Bioshock is an important game.
When it released in 2007 as a timed exclusive on the nearly two year old Xbox 360 (and Windows) it took a lot of people by surprise. Sure, fans of System Shock on PC knew what to expect, but for console only players, it was a surprise hit. Not only was it a fresh take on first person shooters with a great location and a unique and ominous atmosphere, but it was also a high water mark in storytelling. With a narrative that was compelling and well written, it was wholly a commentary on certain gameplay design tropes we had come to take for granted prior to its release. With the growing need to curate games, works of art like Bioshock were ripe for the remaster treatment. That we get its two sequels included would seem like a bonus but upon revisiting the series, not only does it shed light on what made the original Bioshock so great, it also shows how far shooters have come in nine years, and more insularly, how far the series had come in six. With rare exception, I can’t think of a more worthwhile package of games to be repackaged and updated for current gen consoles than Bioshock: The Collection – despite some age and technical issues that prevent it from being a true masterpiece of a release.
For the uninitiated, Ken Levine and Irrational Games’s Bioshock tells the story of a man named Jack, a voiceless man who the player uses to explore the world and mysteries of the underwater city of Rapture. Now in near ruins, the player discovers what happened to this fallen utopia as he makes his way to Andrew Ryan, the visionary behind Rapture. Along the way, Jack gains access to not only more weapons, but also supernatural powers known as Plasmids which him abilities including telekinesis, the ability to shoot electricity from his hands to shock enemies in place allowing time to unload bullets until their dead, or to shoot fire with the snap of a finger and more. How did these abilities lead to the fall of Rapture? Bioshock is going to tell you with minimal cutscenes and a lot of audio logs.
The mystery is intriguing for sure, but it’s the reveal of what is really going on that can potentially blow your mind as it did mine and many others back in 2007. To this day, its third act revelation remains unmatched, not even by its sequels (more on that later). It poses a great question on the nature of video games and the player while pushing the narrative forward in a fantastic way. Only until a late game moment that serves to justify a boss fight does the story falter. A blemish on an otherwise fantastic story for sure, but not at all enough to derail it.
Trying to recall how I felt about the gameplay back in August 2007 is difficult because so much time has passed since them and so many games have come and gone, but in 2016, the gameplay isn’t very intuitive. Slow, and slightly clumsy, the shooting isn’t great and the controls go against every design mainstay that has come following its release. It’s a fascinating time capsule and a little ironic that the controls in Bioshock are so dated, when a game that released two months later, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare actually set the standard for shooters that still exists today and many games have since tried to emulate to various degrees, including Bioshock Infinite (more on that later). Plasmids are assigned to the left trigger and shooting to the right, but you can’t use both at the same time, so much of the game is spent awkwardly switching between the two, which wouldn’t be so bad if you could simply press the respective trigger and immediately fire either the weapon or Plasmid. Instead, you have to press the trigger to bring up the weapon or Plasmid hand and then press it again to fire. It’s not game-breaking but it never felt intuitive, even after I had adjusted to it.
The game itself is linear in progression, however you can travel back to previously visited areas should you need to by entering a submersible and selecting another area. This comes in handy in case you missed an important item like a Tonic or Plasmid upgrade. Using your Plasmid abilities requires Eve, a serum that is injected into your veins, replenishing the Eve bar, giving you access to more Plasmid use. Improving your abilities also requires a source called Adam that allow users to alter their DNA, giving them supernatural abilities. The citizens of Rapture have become addicted to Adam, turning them into Splicers – twisted and violent enemies who will kill for more Adam. Once they’ve died, their corpses have their Adam extracted by the Little Sisters – little girls that have been also altered by Adam and protected by a “Big Daddy”, imposing, zombie-like hulking brutes dressed in old-fashioned deep sea diving suits and either carry an giant drill or a rail gun. You need to kill a Big Daddy to get access to the Little Sisters and either rescue them or harvest them for their Adam. Rescuing them is the compassionate way to deal with the Little Sisters as it safely extracts their Adam while keeping them alive, though the amount of Adam you get is lesser. Harvesting them will take a much larger amount of Adam, however it will kill the Little Sister.
Tonics are passive upgrades that can be slotted into one of a finite amount of slots that work to improve your combat and technical skills that make you more powerful, combat more survivable, and hacking quicker and less frustrating to name a few. Coupled with the various Plasmids, it’s these light RPG elements that give the combat much deeper than most shooters before or since and can make the combat scenarios more varied.
Both Plasmids and Tonics can be purchased from a vending machine with your accumulated Adam. Compared to how much Adam you can get in the game, these upgrades are pricey which adds to the moral dilemma outlined above regarding rescuing or harvesting the Little Sisters. It should also be stated that your choices in these situations inform the ending that you get, so keep that in mind.
Bioshock 2 is a game that has has been historically maligned for simply being lesser than Bioshock. Not made by Irrational or Ken Levine, it almost reeks of a cash-in on the surprise success of the original game. In a lot of ways, that is true. It doesn’t have nearly as good a story, doesn’t have much to say on video games in general, retreads many of the same ideas and brings relatively little new to the table. What it does do, and well, is improve on the mechanics of the first game, offer a different and inspired character to play which also gives way to an inspired new mechanic.
