Few games have left such a tremendous, distinct footprint on video games as the BioShock series. It’s only fair that after almost ten years since the original BioShock, the entire collection is lovingly packaged and re-released on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One (plus free updates on PC). BioShock: The Collection is an elegant, complete repackaging of some of the most engaging and unique video game experiences of the past decade, and it’s overflowing with content.
Included are all three core BioShock games, three story-based DLC chapters, three arcade-style DLC modes, and Imaging Bioshock – a brand new Director’s Commentary. There mightn’t be too much new content here, but outside of the absence of BioShock 2’s multiplayer component, BioShock: The Collection is complete and consummate.
I’ll discuss each game and DLC separately below. For any particular game or piece of DLC, scroll down to the appropriate heading. Thoughts on The Collection as a whole and its release in 2016 are presented under a heading towards the end of the review.
The original BioShock is a game of many qualities. Mechanically, it’s a first-person shooter. Systematically, it’s a light RPG. Fundamentally, though, it’s an exploratory horror game. It affords itself the opportunity to coalesce such a range of characteristics through its distinct setting – Rapture. An underwater city built on Objectivist ideals, Rapture acts as the main character of BioShock. Miraculous scientific breakthroughs in the city offered citizens the chance to alter their DNA and gain incredible abilities – plasmids. From lighting a flame at the click of your fingers to shooting an electrical current from the palm of your hand, plasmids were designed to make people, life and Rapture better.
Arriving in Rapture sometime after its peak, it’s evident that things didn’t quite work out that way. The overuse of ADAM – a genetic resource enabling the possibility of plasmids – has changed the once functioning members of Rapture society into violently crazed Splicers. Corporate rivalries escalated into cultural divides, shattering Rapture’s harmonious ideals. The unnerving Little Sisters wander the city, draining ADAM from fallen splicers, protected by intimidating Big Daddies. Rapture is a frightful, dangerous place to explore.
Whether it be through audio diaries found throughout, advertisements and propaganda strewn across the walls, or encounters with psychopathic survivors, the story of Rapture comes together in engaging, thoughtful ways. Every audio diary is an exciting reward, filling in a curious blank or contextualising an ominous mystery. Each new part of Rapture is a window into the peculiar lives once lead within, and a reflection of those who lived them. BioShock tells a tremendous story, rewarding those willing to uncover it, while also providing insightful meta-commentary on the nature of video game narratives as a whole.
As a first-person shooter, BioShock feels imprecise and intimidating – in a great way. Encounters feel stressful and overwhelming, encouraging the use of Plasmids and weapons in conjunction. Shocking a Splicer with an Electro Bolt plasmid before lining up a shot with the pistol is safer than pumping bullets into it as it charges towards you. I never felt I had the degree of control over my character I find in most games, and while in most situations this would be a considerable flaw, BioShock delivers encounters accordingly, never throwing unfair or annoying battles at you, but sprinkling stressful scuffles throughout.
As fun as Rapture is to explore from a narrative perspective, it’s also a satisfying video game environment in a traditional sense. Areas open up as you gain new Plasmids. Large, recognisable rooms with multiple exits beg to be explored, and secrets are satisfying to uncover. Where backtracking is necessary, it feels like getting to know an environment better rather than retreading already used content.
New Plasmids, passive abilities called Tonics, weapon upgrades and different ammunition types can be bought from various vending machines throughout Rapture. Currency looted from corpses or scavenged from the environment can be used at most vendors, while ADAM can be spent on Plasmids and Tonics. The only way to gain ADAM, however, is from a Little Sister. The only way to get to a Little Sister is to defeat a Big Daddy. This presents an interesting dynamic – face an imposing brute in a terrifying duel in an attempt to become stronger, or disregard the ADAM and steer clear of Big Daddies?
One of the most timeless, iconic qualities of BioShock, though, is its visual identity. Windows out into the ocean reveal a distinct skyline while dim light shines into dark, damp halls. Jolly signs and jovial posters from Rapture’s hay-day conflict with everything it has become, drawing the fall of the city further into questioning. Water flooding through halls and shadows around corners sustain a truly chilling atmosphere, while the Big Daddies and Little Sisters provoke sympathy as much as they do fear. With everything the visuals accomplish, a captivating, dread-inducing soundtrack is a perfect catalyst for engaging moments, big or small.
BioShock is one of the most creative and distinct video games ever created, excelling in more departments than most games can hope even to touch on. Few, if any games create such a sense of environment and atmosphere as the city of Rapture provides, or tell such an engaging story while commenting on the very art form in which it’s told.
