Republished on Wednesday 29th January 2020: We're bringing this review back from the archives following the announcement of February's PlayStation Plus lineup. The original text follows.
When it was released in 2007, BioShock was hailed as a masterpiece by the gaming press and remains to this day a high watermark for the story-driven shooter. A thematic follow up to cult PC game System Shock 2 with a story that explored the objectivist philosophies of Ayn Rand set in a world modelled after the bleak dystopia of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley – it's a wonder it received mainstream attention at all. But lauded it was, helping to define the HD console generation and spawning many imitators.
Two sequels followed, the first was well received but ultimately seen as a step down to those that didn't appreciate tacked-on multiplayer and what felt like a re-tread of the first game's events. The second saw the return of creative director Ken Levine, who crafted a sprawling philosophical experiment that's since fallen out of favour with fans, often being derided for its tired shooter mechanics and frustrating plot contrivances.
Now seems like the perfect time to revisit these games on the PlayStation 4; as this generation becomes better known for technical innovations and hardware advances, the BioShock trilogy represents the pinnacle of artistic design and storytelling that arguably made the last generation so memorable. Bundled with a robust selection of DLC, the collection has incredible value for those new to the series, although one caveat is that returning fans won't find anything that they haven't seen before.
Each of the titles have received a fresh lick of 1080p paint and contain all additional content, with the exception of the second game's multiplayer, which was an interesting experiment, but won't really be missed.
It's nice to see the first BioShock running smooth on new hardware, but those expecting a complete overhaul will be disappointed. Again, this is merely a resolution boost and nothing more. Almost a decade after release and those old Unreal visuals are starting to fade, the port bringing with it the collection's only notable technical hitches. Framerate dips occur during Big Daddy dust-ups and there's some audio looping during radio transmissions. These issues are rare and will likely be patched, but their presence mars an otherwise smooth ride.
BioShock 2 benefits more from the visual upgrade than its predecessor, largely due to the increased detail and more vibrant art design. The brightly coloured fauna that covers Rapture's halls really pops in the new transfer and the sound design – exemplary in all of the games – shines through here.
Unsurprisingly, though, it's BioShock Infinite that is the most technically accomplished of the trilogy, and the cream and gold sprawl of Columbia looks as incredible now as it did in 2013. It's a testament to the efforts of Irrational Games' designers that it feels at home on the PS4.
Given that the visual tweaks are the only thing that sets these versions apart from their PlayStation 3 predecessors, how do the games themselves stack up to nine years removed from their initial release? BioShock has lost none of its power to captivate and is still a joy to play despite clunky shooting and rote puzzle mechanics. The opening reveal of Andrew Ryan's underwater utopia is a classic moment that never fails to astound, and the possibility that new players will be experiencing it along with all the other seminal moments in this game makes this package worthwhile.
BioShock 2 is probably a lot better than you remember and more than deserves its place in this trilogy. It tightens the combat and adds an element of strategy by increasing difficulty and reducing resources. Levels are opened up and feel more freeform and less linear than in your first Rapture misadventure, with the Little Sister gathering mechanic offering the player a chance to use all the tools at their disposal in a way the first game never did. It also builds on the story concepts of the first in interesting ways, putting the player in a Big Daddy suit from the outset and introducing a sympathetic and terrifying persistent antagonist in the Big Sister. It does feel like a re-tread in places, but as a thematic companion to the first game and an object lesson in how to revisit and improve upon a familiar experience, it does an excellent job.
Then there's Infinite, the black sheep of the Bioshock family – a textbook example of a game that couldn't possibly live up to its own hype. Critically acclaimed on release, only to receive a hefty backlash from those that felt cheated by the promises made by pre-release footage, the linear nature of the journey through Columbia, and a story twist that many found cheap.
In retrospect, Infinite is not the pretentious artifice that some have labelled it as: it's an intelligent and ambitious blockbuster of a game that seems more concerned with taking the player on a journey than giving them anything worthwhile to do. It's a theme park ride as fake as the metal presidents that attack the main characters and as fun as zipping around on a skyline. Even Elizabeth, with her ability to create tears in the fabric of the universe, equates to little more than novel way to get items and health drinks, but she also manages to be an escort mission that isn't annoying and a decent plot cypher to boot. Infinite is in many ways a hollow experience, not helped by the rigid structure of the objectives, which are slavishly dragged along by the whim of the story. On the flipside, the game is a hugely enjoyable ride, massive in scope, playing around with philosophical concepts and socio-political arguments in a way that may never be seen in a game with such production values again
The extra content is the real treat of this collection. The first game gets all the Protector Trial challenge rooms, as well as a directors commentary and a museum of abandoned concepts to wander around. BioShock 2 gets yet more challenge rooms and the fantastic Minerva's Den, which contains some of the best writing and characterisation in the series. The third game bundles in fun but disposable arena battle mode Clash in the Clouds and Burial At Sea, a two part story based add-on that takes place in an alternate vision of Rapture (which you may or may not be sick of by the end of this collection).
Revisiting the underwater metropolis before its fall, as both grizzled noir detective and femme fatale versions of Infinite's central pairing, is on the nose but hugely enjoyable fan service. The introduction of stealth mechanics and a more direct use of Elizabeth's powers is welcome and the story is satisfying, tying together most of the loose ends and concepts introduced by Infinite and bringing the whole series full circle.
BioShock: The Collection is the best way to experience the world of Rapture and Columbia. All three games and their DLC look great and, despite a slightly creaky port of the first game, perform well. Unfortunately, series veterans won't find anything new, meaning that the visual upgrade and the convenience of having everything pulled into one package are the only reasons to return to games that you may have already experienced multiple times.