In Bioshock 2 the protagonist is Project Delta, a Big Daddy. Left for dead in the opening sequence of the game, Delta awakens with one thing on his mind; rescue the Little Sister he was tasked with protecting, Eleanor Lamb. Grown up and no long a Little Sister, Eleanor is communicating with Delta as they still share a bond and psychic link, guiding and at times leaving tonics and Plasmids for Delta to use as he makes his way across a previously unseen section of Rapture. The antagonist is Sofia Lamb, Eleanor’s mother, whose gender prevents her from twirling her mustache as I imagine she would like to. There is very little doubt that Sofia isn’t purely evil, no matter how much she waxes philosophical and about ethics. The narrative attempts to be heady and have something to say about the science involved in its story but it comes off as clumsy and the climax takes a turn that is equally unexpected and a serves as an excuse to change up some gameplay that doesn’t add a whole lot to the overall game except pad out its length.
Despite playing as a Big Daddy, the gameplay remains largely unchanged from the previous game, but adds a few new wrinkles. First and foremost, you’re no longer limited to using either the gun or the Plasmid. Instead both hands are up and at the ready and can be fired off with one press of their respective trigger. It may seem like only a minor improvement, but I assure you it’s not and goes a long way to improving the gameplay. The other new element to the gameplay is how you interact with the Little Sisters. This time after you kill a Big Daddy, you can “adopt” the Little Sister and have her guide you to “angels” – corpses on the ground with a high amount of Adam to extract. Setting a Little Sister down to extract will bring on waves of Splicers who try to kill the Little Sister and take her Adam. Here is where I had the most fun with Bioshock 2. Fending off the waves became a highlight for me as I would check the possible entry points, set traps, place mini-turrets and use whatever applicable Plasmids I could to make sure my Little Sister finished the Adam extraction unmolested. As I leveled up and had more and more tools at my disposal theses waves became even easier to deal with, giving me a true sense of power that was quite invigorating.
Once you’ve extracted Adam from two corpses, you will carry the Little Sister to a vent where you can either rescue or harvest her. This remains unchanged from the first game with the same net results.
Bioshock 2’s biggest failings are not being Bioshock and not bringing enough new to the table to make it stand out like the previous game did. It’s mostly more of the same, with a lesser story. In a vacuum, Bioshock 2 is a really, really good game, but in the context of the series, it just can’t live up to the lofty expectations set by Levine’s Bioshock. And while the main game doesn’t do try to change things much, the same can’t be said for the DLC for Bioshock 2, Minerva’s Den. I won’t go into too much detail, but what Minerva’s Den does do is tell a much more compelling and surprisingly touching story. It also adds my favorite new thing to Bioshock: Gravity Well. A new plasmid that creates a gravitational whirlpool in the middle of its impact zone that brings any Splicers or objects not nailed down into it, spins them in circles and the spits them out. This leaves those caught in it extremely vulnerable to unloading every possible weapon on them or can be used with other Plasmids like Incinerate. I had great fun tossing a Gravity Well, then shooting rockets into the vortex, and then finishing them off with either fire or a laser.
Which brings us to Bioshock Infinite. Originally I had played Infinite upon release which was still far removed from the previous two games. I was impressed with the gameplay, which kept the concept of Plasmids (only now called Vigors) and shooting, but changed virtually everything else in terms terms of location, themes and traversal. It wasn’t until I played so closely to the previous two games that I truly understood just how good and improved Bioshock Infinite was as a game.
I won’t go into details of the story as much has been made about it and it has been discussed to death, but I will say that while I truly love how Levine once again finds a way to use gameplay tropes as not only a mechanic but on a commentary on gamers and gaming as whole, the actual vehicle for this commentary is a flawed masterpiece. There are so many legitimate logic holes in the story just purely on a structural and character motivation level that it soured what could have been another high water mark for gaming narrative. Still, even with these flaws, stories are rarely told as well as they are in Ken Levine’s games. Lesser Ken Levine is still leagues better and more ambitious than most games.
With the story out of the way, I would like to discuss just how good the gameplay in Bioshock Infinite is. The shooting is improved, sprinting is a thing, the sense of speed you get from using the Skyrails, jumping off to kill an enemy, jumping back up to get momentum, using Plasmids from the Skyrails, the perks you get from the gear you have on and so on is incredible. Some of the most fun moments I’ve ever had with video games come when this game is firing on all cylinders. It makes a lot of sense that it took Irrational five years to make this game, because while it does borrow some elements from the previous games, it brings so much new to the table that it feels like a different series altogether. Making Elizabeth not only a great character but also one of the best game mechanics in years is also no small feat. While Bioshock might be the standout in narrative, Infinite is the much better game.
Which brings us to the updated versions of the game, and ultimately the biggest issue of this collection. When the game is running well, it runs and looks fantastic. While the graphics themselves might seem dated, they have been cleaned up to such a degree that the stylised aesthetic choices give these games a charm few games can match. However, the Bioshock Collection is marred with technical issues across all three games and the lack of polish on previously polished-to-near-perfection games does bring down the package overall. From the incredibly long delays of texture pop in to the stuttering framerate in Bioshock Infinite, for games all about immersion, these issues work aggressively to break that. There were also minor sound issues I had experienced in Minerva’s Den where the ambient audio would cut in and out for seconds at a time throughout.
Despite its technical issues though, Bioshock: The Collection brings together two of the best games of last gen with one really good, though ultimately inferior sequel. As a whole, the trilogy not only shows what games can do, but on a meta level, illustrates art and commerce intersecting in interesting ways. We see the progression of a series through time, the creator, the publisher. We get one of the most deserving remasters of the generation so far, and three games that aren’t quite perfect, but I’ll be damned if they don’t all come close.