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BioShock, one of the best shooters of all time, hits iOS -- and it's still great

The lines are blurring between AAA console and mobile game development. It's not happening in great volume just yet, nor are all major publishers converting their elaborate controller-based games into touch experiences. Activision's upcoming Skylanders: Trap Team for iOS and consoles alike is one huge example, but 2K Games has been already leading that charge with great success.

Last year's XCOM: Enemy Unknown made an almost seamless transition from an amazing $60 tactical strategy game into a lightly scaled-back $20 touch iteration, and now 2K is dipping into its back catalog for today's newly-launched iOS port of BioShock. First released in 2007 on consoles and PC, it set the bar for narrative-led, single-player shooting action, and remains one of the most amazing games ever played from the first-person perspective.

Now it's available on iPhone and iPad, and while there are necessary alterations to accommodate the hardware, it remains an essential play—and now opened up to a large new audience that may have missed this classic the first time around.

A true classic

Unlike the stock military and sci-fi shooters that usually dominate the genre, BioShock stands out in large part due to its incredible setting: Rapture, an underwater utopia-gone-wrong filled with gene-spliced, super-powered mutants. It's set in the year 1960, and you play as Jack, a man who survives an oceanic plane crash only to find access to the city via a lighthouse—and quickly becomes tangled up in a battle for power between opposing forces in this secret, stunning locale. 

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It's fair to say that the denizens of Rapture have become a little unhinged in their bottled-up, underwater abode.

Every last aspect of the game feels wonderfully unique and completely slaved-over, whether it's the gorgeous art deco design, the rich audio logs that fill out the back story of this one-of-a-kind scenario, or the moral decisions thrust upon you as the gripping narrative plays out over the course of a dozen-plus-hour campaign.

Simply by virtue of being released, BioShock is now the best single-player shooter available for iOS—and it's not even a close call. Games like Modern Combat and N.O.V.A. provide serviceable solo missions, and Call of Duty: Strike Team has a solid campaign jaunt. However, nothing on the App Store proves quite as impactful and memorable as BioShock, with its blend of action, storytelling, horror, and exploration.

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Running into a Big Daddy—a massively armored protector with a drill arm—provides sheer moments of terror. But in a good way.

System shock

It's easy to make the comparison to XCOM: Enemy Unknown, since both are massive console experiences translated to mobile and tablets via 2K China. Both are worthy ports, but the slower, turn-based pace of XCOM is a perfect fit for on-the-go, touch-centric gaming. That's not necessarily the case with first-person shooters, which are typically "good enough" when played on touch screens. 

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You might think you're crashing the party, but Rapture was already in a bad way well before you arrived.

Playing BioShock with touch controls is a solid enough experience, but it's far from ideal. Encounters aren't constant in Rapture, but they're very intense, and the lack of physical analog sticks is felt when you need to quickly and precisely respond to a threat—but instead fumble your response a bit. To 2K's credit, the publisher has come up with a helpful control scheme that allows you to quickly switch between weapons and genetically modified Plasmid attacks (like tossing lightning or ice at enemies) with the right thumb.

Thankfully, BioShock is compatible with MFi gamepads, which is definitely the way to go. I used the SteelSeries Stratus, the most console-like of the current crop of controllers, and it was easy to forget about it being a touch port and just fall under the spell of the storyline and the tension of the surroundings. It's not a perfect solution, however, since you'll still have to tap the screen to play audio logs and crouch, as far as I could tell. Also, there's no control customization to be found.

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You'll have the option to rescue or harvest these mutated Little Sisters. Both paths ultimately provide benefit, if you can live with your decisions.

And as a fan of the Xbox 360 original, it was difficult to ignore the visual degradation. BioShock's art design is second to none, and it's held up well over the years—but even on an iPad Air, the iOS version has a jagged finish and looks very fuzzy in spots, with texture crispness losing a step and animations seeming clunkier at times than I remember. It's less of an issue if you're playing a couple of feet back with a controller in hand, but hard to ignore when it's right in your face. 

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Plasmids imbue you with special powers and attacks, and each new pickup yield a great era-appropriate cartoon introduction.

Still, superficial concerns are worth tolerating for a chance to play an all-time great on your iOS device. You won't find another game quite like BioShock on the App Store, let alone anything as richly designed and developed. And there's hope for Android fans: nothing's been announced, but XCOM crossed over about 10 months after the iOS release. With luck, BioShock will do the same even sooner. 

BioShock is available now in the App Store for $15.

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