BioShock is a simple, straightforward first-person shooter (FPS) dressed up in next-generation trappings and superb artistic design. There are numerous distractions attempting to draw the player's eye away from the basic formula at its heart, but really, that's all it is.
Is there anything wrong with this? Well-polished, enjoyably playable games are always welcome amidst the scores of shoddy cash-ins, inspiration-free clones and unrealistically ambitious projects needing six more months of development (but not getting them) before hitting retail. In this context, it's easy to appreciate BioShock as a strong effort.
On the other hand, I can't help but feel a little disappointed that there isn't more to it. In all fairness, there's nothing really wrong with the experience it provides; it just lacks the sort of vision and hook truly memorable games possess underneath the graphics, physics and sound effects. During my time in the undersea world of Rapture, there were many small occurrences that didn't mean much on their own. But, when added together and taken in total, the ability to become engrossed in the adventure was chipped away until all that was left was an underlying desire for completion. It's as good a reason to play a game as any, but perhaps not the most satisfying.
The most serious issue is that BioShock's character development and dramatic narrative never come together. The "silent protagonist" approach is rife with its own set of dangers, these problems only magnified by choices like having an absurd number of passive audio journals waiting to be picked up, or the absence of any real conversations. Even worse, a huge blow was struck against believability in the opening moments, setting the tone for the rest to come:
After arriving in Rapture, my character happens upon a glowing syringe. Rather than questioning its contents or waiting for a clue or verbal order from someone else, this mysterious substance is immediately and illogically self-injected on a whim. Not only does this action fly in the face of common sense, but when the ability to generate electricity is imparted, my character has no reaction and makes no comment. There's no sense of fear, or even of awe. As a player, how can I be expected to give events in BioShock any credence or weight when the person I'm supposed to be playing as doesn't?
Further undermining intellectual buy-in, the much-discussed inclusion of Little Sisters as a catalyst for triggering moral choices falls incredibly flat. Reduced to a repeated resource-gathering scenario, the "good" or "evil" in capturing these carbon-copy moppets seems to be solely based on whether the player has any empathy for the iconic visual representation of a small girl. It may give pause the first time, but when every subsequent encounter is revealed to be an exact duplicate with neither the action nor the individual having any unique quality, all impact is negated.
Although these can be taken as fairly high-level criticisms of things that many games wouldn't even have attempted, BioShock also suffers from other issues that hold it back in ways besides the intellectual.
Seeing the game lapse almost immediately into a series of fetchquests without the proper motivation was offputting. Some may claim that the game accounts for this later on, but to me it was too little, too late. In addition, despite the superb realization of the period through architecture, music selection and voice acting, it was hard to escape the sensation that most of my time was spent in a series of corridors and abstract areas. Since the game failed to create a place where I believed geniuses could congregate under the sea, I was left to admire specific elements while being unconvinced of the whole.
Finally, the egregious multitude of power-ups available could have been a significant addition to the mix, but again, their handling lacked the weight and importance needed to raise these systems above the level of idle toolgathering. Between Plasmids, Tonics, Photos, Inventions, Hacking, Weapon Upgrading, Ammunition Types and simply picking up audio logs or the millions of items strewn throughout every environment, there were too many things to be distracted by, with none of them feeling as vital or important as they should be.
So what does BioShock do right? It looks great, it sounds great, and it absolutely knows which genre it's in. The difficulty is quite reasonable (and adjustable as well) so I'd actually say that it's a great place for beginners or people who don't have a lot of FPS exposure to start. Beyond this, my feeling is that it doesn't do much beside meet the usual expectations. Without the kind of adrenaline-inducing pace that carries action blockbusters or the kind of emotionally involving characterization that can sustain a slower think-piece, BioShock certainly satisfies the standard FPS criteria but falls short of carving itself a place in the top tier.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.