Bioshock: The Collection's Weird Audio
I just wrote an article gushing about Bioshock Remastered, and I still stand behind it. The visual overhaul of the game is great, and super obvious in a side-by-side comparison.
I revisited the original 360 version of the game thanks to the Xbox One Backwards Compatibility program, and I could definitely see how people having a meeting at 2K Games would look at those textures and go "I guess...I guess we have to pay to have these assets remade."
In many cases, the new assets perfectly recapture the original artwork, but drawn/rendered at dramatically higher resolution, so you can jam your face right into the textures on a modern TV and not worry about it looking bad. The original game doesn't hold up as well in that department.
The lighting and shading changes were more controversial when the remaster launched two years ago. They're not so much better or worse, as they are entirely different. It seems like a lot of work to relight and shade several scenes, and change up the use of specular mapping, but they did it.
They also changed the sound mix. Which I'm less excited about, as a weird sound person.
The original Bioshock has a very deeply layered, though generally dynamically-compressed sound mix. There's lots of cool sounds in there, but they all play at more or less the same intense volume unless they're very far away from the player.
Most audiophiles don't love dynamic compression, because they feel it lessens the overall quality and excitement of audio. Sometimes, this is true. However, in the case of Bioshock, it was key to the mix.
Bioshock's soundscape is rich with detail, environmental audio, diagetic music tracks, and background noises. And in the original mix, this all comes through loud and clear, helping to give Rapture an intense audio vibe that's almost oppressive, in a good way. When voices come in over the radio or audio logs, they're front and center, crisp and detailed over the top of the environment. Just as they should be.
In the remastered version of the game...this delicate balance is all messed up. All of the audio is still there, and it all still pans correctly around...but the dynamics are all different. Voices are now a little more distant, mixed more like they're coming from a real radio in the environment and less like they're blasting directly into your head. This is more "realistic," but it also makes them less intelligible to the player, especially if you're fighting enemies at the time.
Combat sounds still come through loud and clear, but environmental ambience and music are reduced in the mix. Again, they sound more "realistic," but it means that Rapture is no longer quite the lurching monster with old records spewing out of it that it once was. The environment frequently sounds too quiet if you're used to the older version of the game. Areas that once teemed with background sound are just a touch more lifeless, even though all the samples and sound effects are all still in there.
It's a creative choice that doesn't work nearly as well as the visual overhaul. Many of the sounds are also rendered at a higher bitrate...but the crunchiness of the old audio actually helped give it more of a vibe of 1960, the year it takes place in. So that's weird too.
The one thing that benefits from the new mix, oddly enough, is the background audio during the hacking sequences. It's boomy and layered and more prominent, with crisp little noises and droning sound coming out of the machine you're hacking. I wish the rest of the game sounded like the hacking screen.
If you've never played the original Bioshock, or you're not as absurd about audio as I am, you might not notice that the audio in the new game is about 80 percent as exciting as the old one. And it's not even "incorrect," it's just different. But I can't help but feel the audio lost a little of the magic that helped Bioshock to work so well and feel so technologically impressive in 2007. If anything, I would have added in more audio layers and loudness using modern mixing tools, to really further sell the oppressive environment that is Rapture.