BioShock’s challenge rooms offer non-canonical puzzles, requiring the use of the main games mechanics in interesting, creative ways. Electrocuting a Splicer in a pool of water to power nearby machinery or freezing a Big Daddy to use as a platform to cross a gap are examples of solutions to specific problems into which BioShock proper never quite delves. As a more puzzle oriented, mechanically focused affair, the Challenge Rooms are well worth giving a shot.
BioShock 2 returns to Rapture, exploring older parts of the city, and delving deeper into the lore of Big Daddies and Little Sisters. Developed by 2K Marin without the involvement of Ken Levine – creative lead of the original BioShock – the sequel is often regarded as a lower tier entry in the series. While it’s fair to admit that returning to Rapture holds less weight than uncovering the city for the first time – it’s unfair to dismiss BioShock 2 in its entirety in response. While the gargantuan shadow left by its predecessor might have been inescapable for BioShock 2, what it achieves in its own right is nonetheless excellent.
Playing as Project Delta – an Alpha Series Big Daddy, your goal is to rescue Eleanor – the girl you once protected as a Little Sister. The complication is Sofia Lamb – a psychiatrist bent on reforming Raptures society and uniting the Splicers. If Eleanor weren’t the daughter of Dr Lamb, perhaps things mightn’t be quite as difficult. Where BioShock was largely politically fuelled, things skew more towards religious themes here. As a Big Daddy seeking his once Little Sister, the nature of their kind is explored in a more personal way than before. One of BioShock 2’s greatest achievements is how human it makes out Rapture’s most frightening residents to be.
BioShock 2 takes place in a more dilapidated, overgrown Rapture. Splicers have deformed further from their once human selves, parts of the city have crumbled, and coral and seaweed have started growing in what were lifeless territories. Older parts of Rapture are built around a train line, and offer access to the open ocean for Big Daddies as the once-builders of the fallen city. These ideas do much to separate the sequel from the original – in several cases using abandoned concepts from the first title.
Mechanically, BioShock 2 is much tighter and more controlled than its precursor. Wielding a weapon and a Plasmid simultaneously makes combat much more kinetic, while the swifter, more precise controls facilitate a more action oriented game. Enemy encounters are frequent and much larger than the original but don’t feel unsuitable while playing as a powerful Big Daddy.
Structurally, this is a fairly linear game. There are plenty of rooms to explore and audio diaries to uncover, but few optional areas or alternate paths. Backtracking comes into play while protecting Little Sisters as they harvest ADAM, leading you to corpses throughout the area. These sections, while completely optional, can start to feel like a bit of a grind, having you hold off waves of Splicers as the ADAM is harvested. You’ll never stray from the path for too long, which is only fair to criticise in an atmospheric game. In a game with a personal, timely motivation, though, it feels only natural to be heading straight for the goal. In this sense, BioShock 2 has the same spirit as the first, executed in a different way – and it benefits from its difference.
Tension is less of a focus here. Resources are far more abundant, even the biggest of enemies feel relatively unintimidating, and rushing to your goal replaces cautiously tip-toeing around each corner. The exceptions to this tone are the Big Sister fights. These are challenging, intense battles concluding stressful build-ups. As powerful as I became, I never felt prepared to fight a Big Sister.
The colours of plant life, open waters to walk through, and chalk messages from Eleanor help create a brighter, more vibrant Rapture. Though it remains a categorically dreary place, it’s nice to see a different side of the city. The beauty of the environment isn’t just forlorn here; it’s serendipitous. The most stressful piece of music I’ve ever heard signals the coming of a Big Sister, while sincere, emotional moments are uplifted by the fitting score. BioShock 2 presents Rapture as somehow redeemable, fittingly giving the perspective of a Big Daddy a degree of comfort unseen by an outsider.
BioShock 2 is a different game to its parent it was doomed never to live up to, but the similarities it views in a different light are its greatest strengths. Where it expands upon BioShock is interesting and where it tells its own story is compelling. Where it plays with the expectations set by its predecessor and shows what was already seen from a brand new perspective, it is absolutely satisfying. It provides a sense of closure to stories you never realised the first game was telling and adds layers to a world that was already so deep. BioShock 2 offers more to learn about Rapture and a new way to see the city.
Minerva’s Den hardly feels like an add-on for BioShock 2, and more like a succinct BioShock game in its own right. Playing as Project Sigma – another Alpha Series Big Daddy – you’re tasked with reclaiming The Thinker – the supercomputer responsible for Rapture’s automation. The characters and settings throughout Minerva’s Den are, for the most part, disconnected from BioShock and BioShock 2, telling a specific, focused story. The events of said story are interesting, memorable and emotional. The tale unravels in a fashion, not unlike the original BioShock, and is executed just as terrifically.
