RED FACTION: GUERRILLA RE-MARS-TERED EDITION REVIEW – “RED PLANET IS A DEAD PLANET”

If you told me last year to pick fifty games that might be getting remakes, I don’t think I’d have even come close to putting Red Faction: Guerrilla on the list. Hell, I don’t think it’d have crossed my mind at all. Red Faction: Guerrilla? The third game of a four-part series, as a whole barely remembered by history, with no noteworthy fanbase, but still new enough that the graphics couldn’t be significantly updated, and still playable on Steam to this day?

Actually, it’s only the last of those that means I’m reviewing this thing at all, as the developers were at least good enough to send free copies of the remastered edition to anybody who had downloaded the original. Oh, I’m sorry, I meant the Re-MARS-tered Edition, as somebody incorrectly thought it would be clever to call it. Personally, I don’t think I’ve heard a worse name since my cousin Earl’s ill-fated, nineteenth-century breakfast cereal, “Poli-O’s.”

But hey, who doesn’t want to hear back from a relic of the late 2000s, where gaming was in one of the least interesting periods it’s ever had in its whole history? And while we’re at it, why don’t we start reviving the music of 1990 and the cuisine of 1950?

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Alec’s story to blow up his own society in order to save it is… well, about as well-thought out as it sounds.

“OOH, BEING DISINTERGRATED MAKES ME ANGRY; VERY ANGRY INDEED!”

So… Red Faction: Guerrilla’s plot, story and characters are a load of absolute toss.

Alright, maybe that’s a little harsh. Howsabout let’s call it… I don’t know, Diet Toss? Toss Plus? Still kind of toss, though. You have to understand that we were still very much in the utterly-unaware, highly-grizzled, burly hero trend in 2009, as games like Call of Duty and Gears of War were leading the way in tedious protagonists (this being several years before the AAA industry would start sticking a grey-flecked beard and PTSD on every male character and partnering them up with a kid sidekick, like a crossover between Heart of Darkness and Last Action Hero).

Hence Alec Mason, our playable protagonist and a character who has all the scintillating personality of a bloodstained AR-15. In a distant future where Mars has been terraformed and now supports the dustiest, least interesting society imaginable, its citizens are being oppressed by a brutal militia, the Earth Defence Force; Earth having been utterly depleted of anything more valuable than sub-par Yu-Gi-Oh cards and therefore having to bully the next planet over for old scrap metal and handjobs.

That’s our premise, that Earth is picking on Mars for all its resources? Were we somehow short on gravel and off-colour stalactites? Seems a bit weird to me that the EDF considered a vast, dictatorial military campaign and frequent cargo trips between worlds to be a more viable option than just handing out the recycling bins, but I guess I’m giving this way more thought than the writers did.

So Alec shuttles over to Mars to work for his brother in the demolition business, and despite witnessing the EDF’s incredibly one-dimensional evilness the moment he arrives and big bro’s insistence that they should help fight the good fight, Alec TOTALLY isn’t interested in joining the resistance movement and liberating the Red Planet with a group of scrappy, racially-diverse freedom fighters against a totalitarian group of smirking, power-hungry stormtroopers in face-obscuring helmets.

Nope. Nuh-uh. Don’t care. Ain’t none of MY business, it’s not like the EDF have gunned down my beloved brother for no reason or anythi- OH NO!

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An emphasis on propaganda feels a bit lacking when the EDF act so cartoonishly evil. I don’t think any amount of catchy TV jingles are going to make the violent massacres more palatable to the population.

I can’t convey just how rushed this first bit is. You’re dropped into the tutorial mission, go off to test the hammer and trigger bombs on some nearby buildings, and by the time you come back less than five minutes later your brother is filled with more ammunition than an army supply truck. Alec then gets rescued by the resistance and the whole thing precedes as exactly as you expect it to, with him rising through the ranks to become the hero of the rebellion, and already I can feel my eyes flickering closed just thinking of it.

