I had pretty mixed feelings when I’d heard about Bioshock 2. On the one hand, it’s not like they’re making Hitman 2, or a PS3 version of Vampire Rain (an idea that would leave the average consumer of either product cold). I liked Bioshock, surely more Bioshock would be something I’d like. On the other hand though, Bioshock was such a special, and above all, complete experience from the narrative perspective that it felt like it needed to be kept separate in order to maintain its integrity, as if revisiting Rapture would cheapen the memory of it. So it was with some grim curiosity that I played through Bioshock 2 critically assessing its merit as a successor to the game that gave us creepy little girls escorted by deep sea divers. Please follow me past the break for my thoughts, you’ll find that I’ve also prepared a list!
Upon contemplating my feelings of reluctance towards digging up the ruins of Rapture, I came to realise something: It’s not actually all that common for games to inspire the feeling that a sequel is unwanted or unneeded. So often that the story is simply a placeholder to provide context, or set up so that sequels are inevitable. In the movie industry however, there are stacks of sequels that exist solely to cash in on the loyalty the brand may have generated. Let us review:
- Weekend At Bernies II
- Jaws 2 & 3
- Grease II
- American Pie 2
- American Pie 3 (American Wedding)
- American Pie: Band Camp
- American Pie: The Naked Mile
- American Pie: Beta House
- American Pie: The Book Of Love (!?)
You might have noticed that I didn’t group all the American Pie sequels together, and that’s because I wanted to emphasise the fact that they’ve made six goddamn sequels to date. There’s a point after a horses death where you can beat it and claim that you’re administering CPR, and the window for it is bigger if it’s a valuable horse. I mean, no-one wants to lose a valuable horse right? Well, the horse that is American Pie has been beaten into horse mincemeat, and the kicker is that it was never Melbourne Cup winning material in its prime.
Okay, now that I’ve abused a writers right to facilitate metaphors enough to convey my disposition, I think I can talk about Bioshock 2 now. With Andrew Ryan and Frank Fontain (aka Atlus) both dusted and the little sisters saved or, err… dealt with, if you were so inclined, you’d assume that there’s probably going to be some savage implementation of retroactive continuity. And you’d be right. At a preview event, Brian was quick to side with the attractive PR person when we argued as to whether the new antagonist, Sophia Lamb, and/or the sideline support character, Augustus Sinclair were mentioned in the original, but I’m reasonably certain that these two are strictly afterthoughts. It’s not worth holding it against the end product though, as any problems with continuity will only be detectable (if they exist at all) by the most nitpicky of fanatics. You play as a Big Daddy, but not the rounded, compound eyed guys you know and love from Bioshock, but one of the original test subjects in the project, the Alpha Series (and that’s just the beginning of the retcon), It goes deeper than that, and your existential uniqueness remains a recurring plot point and theme, but the specifics of it all don’t need to be discussed here, suffice to say that it is an adequate, if not good, story.
As far as the mechanics of playing Bioshock 2 are concerned, it’s essentially a more refined version of Bioshock 1, which is what you’d expect. What you might not have expected however, is how hinky it makes Bioshock look in hindsight. The controls haven’t changed much, but having all that extra paternal strength means that hefting a weapon in one hand on your right leaves your left free for plasmid use. In fact, the controls for those in particular identical, but they make a good deal more sense when you’re effectively dual wielding like that, as opposed to having the controls in place for both at any given time, but still switching between the two.
Crafting is completely gone, and good riddance. I’ll admit there was a certain charm and congruity to salvaging whatever available parts were around and bending them to your will to construct ammo, but mechanically it had the effect of creating twenty different extra currencies with no exchange rate. Hacking has also gone under the knife, and much better for it. Instead of the pipe-switching game the grew tiresome, hacking is now done by hitting a button when a swinging needle passes over green or blue zones on a small display that appears at the bottom quarter of the screen. Probably the smartest choice about this is that nothing pauses while this is taking place, so you never get entirely taken away from the action. To counterbalance the fact that turrets can now shoot you during a drawn out hack, there’s now a gun that shoots remote hacking darts, allowing for a number of interesting scenarios for hacked security without having to get into the thick of it.
Audio diaries make a return, further confusing me with Raptures willingness to record themselves and then leave the recorder in a public place so that they can leave to go somewhere else (probably to further air their laundry on another disposable recorder); and I’m someone that records audioboos. The research camera is back, but this time it’s a handicam. Essentially you film snuff movies of you killing someone, and the more creative ways you find of doing it, the more research bonus you get.
By and large, it’s a big splicer family reunion, with all your favourites returning with a friend, the Brute Splicer, which, as the name implies, is a big dude. They’re also joined by the Alpha Series Big Daddy, whom unlike yourself is suffering a bad case of mind control, bolstered by maddening rage. Of course, the most promoted baddie of this sequel is the Big Sister. While conceptually interesting, I didn’t find them that enjoyable to fight, the world feels designed around one vs. many battles, and at a stretch you take on a big daddy or a brute without finding your surroundings to be irksome, but the Big Sisters threat level is high across the board in terms of manoeuvrability, health and power, and when I was already finding weird instances of firing over enemies shoulders (go ahead, blame it on skill), the Big Sister fights felt relentlessly savage without much return.
Being a Big Daddy, however, means having the trust of the Little Sisters. Having that trust, means gathering Adam. There are prefixed corpses on every level which have Adam, and while I felt this to be something of a cop out (it’s genetic material, right? Doesn’t everybody have it then?) the Adam gathering sessions turned out to be probably my favourite parts of the game. You see, Bioshock 1 had traps. But what good are traps when you have no impetus to use them? The fact that you were typically always on the move meant that traps only came into play when you were on the receiving end, or if you decided to screw around and kill people creatively. Having to gather Adam involves setting the Little Sister down and dealing with the filthy opportunists that show up, evidently drawn to the “shink shink” noise of that gruesome needle. So before any gathering session, you have the opportunity to set up the most elaborate defence perimeter that you feel necessary, utilising rivet traps, cyclone traps, insect bomb traps, mini turrets, spear traps, it’s all quite delicious in a way which I haven’t felt since the pipe bombs in Duke Nukem 3D (multiplayer).
Speaking of multiplayer, there’s also that, too. Unfortunately I can’t comment on the quality of it given that I couldn’t find a bloody game to join; in no small part, I believe, to the lack of a “I don’t care what gametype it is just let me play” quickmatch option. I am willing to say that given the improvements in the core handling of Bioshock 2, that it’s probably pretty damn cool. It’s a moot point if you have no-one to play against though.
Bioshock 2 manages to be both exactly what you’d expect as far as subtlety of retconning and feeling of significance in the story (which is to say, less significant than the original) while actually maintaining all the high production values and delivering at a consistent level that will make you forget about those misgivings. Coupled with the vastly improved gameplay, I’m left feeling glad that my cynicism did not win the day. When the truth about Bioshock 2 rose to the surface, I believe I found a mechanically solid videogame sequel riding on the coattails of a game that was special for reasons like narrative and world design. Bioshock 2 might not be contending to create discussions on narrative and artistic merit in videogames, but there’s definitely a case to be made to argue that it’s more fun to play.