, research them to find the most effective ammo-type, et al), while the AI always seems correct in context, the combat rock-solid and rewarding. While drug-addled 'Splicers' make up the bulk of the foes (their mutterings are another impressive, creepy touch), you'll also be taking on Big Daddies, bouncers to the Little Sisters (the terrifying 'children', charged with harvesting vital DNA-twisting Adam from felled humans) - beast-like creatures in rusting diving suits, who will present a stiff challenge, especially on high difficulty settings.
A word now on the specifics of this PS3 version, which is virtually indistinguishable from the Xbox 360 outing of last year. Once again the graphics are smooth and crisp (30 frames-per-second), with no discernible slow-down. Indeed, the only reason this version is noteworthy beyond the original is because of the new Challenge Rooms 2K promise to add as DLC in the coming weeks. These areas will offer specific tasks for player's to tackle, and we're hoping to see some new parts of Rapture thanks to this extra content. Given the importance of the world to the overall gameplay experience, these added areas aren't to be over-looked, but obviously we haven't got to see them just yet. Still, as I mentioned before, from a technical perspective the PS3 is no different from the Xbox 360.
As the plot evolves you'll also be faced with a few moral decisions, which won't be easy to make given the array of characters you'll have come across after a good few hours in the game. The Plasmids (the afore-mentioned genetic upgrades, which give you powers like Telekenisis, mastery of ice and flame as well as electricity) in particular add a lot of colour to the action, as well as proving to be crucial to the overall plot. Indeed, perhaps one of the most remarkable things about BioShock is how the gameplay, environment and story conspire together so convincingly, thanks to subtle details and a plot that isn't force-fed via cut-scenes or movies but is told 'environmentally'. Once again I'm banging on about the portable radio, the recordings, scrawlings on walls, posters... the lengths to which 2K go at times is overwhelming.
The Vita-Chambers, automated re-spawn points in essence, are an interesting inclusion which some players might not take to as they can take away gravitas from combat, although you can switch these off in the options menu should you wish to. Trophies are also added, but are hardly any different from the Xbox 360's Achievements, not that this really matters.
First-person shooter with class or dumbed-down role-playing game? In the end it doesn't matter, because BioShock is best enjoyed when you stop worrying about what kind of a game it is... and just start experiencing it. 2K blend plot and setting so convincingly that BioShock would can work as an RPG, FPS or even an Adventure game - the form doesn't matter - there is far more substance here than style. Sure, it has its quirks, and sometimes you find yourself wondering if the developers have been rather too-clever, but then another astonishing area of the city opens up before you, complete with lashings of detail to imbibe, foes to defeat, upgrades to buy or Plasmid to gather... and you forget yourself; you forget the fact that this is just a game, not something more important.
It feels almost unfair that BioShock should now re-emerge just as another raft of hopeful contenders make their way to stores, but emerge it does, and in case I haven't put it bluntly enough already, this is still the Big Daddy of action games, the benchmark by which stories and environments will be measured. An essential purchase.