Briefly browsing a video game store shelf is enough to show someone just how commonplace science fiction-themed first-person shooters are in today's market. It takes a special game to stand out in this crowd, both in creativity and quality. Bioshock is that game. It takes the design foundation of the System Shock series and expands and evolves it with a whole new world unlike anything else in gaming.
Not content with creating a universe of overused sci-fi movie influences like Aliens and Star Wars, Ken Levine and his team looked to some of the political fiction of the twentieth century for inspiration, particularly Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Bioshock takes place in 1960 in a place called Rapture, an underwater city founded by a man named Andrew Ryan who had a vision of an extreme capitalist society where the elite could live unburdened from government restrictions. You play the role of a man whose plane has crash-landed by Rapture's surface entrance. Once you head inside, it's obvious that something has gone horribly wrong. Rapture is the not the utopia its inhabitants had hoped it would be.
Bioshock feels more real and alive than other first-person shooters.
Rapture is one of the most convincingly realized places ever conceived for a video game. 2K Boston (the developer formerly known as Irrational Games) went out of their way to give the game exceptional detail. Everything from the art deco style to the licensed jazz music down to the vernacular of the era captures the retro mood perfectly. And what makes it feel so real as a horror setting is that the corpses are not just randomly strewn about. Just looking at the bodies, you can often figure out how they died, what they were doing at the time.
As in the System Shock games, there are recorded messages scattered throughout the buildings; these unfold the story and past events a bit at a time. It's very suspenseful and you get a great sense of the different roles of the characters and the moral quandaries they had to face. You, as the player, must also make moral decisions. There are genetically altered girls throughout Rapture called Little Sisters and you have the option to harvest them for Adam (material you can use to enhance your powers) or rescue them. Is it wrong to kill them to help your own survival if are they no longer human anyway? It's up to you to decide what to do, and it has implications on the game.
Freedom of choice is also why the action is so compelling. Instead of just shooting enemies, you can acquire an array of genetic powers called plasmids. With these, you can set enemies on fire, electroshock them when they're standing in water for extra damage, or, like in Deus Ex, you can use hacking skills to reprogram turrets to attack them instead of you. The number of plasmids and other skills you can have on hand at one time depends on how many slots you have available. Additional slots can be purchased with Adam at special machines. Since your skills generally outnumber the slots available, the ones you are currently not using get stored in a gene bank. So, whenever you wish to switch your skills, you just need to go to one of the many gene banks in the game.
While this mass acquiring of various skills does contribute to making the action more intense and visceral than past first-person shooter/adventure hybrids, I feel it also reduces the potency of the choices themselves. For example, in games like System Shock 2 and Deus Ex, when you distribute skill points it has a major effect on your character's future development as far as abilities go. Choosing one type of skill often means another type will not be available, thus it forces you think long and hard about it.