I had always been passionately against giving out perfect scores. Then again, I had never played BioShock. Indeed, 2K Boston (formerly known as having a much better brand name in the form of Irrational Games) has created one of the most immersive and finest pieces of software ever crafted. BioShock isn't simply another first-person shooter; no, it's much much more. It's a game that begs to be played, will keep you glued to your seat like an epic page-turning science fiction novel, and will leave you utterly speechless until the final moments of your lengthy stay in the enigmatic underwater city of Rapture.
BioShock kicks off with a bang, literally, as your plane is sent spiralling out of control into the ocean below. You wake up amidst a sea of flames under the comforting shadow of a colossal lighthouse perched conveniently beside the disappearing remains of your aircraft. It's here that your journey through Rapture begins as you embark inside the peculiar underwater city and meet its megalomaniac creator Andrew Ryan. But as you'll soon notice, all isn't well in Rapture. Ryan's vision of an artistic utopia where creative minds are free from censor has become a historic failure. The city is a structural nightmare; rooms are flooded, walkways are unstable and worse yet, Rapture is home to twisted creations known as Splicers that are quick to show their disapproval of your arrival.
The story plays out much like an interactive science fiction novel, and like many classic works of fiction before its time, leaves the majority of narrative open to interpretation, rather than laying everything out for you. For the most part, BioShock's mystery unfolds through careful exploration and uncovering lost recordings by the city's many denizens. These recordings, along with the occasional musings from the game's key characters, provide the backbone for the story, revealing bit-by-bit the history behind Rapture's demise, including some stunning final chapters.
As you venture deeper and deeper into Rapture, you'll inevitably encounter the city's many abominations that stalk the hallways, hide mischievously in the corners and sometimes appear right behind you, standing and waiting for you to turn around and acknowledge their twisted presence. And soon you'll notice that these city dwellers, genetically-abused from overuse of a substance known as Adam, still cling on to their old personas, cradling baby carriages, sitting happily next to their dead families in front of television sets that ominously display a 'please stand by' warning, and cursing rather vocally and maniacally about their current, less than ideal, situation.
'The water seeps through cracks in the walls, bathrooms are flooded, puddles appear around every turn and all of it realistically ripples...'
Then there are the Big Daddies, Rapture's lumbering biomechanical monstrosities that act as guardians to the game's Gatherers, or Little Sisters if you will - children who search the remains of cadavers strewn throughout the city for Adam, the game's genetic currency that allows you to purchase special powers known as plasmids. Unfortunately for you, the only way to get your hands on a piece of the Adam pie is to take down the Big Daddies, which is no easy task. Early on, when you have yet to acquire the grenade launcher or fill your roster of plasmids, these hulking giants put up a serious fight, and even once you've developed a healthful arsenal, taking a Big Daddy out of the picture is no small feat.
If you do happen to bite-the-bullet, however, and trust me, you will, you'll be immediately transferred to the nearest vita-chamber - a tube-like structure that revitalizes you - where you can exit and continue on your merry little way. The difference here to the traditional checkpoint system is that while you regain some of your health and power back, your enemies don't. So if you died while draining half of a Big Daddy's life bar, when you return to the scene of the crime, that Big Daddy will still only have half his health remaining. On one hand, this formula helps keep things moving along at a brisk pace and eases the challenge a bit, but on the other, skilful players who are smart about their encounters with the diving suit-wearing behemoths, aren't rewarded.
Once you've managed to take down a Big Daddy, you're faced with a choice: harvest the Little Sister for Adam, which will invariably kill her, or save her and recover only half the Adam. The decision is yours. Both paths affect the outcome of the game so choose wisely.
With Adam in hand, you can now purchase plasmids, Rapture's very own genetically altering powers that enable you to fry, freeze, and char grill your enemies with the click of a button. At first you only have access to an electrical charge - great for temporarily disabling turrets and security cameras as well as momentarily stopping enemies dead in their tracks; however, as you progress through Rapture you'll acquire new and more powerful plasmids. Some allow you to set your foes ablaze, others allow you to turn your enemies against one another or unleash a swarm of angry bees, ideal for distracting Big Daddies while you pound away at them with grenades and explosive shotgun shells. What's unique about the powers isn't necessarily how aesthetically pleasing they are, but the near limitless combat options they present. For example, if you light an enemy on fire, it'll instinctively drop everything and run for the nearest pool of water. Once it's submerged, switch to your electric bolt plasmid and fry him for good. Or, alternatively, use your telekinetic powers to launch debris at him and, while he's stunned, manipulate a nearby camera to send an army of bots to finish the job for you.
Like plasmids, you'll also have the option to modify your own physical attributes with tonics. These genetic-altering vials can help you hack turrets with ease (hacking is a mini-game in itself), add a bit of extra power to your trusty wrench or create a field of electricity that sends a high-voltage current through anyone unlucky enough to come in contact with you. And later, you'll acquire a handy camera to take photos of enemies and earn damage bonuses and additional tonics to aid you in your quest for the truth.
Then there are the visuals. Good lord is BioShock a pretty game. From the ominous lighting to the shadows that dance merrily across the water-soaked industrial corridors of Rapture, BioShock is perhaps the most beautifully-realized current generation title to date. The game oozes with subtle touches, like the bloody spikes that protrude from your hand when you access the winter blast plasmid, the fish that flop about after being forced from the ocean floor into a quickly-flooding walkway, and the neon signs that flicker and illuminate the surrounding tiles, all of which blissfully add a level of atmosphere rarely achieved in games today. Of course, the water effects are a sight to behold too. The water seeps through cracks in the walls, bathrooms are flooded, puddles appear around every turn and all of it realistically ripples, splashes and distorts, adjusting to your presence.
Likewise, the game's audio is both aurally pleasing and masterfully recorded. The sound of water trickling can be heard echoing from the rooms around you, the impatient pacing and unsettling shrieks of Rapture's demonic citizens radiates from around every corner, and the general clangs of Rapture's inner industrial workings are superbly presented. However, the most chilling sounds originate from the Little Sisters themselves as they playfully skip about reciting such lines as "Look Mr. Bubbles, Adam!" or "Kill them all!" in their innocent, girly voices, or when they weep uncontrollably for their slain guardians. The fantastic musical score can't be overlooked either, as it's among the best ever heard in a video game.
To put it simply, BioShock is a brilliant game; one that sets the proverbial benchmark not only for first-person adventure titles, but also for all future games to come. And this is no flashing visit, with your stay in Rapture easily reaching 20+ hours if you don't rush through. But it's not just the fact that BioShock is a real looker, or the fact that as a first-person shooter alone it stands up to all of its competitors; it's the thought and craftsmanship that went into realising Rapture, its emotionally-jarring denizens and its compelling and seamless narrative that pushes you willingly forward from chapter-to-chapter.