By Luke Summerhayes
Over the year 2014, I embarked on a mission to play through a generation of videogames I had missed. Throughout the life of the Nintendo Wii, that was the only games console I owned. This was never an issue, to me, as I was completely satisfied with the Super Mario Galaxy games, the two Zeldas and Xenoblade Chronicles. Eventually I decided I wanted to play through some of the games I'd missed so I picked up a Playstation and a big stack of second-hand videogames. Among the Mass Effects and Dark Souls, I was hearing a lot of talk about the Bioshock series.
All of that is my longwinded way of saying I only just finished Bioshock and Bioshock 2 for the first time, and I'm about to bore you with my opinions on them. Would you kindly read this without judging me for repeating a load of ideas you heard five years ago?
The first Bioshock game is a bona fide classic, nobody can deny that. I came to it last year so inevitably the graphics didn't quite have the wow factor they might have had on release; the character models are a little simple, the fire looks cartoony and nothing is as crisp or high def as something released in the past year. As soon as the pad is in one's hand, though, none of that matters. Your screen disapears and takes your console and your living room with it. You are in Rapture.
The star of Bioshock is the underwater city in which the entire game takes place. From its art deco stylings and the whales drifting past to the tiny little details that make it feel like a place people genuinely lived in, Rapture is easily one of gaming's all-time greatest locations. Beautiful and terrifying all at once, just like the ocean itself.
A lot of the game's praise, deservedly, stems from the plot. A much cleverer tale than the usual videogame fare, themes like objectivism, free will and economics are explored in great depth and the player is forced to question the things they take for granted in most first-person-shooter games. I'm not going to go into the story beats, the characters and the twists. If you've not experienced them, you need to do it fresh. If you already know, there's nothing I can say that you haven't heard before.
Crucially, as this is not a book or a film, the gameplay is also excellent. The gunplay lacks the bite of some of the big, military shooters but the fast-paced action delivers a freedom of combat that is all-too-often lacking in modern A-to-B shooting galleries. Switching between guns and super-powers, hacking robots to help you, making the most of your meagre ammo and on-the-fly tactical decisions to deal with a brilliant variety of villains is a superb feeling. Other than a dull, out-of-place final boss, Bioshock is a masterpiece in unconventional shooting.
Sometimes, people harp on about "the classics" so much that when you come to them fresh, they can only dissapoint. Other times, you get Bioshock.
Quite the opposite to the first game, I heard very mixed reports about Bioshock 2's quality. A sequel to a game that never needed a sequel, made by four different studios working in tandem and without the input of the auteur director Ken Levine who masterminded the first game, Bioshock 2 seems to lack the air of prestige which surrounds the original.
Therefore I picked up my controller this time with a sense of trepidation. I was playing it a matter of months after the first, rather than the years that others waited. I hadn't been subjected to the marketing, the previews and reviews or anything else. I was almost entirely ignorant about what to expect. All I had was one friend, Chris Pengilly, telling me to skip it and another, Andrew Rice, telling me it was ace.
The latter was right.
The Big Daddy and Little Sister characters, who adorn the fronts of the games' boxes and played a pivotal role in the first game, are explored here in a much more meaningful way. Finally getting to play as one of the lumbering tin men who spent the first game harassing me was excellent and with their diving apparatus the game was able to step outside of Rapture and flood the locations, making that feeling of being at the bottom of the ocean much more tangible.
The plot didn't have the intellectual aspirations of the first game, or the subtle telling, but it had a great deal more emotional weight. I cared about saving Eleanor and the little sisters much more than the vague power struggles I was being pulled back and forth by in the first game. Rescuing the little sisters and getting the touching ending might have been the shallowest kind of emotional manipulation but few games even try to make me care about the objectives to such an extent, so I really did feel a tear in my eye at the end of the first game. Here, that dynamic is pulled right to the forefront and the themes of parenthood and legacy really got to me. The decisions I made felt meaningful at the end. Fantastic stuff.
The gameplay is improved as well. There's none of the first game's backtracking, the hacking minigame is thankfully simplified and the use of the "plasmid" superpowers is streamlined to a kind of dual-weild alongside the guns. Also, there's no tedious final section or horredndously generic boss fight.
All in all, this game feels like a perfect sequel. It expands on the first game's phenomenal world without undermining any of that game's story, it smooths out the minor gameplay complaints and it delivers the experience you didn't even realise you wanted; it makes you the monster.
Like I was told when I bought these games last year, Bioshock and Bioshock 2 are must plays.
Rapture also helped to inspire a poem I wrote, about the beauty and horror of the sea (and the beauty of a certain pair of eyes the colour of the sea, and the unique fears that go with them).