A quick introductory movie of a man in a plane over the Atlantic in 1960. Crash. And now you're in control--uninterrupted control for nearly the entire extent of the game--wading through the wreckage and fire and smoke toward a gloomy lighthouse--but it's already begun. The semblance of free will given by your direct control of the protagonist Jack is a facade. Your only choice is to enter the lighthouse, climb into the waiting bathysphere, descend (ascend?) to Rapture, and be led into darkness through a meticulously scripted chain of events.
A failed underwater utopia borne of idealistic dreams, Rapture has an unmistakable majesty and honor, even in disrepair. Meant to be a capitalist's Randian paradise where the free market has the final say, the opulent, '20s-inspired Art Deco look of the city's stylings--think the Chrysler Building writ large--reveals the monumental intentions founder Andrew Ryan had for the city, as well as the relatively short amount of time that has passed since the colony's inception. The reality of Ryan's dream is so exaggerated from the beginning--a sign under a large golden head reads "No Gods or Kings, Only Man"--that it can enter into the realm of surreal.
The duality of an ocean-floor Xanadu in complete disrepair serves as a prelude to the duplicity of Rapture's inhabitants and dueling forces that combine to create the seductive atmosphere of fear and confusion. Cornball advertisements for genetic enhancements paper the walls, saluting independence and biological freedom--while loudspeakers emit hammy radio announcements filled with attempts to control the minds of the masses. Seemingly innocent young girls, the Little Sisters, walk though the darkened corridors of Rapture, chaperoned hand-in-hand by hulking grotesques, the Big Daddies--monstrosities in hissing, mechanical diving suits, with an over-sized drill where an arm should be. You buy genetic enhancements, Plasmids, with ADAM, an organic currency extracted from the dead by the innocent Sisters. You use EVE to fuel your Plasmid-enhanced powers. After your first injection of Plasmids--your first taste of the fruit of this rotting garden--there's no going back.
Though the confines of Rapture are sprawling, packed with hidden "treats" and discoveries and auxiliary pathways, the events of your exploration are beautifully choreographed. A handheld radio soon puts you in contact with survivors of Rapture's fallout, leading you from one goal to the next. Tape-recorded diaries from Rapture's past serve as the primary storytelling mechanic. They reveal more as you progress, the poignant desperation of residents, the unwritten history of Rapture's main players--you'll end up wanting to seek out these fascinating artifacts to know everything you can, even though the more you learn, the more uncertainty arises.
Every encounter with Rapture's host of genetic misfits--the aforementioned Big Daddies with their Little Sisters, as well as the frenetic and disfigured Splicers--has a certain dramatic heft to it. You may stumble upon a Little Sister gorging herself on ADAM as a Big Daddy stands guard when a Splicer wanders too close to the Big Daddy's precious partner, setting off a ferocious quarrel to which you've become privy--and in which you may become possibly included.
The combat in BioShock is intensely visceral, especially when squaring off with a Little Sister's single-minded protector. Though most of your battles will be against the various types of Splicers, you'll have to take on Big Daddies if you want to grow in power, as only Little Sisters control Rapture's supply of ADAM. The second you pick a fight with a Big Daddy, it will attack you full-bore, moving with a terrifying, unexpected speed. And once it lands its first blow, you've lost a huge portion of your health, your camera view reeling, your vision blurred, your movement slowed, your view of Rapture suddenly an unstable, bobbing mess. You're stumbling, gasping for breath. It's too bad you usually die shortly after this part, because it's an incredible feeling, watching your character struggle to survive such tremendous physical harm.
Luckily, dying isn't too costly. You may lose a few Med Kits or EVE, but you respawn in one of the game's Vita-Chambers scattered fairly comprehensively throughout Rapture's corridors. And because the Big Daddies serve as protectors, not aggressors, you can easily avoid confrontations with these uglies if you wish. I sometimes made the mistake of taking them on too early, when I was too weak. The opportunity to destroy a Big Daddy isn't ephemeral--they serve as a standing challenge in all of the game's areas, waiting to receive or administer a brutal beating at your leisure.
You're given a standard arsenal of weaponry--pistol, machine gun, shotgun--and your Plasmid abilities to fend off Rapture's legion. Though the game is most definitely an adventure at heart, you'll be battling baddies nonstop in the style of any modern shooter. You'll get to customize your weaponry--say, increasing the firing rate or damage of a pistol--in addition to customizing your physical Plasmid loadout. With limited slots reserved for Plasmid abilities, as well as physical, combat, and engineering abilities received from "tonics," gene-swapping kiosks allow you to prepare for the situation at hand. An abundance of security cameras may call for a Plasmid that sics Rapture's alarm squad on unsuspecting Splicers.
What I found most satisfying about BioShock's weaponry was its predictability. That is, it emulated real-world dynamics more successfully than I've seen in a game. Setting fire to a Splicer with the Incinerate Plasmid causes it to run toward water. Shocking a Splicer in water with an Electro Bolt Plasmid--perhaps while it is dousing its burning body--hurts doubly. The invaluable Telekinesis Plasmid allows you to create a bullet-blocking shield by holding objects in mid-air, and throwing a 150-pound body at a Splicer will cause it serious harm, despite its apparent rag-doll lightness.
The higher-order deranged characters you come across in Rapture are truly masterworks in every respect. They present their sick tendencies in such a way that there is almost reason to their insanity--but not quite. The voice acting is flawless. The tasks you'll take based on your interaction with them in Rapture are intriguing, ranging from ordered assassinations to flower gathering.
Of the few qualms I have with BioShock, the chief amongst them was an ubiquitous "hacking" mini-game, required to get discounts in vending machines or turn security cameras on your side. It became an exercise in tedium fairly quickly, but was optional, and also avoidable. Also, the game presents the notion that you have a choice of significant consequence regarding the Little Sisters. After defeating a Big Daddy, you can choose to kill them and collect a large amount of ADAM, or rescue them and collect less. I have to say I felt little moral confusion at this point; it was essentially deciding between two endings for the game, though following the same path along the way.
It is not often that I play a game, as an adult, and truly feel that, yes, this is something different, something appropriate. BioShock could be played as a brain-dead shooter, but even then, gamers might still unintentionally glean something meaningful from it. It is impossible to enter the world of Rapture without feeling something. The game screams at you to look--See this! Know this! Think! It is immersive and impressive. It is elegant and ugly. And it is here for you to enjoy and play and appreciate in any way you see fit.