BioShock is a classic first-person shooter. Getting the game on your iPhone and iPad might therefore seem like a steal — even if it’s a hefty $US14.99 one. But don’t be fooled by the high-profile mobile port that came out last week: this is not BioShock as I remember it.
BioShock on iOS — or, as I like to call it, BiOShock — feels very much like a port in the sense that many ingredients I’d consider essential from the original experience have been noticeably changed. Unfortunately, this means that they were all changed for the worse. The graphics received a major downgrade. If you play it shortly after revisiting the game on Xbox 360 or PC like I did, it looks like you’ve just stepped back a console generation or subbed in an inferior graphics card. This is an especially large bummer when it comes to BioShock because much of what I loved about the original game was the unprecedented, artfully composed atmospheric presentation of the underwater city of Rapture. The set pieces and scripted sequences are all still there, and luckily the game’s excellent music and voice-acting wasn’t similarly dinged during its journey to iOS. But playing the game just doesn’t feel the same, because it just doesn’t look the same.
IGN took a look at the game’s graphics on iOS vs. the Xbox 360, and I’d highly recommend taking a look if you’re considering picking up the new version:
More importantly, BiOShock suffers from the same problem that almost every first-person shooter I’ve played on a mobile touch-friendly device does: its controls suck. The game uses a now standard virtual joystick setup, meaning that you rub your thumbs around regions on the lower right and left of the screen to either move your character or change the camera angle. Large icons sit around the borders of the screen to help you switch between different weapons and plasmids with the tap of a finger, meanwhile.
I only played through the first few hours of BiOShock this weekend, but I found the touchscreen controls to be often frustrating, and occasionally infuriating. The game is still a blood-soaked first-person shooter at the end of the day, and using the touch controls just didn’t give me the amount of precision or finesse I needed to make it through many tense firefights or action sequences. BioShock never really felt like a shooter fan’s shooter through-and-through — its controls were always a bit jumbled and the plasmids turned many fights into a cartoonish jumble of blood and chaos. But it was still fun, at the end of the day. Trying to use the touchscreen controls simply wasn’t in comparison.
Now, the natural counter-argument to saying that BiOShock’s touch controls are crappy is to suggest that I use some sort of gamepad-style controller device to make my entire experience better. And to be fair, other critics have done that and found that playing BiOShock on an iPad with a Bluetooth controller made the whole game a lot more fun. Nearly identical to the original, in fact.
I don’t think that playing the iOS version of BioShock with a controller is entirely appropriate in this case, however, because the most important question to me here is: is this game really worth a jarring $US15 for iOS? Considering the price and availability of this port is essential for a few different reasons. First, as I said above, we already know that BioShock is an incredible game. Second, it’s been available on other platforms for a long time now, which means that both the hardware necessary to optimise it for any old PC or a last-gen console and the original version(s) of the game aren’t very expensive at this point either. You can get a used copy of BioShock for $US12 for the Xbox 360 at GameStop, or a new digital copy for $US20 off Steam. And can probably get a PS3, 360, or PC (at least one that can run BioShock fairly well) for about as much as one of Apple’s newer, fancier iOS devices at this point too.
If using a Bluetooth controller is necessary to get the full BiOShock experience, than that also means that both the price and the portability of the new iOS port are negatively impacted by the game’s control scheme. Also, you have to consider that while this is technically an iOS port, it’s only compatible with a small selection of Apple’s newest devices. I couldn’t play it on my personal iPad Mini, for instance, meaning I had to borrow my roommate’s newer iPad for the weekend. He wasn’t happy about that, nor was he happy about the fact that I had to remove more than ten of the apps he had installed just to make space for this 1.6GB behemoth.
At the end of the day, mobile games are meant to be mobile because they offer gamers an added convenience — the ability to play without being tethered to one particular gadget or another, the chance to therefore experience a game while travelling outside of your living room. 2K compromised some parts of its phenomenal alien-killing game XCOM: Enemy Unknown when it brought it to iOS devices last year. But it also made the game’s board game presentation fit so well with the iPad and iPhone’s touchscreen that it still ended up being yet another solid way to play a great game. It’s much easier to port a tabletop-style strategy game to a touchscreen device than it is to port a shooter, however, and BioShock didn’t make the transition quite as gracefully.
Whatever convenience BioShock’s iOS port offers is overpowered by the game’s many frustrating shortcomings. If you want to play BioShock again — which you should — I’d recommend just picking up a copy for PC, PS3, or Xbox 360 instead. It will save you some major headaches, and will probably end up costing you the same amount as well.