So Irrational Games remastered the first two Bioshock titles as part of a big package deal, and those playing it on Steam promptly flipped their lid with regards to the actual quality of those remasterings. Which immediately goes to say something about player gratitude, considering that everybody who owned the original versions got the update for free. That’s like harassing the waitress for the quality of the free after-dinner mints, isn’t it?
But I was down for a return to Rapture either way, daddy-o. The original Bioshock was something of a critical darling upon release, for its atmospheric and interesting story set within a unique setting that managed to blend claustrophobic survival horror with… Oh, you know all this, don’t you? It’s Bioshock, it’s what it’s always been. Joe Schmoe’s plane crashes in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean circa 1959, and he stumbles across a mysterious underwater city. A city which seems to be designed with the aesthetics from Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow, yet based around the mentality and politics of Ayn Rand, only with a lot more monsters in diving suits than either of those ever expected. Can’t say anybody saw that coming.
Now I admit I got a bit nervous when I was waiting for it to download and saw that the Steam reviews were less cheerful than the waiting room of Dignitas, with people growling about frame rates and optimisation issues. But I seemed to avoid the worst of it, though not without a few hiccups along the way. Occasionally the game would stutter when I tried to go into the weapons menu or while hacking a vending machine, and the one crash I experienced lost me half an hour of difficult, late-game progress, but generally I found it functional and rarely noticed myself grumbling about it. So either the fanbase is completely unappeasable or I just got lucky – frankly, either seems possible.
But what disappointed me about the remastering was that it doesn’t look very mastered. I suppose there have been some graphical improvements, but only to the extent where it seems to have evolved from the original 2007 quality to… I don’t know, 2010 maybe? Which certainly makes the allegations of technical shoddiness a little hard to defend. Sure, I reluctantly understand when something like the new Doom makes my poor laptop slow to a rattling chug. There’s more particles there than the average desert, and so things can’t help but get a bit strained.
But Bioshock isn’t anywhere near as detailed as that. I admit it’s a more worthwhile improvement than Fable Anniversary, something that looked so horrific that I had to back away from the screen hoping that the villagers wouldn’t savage me, but I won’t say the game looks like a 2016 release. And here I was, hoping for the riper, richer Rapture we saw in Burial At Sea. Something sleek, elegant, detailed, dripping with stylistic beauty. But no – it’s just Bioshock as before, but the textures are a bit less fuzzy. Hope you weren’t anticipating it to look any better than the game that came out three years ago, because you’re right out of luck.
But putting aside the tedious matter of technicals, the remastering provided the perfect opportunity to ask ourselves how Bioshock holds up after nine long years and with two sequels, both of which built on and developed the original concept. Arguably. Sort of. Maybe. If that’s your bag. Because I remembered the original being really good, but it had been a while since I played it, long before I’d started down the long, bloody path of professional nit-picking and dream-ruining.
And right away I found myself noticing a few things that haven’t aged with particular grace. The hacking mini-game is as tedious as ever, and also deserves a second bollocking for inspiring every game since to represent the complexities of computer code as a broken sewage system and some slowly-flowing blue sludge. And with the cutthroat difficulty of a game that demands you take every advantage offered, ignoring the benefits of hacking the drones and racist ammo dispensers is like declining to use the option to turn to the left. You can probably get through the game without it, but it’s going to take a lot longer and you’ll die a lot more in the process.
So hacking is a major part of the game that’s forced onto you, never sufficiently evolving and losing its initial lustre after ten minutes. I also found myself getting annoyed at my inability to make an efficient melee attack, which Bioshock Infinite and every other AAA game released since had taught me to take for granted. When some genetically-warped goon is quickly advancing on me with a rusty sickle and I’m running low on ammo and superjuice, what I need is the option to just smack him away like a little bitch, switching to a new gun or power whilst he briefly reattaches his jaw. But all I can do here is cycle through my various firearms like somebody picking out a flavour of Frappuccino, hoping against hope that I can spin my way to the melee option before the villain finishes pulling my guts out. Alternatively, I can pause the game entirely to pick the wrench out manually from the weapon menu, a choice that doesn’t come to mind naturally in a panicked state, manages to break the flow of gameplay and also runs the risk of making the whole thing crash again, as that was what did it the first time.
But let’s talk about that panicked state, because it was something I’d forgotten how good Bioshock was at doing – inducing absolute reactionary terror. Not in the style that one might experience in something like Alien: Isolation, but more along the lines of how it might feel to be lost in an airport car park with a scheduled flight in thirty minutes. It’s that tense, nerve-wracking feeling that every mistake is costing you, yet you’re also aware that you can’t stop to think about what you’re doing. You really don’t have the time for luxuries like rational thought.
