I will get this out of the way up front: BioShock is one of the deepest first-person shooters you will ever experience, and I am not saying that because it takes place at the bottom of the ocean. With a mature storyline that rewards exploration and curiosity, a character growth system that ensures the game is never played the same way twice, and an atmosphere that immerses the player in the twisted world of a sunken dystopia, it departs from the tried-and-true shooter formula to create an introspective experience where each player's decision has lasting effects until the final scene is played.
Without giving away any of the game's incredible storyline, BioShock places you in the role of a nameless main character that finds himself lost in the city of Rapture, a massive city constructed on the ocean floor as a haven for the world's best and brightest. The Rapture you see, however, has fallen into disrepair. The halls are clogged with manic, disfigured citizens hunting you and each other in search of valuable resources. The city's security system has gone haywire with turrets and sentinel robots looming around every corner. Most disturbing, ghoulish children quietly lurk from room to room - protected by gargantuan diver-clad bodyguards - harvesting genetic materials from the fallen citizens. Your objective as Rapture's newest inhabitant is to find a way out of the city, discover what caused the great underwater metropolis to fall into its current state, and survive the gauntlet of monstrosities that stand between you and the truth.
BioShock is, at its heart, a pure first-person shooter. The weapons range from genre staples (a standard six-bullet revolver) to the unexpected (a flamethrower), along with a basic melee weapon and a camera for taking pictures that reveal enemy weaknesses. Each weapon has three available ammo types that radically change each weapon's behavior. Sticking antipersonnel bullets in your revolver makes short work of the mutated citizens that frequently put an end to your travels, whereas using liquid nitrogen in your flamethrower can freeze them in their tracks. Weapon upgrades and ammunition are both difficult by which to come, and Rapturian foes are not willing to stand by and let you dispatch them easily. Your character needs something else to even the playing field.
BioShock accomplishes this with plasmids, which are radical genetic alterations that bear a strong resemblance to magical abilities. While not always practical when trying to directly eliminate an opponent, they serve to manipulate the environment in such a way to make your weapons or movements more effective. Throw a bolt of lightning in a pool of water filled with enemies, and watch the Laws of Conduction at work. Incinerate a pool of oil on the ground, and place a wall of fire between you and your foes. Freeze an attack droid and watch it fall to the ground where it can be destroyed or hacked (via an unfortunately tedious minigame that resurfaces far too often) as you see fit. Efficient progression through each level requires careful management of your plasmids, both in determining which to employ and when to use them. The levels are designed in such a way that there is no "right answer" when approaching a group of opponents in your way, so these decisions are not always easy ones. In particular, when it comes time to procure the precious Adam necessary to augment and upgrade their plasmids, the player may find the line between the in-game character and their own moral character blurred as a result of how BioShock captures the imagination.
The game is an exercise in seamless immersion from start to finish. The number of non-interactive cutscenes can be counted on one hand, instead opting for strategically-placed tape recorders that slowly progresses the story as you continue to explore Rapture. It is a wonderful mechanic that encourages the player to seek the tapes out in order to continue to make sense of their current predicament. The crackling sound of a vintage recording serves to accentuate the already-creepy environment. This extraordinary sound design is extended to every other element in Rapture. The creaking of the immense water pressure on the ocean floor is plucked straight from a submarine horror movie. The corrupt deliberations of the mutated Rapture residents is raw and chilling. The ominous public announcements - once the rally cry of the city - serves as an ironic reflection of Rapture's fall from grace. The rich, art deco-inspired visuals use DirectX 10 to full effect, accentuating the industrial Jules Verne look of Rapture and the colorful retro dynamics with incredible water and steam effects.
It is a shame, therefore, that BioShock falls prey to a number of unfortunate development decisions that make the PC release of the game one of the weaker implementations. As of this writing, the overbearing DRM scheme that limited activations has been removed, but an unorthodox disc manufacturing process still causes issues with some drives. More importantly, however, despite being conceived as a PC title, BioShock shows much evidence of being a hasty port of an Xbox 360 title, most notably in the control scheme. The game employs a rather messy mouse acceleration execution that makes precise mouse control difficult. Sensitive mouse settings cause the cursor to jump around randomly, which wreaks havoc on delicate aiming situations. Insensitive settings make the above-mentioned hacking mini-games either impossible or physically exhausting, depending on your persistence. The problem is resolved by installing and using a compatible gamepad, but when one of the largest strengths of the PC platform is its control scheme, the limitations of BioShock's mouse control very quickly become an unwelcome hindrance, particularly as the game's difficulty ramps up.
In fact, despite the control issues and heavy-handed copy protection, it is virtually impossible to not recommend BioShock. During a generation in which the first-person shooter genre is dominated by somber war simulations and ultra-competitive multiplayer gore fests, BioShock's story-driven campaign, unique environment, and incredibly satisfying combat engine make it a serious stand-out. The moral decisions that the game imposes on the player as well as the multi-faceted character development system create an organically-replayable experience with each playthrough. It is obvious that BioShock was developed with an effort and passion expressed by true masters of the art, and if not for the myriad of technical issues unique to the PC version, the watery world of Rapture would be this gaming generation's Atlantis. BioShock is, without a doubt, essential to any collection.