All this is only the beginning, and I desperately want to avoid telling you anything that might spoil the experience for you. The storyline here isn’t imposed on you in countless cut-scenes, which are used sparingly and from the same first-person perspective, when at all. It’s drawn together from a dozen or more recorded voices, from the radio messages sent to you by the main cast of oddball characters, and just from the jingles, posters and public announcements that haunt Rapture’s private places and abandoned public spaces. If you just want to shoot things and destroy them in ever more inventive ways, Bioshock lets you wreak havoc with a vengeance, but there is something deeper going on here. I’ve played games where I’ve been gobsmacked, pumped with adrenaline or shivering with fear, but I haven’t encountered many that can manage to shock or disturb; that can make you feel pangs of guilt or pity or even something approaching tenderness. It’s not simply a case of creating atmosphere – Bioshock wants you to connect both emotionally and intellectually with its world.
Doing so isn’t difficult. Running on a tweaked version of the Unreal 3.0 engine with a lot of heavily customised shaders, Bioshock has to be seen to be believed. The water effects have got a lot of attention, and quite rightly so: the ripples that cloud your vision when you step through a sheet of pouring water is going to be imitated a lot over the next twelve months, and the reflection and displacement effects are completely and utterly wondrous. The lighting, too, is beautiful, with everything illuminated by harsh incandescents or an understated neon glow. Yet none of this would matter without one of the most cohesive and constantly impressive prolonged feats of production design I’ve ever seen in a video game.
From the masks and costumes worn by the splicers to the art deco architecture and the authentic period furniture littering every room, Rapture feels like a real underwater city in an advanced state of decay. While other FPS developers seem stuck in a stagnant relationship with industrial landscapes, jungles, barrels and crates, or forever feeding off inspiration from Aliens or The Matrix, the Bioshock team have let themselves go and create a world all of their own imagining. It draws on the work of Ayn Rand, the architecture of pre-War New York and the designs of Nazi architect, Albert Speer, but at no point does it feel totally indebted to any one influence. What’s more, the game packs in more variety than you might expect, with the glossy civic areas of Rapture covering a number of industrial zones, and some surprisingly beautiful scenery in the areas designed for leisure purposes.