It’s been in development for almost three years, yet has no multiplayer component. It runs off Unreal Engine 3, it uses Direct X 10 and a water programmer and water artist have been employed just for this game. 2K games snapped up developer Irrational and now gets to publish the game when it is released in August. You know this has got to be one hell of a game.

You arrive in 1940s-style undersea Rapture after crash-landing during a flight. There’s no intro, no briefing and no background – something that initially perplexed us until it was suggested that this is the way uptopian stories always go – it’s not actually supposed to be clear what has happened. Thinking of all the ones we can, we have to admit this is true, but we do think Bioshock needs some explaining. If you want, look away now.

To put it in a nutshell, the reason for the collapse of this particular society is a stem-cell discovery. The end result is that you’ve got thousands of mutants running around that need a continuous supply in order to survive, during a civil war sparked by competition between Rapture’s founder and the entrepreneur who caught onto the discovery.

This also leads to a bunch of conflict-friendly abilities. You can get yourself a pick-me-up shot of this stuff and get up to some really fun fights. It sounds like a good excuse for an enormous variety of weapons and battle tactics, and really it is, but it also makes the story a lot more interesting. You’d think setting people on fire, electrocuting them, booby trapping their vending machines and shattering their blast-frozen bodies would get boring quickly, but the key to retaining interest is that these are genuinely useful tactical options. And the flipside is that it’s all going to happen to you if you don’t act first.

The AI is no slouch, and there’s a variety of entities in Rapture, some of whom will present you with a dilemma: before destroying them, you can hack into machines and turn them to the light side, and the same goes for brainwashing the living. Of course, they don’t suddenly get a new paintjob or a team T-shirt, and that means friendly fire presents a new threat to your new friends. After the cunning enemies and dark halls have turned you into a trigger-happy twitch killer, it becomes all too easy to shoot first and ask questions later, often to the detriment of your acquired defence force. It’s another reason to feel nervous walking the corridors.

Bioshock is solely for Microsoft platforms, and beyond the sheer time spent in development, the extra headroom for technical excellence is immediately obvious. The water effects, as seen in the opening sequence, are simply stunning. Seeing these for the first time is akin to the first footage released of Doom 3 on PC - clearly a generation ahead of everything else. That's probably no surprise, but it does nothing to take away from the impact on the player.

We didn’t see anything special about the AI, until we realised this is because it was working so well. While we did find one cornered woman at fault for her predictable approach in a firefight, running across our sights as we waited to finish her, elsewhere was an entirely different story.

Even the drones, never afraid to die, are tremendously varied in their choice of attack from entry point to altitude. We ended up satisfied there really is no need for a multiplayer mode – why bother with it when you have a ready supply of opponents, all pre-trained and familiar with the environments, and happy to come into play only at relevant stages of the game. The security drones seem to be in unlimited supply, which as another good old-fashioned trait, if somewhat quaint. Hey – and there’s no lag.

We were constrained by the use of LCD monitors to play the game, which of course roughen the graphics somewhat, but giving it a little distance gave us a good idea of how the game will look on a standard CRT monitor or HDTV. Basically, it's going to change the standard you expect from games in the future.

The level design is relatively simple, with a handy map and even more helpful arrow indicating whither to your next objective point. It's optional, and for good reason: derailing the FPS experience has been one of Irrational's primary concerns in the design brief, and it shows. Learning about Rapture and the story of its demise means fully exploring your surrounds, which are pregnant with evidence to help you piece together the mystery. Among the residents was a 'mad scientist' plastic surgeon whose nurses have provided recordings of the grotesque events and their discussions and personal thoughts. It's all done in a darkly humorous way, and distancing the game from modern times has freed it from the constraints of strong social or political paradigms.

Despite the apparent Britishness of Rapture, curious use of foreign syntax (canceled, theater, etc.) emerges as the only glaring obstacle to suspension of disbelief. Perhaps the storyline will tell why, or it will simply be fixed. There’s nothing else we can think of that’s broken apart from not the hacking puzzles, which are simply no challenge whatsoever. Even if they become more difficult later, there’s no reason we can imagine why one would want to start off at the mind-numbing level of the first puzzles.

Your special powers come in a mix of plasmids and tonics. There's a sick imagination at work behind these items, and the results are often as amusing as they are useful. Here are our favourites:

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* Hack and heal: Hacker's Delight is a tonic allows you to convert whatever machine you are hacking into a healing tool.
* Drink to your health: Normally a drink will reduce your health levels, and can briefly affect your vision. Rapture has its own distilleries, of course, but with the Booze Hound tonic everything gets better with a glass.
* Gives you swings: The Bloodlust tonic heals your body and your mind as you slash up the enemy. Be red-faced and red-handed.
* The tonic that pays for itself: The Vending Expert tonic allows you to fool the pricing circuits at your nearest vending machine.
* Meet the club: The Melee Master tonic bulks up your upper body, allowing you to wield club-like weapons with unprecedented skill and power.
*

Nail gun: Play emperor as you shoot blue bolts from your fingertips, stunning biological and mechanical targets ready to be hacked/brainwashed or finished off with your next move. Don't forget to try it out in water.
* I think I can: As well as brainwashing, you can use telekenesis to control objects - bring them into your possession, or use them as shelds or missiles.
* Snap, crackle and pop: With a click of your fingers, you're on fire - no, wait - your enemies are on fire. As the official website puts it so well: when it absolutely, positively has to erupt in flames, don't wait - incinerate.
* Cold shoulder: Blast freeze your enemies and prepare them for fragmentation.

There's more - lots more, but you get the picture. You can even get creative with your powers to design your own weapons. Finally, your enemies come in four basic flavours. First there is the Splicer, which is simply a Rapture citizen who has been mutated by his need for the stem cell material called Adam. The creatures that provided Adam were destroyed by the fighting, so now they are after anyone - you included - from whom they can get more.

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Gatherers look like little children but are simply creatures designed to find and process Adam from the dead. They have some serious bodyguards. Not exactly picking on someone your own size, as these monsters don't come less than a good eight feet tall. Oh, and they're wearing diving suits.

Then there are the secuity drones, little armed helicopters robots that roam Rapture. They're tied to a surveilance and alarm system, and since they never seem to run out of replacements, it's best to use your pasmids and tonics to decommission the local system before you set it off.

As for which version we prefer, since there is no multiplayer mode we'd go for the Xbox 360. Bioshock just seems to want to be played on the couch, with big sound and maybe some friends having a look see. The PC version had a better display during our hands-on visit and we don't know the specs used, but our impression is that players can expect quite a close performance difference between the formats.

We'll have more info and screenshots coming up soon.