The real problem is the characters. Hell, the cliched plot might gave been tolerable or even amusing if Mason and his allies weren’t such a bunch of humourless prats, but there’s a clear sense that the story is a secondary, low-effort element when compared to just about anything else, existing only so far as to try and establish a sense of progression as we go to blow up even more buildings and goons in yet another sun-blasted wasteland. In fact, I’m not entirely sure why this story has to be taking place on Mars at all, as nothing in the plot really requires it to. There’s no aliens or spaceships that we can use, no sci-fi themes to explore, nothing unique to the landscape beyond a muddy reddish tint, three-quarters of the weapons are the standard shooter fare (shotgun, pistol, assault rifle, rocket launcher, other shotgun, etc), and on the whole it feels like nobody’s more bored with the idea of Red Faction than Red Faction: Guerrilla itself.

Lastly, I really don’t buy Alec as the de facto hero of the revolution, because history has taught us that such figures are charismatic, dynamic individuals able to inspire and motivate the underclasses, and Alec is about as charismatic and dynamic as a Roomba with a frowny-face drawn on it. He never interacts with anybody if he doesn’t have to, hardly makes jokes and doesn’t even think up plans for himself, all his objectives being given to him by supporting characters who clearly recognise him for the glorified attack-dog covered in explosives that he is. There’s a moment where he seems to lose motivation in the rebellion – gee, maybe our lifeless hellscape of a world ISN’T worth dying by the thousands over – and it’s clearly meant to be the act two moment of uncertainty, except I was just sitting there with arms folded, waiting for the moment where he would obviously leap back into the fray with more gusto than ever.

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“And stop trying to make the audience emote! We all know it’s a hopeless cause, so just give me more trigger bombs and we can get back to business!”

In short, it’s a plot that elicits so little emotion that it comes right back round to being annoying because of it. You’d think a game blending tropes from Flash Gordon, Mad Max, Doom and Les Miserables would manage to have a bit of spirit in there, but like so many games where plot is an afterthought, Red Faction: Guerrilla uses these elements without any seeming comprehension of what makes them fun, and thus the story can never be anything other than a series of checkpoints and mission briefings.

 

“WHERE’S THE KABOOM? THERE WAS SUPPOSED TO BE AN EARTH-SHATTERING KABOOM!”

One of the things I was wondering as I downloaded Guerrilla Re-MARS-tered was what kind of Re-MARS-tering I was in for. Was this the rare kind where the whole thing is rebuilt from the ground up, refining and tweaking elements to update it, like what they did with Leaf Green/Fire Red? Was it the Secret of Monkey Island or Leisure Suit Larry kind of reboot, where the updates are both cosmetic and stylistic in nature, also allowing you to switch back to the old graphics for comparison?

Nope, nope and double nope with a side of nein. Re-MARS-tered is little more than a texture pack, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. Everything is exactly how you remember it, bar a minor update to the graphics (VERY minor, I don’t think I’d have noticed if nobody had told me), but what we gain on the pretty pictures, we give up for on the structural integrity. To put it simply, THIS GAME IS GLITCHY AS HELL.

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Graphics aren’t terrible, but it doesn’t really matter when the landscape – and those hammer pants – are so grim to look at.

Brief freezes were frequent and crashes were never far behind. Frame-stuttering was downright common, as the game struggled to keep up with anything as strenuous as Alec standing on his own by the roadside. NPCs glitched around the battlefield, firing at empty air in the moments when they weren’t getting stuck on the scenery. Vehicles were especially tricky; at one point an enemy was lightly tapped on the arse by an open door and shot up into the air like he was needed on his home planet, landing several seconds later without a speck of damage on him. Another time I tried to leave my own vehicle, only for Mason to be spat out like a watermelon seed and dashed to death on a nearby cliff, his nose leaving a wet smear behind him like a dog dragging its bum on the carpet. I tried to break open one of the collectible ore deposits for my free scrap metal, only for the damn to resolutely sit there, refusing to crack even when I started throwing trigger bombs at it. Whole buildings refused to fall down even when supported only by two matchsticks and a toaster oven. My controller vibrated ferociously even when nothing was going on. Now I see why they call this game Re-MARS-tered; telling us it had been normally remastered would feel like a classic example of flagrant false advertising.

