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BioShock for iOS Review: Not Spliced Up Enough

Despite being an award-winning sci-fi game with strong horror elements, BioShock for iOS suffers from poor controls and visuals.

Our Verdict

Despite being an award-winning sci-fi game with strong horror elements, BioShock for iOS suffers from poor controls and visuals.

For

  • Faithful adaptation of the first game
  • Solid story

Against

  • Awkward controls
  • Poorly rendered visual design
  • Lack of atmosphere

It's safe to say that the original BioShock was one of the best games of 2007. As such, it received numerous awards for its innovative, horror-themed gameplay and its morality-based plotline. The game inspired two sequels and even a novel. However, BioShock developer Irrational Games announced in February, less than a year after the company's monumental success with BioShock Infinite, that it would be closing its doors.

As a final project, Irrational Games and its publisher, 2K Games, teamed up to port the original BioShock game to iOS. Selling for a hefty $15 in the iTunes App Store, the game is compatible with the iPad Air, iPad Mini 2, iPad 4, iPhone 5, iPhone 5s ans iPhone 5c. I tested the game on an iPad Air.

Unlike the console and PC versions, however, the iOS version of BioShock suffers from a poor control setup and weak visuals, drastically affecting the user's experience. We don't recommend it.

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Story: A rapturous tale

BioShock is set in 1960 and tells the story of Jack, who survives a plane crash only to discover Rapture, an underwater city that was founded in order to provide men with the intellectual and political freedom to create and pursue whatever they wanted. But what Jack finds is a city that's fallen apart.

Rapture is plagued by Splicers, soldiers who have overdosed on genetically modifying drugs and kill anything that moves. The city's founder, Andrew Ryan, doesn't want you there. He will manipulate Splicers, robotic turrets and the very environment to kill you. Jack's only help is a man named Atlas, who somehow survived the fall of Rapture. But even Atlas has his own ulterior motives.

Ryan discovered that a certain breed of sea slug secreted a chemical called ADAM, which can be used to create Plasmids, genetic serums that give a person superhuman abilities. Thanks to sea slugs implanted in their bodies, the ghoulish girls called Little Sisters can create ADAM. The girls wander the city, harvesting the raw materials to create more ADAM from any dead body they find.

As the Little Sisters explore, each is protected by a Big Daddy, a large cyborg who wears a deep-diving suit and kills anything that threatens the Little Sister. If players want ADAM — and they will need it to succeed — they will have to kill a Big Daddy before getting access to his Little Sister. Players can choose to kill the Little Sister and get a lot of ADAM, or save the girl and get less ADAM. The choices affect the outcome of the game.

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As a whole, the story is solid. Jack is an everyman with little personality or back story, so it's the villains and environment that give Rapture its unique feel. I could sense the conflict and the need to survive, whether it was in Andrew Ryan's Objectivist ideals or Atlas' kind yet manipulative character.

While the in-game dialogue focuses on directing you toward your goal, extra material gives you more of the story. Audiotape players dispersed throughout the city reveal what Rapture was and how it fell into chaos. Some recordings are emotional; others are revelatory. But this simple tool provides far more detail about the world than expository dialogue ever could.

The one aspect of the story that disappointed me was the Little Sisters' mechanic, or impact on the game. No matter what I did with the Little Sisters, my gameplay experience stayed the same. BioShock's moral system is designed to leave players with a deep moral choice that, in theory, affected the world around them, but the actual moral implications had little effect on gameplay.

In contrast, in games like Fable, every choice you make affects how you are perceived. Regardless of whether I harvested or saved Little Sisters, both Ryan and the Splicers tried to kill me. I didn't see the results of my actions until I defeated the final boss.

Gameplay: Scary, yet innovative

As a sci-fi first-person shooter with horror elements, BioShock provides players with a limited amount of ammunition and EVE (the health potion required to use Plasmids). Thankfully, players have plenty of options for handling their enemies. They can capture and hack the turrets that Ryan left across Rapture, set traps with their Plasmids, stun their opponents or just gun them down. The mixture of Plasmids and guns gives players a variety of options for handling any opponent.

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Translating the controls: Clunky and sometimes useless

While the base mechanics of the game are enjoyable, the iOS controls felt broken. The game uses a dual-joystick-control setup; the left side of the screen moves Jack around, while the right side changes his view and fires weapons. This has been effective in games such NOVA 3 and Modern Combat 4, but here it was exasperating. It was impossible to aim and fire at the same time, which became especially aggravating when I was facing off against Splicers who were constantly moving around.

The ability to switch Plasmids also felt awkward. One challenge in the original BioShock was that users had to constantly switch from weapon to Plasmid, limiting your combat potential. In iOS, switching is even harder. When I had to "zap and whack" a Slicer, it took a few extra moments to switch from my Electric Bolt to my wrench — long enough for the stun to wear off and for the Slicer to blast me with his shotgun.

Adding an iPad-compatible controller such as the SteelSeries Stratus might improve gameplay, but a shooter like BioShock should not require that.

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Visuals: A sunken attempt

As a fan of the original BioShock, my biggest question going into the iOS version of the game was, "How will the graphics hold up?" After all, the game was running on the demanding Unreal Engine 2.5. I was worried that my iPad's graphic card would not be powerful enough. The game's lighting needs to be balanced enough to let the shadows scare us while the light shows us the world we're in.

Sadly, the iOS conversion couldn't create that balance.

While the game does a decent job of translating classic BioShock imagery, such as the Lighthouse at the beginning of the game and the Big Daddies, BioShock's atmospherics were lost in the process. The city of Rapture relies on a mixture of shadow and sound to keep things creepy. However, the iPad's graphics card was unable to render the shadows.

One scene illustrates what was lost: As Jack approaches a hallway, he sees the shadow of a woman talking to a baby carriage, which gives the impression that everything is normal. But when you actually see the woman, this turns out to be false. The shadow lied. There wasn't actually a baby in the carriage. This scene set the tone for how the rest of the game would progress.

However, the iOS version of this scene lost all of its brilliance. There's no shadow, and no flickering light — just a woman in a hallway.

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Bottom line

The non-iOS version of BioShock is an amazing game that provides players with a dark, yet engaging experience that leaves them thinking for a long time. However, the iOS conversion of the game doesn't have the same effect. Its flawed controls and dumbed-down graphics provide a mediocre experience.

If you want to experience the game in its fullness, you can buy a physical copy for the Xbox 360 or PS3, or you can download it via the Xbox Games Store or PlayStation Store. If you prefer to play on a computer, you can get the PC version on Steam and Amazon, and the Mac version via the Mac App Store.

Christopher Hutton is an editorial intern for Tom's Guide. Contact him at chutton@tomsguide.com. Follow him @chris_journo and on Google+. Follow us @tomsguide, on Facebook and on Google+.