The second of Minerva’s Den’s major strengths is its structure. A short-circuited door control practically taunts you, knowing you don’t yet have the Electro Bolt Plasmid needed to open it. There’s nothing stopping you, however, from exploring outside of your next objective, finding said Plasmid and heading through the cheeky door before the narrative necessitates you doing so. The Metroidvania style of the original BioShock is condensed into its richest shape here, fitting so perfectly into a smaller, tighter setting.
The protector trials are certainly no Minerva’s Den. This is an arcade, horde-style mode, seeing you protect a Little Sister from the oncoming Splicers. Various challenges task you with doing so using specific weapons and Plasmids, facilitating some pretty challenging scenarios. If more wave based combat is what you’re after, this’ll tick the minimum amount of boxes. Chances are, in a BioShock game, that’s not what you’re after.
Where BioShock 2 extended the lore and iconography of BioShock over a new foundation, BioShock Infinite does the opposite. The basis of BioShock is present here; a stranger visits a mysterious city built on and for its founder’s extreme ideals. The specifics, though, are entirely different. In place of Rapture, we have Columbia; a religious, nationalistic city in the sky.
Booker DeWitt, the player character finds himself in Columbia to complete one task; “Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt”. This girl is Elizabeth. Unlike BioShock and BioShock 2 before it, Infinite deals with characters directly. Audio diaries – now Voxophones – are as important as ever, unravelling the history and current state of Columbia, but direct character interaction is the focus of the narrative. Conversations Booker and Elizabeth have with each other, and other Columbians are the driving force behind the plot, where the city of Rapture was left to speak for itself.
It speaks volumes, then, that Columbia is a comparably deep and interesting environment to Rapture. The bustling, joyous streets are bright and bursting with life. Laughing children play in the grass, and happy couples relax on the beach. Exploring a functioning, happy BioShock-style city is an interesting, seemingly antithetical experience that proves to contrast the downsides of idealism. The environmental storytelling is remarkable here, blending religious iconography with a traditional propaganda aesthetic to create something distinctly unique, let instantly relatable. Any given street in Columbia has context and interesting lore to offer, just from looking around.
The arc of the story is satisfying and compelling, travelling along a spectrum of atmospheres. Whether it be festive, contentious, unsettling, or scary, Infinite offers effectively immersive scenes and surroundings that benefit greatly from their diversity to one another. Columbia is a broad, yet distinctly realised setting.
Infinite plays like a modern shooter. Where conflict in the original BioShock is so enjoyable as a stressful, reactive experience, Infinite’s shooting is genuinely fun. On top of the improved shooting controls, Vigors – Infinite’s answer to Plasmids – are so exciting, rewarding and entertaining to use. It plays well, and it takes advantage of that. Combat is no rare situation here, offering plenty of opportunities to face large groups of enemies. That isn’t to say the focus is combat, though. For all the time spent shooting, just as much, if not more time is spent exploring quite buildings and streets, piecing together the world around you. RPG mechanics, however, take a back seat. Upgrades and purchases are streamlined and simplified here, taking a lot of emphasis away from the character building aspects of the series.
BioShock Infinite is a stunning game. From sides of buildings to travelling zeppelins, to distant parts of the city visible in the distance; everything you can lay eyes on is immaculately detailed. The city of Columbia is home to some of the most distinct, gorgeous scenery in video games. The kind of moments that implore you to stop and take in your surroundings are constant, whether it be in wonder, shock, or fear. Artistically, few games can deliver a fraction of what BioShock Infinite achieves.
As a sequel to BioShock as well as a unique game in its own right, Infinite is an astoundingly wonderful adventure. Delivering everything that made BioShock great – atmosphere, self-discovered lore, curious scenarios and compelling characters – without stepping on the original’s toes is no easy feat, yet BioShock Infinite manages to do so masterfully.
Clash in the Clouds, like Bioshock 2’s Protector Trials before it, is an arcade style arena mode. What elevates CitC above its predecessor isn’t just the improved combat mechanics of Bioshock Infinite, but a rewarding currency and unlock system. Kills reward cash, with bonuses for using varying weapons and vigors, as well as headshots, environmental downs and the like. Said cash can be spent on weapons, vigors and upgrades, or an extra chance upon your next death. Blue Ribbon challenges are presented for each wave, encouraging more specific means to the end of a round for an even bigger payout.
