Like the stars that populated the films of my youth, it's a fact of life they have to grow old. Games that once had it all now have to decide how to deal with the onset of old age: do they fade into the pages of gaming history or get a trout pout and carry on regardless?
One of the best parts of Rigged for Epic so far has to be the retro reviews I've been doing in-between new games. This is a chance to go back revisiting old classics, looking at what makes them tick and seeing how they hold up to the new games on the circuit. I had just decided to give the whole Bioshock series the retro review treatment when 2K announced a remastered collection was on the cards: of course it made sense to wait. So does this remaster do this legendary game justice or make a mockery of what was once great? Let us take a look.
Monkey in the wrench
I am going to break form and talk about how the remaster fares before the actual game review and I'm doing this for a few reasons which I will explain. Bioshock, Bioshock 2 and Bioshock Infinite have all received a visual upgrade on console but on PC it is only the first two games that have been touched: so what has changed? Well, not a great deal it seems and I am gutted to report the PC port is a mess. Overall the textures have been improved by a modest amount so certain assets look sharper: water, for example, looks a little crisper and the environments a tad more zingy. As far as we can see that's your lot and to make matters worse, the remaster has brought with it a truckload of problems: new and old.
The first and most obvious faux pas is the change in graphical options of which there are actually less than when the game first launched. This is frankly a bizarre move to release a game on PC with the bare bones graphics options but to also actually remove the ability to change texture and shadow quality. There is a lack of support for 5.1 surround sound which again beggars belief in a modern game. There have also been reports of widespread crashing, framerate stuttering, awful mouse smoothing which you can't turn off (unless you hack the ini file) and settings (including the games difficulty) changing at random. In other words, ladies and gents this PC remaster of Bioshock 1 and 2 is a mess and certainly falls short of what I would class as a 'remaster' by a considerable margin. The company who have worked on the port are aptly called Blind Squirrel and it would seem they have done a great job of the console updates. Although founded in 2010 Blind Squirrel have actually worked on some pretty high-profile games such as XCOM and Borderlands 2. Unfortunately once again we see the PC port and PC gamers being treated like an afterthought. Let us be frank, the console port has just been dragged and dropped onto PC with little consideration for what our platform needs, none of the original bugs have been addressed and I'm really angry with all relevant parties for letting this happen. Yes, you could argue that the remaster is free to gamers who own the original two games but to me, this is a flawed argument because this shocking level of complacency damages PC gaming and also their own reputation. I would far rather have paid for a real remaster, where the developers have made the game sing with improvements and shine like a new penny.
From my own perspective, I have seen two fairly bad graphical glitches, crashed to desktop twice (losing about an hours progress each time) and to rub salt in the wound each crash completely reset all my game settings. There are even users reporting their saves just disappearing altogether which of course will ruin the game for that person. I have been looking forward to this review for a long time and I am furious that this has been marred for me (and many other PC gamers) by such a poor effort from the people involved in this remaster. So I just wanted to get the bad out of the way and let readers know the issues before I tell you about the game itself. This morning 2K have issued a statement saying they will be addressing the issues on the PC port but alas, like with Arkham Knight: the damage may have already been done.
When you boot old games up like Deus Ex, Xcom Enemy Unknown etc there is a funny interplay between what you remember and what you are actually seeing: nostalgia can be a heartless bitch. Gaming moves on, not just in terms of visuals but also game mechanics, environments and content. So while my admiration for this series is still as strong as ever a new lick of paint was never going to hurt: right? Bioshock arrived nine years ago from 2K Boston (which later became Irrational Games), 2K Australia and published by 2K Games. The projects creative lead is none other than Ken Levine who with many of his team has previously worked on System Shock and in fact Bioshock was seen as a spiritual successor to the aforementioned legend.
The game opens with a plane crash and you having to swim to the surface dodging bits of debris on your accent. As you emerge gasping for air to a scene of fire and see the tail of your ill-fated flight sinking into the freezing water. As luck would have it you can also see an enormous lighthouse towering above you like a granite sentinel watching the destruction with quiet contemplation. Of course you swim over and enter the structure to find the Bathysphere, a small submersible craft that will take you down into the depths of the Atlantic and to the underwater city of Rapture. On your descent, you are spoken to by the cities founder, Andrew Ryan. In his pitch given to you by a pre-recorded film, you start to get a flavour for what kind of place Rapture is: a city not bound by moral or social constraints. However, as you dock with sunken metropolis it's clear things have gone a little awry. A man calling himself Atlas quickly contacts you asking for help rescuing his family from Andrew Ryan and in return he offers his guidance navigating the deadly halls of this now crippled city. In terms of story, that is as far I as I am willing to go but rest assured, the plot and famous twist are one of the best gaming has to offer. I'd also note that this opening sequence is one of my favourite in gaming because of the excitement and dread it builds prior to taking your first steps into Rapture.
The Splice of life
Free from any kind of government interference the scientists of Rapture have developed something called ADAM, a substance that can rewrite the genetic code of a living being on the fly. This allows you to gain some very useful abilities such as generating lightning, fire, cold and even insects from your hands. There are lots of Plasmids up for grabs as the game progresses and these abilities have to be one of the standout features of the game. Everything is soaked in nuance from the era, such as the chipper cartoons that play when you pick up a new Plasmid or wonderful art decor that makes you feel like you've just walked into a James Cagney flick. As you walk the halls of Rapture you will come across surviving residents who have gone too far with Plasmids and become Splicers. These are effectively deranged killers who will gut you (or shoot you) as soon as look at you and later can possess other abilities such as teleportation.
