numbthumb's BioShock 2 (Xbox 360) review

The Return to Rature

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XBOX 360, PS# & PC

If you thought seriously that Bioshock 2 would follow up its predecessor and surpass it on all fronts, then I’d say we had very different impressions about the original. You can’t top that type of game. The first time you see Rapture through a Bathysphere window is something that can’t be replicated. Exploring it with fresh eyes is a unique and untouchable experience that’s impossible to duplicate. Many, such as myself, felt this strongly about the game, and subsequently believed that doing a sequel would only tarnish those things. We were wrong, sort of, or perhaps just shortsighted.

There’s no doubt that this is still very much a Bioshock title through and through. In fact the opening section of the game is reminiscent of the original in so many ways that you’ll quickly equate yourself with your surroundings like you never left. But it takes a good thirty minutes or more before it really gets its legs and shows you something new. It’s a game that slow burns and gains steam as it continues toward the climax which is superior to the original creations slumping last act.

The story is told much like the first one, you awaken in Rapture and find yourself on one end of a radio being guiding by the words of others with a vested interest in your actions. As some help you along, and other taunt you, you’ll begin to unravel the objective and set course. It’s rather straight forward, more direct a-to-b than some might expect. While characters tell you what must be done to move on, over one hundred audio logs are littered throughout the world to help fill in story gaps and evolve the characters and through these recordings. They’ll explain some of the events that occurred during the ten years since Frank Fontaine played his hand against Andrew Ryan and the subsequent fallout of those events. Some are decidedly more effective than others such as a father trying to find his kidnapped daughter, snatched from the shores by a crazy screeching, armor-clad woman. Unfortunately they aren’t all great. The tapes trying to further elaborate on Sofia Lamb’s role in Rapture, the games antagonist, seem forced, due to her not being mentioned in the first game.

If you let that slide though it’s easy to see why Sofia Lamb is a good choice for a new villain. As an altruist, she’s the perfect counterpoint to the ramblings of Andrew Ryan’s individualistic capitalist mindset. She believes in the good of the family, the success of many instead of the elevation of one. But this, too, brings with it complications and the sacrifice of will, a theme that permeates through Bioshock new and old. It’s through Lamb’s beliefs that your role as a protective Big Daddy is threatened, the bond  you share with your little sister is not beneficial to anyone but her, which Lamb cannot have. This is the emotional crux of Bioshock 2 and if you can buy into that then you’ll be wonderfully rewarded.

But a large portion of gamers will, no doubt, decry the impact just isn’t there anymore. This is a fair argument, and this sequel will never impress you with the same level of shock and awe revelations you got last time. However, one of the things I didn’t like about the first game was that you weren’t involved; you were a puppet that had little in the way of real impact in this world. Other people were pulling the strings, they brought you to Rapture, you did as they wanted and then were punished or rewarded for what little choice you had, namely harvesting or rescuing the Little Sisters. That’s the difference between the games as I see it. While you’re still brought to Rapture in a way, you have more at stake in the outcome. It’s not enough to call the stories a wash, they aren’t, but I think 2K Marin did a far better job than what was reasonably expected.

Then where did they improve upon the original, if not the story? The answer to that is in gameplay. While fundamentally similar, the minor tweaks and shifts are all sounds choices, if not exactly revolutionary. The biggest by far is the fact that you’re now a Big Daddy, and as such you can dual-wield your plasmids and weapon, a naturally intuitive move that offers up a much more creative and chaotic action than before. The act of switching between weapon and plasmid just seems uncanny to go back to now, because using both you’re allowed way better combos to dish out. And it’s a good thing, because even though you’re bigger and tougher than before, you’re still just a prototype model Big Daddy. You’ll take more damage than you might remember dealing to other Big Daddy types, like the Bouncer or Rosie, but it actually makes plenty of sense when you encounter an enemy later in the game that’s the next step up from you and still not the sponge for damage as later versions of what you are.