These upgrades and currency persist throughout The Columbian Archeological Society; Clash in The Clouds’ hub. Here, funds earned can be spent unlocking more of the four playable arenas or filling out a museum with concept art, behind-the-scenes footage, music and character models from Infinite’s development. It’s an interesting incentive to keep playing, even offering a handful of insightful voxophones, and makes CitC feel like more than a shallow reuse of assets. While it’s hardly a major attraction of the series, this is a commendably fun offshoot with enough substance to warrant some attention.
BioShock Infinite Burial at Sea’s first episode is an enticing idea on two accounts. First, it injects Infinite’s characters and mechanics into Rapture, offering a new perspective on Booker and Elizabeth while conveying how the setting of Rapture reflects on their personalities. Second, it offers an opportunity to explore Rapture at its prime and explore the events that lead to its downfall.
Denizens of rapture sit at bars and browse stores. The bright lights of the city gleam off the pristine gold architecture. Rapture is alive and beautiful. BAS provides plenty of time to explore and take in the city and see the city in an animated state for the first time. Of course, Splicers aren’t totally out of the picture. The second half of Episode 1 is a more traditional BioShock experience, as the beginning of Rapture’s end starts to uncoil.
While Episode 1 plays mostly like Infinite, it merges the modern mechanics with that of the original BioShock in interesting ways. The weapon wheel is back, as opposed to Infinite’s two weapons at a time system, while the Skyhook is implemented as the ‘Airgrabber’. Working your way through an abandoned department store feels nostalgic while the combat feels modern and sharp. By the first episode’s conclusion, though, the experience feels short-lived. Things never quite come together in a satisfying way, though that may be the exact intention. Episode 1 doesn’t quite fully deliver on its premise, but instead feels like an elaborate prologue to Episode 2.
Episode 2 of Burial at Sea sees Elizabeth playable for the first time, and in a surprisingly new way. This is the most suspenseful, threatening BioShock experience there is. Elizabeth won’t last long in a gun fight – assuming she can even scrounge up enough ammo to take someone out. Instead, Episode 2 revolves around stealth. Stepping on shattered glass or pools of water alerts enemies, making sneaking stressful in a way that makes so much sense for the series. The new Peeping Tom Plasmid provides invisibility and the ability to see enemies through walls, facilitating cautious planning and vicious ambushes. Using your Airgrabber to hang from freight hooks gives you a height advantage, but stay too long, and the creaking hook will alert the enemies to your presence. It feels truly sneaky, challenging and entirely engaging.
An open, explorable area exists before you, but even peeking into an area you don’t need to is a scary proposition. Enemies roam the floors ready to pounce on you, and it takes some very deliberate navigation to reach certain places without drawing their attention. This makes investigating the environment all the more rewarding. If you find a secret off the beaten path, you earned it.
Episode 2’s story is perhaps even more attractive than its twisted mechanics. The character of Elizabeth is fully realised, providing insight only possible by means of taking her perspective. The fall of Rapture is set in motion, revealing interesting, conclusive revelations on characters and events from the original BioShock. More surprisingly, the stories of Columbia and Rapture are tied together in wonderfully definite ways, clarifying events from both BioShock and BioShock Infinite. As the final BioShock release to date, Burial At Sea Episode 2 does a fantastic job of representing and encapsulating the series as a whole, while taking it in an entirely new direction.
BioShock: The Collection is one of the most compelling, interesting collections of video games there is. BioShock and BioShock 2 are noticeably older games; character models are a little rough, and some of the sound design is a little behind the times. There’s absolutely no question, however, that they stand the test of time, and the same goes for BioShock Infinite. The new Director’s Commentary is entertaining, insightful and well produced too, though it would have been great to see similar features regarding BioShock 2 and Infinite, as well as the first game. It’s a shame Infinite’s preorder and season pass DLC throws power-ups and golden guns at the player in this ‘definitive’ version, and BioShock 2’s multiplayer component would have been an appreciated (if unnecessary) inclusion, but it’s hard to fault the re-release regarding content.
From a technical perspective, these are the best ways to play each game included. The first game, in particular, looks noticeably nicer here, though without ever feeling altered from its original state. I, unfortunately, did experience crashes with the collection, once playing BioShock and once playing BioShock 2, but beyond that the games run smoothly and look beautiful.
BioShock: The Collection provides so many exceptional experiences, with so little fault. An entire saga of compelling fiction, some of the most interesting settings in video games to explore, and all additional content in one place is a lot to pass up. I implore anyone with any degree of interest in the BioShock series to give it a shot, and The Collection is the best way to do so.