While Familiar, Bioshock 2 Marks Another Triumph For 2K
On August 21st, 2007, I took my first tentative steps into Rapture. The initial decent into the submerged metropolis has been seared into my mind ever since. After all, who could forget the feeling of wonderment as the tram descended through the sea, or the terror and curiosity of that first splicer encounter? In retrospect, it was mostly curiosity that drove me to attack Bioshock's campaign with such fervor. Despite the fear that plagued each of my steps, I felt compelled to discover what could have caused the collapse of such an ambitious utopia. The world and characters, although really kind of ridiculous, truly felt not just feasible, but real. By the end of the game, all loose ends were tied up and I was totally satisfied with my experience (a lame last battle notwithstanding.) It was with trepidation, then, that I observed the development of Bioshock 2. How could an experience as complete as the original game possibly benefit from getting a sequel? Many fans seemed to share my concerns. Thankfully, these fears have proven unwarranted, as Bioshock 2 actually improves on the original in several ways.
The moment I started up the campaign, all of my concerns dissipated. Like the original, this game grabbed me from the first frame and never let go. Bioshock 2 wastes no time in throwing its new protagonist, a prototype Big Daddy, right into the chaos of Rapture. Thanks to the role change and the familiar nature of the setting, my anxiety from the last game was replaced with bravado. This game doesn't fool around with empowering the player, at least more so than the last entry did. The Big Daddy's weapon of choice is, of course, a huge drill that can dish out some serious punishment. Later weapons include a Rivet Gun, a huge machine gun, a shotgun, an auto-hack tool, and a few other awesome instruments of destruction that I won't spoil. And while I started off with not a dollar to my name, after around five hours in Rapture I was a rich man. Additionally, Adam, the agent of genetic modification that makes up Bioshock's core, is much more plentiful thanks to a few new mechanics which I will detail later. All of these additions make this sequel feel less frightening and more action oriented than its predecessor, but the Big Daddy is still vulnerable and battles still demand intelligent thought.
Because players now assume the role of a Big Daddy, called Subject Delta, Rapture has opened up in ways that would not have been feasible for Jack, the last game's protagonist. For example, Little Sisters still patrol the hallways with their hulking guardians, and players can still take the girls for themselves and either harvest or save them. A third option also presents itself. If the player is willing to spend some extra time searching for Adam-infused bodies with the Little Sister, she will harvest the empowering goo from the corpses and hand it over when she finishes extracting it all. This initiates a defense-based minigame in which the player must protect the child from ravenous splicers while she does her grim work. While these sections rank among the most intense in the game, they are also fairly numerous, and by the time the last Little Sister is taken care of, they will have become a bit irritating. This is one of the few negatives in an otherwise great sequel.
The gun play itself has been improved upon nicely. While in the original game it was impossible to wield a plasmid and a weapon at the same time, in the sequel it is a necessity. Enemies will come faster and harder than before. New enemy types, such as the massive and powerful brute splicer and the fast and resilient Big Sister, demand intelligent tactics to overcome. These additions improve significantly on what was, in hindsight, a rather puny list of enemies in the original. To complement the improved combat prowess of the new protagonist, it is now possible to charge up plasmids after they have been sufficiently upgraded. The Incinerate plasmid can become a firebomb and a flamethrower, while the Cyclone Traps will allow players to infuse the traps with flames or electricity to deal extra damage. These additions make an already flexible combat system incredibly more so. With the extra influx of Adam that the game provides, I never felt like I couldn't realize a battle strategy because of insufficient funds. Bioshock was often referred to as "the thinking man's shooter" because of its complex themes and numerous strategies, and the sequel improves upon the available combat techniques greatly.
Speaking of complex themes, this game's story is rife with them. From religion to family life to politics, Bioshock 2's story touches upon many interesting topics. It really does drive the game forward in a very compelling way, which I honestly didn't expect. There's nothing in here that will blow minds quite like that little notorious phrase from the first game, but it's all very intriguing, and at times haunting stuff.
However, as mentioned earlier, Rapture is no longer an unfamiliar city. While the story will take players through many new locations, the general vibe of destroyed beauty and wasted potential is the same as it was in the first game. I would have preferred it if Bioshock 2 took players to a fresh new setting. Even after the numerous gameplay improvements, this sequel could never recapture that sense of curiosity that drove me through the first game. Despite this criticism, Rapture is still home to some wonderful, whimsical, and frightful sights. The graphics engine hold up very well, and it produces numerous jaw dropping and beautiful sights. Certain aspects of the game will look slightly dated, but for the most part Bioshock 2 is gorgeous. The audio components are equally strong, with excellent voice acting across the board going a long way towards selling the story. The music is the same 50s era soul that gave the first Bioshock such a unique vibe, and it returns in good form.
Bioshock 2's campaign is lengthy and satisfying, but it doesn't end with the completion of Subject Delta's quest. As a complement to the story mode, the game also features a complete suite of multiplayer modes. Many people seem to be under the impression that nobody wanted multiplayer in Bioshock, but I certainly did. It's not that the original game felt lacking or unsubstantial in any way. It's just that a game with such depth of customization, so many plasmids and weapon upgrades, had great potential to expand into the online realm. Thankfully, the developers recognized the importance of customization and tactics in Bioshock's combat, and incorporated it all into multiplayer. Appearances, along with gun, plasmid, and melee weapon loadouts, can be totally customized. Like in Call of Duty or Battlefield, new options are unlocked as players level up. This system works out very well because each possible method of attack has a counter. For example, enemies who have the aero dash plasmid can be speedy and troublesome. But with the help of the ice plasmid, they can be frozen in their tracks. Luck comes into play in the form of a Big Daddy suit that will randomly appear at some place in the level, bestowing whoever finds it first with massive attack and defensive powers. The player who takes the Big Daddy down gets a healthy point bonus, though. The online play seems to suffer from either a lack of players or lousy matchmaking, because it can take a long time to get into a match, but the actual games are surprisingly fun, especially the chaotic deathmatch mode. None of it is as good as MAG or Battlefield, but players who tire of modern warfare scenarios might just find their new home in Rapture.
All told, Bioshock 2 is far from the failure that I was expecting. Numerous gameplay improvements complement an interesting plot and a solid online offering. While the setting remains familiar, and thus naturally less compelling, this sequel still manages to outclass its predecessor thanks to these new elements. It won't shake the gaming industry like the original game did, but the skeptics out there would be smart to check this game out before dissing it for its familiarity.