It seems like the whole world agrees BioShock Infinite > BioShock 1 > BioShock 2. I seem to live on a sparsely populated island where BioShock 2 > BioShock 1 > BioShock Infinite. I’ll attempt to explain why, but I will start and end this little discussion by saying all three are legendary games. They are quite possibly the best single player FPS games since… ever. The genre as a whole is not well-known for excellence in storytelling, which is why BioShock stands considerably apart from the crowd. We can quibble about Fallout, but that’s a completely different genre in my mind.
BioShock games are twisted, thought-provoking, scary, surprising, intellectual, bloodbaths. The story is mostly revealed through audio recordings and being spoken to by NPCs. BSI is a bit different in terms of the constant dialogue between Booker and Elizabeth. BioShock games are also known for their brilliant locations and morality based gameplay (BSI is once again the exception on this point).
BioShock 1 and 2 take place in Rapture, a city built on the ocean floor, and which is IMO the single greatest backdrop in gaming history. The attention to detail, the look, the feel, the consistency of art and style, the concept that inspired its construction and ultimately its fall, everything. It’s amazing. Columbia is the backdrop of BioShock Infinite. It’s a floating city built on very different principals, with a very different look and feel, and though it’s very cool, its degree of awesome pales in comparison to Rapture. In Rapture you can practically feel the crushing weight of the water around you. Rot and decay both physical and spiritual pervade every aspect of the place. It feels more real and it’s part of the DNA of the game. It’s practically another character, whereas Columbia is simply a cool location where events take place.
BioShock 1 has by far the most interesting and thought-provoking story. It deals with very real philosophical questions that are as applicable to the real world as they are to Rapture. BioShock 2 continues along the same vein, but comes at it from the philosophically opposite viewpoint, however it places less emphasis on ideas and more on building up the protagonist’s relationship with daughter, Eleanor. Of the three games, it is BS2 in which I became the most emotionally invested in the characters, their actions, and consequences of their actions. Where BS 1 and 2 focus mainly on altruism versus capitalism, BSI deals more with religion and racism. While these are obviously important topics, they are not nearly as interesting to me because there’s much less moral ambiguity. Racism is bad, period. The Prophet’s religion is bad, period. There really is no question about which ideas are right or wrong.
BioShock 1 and 2 have morality based game mechanics that influence the game as you play as well as the final outcome. I won’t go into detail about the specific mechanics, but the fact that you must make moral choices, which matter, is a very, very good thing. The mechanics are very well done and make you feel more vested in the world and in the outcome. BSI has none of that—no choices to make and no alternate endings. There is a time and place for strong narrative (The Last of Us) but in a game that’s all about conflicting ideas, figuring out right from wrong, good from bad, selfishness versus pragmatism, the lack of choice doesn’t make sense to me, especially given the heritage of it established BS1 and 2. At the end of the game I felt like an outside observer, not a participant.
In terms of gameplay, I think BS2 is the best by a considerable margin. BS1 is rough around the edges. The implementation of plasmids is pretty clunky. In BS2 you get to play as a Big Daddy. Seriously. You’re playing as the most feared enemy from BS1. You have a fucking drill hand, guns, plasmids, and all the Big Daddy abilities that kicked your ass in BS1, you now get to unleash on any who stand in your way. BSI is a bit of a back step in that you play an ordinary man with weapons and vigors (plasmids). It’s a huge step up over BS1, but not as satisfying as BS2.
All of the games look great, sound great, and have great voice acting. In terms of the villains, I think Sophia Lamb of BS2 is the winner. The Prophet was meh. Frank Fontaine and Andrew Ryan from BS1 were very good as well. In terms of protagonist however, BSI takes the cake. Elizabeth is a fantastic companion, being easy on the eyes and ears, and her presence was a welcome departure from the solitude of the first two games. And seeing as you have a companion to speak to, the main player character for once has a lot to say, and it’s said very well thanks to Troy Baker, who I recognized instantly from my time in The Last of Us. Not only were they both great, but at one point in the game you can pick up a guitar, and as you strum, Elizabeth sings a beautiful tune. As if that weren’t enough, if you stick around through the credits, you’ll get to see Troy Baker playing the guitar and singing along with Courtnee Draper (Elizabeth) an extended version of the song. Elizabeth is truly the best thing about BSI, she’s interesting, smart, strong, and you come to care for a great deal very quickly. While a strong bond develops with Eleanor in BS2, the relationship is much more distant throughout most of the game.
So, if you managed to read through all that, it should come as no surprise that overall, BioShock 2 is my favorite entry in the series. It takes place in Rapture, has the best gameplay elements, gives the player some degree of agency, and provides a thought-provoking story with a greater emphasis on personal relationships. Ultimately, it’s the one that pulled on all the right emotional strings for me. That said, BS1 has one of the best final, heart-felt scenes in all of gaming. BSI on the other hand, ends and leaves you confused and wondering wtf you just went through all of that for.
I tried to keep all that text above reasonably objective, but I have a couple biases that hugely influence my own personal views. So in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll explain those biases to provide some context.
1) I HATE time travel. And though BSI doesn’t focus a lot on time travel, it still revolves around the idea of multiple universes (which is okay) and the idea that actions taken can somehow undo events that have already taken place or stop future events from happening (not okay). Events that have taken place, cannot be undone like they never happened. I really can’t stomach anything that revolves around that plot hook. As for preventing future events from happening, well that assumes pre-determination, which is another thing I don’t care for. Both those ideas are front and center at the end of BSI.
2) I have very strong feelings about the role of art (and by extension, entertainment) in life. And that role is to uplift, inspire, and just generally make you feel good. When all was said and done, BS1 and 2 both left me with positive feelings, BSI did not. I was left feeling empty, bitter? I don’t know exactly, but it wasn’t good.
If you’re still with me, then there’s just one last piece of business: I will start and end this little discussion by saying all three are legendary games.