Be warned—spoilers abound in this piece.
As we approach the 10th anniversary of the original Bioshock game, the fine folks at publisher 2K have seen fit to release a remastered collection of the three games in the series: Bioshock, Bioshock 2 and Bioshock Infinite. It’s great for those who’ve adopted the newer generation of consoles to jump back into the point-blank amazing franchise, and even better news for anyone who missed these games the first time around. Yes, the series is a first-person shooter with all of the face-blasting violence for which the genre is known. But the real reason to pick up and play a Bioshock game lies in their ability to create intelligent storylines. Think of the series like a film you’ve got a direct hand in moving forward.
The opening sequence in 2007’s original Bioshock still comes with a hefty dose of amazement and wonder. You’ve just survived a plane crash in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and find yourself drawn to a solitary lighthouse. Once inside, you are led to a small bathysphere (that’s like a miniature submarine in case you didn’t know) and as it dives deeper beneath the sea, you are thrust into the utterly improbable.
A small screen deploys over the submersible’s window and greets the player with a ’50s-esque newsreel from the game’s apparent villain: Captain of industry/raconteur, Andrew Ryan, “Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow?” he asks. “’No,’ says the man in Washington, it belongs to the poor; ‘no,’ says the man in the Vatican, it belongs to God; ‘no,’ says the man in Moscow, it belongs to everyone.” As Ryan explains how he didn’t much like this, the screen disappears and we crest a rocky outcropping whereupon we lay eyes on the underwater city of Rapture for the very first time. And it is breathtaking. A massive art deco metropolis sprawling across the ocean floor, Andrew Ryan’s improbably built and impossibly spooky city looms in the darkness, and as your vessel, which now seems preposterously miniscule, enters the airlock, you are greeted with a message: “All good things of this earth flow into the city.”
It slays even now, nearly 10 years later, and remains one of the most iconic moments in gaming history, but it was an important stage-setter for such a brilliantly crafted interactive experience.
We can regard the first Bioshock as a sort of deconstruction of Ayn Rand-ian objectivism (even Andrew Ryan derives his name from the author) and a nod to the Machiavellian nature of mankind. What would become of a city unfettered by “trifling” matters such as law, order, morality or even social justice?
It sounds heady for a video game, and is all the more impressive given its time stamp; many games since then have stumbled to gussy up their narratives in similarly effective ways. Beyond the storyline (courtesy of creative director and ultra-genius Ken Levine and his studio, Irrational Games) was a mechanical and technological marvel that paved the way for complex systems that still get mileage today. Take the clever arsenal. Real-life weapons such as pistols and tommy guns sat alongside bizarre, homemade weapons like the chemical thrower or grenade launcher, and plasmids—a sort of IV drug that rewrite the genetic code of its users and allows them incredible powers such as the ability to shoot lightning from their fingers, use telekinesis or ignite their fellow man—were not only creative, they struck a complex balance that allowed the player incredible freedom. See a baddie standing in a pool of water? Blast it with lightning; water conducts electricity, right? Right. Or perhaps you notice a slick pool of oil on the ground? Well, it would only make sense that it would be flammable. The real brilliance of Bioshock was in implementing seemingly simple mechanics that actually allowed the player to experiment and succeed in logical ways without ever having to lead us by the hand to work it out.
The first game in the series receives the most significant overhaul with a better framerate and updated textures throughout. The stylistic elements of Bioshock’s art deco universe mean that even aging graphics have aged well. There is no denying the game was always creatively gorgeous, but it doesn’t hurt that everything looks cleaner and runs more smoothly. Cracks in the façade do show now and then, but everything from lighting to level design is executed in a smart way. There are, technically, levels to play through, but each is presented with its own unique voice without ever calling attention to the splitting up of story elements in a level-like fashion; Rapture feels cohesive even now.
For 2010’s Bioshock 2, the original dev team was split up and an otherwise solid game felt the sting of too many cooks spoiling the broth. Ken Levine didn’t return to direct, and has even famously said he wouldn’t have returned to the undersea city had he been at the helm. And even though the second game looked beautiful and had an interesting enough story, the impact of the first game lost some juice as we felt the environs and narrative becoming too familiar or even borderline stale. The collection also updates this title, though it’s hardly as noticeable as the first game. Hell, Bioshock 2 always looked pretty great, and the framerate increase helps here as well. Regardless, it’s the low point of the series—though had it come out first or even existed in a universe where the other games didn’t exist, it would be an all-around solid game. From a narrative standpoint, 2 can’t touch its predecessor, and the examination of human nature is abandoned for some sort of tired statement on people’s need to be led coupled with something about a sick need for power. Antagonist Sophia Lamb is fine as villains go, and it’s mildly exciting to see other bits of Rapture, but too much ground is retread and there aren’t enough new ideas brought to the table. Regardless, the Minerva’s Den DLC that came out later is an excellent addition to series that comes with a fantastic twist ending we won’t spoil here. 2K has, in their infinite wisdom, ditched the multiplayer component of Bioshock 2, but this should make exactly no one sad as it always felt tacked on during an era when online play seemed shoehorned into any game that shipped.
2013’s Bioshock Infinite, on the other hand, is as brilliant as ever. At only three years old, it isn’t surprising that its changes are the least noticeable, but the improvements under the hood do make a difference. Once again everything is running at its best, and the console version (we played the Xbox One release) can finally stand up to its PC cousin. Levine and company took the concept of ridiculously located cities to the clouds with Columbia, a massive floating allegory on the pitfalls of misguided faith. Columbia might sound like a literal rumination on the idea of heaven, but Infinite never comes across as heavy-handed. If anything, the higher-concepts of false prophets and fanaticism meshed with literal string theory and the perception of time and space is over-complicated, though it doesn’t take away from the über-fun formula of superpowers mapped to the left trigger, guns to the right. The best explanation we can provide without ruining the game is to think of time like a river—just because you can’t see around the bend ahead of you doesn’t mean the river ceases to exist, nor does the river around the bend behind you. It’s nuts, and a lot to think about, but it spurs multiple plays and all are well worth it. Still attached are the excellent Clash in the Clouds horde mode DLC as well as the story-driven add-ons Burial at Sea parts 1 and 2. All three are fantastic additions and even tie the worlds of all games into one overall experience fit to blow your fucking mind. No joke.
If you already own these games, there really isn’t enough to justify spending another 60 bucks. Yes, they’re beautifully rendered and all apparently work better than ever, but unless you’re a gaming super-fan, the improvements aren’t front and center enough to be a selling point. If you’ve never played these games, you’re living your life wrong and should buy this collection immediately. All three Bioshock games are not only some of the most mechanically and technologically significant titles to ever exist, but they come with some of the most intelligent storytelling in recent memory, medium-irrelevant. Ken Levine and Irrational Games have since shuttered the studio and set to work on other projects, but these will always be benchmark titles that surpass the silly expectations placed on their medium to transcend simple classification and become something truly special. If you are into stories, these are the games for you and should be in your collection as soon as humanly possible.
The Score: 9 out of 10
This is a game you should play if you haven't and should get again if you've moved on to the new generation of console already. Don't-miss wouldn't do it justice.
The Bioshock Collection
Xbox One, PS4, PC
Rated M (heads explode)