The game begins in 1960 with a plane crashing into the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, leaving the protagonist treading water next to a mysterious, monolithic lighthouse. A primitive bathysphere within the lighthouse carries the protagonist down to the bottom of the ocean, where Rapture, an art-deco metropolis of massive proportions, awaits. Rapture is the creation of Andrew Ryan, whose in-game text reads like something out of Rand's "Atlas Shrugged." Banners like "No Gods or Kings. Only Man" and "Altruism is the Root of All Wickedness" adorn crumbling halls and leaking corridors. Corpses in flapper dresses lounge on blood-soaked beds, while "Somewhere Under the Sea" drones from a record player.
I'll leave the details of Rapture's fall from utopian playground into nightmarish scrapheap to you, but, needless to say, it's fascinating and touches on topics from free-market capitalism to stem cell research. The story is revealed to the player through radio transmissions, cutscenes from different characters, and tape-recorded journal entries from important citizens. The narrative must be pieced together through these audio tapes to get the full story. If "Half-Life 2" is a thinking man's shooter because of its physics-based gameplay, "BioShock" is the liberal arts student's game due to its philosophical underpinnings.
That's not to say the gameplay isn't compelling as well: "BioShock" features some of the most creative shootouts ever. Not only are players given access to weapons with three ammo types each, but the genetic experimentation in Rapture's ethics-free society have given rise to "plasmids," genetic enhancements which serve as super powers.
For instance, the "Incinerate!" plasmid lights foes on fire, and a plethora of passive abilities add role-playing game-like depth to ability bonuses. These special powers allow for exciting combinations, like lighting an enemy on fire, then launching a heat-seeking grenade, or zapping a security camera and hacking it. Speaking of hacking, machines like security bots and cameras can be hacked in a mini-game similar to "Pipe Dream," which adds even more variety to the gameplay.
Visually, the game stands among the best on the Xbox 360 and PC, not only for its technical prowess but for the outstanding art design. The water effects are particularly impressive, appropriate given the fact that the game is set at the bottom of the ocean. Rapture was built in the late 1940s, and the architecture, weapon designs and everything else reflect the time period perfectly.
The sound design also captures the time period and helps give the game a chilling, surreal feeling. Hearing classic '40s and '50s tunes play over scratchy vinyl players while you desperately fight off gene-splicing lunatics is a truly bizarre, disturbing experience. The remaining denizens of Rapture, most of whom are completely insane, mutter jibberish and delusional accusations as you skulk around.
The few flaws I can think of are minor; the map system is confusing, enemies inevitably repeat their crazy ramblings, and it takes a powerful computer to play it smoothly on the PC. The endings there are three of them are also a bit brief, but that's easily forgivable given how great the rest of the story is. Controls are tight on both 360 and PC; it just depends on whether you prefer keyboard and mouse or dual analog sticks.
Honestly, I can't find much to criticize about this game. It is one of the best, most cohesive gaming experiences you'll have this year, and it raises the bar for every shooter-heck, every game to come. This is a game that absolutely should not be missed.