Not only can you use both of your weapons at the same time, but Plasmids have received a significant upgrade, starting exactly as you’re used to and then elevating in grades until they turn into virtually different powers altogether. Before your Plasmids were just stronger versions at higher levels, here they actually act differently, larger, and with more oomph when you top them up. Powers like the Insect Swarm aren’t as useless as they once were, because now fully maxed they can infest dead bodies and wait for unsuspecting Splicer’s to pass by to pounce on. Hypnotizing has way better benefits during big fights than just keeping an enemy off your back, now you can recruit enemies to fight alongside you. All these minor shifts in your arsenal are excellently handled, not rewriting the programming, but elaborating on it.

Now that you’re a Big Daddy, your interaction with the Little Sisters has deepened, they aren’t just something you search for kidnap. Like the first game you still have the option to Harvest or Rescue them for Adam, the games currency for plasmids, money only pays for regular munitions. The difference is this time around you can also choose to Gather Adam, dropping your Little Sister off at a specially marked corpse to gather more for you before you decide how to deal with her. When you do this, get ready for a rush of Splicer’s. They’ll attack you, and the little sister. If you die, you don’t get the Adam and have to try again. They gradually build in difficulty until late in the game when these gathers are a furious battle that’ll run most of your ammunition dry. You don’t have to do this, but it’ll go a long way to helping you acquire every plasmid you might want. Though, you won’t have enough Adam for every upgrade in the game, which is how personal preference comes into play, strategizing the best compliment to your playing style. By the end of both of my runs through the game I had managed to get what I needed with Adam to spare.

Which is a good thing, because you’ll need every last power you can get when you come into contact with the games toughest enemy, the Big Sister. She’s a shrieking nightmare in every sense of the word, agile, durable, and tough as all get out. You can manipulate a fight in your favor using speed against Big Daddy’s, but Big Sisters will put you on the defensive, scrambling away to save yourself which is often still futile. On harder difficulties you can expect to die, a lot, often as a result of just running out of ammo. It isn’t cheap though, and that’s important to know. Every fight is winnable, it’s just not easy.

She isn’t the only new addition either. There’s a better variety of enemies to encounter, forcing you to think a little more about exactly how you approach each situation. The AI is better as well, with enemies no longer running straight into you line of fire. Instead, they take cover effectively, go for health when necessary and look for environmental surroundings to stop your plasmids. This was supposed to be how it worked in Bioshock, but it never materialize that way. So seeing it this time is much appreciated, and it makes for a much more difficult game than before, too.

There’s one downside with Bioshock 2, butit doesn’t stop the game from working or being fun, but it also doesn’t meet the level of expectation for most, is the graphics. Two and a half years ago Bioshock was an amazingly beautiful game that was on par with the best games around. It looks like they’ve made no improvements to the engine whatsoever. It looks the same as the first game. Which isn’t bad, but I hoped for some polish and refinement. The world design is pitch perfect for Rapture, however, so even if the technical specs don’t stick with the best, the world is still so specific and organic that exploration is warranted.

A warning about exploration, the designers took away the ability to backtrack like you could in the first game. Looking at the boards this seems to be something a lot of people really despise, calling the game more linear. This isn’t really true though. The first game was just as straight forward, with no reason to backtrack at all other than collecting audio books or Little Sisters you may have missed. But there was no reason to go back if you had collected what you wanted, no change or story details to uncover further. Just because the option was there didn’t mean it was open world. The level design still rewards a lot of exploration, often finding valuable upgrades and tonics off the beaten path. On top of that, there are plenty of areas that you can explore without the story telling you to do so, even if it circumvents some of the story beats later but you’ll never miss anything that you need to witness. That all being said, you can’t help but wonder why take out a harmless feature like that if so many people enjoyed it?

