BioShock: The Collection Review

BioShock: The Collection celebrates a time when Ken Levine introduced console players to his spiritual successor to System Shock 2. I lost my mind when the demo came out for Xbox 360 and it was one of the few times I immediately pre-ordered the game after trying it out. BioShock held a special place in my heart long after it released because it had all the right ingredients of a captivating story driven shooter: atmosphere, interesting people, and a unique narrative hook. I was hooked from the opening scene and by the end of the game I wanted to devour anything remotely related to BioShock. I even read several books by Ayn Rand, but that’s not something I would wholly recommend) because I was intrigued by Objectivism, the selfish philosophy espoused by Rapture’s Howard Roark analog, Andrew Ryan. 

BioShock would go on to perform and sell well enough to merit two sequels, BioShock 2 and BioShock Infinite. BioShock 2, which was not developed by Ken Levine, expanded on the original game’s gameplay ideas and used Collectivism to tell a new story about a forgotten section of Rapture and de facto leader, psychologist Sophia Lamb. It also attempted to humanize the relationship of the first game’s most notable duo, the Big Daddy and the LIttle Sister (which look a lot less terrifying). BioShock Infinite broke free from the claustrophobic tunnels and undersea skyscrapers for a story that was far more cerebral and mind bending. Infinite felt like a spiritual successor to a spiritual successor, its design reflecting those established in BioShock but with a different turn of the screw.

Blind Squirrel Games, whose hands have touched triple-A video game releases such as XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Borderlands 2, and Sunset Overdrive, is responsible for remastering the series to meet the demands of current gen consoles. For sixty dollars, you’ll get all three games (mostly) locked at 60 frames per second, every piece of downloadable content (Minerva’s Den, challenge rooms, both Burial At Sea episodes), increased screen resolution, and director’s commentary from Ken Levine. Not a bad value, honestly. For me, picking up the re-release was an easy decision because I’m such a huge fan of the world Levine designed - and still am even though the rose colored glasses were knocked off my face.

Before going into greater detail, I’d like to talk about the components of the collection that matter, namely the increased resolution, new framerate, and commentary feature. At its new 1080p screen resolution, BioShock looks, well, fine. The image and textures are little sharper than the original and there’s less of a foggy, dreamlike filter placed atop the image. BioShock 2, while pretty, suffers from the occasional texture load that’s noticeable and disappointing. Infinite, on the other hand, looks absolutely gorgeous at 1080p. Granted, it’s the newest game of the bunch (it’s only three years old), so any direct graphical comparison is a teensy bit unfair.  

All three games run well under the nearly locked 60fps. BioShock and BioShock 2 perform the best while Infinite can struggle to keep up sometimes when things get hot and heavy. This might have to do the third game being the most visually complex game in the set. Where the first game soars with a solid framerate, the screen tearing and stuttering is surprising. It’s still gorgeous though. The higher resolution plays to Infinite’s beauty, as the UI elements have been scaled down leaving a much larger field of view. Some of the on screen text is a little hard to read because it’s smaller (though not as bad as The Witcher 3) but honestly, I’m too enamored by the visuals to care a great deal about that.  As for the first two games, they perform really well exceptionally well. I never noticed any hitching or stumbling no matter how busy the screen got with explosions, fire and water effects.

Finally, the game’s inclusion of a commentary track with Ken Levine left me a little disappointed. When someone says “director commentary for a video game, “ I instinctively recall what Valve did with The Orange Box. How awesome was it to hunt for the floating word bubbles that seamlessly halted the action to show off character models, tech, and lighting features while a Valve developer narrates?  How about Tim Schafer and Ron Gilbert’s commentary track for Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge, which ran as a audio layer that could be toggled on and off on the fly? The director’s commentary for BioShock (just the first game gets commentary, incidentally) is nothing more than a longform video feature called “Imagining BioShock” with Geoff Keighley moderating an interview with Levine and lead artist Shawn Robertson. The entire interview is split into multiple parts that can be unlocked (ugh) by finding gold film reels placed in each playable area in Rapture.

As for the games themselves, the world of Rapture and Columbia are still fun to explore. BioShock, however, has aged noticeably. Compared to other games that have come out since the first game and have made better strides to marry story with impressive gameplay (like Wolfenstein: The New Order and even this year’s DOOM), the first game doesn’t have the same spark. BioShock 2 fares a little better only because it tweaks and removes specific annoyances (like hacking minigames and researching enemies) while introducing its own (the LIttle Sister gauntlets and researching enemies). Infinite still feels fresh and new, spectacular and a little ambitious. I had a sobering reaction to playing BioShock Infinite in 2016. Columbia, as depicted in the game, is a floating city made up of white nationalist types that harbor feelings of racism and xenophobia. Fear and vigilance against non-whites is spurred by a charismatic white man. Sound a little familiar? Walking through city streets littered with propaganda artwork espousing the irrational fear of ugly caricatured foreigners spurred on by a religious zealot with power, money, and influence is much more depressing now than it was three years ago.

BioShock: The Collection distills into two discs a moment in time where the gaming community had a fever for Ken Levine’s underwater philosophy simulator. Despite their flaws, these are three well made games that explore narrative territory left mostly untouched before and even after the release of BioShock. Games like these celebrate experience and atmosphere over gameplay. Not that they’re bad or boring. But what if the first game had gunplay as good as Destiny or even DOOM? All things considered, Blind Squirrel did a fine job bringing a largely stable remaster of a good trilogy to current-gen systems. This is a good time for newcomers to see what the fuss was about and a chance for longtime fans to take another dip in the ocean.

Teen Services Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.