And let me clarify that none of this is down to the rig I was running it on. My computer is a money-draining beastie that can handle any modern AAA game on the highest settings without issue, so I refuse to believe that a game from 2009 (albeit one that looks like a game from 2011) is somehow too much for the damn thing to handle.

 

“I’M GOING TO BLOW IT UP. IT OBSTRUCTS MY VIEW OF VENUS.”

Now without its gameplay, I would suspect that Red Faction: Guerrilla might very well have been the last of the franchise, and not Armageddon after it.

See, things break in Guerrilla. They break a lot. If it’s artificial, you can damage it. You can tear down buildings, blow up cars, collapse bridges, smash walls to pieces. Just about anything can break. You can crush it, detonate it, hammer it, dissolve it, grind it, attack it until you’re bouncing up and down on the rubble in impotent, spittle-flecked fury; a USP that we don’t see that often even today.

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A shot from the Nano Rifle eats away a section of wall like a very determined termite.

And to Guerilla’s credit, it lives up to that promise, as organic solutions to problems present themselves in the midst of the action. I’d find myself backed into a corner under a barrage of gunfire, and use my sledgehammer to punch a hole in the wall behind me and escape through that while whooping and slapping my bum at the enemy. Missions call for you to bring down certain, heavily-guarded buildings, so I’d lure as many guards as into the place as possible and trigger the mines I’d thrown around to bring the edifice down on them. The Nano Rifle that dissolves anything also does a lot to help, vaporising walls with laser beams and so on, though the game only starts you off with a fanny pack’s worth of ammo for the damn thing and you’ll be running dry after two minutes and change.

But beyond that… well, there’s not really much beyond that. It’s an open-world game where districts are only distinguishable from what faded shade of dirty red-brown the rocks are, with a third-person over-the-shoulder view that feels like Gears of War by way of the original Borderlands.

But the thing I found peculiar is that Guerrilla is a cover-shooter, except it isn’t. Or it might be? It’s more like it can’t decide. There’s the option to stick your hip to the nearest wall or vehicle in a manner of which Nathan Drake would be proud, but good cover is rare and enemies tend to swarm you from all sides, so running comme un poulet sans tête is the name of the game in most cases. There’s a jetpack you can get later on that theoretically should make fighting more interesting, but in reality it’s slower than running and usually leaves you hanging in the air like a clay pigeon launched over a rifle range, so poor Alec can only shriek in protest and drift about like a drunk Mary Poppins as the EDF tear his undercarriage to bits with machine gun fire. And the only weapon you can’t swap out is a colossal sledgehammer that nearly always kills in one hit, so I found the most expedient option when pinned down was to charge towards the enemy and pulverise them into the dirt like Thor playing Whack-A-Mole.

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Cover shooting is an option, but not an especially helpful one. About two seconds after this image was taken, a new threat started unloading into Mason’s back from behind.

And that’s it, really. There’s stuff beyond it, like the bouncy moon buggies you can drive around with optional gun turrets hanging off them, but that’s somehow nowhere near as fun as you might think it would be. Perhaps because you can’t drive and aim weapons at the same time, so it’s just a stream of ammo blazing out directly in front of you and you just have to hope anything you want dead is polite enough to stand in the way, at which point you may as well just run it over.

Oh, and there’s a mechanic wherein increased morale in a district might mean that civilians will come to help you out in a firefight, but there’s never anybody in the really dangerous areas where it might actually be helpful. And even then their biggest contribution is usually trying to headbutt bullets out of the air, or sitting on the grenades like farmyard hens with a strong work ethic. And then the game would tell me off for letting another batch of useless nosepickers get killed over half an acre of blighted rock quarry thirty-four million miles away from the nearest Starbucks, and all I could do was protest that not only did I not want them there in the first place, but remind it that this shit is going to happen when some schmuck runs into a battlefield with nothing more to protect himself than a bachelor’s in advertising.

