What’s more, you can’t ignore the cinematic skill with which it’s all presented. Other games – The Darkness, Half-Life 2: Episode 1 – have done wonders with décor, lighting and motion to create a brooding tension or a sudden feeling of deep unease, but Bioshock takes it to a whole new level. This, you can’t help feeling, is what a truly great game is meant to be: not some dozy semi-interactive movie, but a world where your interaction is the biggest part of a rich, fully-realised experience.
Kudos, too, to the audio team – so much of Rapture’s rich atmosphere is conjured by the period music sounding out from slightly tinny speakers, or from the evocative voices that rise from abandoned recordings, or the radio messages that dish out guidance, mockery or assistance. In the early stages of the game, the mad mutterings of the various lurking splicers are a constant source of terror, to the point that the sudden appearance of the blood-crazed freak is practically a relief. And the lines they utter when they’re standing over your twitching corpse are packed with pitch-black humour.
You’ll get the latter more than you might like, but don’t worry. Bioshock eschews checkpoints or the usual save/reload nonsense in order to keep you constantly in the game and in the world. On dying, you instantly respawn with meagre quantities of health and Eve in a local ‘Vita-chamber’, meaning you don’t lose anything but your self-respect and a little time while you retrace your tracks. This is typical of the way the game handles its mechanics. You don’t organise your plasmid powers and passive abilities by pausing the action and going into some arcane status screen – you find a machine and get it to reprogram your mind and body. You can buy health and ammo from vending machines, or upgrades from a gatherer’s garden. At times, you can almost forget you’re playing a game.
And like Deus Ex, Thief and System Shock, Bioshock gives you freedom to do things your own way. It’s only on a second play through that you’ll truly realise how much scope the Plasmid system gives you to create your own character to match your own style and play. You scan specialise in hacking machines and security systems (done through a simple pipeline puzzle game) or in melee combat or in offensive Plasmid-based techniques. You can try to play using stealth, cunning and misdirection, or you can simply concentrate on all-out assault. As with Deus Ex, if you play through just the once you’ll only get to grips with half the game, if that.