The audio in Bioshock 2 is just as superbly mastered as Bioshock. The soundtrack is, quite frankly, amazing, as beautiful and haunting as the first one but it feels more eerily epic and intimidating. The voice acting is top notch, with the main characters performing exceptionally deep and vivid characterizations that make up the meat of this world. Even the splicer’s, rambling in the halls alone and talking amongst themselves are as equally impressive, often showing you that these were once real people, driven to and way over the brink of madness. You’ll hear them from a distance, and sometimes it’s worth it just to stop and listen. Every one of them has something disturbing or sad to say, or worse, something strictly psychotic.  Water plays a big role, as you’d expect, and the shift in atmosphere between scenes where you’re surrounded by the ocean and not are deftly done to perfection.

Last, and oddly not least, is the multiplayer. It’s an addition they really didn’t need when you think about it. No one was clamoring to take to the halls with a bunch of their friends to shoot Plasmids and revolvers at each other. But that’s exactly what they’ve added to the package. Set one year before the first game you play on one of two sides, Team Ryan or Team Atlas. You have all the powers from the first game at your disposal, once you unlock them of course. It’s staggered like all online games are now, with each level grabbing you more goodies. It can be surprisingly fun, more strategic than other twitch shooters online. There’s a good play on the usual modes like Capture the Sister instead of flag and Turf War in place of domination style matches. They’re the same, but tuned to the Bioshock brand. It’s ultimately shallow only in longevity, offering a max cap of level 40 with no more rewards afterwards. Games freeze from time to time as well, and the match will drop if the host leaves. So it’s no perfect, but it’s far better than the average tacked on multiplayer that you usually see. Unless they add some DLC to extend the life though, it’ll be hard for it to stay busy months from now.

I don’t think the question really is whether Bioshock 1 or 2 is better, because the experiences are different and it becomes unfair to each game to directly compare. On one hand you won’t find the same astonishing revelations and twists, and you won’t find Rapture as overwhelming because it isn’t as fresh. On the other hand, the gameplay mechanics have been tweaked so subtly, yet so effectively that you’ll wonder why they weren’t like this out of the gate. As well, this is a more direct personal journey, trading the puppet mystery of the first for a life and death journey to be reunited with the only person in the world that matters to you. So while I wasn’t as floored with Bioshock 2 as I was the first time I crawled through this world, I was pleased to see that they improved virtually all the areas they could without ruining anything that really worked. I still didn’t want to leave Rapture, I still wanted more, just like the first time I encountered it. For me, it isn’t a question of which is better, it’s how the hell are they going to come close with the third game?


THE GRAPHICS: It’s still a pretty world, virtually untouched though. However, the engine received no polish, and has begun to look dated by standards of current games.  8/10

THE SOUND: A haunting score and some top of the line voice acting. The over hundred audio logs allow you to hear a wide variety of personalities that help fill out the world. Some will rue the effects taken from vending machines (I could care less) 9/10

THE PRODUCTION: The added multiplayer, refined mechanics and excellent writing excel this title in many ways.  The new selection of locations that shows the underbelly of Rapture offer more than just new levels, but a further commentary on the society that went so wrong. 9/10

THE GAMEPLAY: Combat is more diverse and far more fluid. Controls are slicker and more intuitive and enemies provide a better degree of challenge.  10/10

THE LASTING APPEAL: There are more choices this time, with more implications on just how the ending will play out. Tougher moral choices mean you’ll want to go through again and play it out differently. Multiplayer is surprisingly fun and is easily worth some solid sit down time, if for nothing else than to distract you from MW2. It isn’t as long as it could have been though. 9/10

GRADE: 90%

ED NOTE: This review is solely for the 360 & PS3 versions. I attempted to play the PC version and found so many issues and glitches within the first 2 hours of the game that I traded it for a console version instead. Broken Games for Windows, glitches involving disappearing hands, corrupt save files and even not being able to log in to play ruined any shot this game has on the PC market until a series of patches are released.

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