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YOUR PUNY DRILL IS NOTHING COMPARED TO MIGHTY HAMMER, MORTAL!

But sometimes all these mechanics come together. It does happen and I won’t say otherwise. Enemy bases tend to be open-ended and approachable from any angle, and all the toys in the box can be rearranged to your needs and desired before blasting your way in. If there’s an office building that needs reducing to rubble, you can crouch from a distance and start picking off support beams with your Nano Rifle, try to firefight your way in backed by a team of confused accountants with potato guns, attack on your own with sledgehammer and trigger bombs, or just drive through the walls in a truck and try and knock the damn thing down with the undeniable cosmic power of a second-hand Jeep Cherokee.

So it can be fun… but then it’ll stop. Maybe it’ll be a glitch, or a boring, overly-long story segment, or a linear story mission that doesn’t make use of the open world properly, or just all the fun weapons running out of ammo, leaving you plinking at enemies with half a dozen pistol rounds and a whiffle bat. It’ll happen, and then you’re left with the distinct understanding of why this game was forgotten by time – it’s just not very exciting at its core, and no amount of weak revolutionary rhetoric or destruction physics can really change that.

 

“I’M NOT ANGRY. JUST TERRIBLY, TERRIBLY HURT.”

As some of the more savvy of you might have realised, I’ve used the opportunity of this review to puncture the whole thing with quotes from Marvin the Martian, Looney Tunes’ beloved extraterrestrial terrorist. And to be honest, it feels like the perfect retaliation to a game like this: something funny, likeable, with recognisable stakes and wit – all things that Red Faction: Guerrilla lacks. The gameplay can appeal on a moment-by-moment level as you drive your hammer through heads and concrete alike, but it’s fleeting and hampered by a thousand annoyances and trials to get over in the meantime.

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It’s not so much LAWS of physics as… general suggestions for physics.

Meanwhile, the plot can’t do anything to make up the shortfall, barely making the effort to show up and just scratching its arse when it does. Why do we care about Mars and the EDF? Mars itself is a featureless desert, the population are boring non-entities, and Mason’s brother leaves so little impact in the nanoseconds before he’s butchered that I can’t even remember his name. For all my snark about the Papa Bear/Baby Bear themes that now swamp modern AAA narratives, at least they’re trying to have an emotional impact.

But in a lot of ways, Red Faction: Guerrilla feels like an early adopter of the modern sandbox formula. Liberate the districts, kill the goons, spiced up with a single gimmick to try and make it more palatable, in this case the destruction physics. I don’t hate this game, not even close, but I don’t think it did itself any favours by coming back and demonstrating how badly it’s aged in the past nine years.

And that’s the sad truth – whether you call it a remastering or a re-MARS-tering, the implication is that the game you’re bringing back was, at some point, mastered at all. Yeah, sometimes that’s true. Shadow of the Colossus was mastered and remastered. Zelda: Wind Waker was mastered and remastered. Bioshock was mastered and – er, well, it was mastered the first time, that’s my main point. But Red Faction: Guerrilla was kind of a scrappy game (pun not intended) even when it came out, and there’s no avoiding that fact now, as all the mediocre texture packs and bugs can’t hide poor plotting and gameplay that never really surpasses ‘functional’, and struggles to reach even that lofty goal.

COMPARATIVE RATING: KEEP SPLITTING ROCKS AND THERE’S A CHANCE YOU’LL STRIKE GOLD – BUT YOU’LL MORE LIKELY JUST EXHAUST YOURSELF GETTING THERE.

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BIOSHOCK REMASTERED REVIEW – “GRAPHICS CAN SINK, TOO”

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.

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Hmm… This may upset somebody.

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.

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And this DEFINITELY upsets somebody.

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.

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I got this! I got this! I’m going to be fine! Wait, what’s that stomping sound?

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.

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That’s a classy response to your city exploding. Here’s to your impeccably stylish and demented brain, Andrew Ryan.

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.


 

9/10

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.