Part of that is the fact that everything you do has some sort of notable price. Using your gun wastes ammo. Acquiring ammo uses up your cash. Using your plasmid powers drains Eve. Restoring health uses up your medkit supplies. Nothing is done for free, and all of these resources drain very quickly in a fight, meaning that any prude who’s above scrabbling in the rubbish for old bags of crisps and individual bullets will find themselves in deep trouble the next time a Big Daddy comes along. And with guns and plasmids specifically being inaccurate by design, losing your cool and spraying the wall above your target’s head with machine-gun fire is both common and deeply concerning.
Mind you, it does mean that an annoying little paradox is established within the mechanics. On the rare occasions I find myself weighed down with shotgun shells and bandages, it’s a lot easier to take the risk of exploring in order to find more loot and audio logs, meaning that in classic Rapture style, the rich start getting richer. But when I was clutching at the rags of my weakened health bar, trying to hold off the splicer hordes with half a pint of napalm and a single fistful of magic bees, it’s a lot harder to work up the courage to go marching into the unknown, and I’d usually just slink to the next mandatory objective, trying not to catch the eye of anybody in a bunny mask.
But I can’t say I wasn’t tempted to go hunting regardless. Bioshock’s library of discarded diaries does make for some compelling world-building and character development, as we scoop up every recording made by an increasingly concerned and unstable population who didn’t have the luxury of Twitter to pour out their hearts onto. Without its expert writing, Bioshock would only be remembered as a decent survival game with a pretty backdrop, because it’s the rock-solid plot and world-building that holds everything together.
So it was always a great shame when that rock-solid plot stepped out for a couple of hours to have some lunch, leaving us with the efforts of a rather surprised and unready intern. The game loses energy completely after a certain bathysphere explosion, trying to distract us with new characters and inconveniences that don’t really have anything to do with the story overall, until we finally push through to Ryan’s office and everything picks up again. Demented artist Sander Cohen is perhaps the low point of the game, missing out on either the subtle nuance and complexity of a character like Tenenbaum, but also failing to be really scary like Doctor Steinman was in the early chapters.
At their worst, the Bioshock cast just feels like third-rate Batman villains based around vague political ideologies, and everything in the shopping centre and farmer’s market certainly feels a lot shallower and less intellectual than the rest of the game. When Cohen shows up, warbling over the intercom and spinning spotlights everywhere like a drunk circus ringmaster, he always seems ten minutes from chortling “hello, I’m the living embodiment of a distorted philosophical concept pushed to its logical extreme with no thought for human compassion. How are you, darling?”
But when I said the shopping centre is the low point, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth playing. Every game ever made technically has a low point, and they do usually occur in the second act, so I won’t give Bioshock too much shit for that because it’s sandwiched between some gold star writing talent. The introduction was one of the most compelling introductions to a video game in history, to be outdone only by its second sequel six years later, so well done there. And when I said earlier that the game gets its mojo back when you finally confront Ryan, what I meant to say is that it gets enough mojo to make five decent games, and crams it all into one scene – now one of the most legendary moments in the medium of gaming.
Admittedly the ending is oddly brief and underwritten, going from “final blow landed in the disappointingly easy boss fight” to rolling the credits just two minutes later. Perhaps the writer was being lazy and Ken Levine locked him in his room until he finished, and two days later the poor chap just really wanted to use the bathroom and decided to rush the last bit. Whatever – it’s a small complaint, like a pockmark on a supermodel’s toe.
Bioshock isn’t escaping without a hearty recommendation, but I do think it might’ve been a little over-praised when it comes to the quality of the raw gameplay. It’s certainly not infallible, and little balancing issues and problems permeate the game to the point where they can’t be ignored. But that doesn’t change the fact that once I started playing, I didn’t stop for a while. And then I came back again. And again. And again. And again, until I had powered through the whole thing and was stood atop the needle-filled body of a certain semi-Irish scoundrel who was in need of a damn good thrashing. It’s a great game that has stood the test of time, so come and join me in Rapture, won’t you? No? Would you kindly reconsider?
Good. Then let’s go swimming.
A master chooses, a slave obeys, but only an idiot turns his nose up at one of the most absorbing worlds and stories that gaming history can provide. Whilst the remastering isn’t anywhere as near as mastered as we’d hoped, it is still Bioshock in heart and soul, and consequently it’ll be one of the best things released this year.