Review: BioShock Remastered

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I’ll be honest, I’m not a big fan of the whole remastering trend going on right now. I’m not saying these games don’t deserve to be played or even re-released for new audiences, far from it. But too many remasters feel like only marginal improvements or updates that could have been patched into the original. OG BioShock may be a decade old but it aged as gracefully as one could have hoped, leaving this new version as little more than the same house with a new coat of paint on a wall or two. Consider this review for either version then, with a few additional warnings for the Remaster.

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BioShock’s unique setting is ubiquitous at this point, but we’ll recap just to be sure. In 1960 your airplane goes down in the Atlantic, miraculously stranding you at a lighthouse that leads to the underwater metropolis of Rapture. This improbable city exists at the behest of Andrew Ryan, the poster boy for why libertarianism is a fool’s game, namely because his ethically-challenged free-market utopia has been torn apart by thugs and madmen. A fellow named Atlas implores you to help him and his family escape the dying city, which sets you on an odyssey of discovery and bloodshed that will eventually decide the fate of Rapture.

There’s a shitload to unpack in the story, but a decade out that’s all well-trod ground. The setting is a confusing mix of 1920s sensibilities, Art Deco excess, steampunk machinations, and 60s sci-fi weirdness. It works because it leans into it so hard and does so much with the atmosphere, making every drip of water and creaking bulkhead menace with unknown intent. Rapture is a creepy place, thanks mainly to the insane figures you’ll cross paths with. From Dr. Steinmann, the plastic surgeon who forgot how to stop cutting, to Sander Cohen the abattoir artist, you’ll be treated to regular setpieces featuring the darkest parts of a collapsing society. The story itself collapses after the climax unfortunately, and a large feature of the game is centered around one of those idiotic “do you save or eat the orphan” moral choices, but these are minor quibbles in light of the excellent atmosphere.

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You’ll be fighting your way past all these psychopaths, and while the combat is creative it’s far from the main attraction here. BioShock is a shooter loaded with options, from the different ammo types and upgrades for your guns to the injectable genetic modifications that let you shoot ice or lightning or bees from your hand. There are neat interactions like electricity frying anyone in standing water or telekinesis letting you steal and lob enemy explosives, but the pacing and balancing of the combat built on these mechanics is all off. Enemies can soak hits like a tank until you score some upgrades for your damage output, after which they melt like butter. Foes also move quickly and erratically for a game so focused on close-combat and careful aim, and your weapons mostly lack the accuracy to track or headshot reliably.

Fortunately you spend more time looting cabinets and shelves than you do fighting, and this one definitely scratches the same itch that being a garbageman in Fallout or Skyrim does. Overall the gameplay has the richness of depth that makes titles like System Shock and Dishonored so engrossing. The remaster doesn’t really mess with this aside from clean up a few menus and add new developer commentary reels to find, so you wouldn’t be missing much by sticking with the original. For some that might even be preferable, as this version is known to be rather crash-prone. My first swing at it ended after losing nearly an hour of progress to a crash, but after several patches I’ve been able to play without stability issues.

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Look, BioShock is good, it was always good, and this remaster does little more than present it to you again. I could go on and on about little combat gripes or tear the story to ribbons, but the fact is there’s really nothing else that looks or feels like it. Obviously it shares plenty of DNA with System Shock but the mutations here turned it into a singular mash-up of colorful styles and themes. It’s not the best shooter but it’s one of the most unique, which is sufficient to earn it its reputation. Whether you go with the solid original or this touchy remake, you’d be remiss not experiencing the magic for yourself if you haven’t.

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