It’s hard to imagine that anyone interested in BioShock hasn’t already played it since its 2007 release on PC and Xbox 360, and subsequent port to PS3. But whether you’re intimately familiar with Rapture or brand new to its Art Deco halls, the underwater Objectivist utopia built and ruined by Andrew Ryan stands as a monument to gaming greatness even seven years after its conception.
The world of BioShock is a mesmerizing, horrifying collection of humanity’s greatest potential and worst characteristics trapped inside a single airtight time bomb that has already gone off long before the player arrives. Exploring the debris that remains is just as engaging today as it was seven years ago, even if iOS offers the worst way to do so.
Before we get into its shortcomings, it’s worth noting that content and story-wise, the iOS port of BioShock is the real deal. It’s the full game from plane crash to final battle, complete with all the voice acting, music, and set pieces that make the world of Rapture come alive. Players still take on the role of Jack as he tries to find his way out of the derelict city, fighting his way through citizens—aka “splicers”—driven mad by addiction to the gene-altering superdrug, ADAM. The combination of first-person shooter and RPG upgrade mechanics that has become inherent in all of the BioShock entries is the gameplay highlight of this one as well, requiring you to utilize a variety of Plasmid powers, firearms, and passive gene upgrades to stay alive as long as possible while simultaneously uncovering the disturbing truth of the world around you.
If you’ve played BioShock, this is still, at its core, the same game. If you haven’t, this is as complete as any other version you could pick up, and even contains some items released after the first iteration—including the Special Edition digital art book and bonus “Plasmid Pack” that outfits Jack with new powers like Sonic Boom.
The biggest differences, then, fall to the way the iOS version looks and controls. Visually, BioShock on iOS leaves a lot to be desired, with surprisingly jagged textures and lack of detail on many environmental areas. The resolution is at times blurry—not stylistically, but as if objects were degraded many times over. Lighting is hit or miss, with some areas so dark you’ll think your device has shut itself off, and others containing no atmospheric shadows whatsoever. This is true regardless of your device’s brightness setting, and the game itself offers no visual options: it will always look this way.
It’s expected that a game of this magnitude would have to be downgraded slightly to fit on current iOS devices; its levels are massive and packed with items, characters, and special effects to the point where even the console versions turned corpses into lockboxes to save memory. But the graphical difference is sometimes so noticeable that it’s a distraction. BioShock is based on atmosphere and being absorbed into this enthralling world: it’s difficult to lose yourself when storage crates put off a radioactive glow and Little Sisters become formless, flat shadows in your hands.
For first-time players, the visual downgrade won’t be quite as noticeable: this is still a surprisingly expansive and detailed world to have in the palm of your hand. But anyone who has played the game on a console or PC will find the iOS version looks even older than the seven-year-old original.
The other major hurdle to full immersion is the new touch controls. While a necessary evil of touch-only devices, 2K China has made a number of decisions in their implementation that make the controls difficult to get used to. You cannot rearrange the buttons at all, so the layout you see is what you’re stuck with. Hopefully you like having a mostly useless crouch button permanently plastered on the lefthand side of the screen.
The weapon/Plasmid quick-swap button is right in the middle of the two actions, which makes for quick access during a gunfight, but also causes a lot of accidental switching between gun and Plasmid when you were just trying to swap guns. For some reason, pulling up the gun or Plasmid radial does not pause the game as it did in the console versions. I realize that in those versions the screen was dominated by the radial, but this offered players a moment to breathe while deciding what weapon to whip out. The iOS version does not pause, and sometimes fails to display all of your available weapons, so enjoy getting wailed on while frantically searching for a gun the game pretends doesn’t exist.
There’s also little customization available for other small, but personal details. Movement / turn sensitivity is set in stone, as is the game’s brightness and lighting. None of these have any sort of adjustment available—nor does an option to “invert Y-axis” exist—despite the fact that most players will have distinct preferences about these.
Enemy hitboxes are fairly large to help balance the undesirable touch controls, counting hits even when your aim is just grazing their arm. Again, though, something else has been sacrificed: there’s no way to zoom in with a gun’s iron sights for added precision. Zoom in, like jumping—the other action that was cut from this version—was never a critical part of BioShock, but it’s another small gameplay loss.
It seems like BioShock-specific improvements were also overlooked. The game makes it easy to heal at any time (as long as you have a first aid kit) by tapping your health bar, yet they didn’t add the same functionality for restoring EVE. You have to activate your Plasmid slot and then use the button on the opposite side of the screen from your HUD to use a hypo instead of simply tapping your EVE bar. The Telekinesis Plasmid has been rendered almost unusable by the touch controls, which require you to hold down the Plasmid button while Telekinesis is equipped and then release to throw your item. The problem is, you use the same side of the screen to turn, so you cannot turn while using Telekinesis, a painful oversight of a popular power.
On top of these unfavorable design choices, BioShock suffers from performance issues as well. Playing on an iPad 4 and iPhone 5S with the latest iOS, no other apps running, and airplane mode on, the game still lagged terribly when more than one enemy was on screen. Even with no enemies nearby, just looking around often results in the screen skipping forward or back, leaving you staring in a totally different direction despite simply dragging slowly to turn. In a game where lagging forward may mean stepping under a security camera or worse, these hiccups are both frustrating and deadly.
In my opinion, the original BioShock is a nearly flawless experience. It’s lacking only in a few gameplay elements that were later introduced in BioShock 2, such as dual-wielding. But in being translated to iOS and touchscreens, it loses a lot more. If you have no other way to play this amazing part of gaming history, the iOS version is serviceable. Otherwise, play it on a PC, Xbox 360, or PS3, and get lost in Rapture the right way.