You can also pick up and use normal weapons such as pistols, shotguns and crossbows: each with their own sets of ammo. When fighting you can quickly swap between plasmids and conventional weapons allowing for some fun combinations. Zap a lone Splicer with a bolt of lightening and whack him with the wrench while he's dancing the Tango, if you see a group of Splicers in a pool of water you can light them all up with one blast. You can even force them into water by setting them on fire. This kind of clever AI is one of the reasons why Bioshock works so well and even with underwhelming gunplay: it's the way it all fits together that makes it special. Weapons can also be modified to improve their performance and I love how this is represented with a homemade 'jam it on with duck tape' approach. To spite the guns feeling cumbersome they do the job and the average shooting mechanics never really feel like they hold the game back. It is worth nothing that the effect weapons have on their environment is excellent. Bottles smash, mouldy plaster bursts from walls and many more nice touches ground the combat into the game world.
One of the things that makes the combat so wonderful in Bioshock how many of the systems work together often in your favour but not always. For example, I was using a tonic that gives off a static discharge when struck in melee combat, which is fine unless said charge hits the BIg Daddy stood right behind you. Freezing turrets and cameras to hack them also freezes the water in the hacking mini-game which in turn gives you more time. You can even shock sentry drones out of the air, hack them and make them follow you as personal guards. All these systems are wonderfully paced and so you are still being given new systems to play with even near the end of the game. Just as you are getting used to the Plasmids you get tonics, then you start finding weapon upgrade stations, then you find U'Invent stations allowing you to make your own gear. You can even study your enemies using a special camera which unlocks weaknesses and eventually unique abilities. One of my favourite tactics is to hack the healing stations before a confrontation because Splicers will also attempt to use these once damaged: of course, modified stations finish them off instead of healing.
'My Daddy's bigger than your Daddy'
Bioshock is an RPG as well as it is a shooter, but like System Shock, there are also strong elements of horror running through the game world and story. Yes, the disfigured Splicers are pretty grim but something far more disturbing walks the halls of this lost Eden. Little Sisters are young girls who have been altered to become ADAM collectors. They skip and sing like a normal little girl might but if their glowing yellow eyes didn't give it away - their behaviour certainly will. The sisters extract ADAM from dead corpses lying around the place and then guzzle it down like it was Cherry Aid. Now you need ADAM to unlock new plasmids and thus you must confront the guardians of these little horrors: The Big Daddy. Basically imagine a Giant Diving suit with a drill for an arm and a very bad temper: if you mess with a Little Sister it will knock you into next week. So these giants in effect become the games roving boss battles and usually take a lot of resources to bring them down. However, once the protector has expired you then have to decide whether to harvest all of the ADAM (and kill the Little Sister) or take a small amount and save her. A grim choice and I have done both on multiple playthroughs in the past. My tip here is go fully one way or the other: trust me.
Rapture has to be one of the most atmospheric game environments I've ever seen and will always stand out for me as one of the greats. Ken Levine described Rapture as an underwater utopia built by a bunch of dreamers. Scientists, engineers and philosophical geniuses, unfettered by the constraints of government or the anchor of morality. For a time Rapture was exactly what Andrew Ryan had foreseen, but before long the fight for ultimate power revealed that the city had become rotten and it is almost after the fact when you step into the fold. As you move from place to place there are voice recordings waiting to fill you in on events past. Many characters you follow through the entirety of the game, from salacious socialites to the sick doctor who helped create the Little Sisters.
Rapture is teeming with stories just waiting to be told and it is this dialogue that acts as a vehicle, pushing you forward to discover what happened to this city of dreams. Now you may or may not have already played Bioshock and so I will tread carefully when I say this game has one hell of a twist waiting in the wings. It is not just the reveal itself but the way it is delivered to the player. The architecture and art decor are also powerful ways in which the team at 2K tell the story of Rapture, from the depraved surgery of Dr Steinman to the Artistic Insanity of Sander Cohen. Rapture itself feels very much live a living, breathing thing which makes it all the more personal when it tries to kill you.
I cannot publish a review of Bioshock with talking about the sound and music. As you listen to Splicers (both in combat and when they are not aware of your presence) most of them have a wonderful cut-glass British accent that fits the setting perfectly. Some of the things they say are also hilarious, especially when it is in the midst of a firefight. The music in you hear as you play is also spot on and takes you back to the era you play the game in. Again, there is a juxtaposition when pitching grenades at a Big Daddy's face while humming along to Danny Boy. Sound also plays a very important role in letting the player know what is around them, from a Big Daddy clumping around to the distinctive jingle from certain types of vending machines. From start to finish the music and sound are as good as they get.
As I mentioned at the start of this review, this version of Bioshock on PC has been titled a remaster but is in fact far from it. 2K have handed the keys to another company to complete the ports and they have done a hatchet job on what should have been this games swan song. For this reason, I cannot recommend you pay for the Bioshock collection, we will have to sit back and see if 2K can restore some credibility by fixing the aforementioned problems. It is still concerning how many developers who should know better are letting PC gamers down badly by producing PC games that are really not fit for purpose. It is such a shame that my review has been split into two parts to cover the problems but alas that is the situation at the time of writing.
As for the game underneath the problems, Bioshock did what only a few had done before, they took a few simple ideas catapulted them into new territory. The design and execution of the Big Daddy/Little Sister relationship is so simple yet masterfully crafted. The time period in which Rapture is set has been brought to life by exemplary level design and wonderful sound direction. There is a reason that Bioshock is one of the most well-recognised names in the industry because it pushed the ceiling of what we expect from not one but many genres of gaming. Not this version and maybe not right now but if you have never experienced this pivotal game one day you really must.
Thank you for reading my review of Bioshock on PC, my review for the next game in this series will be on the site soon so please check back for that. As always you can follow me @riggedforepic so you never miss an article or review.