Bioshock was massively hyped. The first return to the ‘Shock series’ since System Shock 2 (released eight long years before), it promised to bring something new to our palette, if not to gaming altogether. Whether it succeeded or not will depend on who you speak to, but it’s safe to say it's been a talking point ever since; whether it be for That Twist or because of That Boss. People aren't ready to let Bioshock go – and rightly so.
It starts on an aeroplane in the mid-Atlantic, literally. The game kicks off with a plane crash and you, Jack, emerge from the wreckage in the middle of the ocean, fighting to stay above the water. Everything is fire, including the water, and the tail of the jet is steadily sinking into the depths. Then, in the distance, a lit up art-deco lighthouse - your one chance to survive. This is your entrance into Rapture.
Rapture is iconic. A city built entirely under water, it's exactly the type of concept games were invented for; a realised place that plumbs the depths of our imaginations and runs with it. It's spellbinding from the first time it comes into view, as you descend towards it in a mini-submarine and it glows in the distance. A giant squid darts between huge, submerged skyscrapers while your sub steadily heads into the city. Through a crackling speaker you hear messages from founder Andrew Ryan explaining why it was created - to give men freedom from the state, from God. You dock at a port automatically, apparently not free from the shackles of modern engineering.
And Parrots. Only men and Parrots.
Everything is pitch black and there are screams coming from outside. Something appears. A person, two people. You only catch glimpses amongst the flickering lights. One of them gets brutally cut up, blood spraying everywhere. The other heads towards your sub then stands, examining you through the window. Everything goes dark and all you can see are two glowing hooks that slowly retreat. This is your grisly introduction to Rapture; a submerged utopia where everything has gone horribly, horribly wrong.
It's stunning how effective this five minute sequence is at setting up the entire game. The Lighthouse - a serene art-deco structure in the middle of, yet separate from, the madness of the crash – is an easy metaphor for Rapture and the civilization it's escaping. It's both alien and familiar, the same as the first splicer you meet, familiar as a human but completely alien in every other respect. This first encounter shows you that Rapture is broken; the idealist messages from Ryan not moments before are crumbled under the extreme violence that surrounds you.
It's unfortunate that the introduction of splicers also meant the introduction of combat though, because it’s here that BioShock starts to disappoint. There’s plenty of talk about how many options you have in every fight thanks to the guns, upgrades and plasmids, but at the end of the day variety doesn't necessarily mean satisfaction. As you progress you unlock plasmids that are either passive or useable. The passive ones range from making you stronger, to helping you hack security systems quicker and they are all much less interesting than the active ones. Inferno sets people alight at the click of your fingers; Electro Bolt summons lightning from your hands, and with the abundance of water around the leaking city it's plenty useful, but unfortunately repetitive.
Along side the plasmids though are standard guns, because pretty much every game has to have guns of some sort in it. You go through the normal FPS chart for the most part - melee, pistol, machine gun, shotgun, rifle, rocket launcher. There’s the unusual combined flamethrower and freeze-ray too, but the point is that none of the weapons feel as fresh as you’d expect. They are the same staple guns from every other FPS ever and they don't feel exciting to use – the feedback isn’t there to make them come alive, so they remain feeling clunky and slow.
The trick is to try and use your guns as little as possible, and instead focus on plasmids. These, combined with the surrounding environment, are what make the combat bearable as they allow for ad-hoc strategies and a level of experimentation simply not found in most other shooters. Just take the Decoy plasmid as an example; you can set it in a pool of water, then zap the water with Electro Bolt when splicers run to it. Or you could put the dummy on top of a Cyclone Trap. Or, you could hack a security system so that it picks up enemies instead of you, then put the Dummy in line of sight of a camera.