Will Porter smiles nervously and gives the thumbs-up as he slowly begins the descent into the abyss

One thing is certain: BioShock doesn't begin like normal games.

There's no initial mission briefing, no assault course or FMV of Hitler's troops marching through Flanders. There's a first-person view of your character stroking a picture of his family, a cry of 'Pull up! Pull up!' then flames, water, bodies and ladies' handbags forlornly floating 2ft below the sea's surface.

The next five or ten minutes are scripted as hell but are probably the most skilfully accomplished mixture of storytelling, art design and sheer interactive panache ever seen in gaming. A bold statement, yes - but as you swim up to that vast lighthouse, hear the clunk as long-unlit lamps flare up as you enter it, read the quasi-communist motivational plaques on the walls and enter the bathysphere hanging moodily above the rippling water, you'll feel that you're entering something special.

Then the descent: a beautiful submarinal art-deco statue in an Atlas pose and a clattering film presentation from Andrew Ryan, the creator turned despot of the underwater utopia of Rapture.

There are also whispers in your ears from survivors far below you discussing your unexpected arrival, a sudden unveiling of the city stretching out in front of you, a squid tumbling away from your approach and a whale traversing the gullies between the city's glowering structures. It's one of those special fragments of time that makes you proud to be a gamer. To think that so many people instinctively turn their noses up at games, while among our number lie total works of art like this...

Such initial fervour and optimism doesn't always spread itself throughout an entire tenure though (just look at the Labour Government). So let's bypass the fluff and look at how gameplay works after you've hit the '50s-style Bathysphere arrival lounge.

You've got a charming Irish chap called Atlas muttering in your ear about the best way to survive in Rapture in a fashion nicely reminiscent of Alex Jacobsen and the start of Deus Ex. Here, matters largely centre around killing or being killed. Your first interaction, meanwhile, is with Plasmids and their cheerfully chuntering EVE-power vending machines.

This leaves you drifting in and out of consciousness with mutated and Plasmid-crazed Rapture inhabitants known as Splicers ("Is it someone new?") and genetic-material foraging Little Sisters ("Look Mr Bubbles, it's an angel!"), with lumbering Big Daddy protectors inspecting your prostrate body. When you're back in control though, you've got the power of Electro surging through your left-click finger. This comes in rather handy when a wave of Splicers attack - introducing you to a melee combat system where a neat one-two of a paralysing electric bolt followed by a smack around the chops with a handy wrench is king.

It's around this point you realise that BioShock is quite unlike the slow-paced role-play adventure many were expecting. It is, in fact, a shooter - and a balls-out one at that. As for how much freedom the game grants you, well, the first few hours of BioShock are (necessarily as Irrational would argue) linear and didactic. As you move through the arboretums, residential areas and decrepit fun-parks that make for each zone of Rapture, I'm promised that areas will open up and greater freedom will be granted to the player.

However, at the game's beginnings, the focus is on the freedom given to you in your wide range of abilities. You're in the tight confines of claustrophobic, leaky velvet-lined chambers - but through mixing up your powers and the ransacked goodies you've plundered, the aim is to show just how free you are in the realms of enemy annihilation.

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