One of the coolest features of the XBox 360 is the ability to download free game demos via Live. It's an easy and convenient way to sample new releases. I downloaded the Bioshock demo somewhere around 11 PM, and I decided to take a look at it before I went to bed. I finally staggered into bed around 4 AM, and I might have stayed up all night had I not reached the end of the demo. Lying in bed my thoughts still swirled around the game, and there was no question in my mind that I'd be going in search of a copy the next day.
Bioshock operates on multiple levels. The surface level is a first person shooter with some spiffy special effects in the form of "plasmids"-- modifications to your DNA that give you special weapons like electric bolts, incineration, or freezing enemies. Telekinesis becomes available fairly early, which effectively gives you the gravity gun from Half Life-- and that alone is fun to play with. Mix in all the other plasmids and you've got a shooter with a very entertaining array of choices for dealing damage and manipulating the environment. The enemies are somewhat limited-- stationary gun turrets, flying security bots, and mutated humans of various stripes-- and if the game was just a shooter, that might be a problem. There's enough going on in Bioshock, however, that you're not likely to get bored.
For starters, the art direction in Bioshock is phenomenal. The underwater city of Rapture looks like an art deco paradise where Something Has Gone Horribly Awry. Giant bronze statues loom over floors with inlaid official seals. Advertisements juxtapose a retro thirties aesthetic with DNA-altering products. Weaponry choices harken back to Al Capone. Everything fits.
Rapture is a fully-conceived city, and a good deal of the fun of Bioshock lies in exploring its wonders. As you do, you'll begin to ask yourself what happened there. The answers come in a number of forms-- there are clues in the environment, in broadcasts made over the radio, in overheard conversations and snippets of dialogue-- but most of the story gets advanced via 122 radio diaries you find throughout the game. These are remarkably well written and acted, and bit by bit they fill in the pieces of Rapture's story. You get to know many of Rapture's most prominent citizens through their diaries, which are surprisingly effective means of character development. Late in the game, when I found a brutally slaughtered body (a fairly common occurrance-- Bioshock is definitely for mature audiences only, and not for the squeamish) and realized who it was and how he'd died, it was one of the most satisfying moments in the game. That's a testament to great storytelling and game design.
There's plenty of eye candy in Bioshock, from incredible water and fire effects to gruesome tableaus of creatively dispatched corpses. This is a game you don't so much PLAY as you EXPERIENCE. Other games, like the Half Life series, also create a consistent, believable world, but none approach Bioshock's level of detail. The game shines in its details, and shines brightly. This is a landmark achievement in gaming not to be missed.