To paraphrase the first in an endless line of self-promoting plaques built by Andrew Ryan, the egotistical ruler of Rapture: in the realm of videogaming, there are no gods or kings - only men. See, the power of the Xbox 360 gifts developers the ability to create offbeat worlds that wouldn't exist in Lovecraft's wildest cheese-fuelled fantasies. But, they're not always interested in tapping into their imagination. More often, they're more concerned with getting Hitler's 'tache just right, or mixing their colour palettes for the perfect shade of washed-out WWII greeny-brown.
Don't get us wrong, we think WWII is a top laugh and everything and that, but the Normandy landing's been on our TV screens more times than those 'Quote Me Happy' adverts. So: plenty.
Bioshock is the solution. Rapture, the underwater utopia-turned-dystopia that your nameless protagonist washes up in, is as brilliant a game setting as we can remember. Aesthetically, it's unparalleled. The 1950's art deco style is fresh, inventive and beautiful. It's got the same 'ruined beauty' theme running through it as Gears of War, except this time coloured in by Viva Pińata's artists. It's no accident that Irrational incorporated so many windowed tunnels into their level design - you just can't but stop and take in the sights.
You could motor through the game, but you'd miss half of the charm - round every corner, there's either an amusing poster, a poignant message scrawled on the wall, or something downright spooky. Much of the gameplay revolves around an endless scavenge hunt for screws, bolts and rubber piping - a task that would soon grow old if Rapture wasn't such a delight to explore. But Rapture is more than just a pretty face.
Bioshock's looks, ultimately, account for little. The real reason Rapture is such a sensational locale is because it is very much its own world, with its own rules and conventions, and the game is consistent with its rules to the last. And, crucially, the only way you can learn these rules is through bitter experience. The opening sequence isn't big on exposition - it's just long enough to establish that you're a survivor in a mid-Atlantic plane crash, and you now find yourself in the drink. You wash up on a tiny, desolate island with a strange well-like container in the middle, and, with flames engulfing you from all angles, you're left with no choice but to make like Alice and pop on down the rabbit hole.
From what you can ascertain on your opening tour of the city (as viewed from the same transportation tubes as seen in Futurama), this was once an idyllic city, that is now under the grip of anarchy and chaos. What was it that gave us that impression? The eerie, deserted streets? The discarded placards that read 'let it end - let us ascend?' Or could it possibly be the giant mutant with hooks for hands banging against the glass as your tour comes to an end? And then you're set loose into your new home, and you're genuinely terrified.
And you're terrified for much the same reason that System Shock II on PC was so disturbing - you are constantly under the cosh. Enemies wander freely around the levels, so you're never safe, ammunition is relentlessly scarce, and the chambers resonate with the wails of tortured souls. You're equipped with a radio in which a desperate Irishman named Atlas pleads for your help - a human touch that only serves to reinforce your isolation. Audio diaries litter the catacombs, sending you in a mad scurry for a safe (ish) spot where you can listen to Rapture's backstory unfold without the unwanted attentions of some face-stabbing jerk.