iOS BioShock is a stunning achievement, but could have been much more

So BioShock is coming to iOS. Interesting. Sort of. Announcements like this usually split the internet into two camps of reaction, one of them all ‘gosh-wow-super-cool-gee-golly-wizz’ about the sheer fact that such a thing simply exists, the other resoundingly ‘Meh’ about the supposed excitement value of playing a seven year-old game on a tiny screen with crappy controls.

Traditionally I fall into the latter camp. And indeed, my enthusiasm for BiOShock (you can use that if you like, but I demand a credit each and every time you do) does not see me busting cartwheels in a sequined leotard. Not on a Monday. But that’s just me. I don’t get on with mobile gaming, and I doubt I ever will. But I’m not going to bash BiOShock (Yeah, I’m proud of that one). Not for the usual reasons, anyway.

The inherent logistical problems of running ‘core’ games on mobile prod-screens are nothing new. You play without buttons, you accept that you’re going to get a certain sort of experience. And by all accounts, pocket Rapture plays as well as could be expected, particularly if you’re dedicated enough to iOS gaming to fork out for one of the add-on controllers that it supports.

But I’m still struggling to think of a convincing reason I’d want to play it. I adore BioShock. Always have, always will. But is there a compelling reason for me to play it again? It’s one of the finest, narrative-focused, single-player experiences in gaming, but as such it’s not the sort of game I find myself compelled to drop back into if there’s nothing new to see or do.

And I think that’s the real source of my confusion regarding BiOShock. I’m probably being greedy to question such an achievement for ‘only’ providing the full, original game. But any ‘new’ BioShock on mobile could (and probably should) be much more than a port.

We are, after all, now living in what future historians will doubtless dub The Everyone-Who’s-Interested-Has-Already-Played-BioShock Age. Is there a secret cabal of gamers-in-denial waiting for it? The kind of people who loathe console and PC hardware with a fiery passion, but secretly covet our games, waiting day and night for them to finally appear on their magical digi-slates? Possibly, but I doubt it. And if anyone is waiting to give BioShock an additional play-through, do they really want to do so with a not-quite comparable version at an additional buy-in cost?

So I think an iOS edition needs something extra in order to be truly relevant. Maybe it could have been some kind of special edition, with a few bonus areas or powers thrown in. Or better, it could have been an alternative Rapture experience, not a full-sized BioShock 2.5, by any means, but a more focused, more tailored, first-person horror-adventure set in the gaps between the two games. Taking that approach could actually have worked to the game’s advantage if a modified gameplay model--perhaps something less combat-focused--had been designed to provide both a fresh, more essential experience and a neat way to avoid the problems of controlling fast action games on a mobile machine. Give me a new, mobile-optimised take on BioShock--maybe something more akin to a Gone Home, or even Amnesia--and I’d be bona fide jealous that I have nothing to play it on.

Hell, iOS would be a perfect home for that long-promised but rapidly-aborted BioShock game for the PS Vita. Touted as a Final Fantasy Tactics-style role-playing adventure set before the fall of Rapture, that thing had immense potential for expanding the BioShock story in a meaningful, refreshing way, playing to its intended platform’s strengths with great integrity. It’s a shame it never appeared, but on the iPad it could explode.

But of course, all of the above would require new dev teams and full-length development cycles, from concept planning, to production art, to final polish. With the original BioShock, all of that work is done. All that’s needed is some downgrading of assets and a bit of (admittedly vicelike) compression. It’s understandable that a straight port would be 2K’s choice.

With BioShock’s future now uncertain, following its creator Irrational’s dissolution after Infinite, the publisher needs a way to keep its biggest and most lauded brand alive in the public consciousness. A re-release of the series’ most universally praised, arguably most important entry is the most economical way of doing that. Particularly with the ‘Holy shit!’ factor of its chosen platform thrown in. It’s a smart tactical move. Maximum bang, minimal buck. And it looks like it’s turned out as well as anyone could have hoped.

But I just wish that it had been something more. Because as great as it may well be, BiOShock feels more like a stunt than a meaningful addition to the franchise. It could have been unique and important, a fantastic new taste of a part of BioShock lore that many miss, as well as a great example of how AAA studios can and should treat their big games on small platforms. As it is, it just feels ‘good’.

David Houghton
Long-time GR+ writer Dave has been gaming with immense dedication ever since he failed dismally at some '80s arcade racer on a childhood day at the seaside (due to being too small to reach the controls without help). These days he's an enigmatic blend of beard-stroking narrative discussion and hard-hitting Psycho Crushers.