Any notions I had that BioShock 2 was going to diverge in a significant way from its inventive, esteemed predecessor went right out the window when I got to sit down and play this sequel from 2K Marin for myself a few weeks ago. The crumbling, art deco utopia under the sea; the crazed splicers; the genetic weapon modifications known as plasmids. All that stuff is back in force. Rapture may have become a nastier place over the decade separating the two games, but it's still familiar territory for anyone who went to the lengths necessary to put Frank Fontaine in his place during their first visit. I would have liked to see a BioShock sequel with a new setting and new themes, perhaps with subtler ties to the original. Then again, I'm not the guy tasked with following up such an ambitious and unique game in the space of only two years, and I can't really fault the new team at 2K Marin for picking up that specific torch and running with it.
If the team hasn't exactly changed what BioShock is, they've at least crammed a lot more BioShock into this sequel. You're going to see more of everything that made the world of Rapture as perilous and exotic as it was the first time around. There's the new hulking, imposing "Rumbler" version of the Big Daddy protecting the Little Sisters this time around. The Splicers have also gotten more spliced in the 10 years since the first game; I saw a burly, ape-like guy known as the Brute that will charge straight at you like a linebacker. Of course, there are more and heavier weapons that are in the spirit of the first game's arsenal but also seem tailored for use by your own bigger, badder Big Daddy protagonist. I especially liked a spear gun that would pin Splicers to the wall with a single shot, leaving them dangling wildly through the game's ragdoll system.
Then there's Sophia Lamb, the real villain, BioShock 2's brand new antagonist. She's the Andrew Ryan of BioShock 2. But where Ryan's objectivist philosophies excluded and ignored the less capable members of society, Lamb's a collectivist who wants to gather all of Rapture's remaining poor huddled masses to her and restore the failed society to its former splendor. But she's stepping on a lot of toes to do it. Just like Ryan, Lamb is the one who will be piping in over the radio from time to time, taunting you as you make your way to her. She's got minions, like the religious fanatic Father Simon Wales, establishing her empire inside Rapture. He acted as a boss encounter in the hands-off portion of the demo I saw.
The presence of Lamb was the biggest revelation about what I saw of BioShock 2, and it exemplifies the sort of feature-for-feature approach 2K Marin seems to be taking with this sequel, checking off every item on the list of what you need to make a BioShock game. New Big Daddy, new Splicers, new villainous ideologue. There are even some helpful new people, like a fancy Southern gentleman, yapping at you with funny accents over the radio. It even turns out that the Big Sister you've heard so much about, the one that you may have previously thought was the big baddie in this game--well, she's not alone. She's got other sisters. The Big Sisters are Sophia Lamb's enforcers, the telekinetic heavy lifters when things need to get done. But they aren't as tough as you might have thought. I took one of them down at the end of my hands-on time, which was a grueling but not impossible fight. You've got the tools to counteract most everything the Sisters throw at you, if you use them right.
Speaking of which: getting your hands on a controller, this game feels like BioShock, top to bottom. The feel of the aiming and shooting, the use of health kits and Eve hypos, the Circus of Values vending machines; it's all just like you left it two years ago. By far my favorite improvement to the action is the dual-wielding between handheld weapons and plasmids. You can now fire off your spear gun with the right trigger and then pop off an Incinerate without having to swap between the two. While it still doesn't make much sense to me in the context of playing as a Big Daddy, in gameplay terms this makes the action a lot faster paced. Believable or not, it's something the game probably needed. The hacking minigame has also been simplified so that you're just timing a button press to a moving marker. This doesn't take you out of the action the way the first game's Pipe Dreams-esque minigame did, and helps to streamline the gameplay a little more.
I will give credit to some imaginative level design in BioShock 2, especially the "Journey to the Surface" level that I got to play most of the way through. It was designed as a theme park for the youngsters born inside Rapture that would indoctrinate them against the evils of the surface world. You get to run around a series of big animatronic dioramas, punching little "play" buttons that start an Andrew Ryan voiceover and depict the oppression of some scientist, entrepreneur, or other captain of industry by the evil giant hand of Big Government. Rapture became sort of a character unto itself over the course of the original game, so if 2K Marin is going to go back to that well for the sequel, I'm glad to see they're at least fleshing out that character further.
Then, of course, BioShock 2 has multiplayer. The game has free-for-all and team deathmatch modes, and a "Capture the Sister" mode that works more or less like it would with a flag, but looks kind of creepy as you run around carrying a thrashing little girl with you. The game's got the de rigeuer multiplayer bases covered, with persistent character progression between rounds that uses the Adam (or experience points) you've racked up to improve your chosen character, who takes the role of one of several Splicers with a short backstory included. The multiplayer exploits the BioShock trappings in a couple of other interesting ways; you can hack turrets to attack opposing players, and you can research each player's corpse individually with your camera to gain a damage bonus against that particular player for the rest of the match. But then, I never felt like BioShock's first-person shooting was as accomplished as many other games in this category, so the multiplayer didn't completely grab my attention here.
What does have my attention is where this story goes. BioShock 2 may trade heavily on the reputation of its name, and looking at this sequel on paper, you could be forgiven for thinking of it as falling into a predictable pattern that was established two years ago by its predecessor. But sometimes being forced to stay within the lines breeds creativity and ingenuity of its own. Getting to see exactly what it is that 2K Marin does with this tale, trapped within the dank confines of Rapture and situated squarely in the shadow of BioShock's legacy, may prove to be interesting indeed.
Until then, here's an interview we hustled at the hands-on event to fill in a little more detail about BioShock 2.