Seven years ago, 2K Games impressed PC and console gamers with BioShock, an atypically engrossing action game that built upon Valve’s Half-Life and Ion Storm’s Deus Ex — first-person titles that transcended the shooter genre thanks to deep storylines and less gunfire-focused gameplay. BioShock’s hooks were a combination of Art Deco-inspired graphics, a large dose of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, and jitter-inducing audiovisual set pieces. Last week, the full game arrived for iOS devices at a $15 asking price, and although it has some predictable issues, it’s impressive enough to be our Game of the Week.
Without discussing too much of the storyline, BioShock starts as you survive a watery plane crash, swimming your way from flaming wreckage to a lighthouse in the middle of the ocean. Before you’ve even caught your breath — one of hundreds of little details brought to life by strong audio accompaniment — you’re riding an elevator down to Rapture, a city hidden beneath the sea. Littered with Objectivist signs and videos inspired by Rand’s classic book Atlas Shrugged, Rapture is a city filled with people who were genetically modified into zombie-like killers. Your first injection with a syringe of “EVE” gives you electric blue veins and the ability to fire lightning bolts at enemies; other EVE powers and traditional weapons become available as the story continues.
BioShock’s atmospherics are its strongest suit. Rapture’s rooms are distinctive enough thanks to curved surfaces with Gilded Age-inspired textures, but it’s the voices, enemies, and special effects that make the experience memorable. Breaches in the underwater city’s walls let water flow into rooms, surrounding vicious enemies who can be destroyed together if you hit the water with lightning. A staircase leads to a dimly-lit area with a bickering couple, both of whom turn on you with separate weapons as you approach, requiring quick responses to survive. Screaming children, drill-armed mechs, and flying robots are seemingly amongst your enemies, yet they may become allies or assault each other as you watch. The cohesive interaction between the environments and characters creates moments of genuine panic and excitement — if nothing else, BioShock is a meticulously planned-out game.
The iOS port is let down by three things: dodgy frame rates, long loading times, and confusing touch controls. Even on the current iPad Air — Apple’s most powerful iOS device — the seven-year-old BioShock sometimes stutters during combat, despite using character models that shouldn’t be pushing the hardware to its limits. At other times, the graphics are silky smooth, suggesting that the port of an aging Unreal Engine version wasn’t properly optimized for Apple’s best hardware; Modern Combat 4 looked leagues better in detail, frame rates, and special effects, even if its gameplay was more stilted. The speedy Air and Retina iPad mini also suffer through extended PC/console-style loading and saving screens, and a bug that sometimes silences the audio for reasons unknown. Given 2K Games’ history with the App Store, we can’t say that the bugs and loading times are surprising here, but we really wish the game would get another round of polish.
BioShock’s touch controls will make or break the game for some people. Even on an iPad screen, the juxtaposition of joystick 1 (move), joystick 2 (head position), and numerous buttons for weapons, mapping, health and psionic restoration, corpse-searching, item interaction, crouching and so on begin to become a bit much. Static and situation-specific buttons litter the same general areas where joystick swipes are registered, the sort of “works most of the time” control-porting solution that would have benefitted from more device-specific optimization. If you’re hoping to play BioShock on something smaller than an iPad mini, and don’t have one of those overpriced iOS game controllers to use, be prepared for cramped hands.
That’s probably to be expected when shoehorning a console-quality experience like BioShock into an iOS-sized device — nothing less powerful than the Xbox 360 has ever run this game before now. We’re impressed that BioShock’s levels, speech, original and licensed music all remained intact during the porting process. Very few iOS games can even hope to compare against something of this scope, and although the $15 price tag is high by App Store standards, so is the collective value of BioShock’s content. Flawed though the port may be, it’s also very ambitious and compelling — worth checking out if you haven’t played the game on another platform, but if you have, probably not worth revisiting here.
iLounge Rating: A-.