10 Years May Have Made Rapture A Little Rustier, But It’s Evolved Too.
Feb 20, 2010 – Bioshock is one of my all time favorite games. There was a time I said it was my second favorite, right behind Ocarina of time. While I’m not sure where I would place it today, it remains a classic and a tent-pole in gaming’s history. It was one of the few games up to that point to take a serious, even literary approach to its story, and it had one of the most unique and atmospheric settings in all of gaming. It was a critical and financial success, and I loved it.
Now comes the inevitable sequel. Inevitable, not because the story demanded it, but because of the money involved. There are many things stacked against the sequel right out of the gate. The first game’s story was one of the best ever told in a videogame, and it had a very solid and complete ending; there wasn’t a need for another game. So how can the unasked for sequel hope to live up to this when it isn’t even welcome to most people? What’s worse, Ken Levine, the mind behind the world of the first game, is out, and the studio 2K Marin is in. Despite the fact that old Bioshock team members still worked on the sequel, it brings into question their capability to uphold someone else’s vision. Then there is the fact that by returning to Rapture, you’re inherently loosing some of the mystique that accompanied the underwater city in the first game.
Well, despite all of these issues and worries, 2K Marin has done a very good job; a great job, even. Bioshock 2, while not as seminal as the first, does a fantastic job of making a case for its existence.
Just as a warning, I’m not going to summarize the first game for you. I’m going to treat this review like you already know what I’m talking about. Furthermore, I will eventually talk about the story in a bit more detail because of how important story is to this game, and how good or bad it is. Don’t worry though, I’ll give some obvious Spoiler Tags.
So, let’s start with the enhanced mechanics. There are some immediately evident improvements over the first game. Dual wielding is the greatest change, in which the player can use a Plasmid on the left trigger at the same time as a gun on the right trigger. This makes combat smoother and faster, allowing the player to manage combos on the fly without having to go to a radial menu to change every time they want to pull off a move.
On top of that, there are a few new weapons and Plasmids to shake things up. Jack’s pistol has been replaced by a Rivet Gun, and while the sound and kickback is not as satisfying as the old pistol, it has wonderful uses. Once it is fully upgrades it shoots super-heated rivets which have a chance of catching the enemy splicers on fire, and it has a couple of alternate ammo types which really add variety, such as Trap Rivets, which I’ll get to later. The spear gun is also a lot of fun, as it acts much like a sniper rifle, but with the added ability to pin opponents to walls. Best of all you can retrieve your spears, which leads to some gruesome moments are you go pluck a spear out of a guy’s head and watch him slide down the wall you pinned him to.
Of all the new weapons, The drill is the most obvious addition, replacing Jack’s wrench from the fist game. The drill may seem weak at first, but with the right gene tonics and upgrades, a Drill and Plasmid based load out may very well be the most powerful in the game. Furthermore, the ability to Drill Dash is incredibly fun and satisfying, sending your character flying across stages and slamming opponents to the ground.
The Plasmids have some noticeable changes as well, though I would argue that in most cases it is not as impressive. There are some neat additions like Scout, which lets the player wander about as a Plasmid wielding astral form for a while. The most obvious change to the Plasmid system is the way they upgrade. With each additional level, the Plasmids gain a little more power as well as some new abilities. The Incinerate! plasmid, for example, turns into a full on flame thrower at level 3, and Security Command plasmid lets the player summon flying bots to his side to help him out as long as they last.
The only problem is, outside of a few noticeable exceptions like the Winter Blast and Security Command, the Plasmids seem fairly weak. Incinerate! and Electro Bolt are good for stunning an opponent, but they also seem to do very little damage. While this makes them good for tactics, a part of me wishes that setting an opponent on fire was good for more than a brief distraction.
The real celebrities of the combat party are the Gene Tonics. These passive abilities are available for purchase at the Gatherer’s Garden alongside of the plasmids, and you can have up to 24 of them in affect at once. As I mentioned before there are a number of sweet Drill based tonics, but there are many others. They range from affecting movement speed, the amount of Eve or Health Kits that can be carried, and even active ones that give the player the ability to repair and name bots and turrets. These tonics will, just as much as any of the Plasmids, affect the way a player approaches the game and the combat.
There is also one other small tweak to mention as well. The hacking mini-game has been streamlined, dropping the old pipe game and opting for a reflex and timing-based needle matching game, and the action remains in real time while the hacking takes place. While I enjoyed the old pipe game, it did get old near the end of the game, and it did take the player out of the action, so ultimately this was a good move. All together, the additions and changes make Bioshock 2’s combat much more interesting and satisfying than the original’s though I might add that it remains very similar in many ways, and could use some further upgrades to the Plasmids (such as more satisfying damage.)
The way in which combat progresses has seen some additions and new ideas. While the tried and true First Person Shooter format of entering a new area and slaughtering the waves of opponents that you meet is still present, they also integrate a new scenario in which a little sister that you’ve adopted (another change from the first game) can be placed on specific corpses to gather Adam. While this happens, various splicers will be drawn to the player who has to defend the Little Sister until she is done gathering Adam. These sections are very tense and thrilling, not to mention a serious challenge to your abilities. Trap Rivets, which can be placed around the environment and on walls and the ceiling, are a player’s best friend, as are mini-turrets that can be set up to shoot nearby enemies. While entirely optional, the significant boost of Adam that each gathering provides means that it is a very worthwhile activity.
The enemies have received some upgrades as well. While it is disappointing that the majority of your opponents are going to be familiar disfigured faces, the addition of the Brute Splicer is nice and changes up game play a bit. The Big Daddy Rumbler packs a pretty mean punch, using a rocket canon and mini turrets that can be a real pain to fight around, as well as a very cool distinctive design. No addition is more distinctive and unique, however, than the Big Sister. Lithe, strong and bristling with plasmid powers, Big Sisters are a major challenge. She comes every time the player finishes taking care of the last Little Sister in an area, and while this makes her predictable, there is still no way her ear-piercing scream won’t send a shiver down players’ spines. I only wish there had been more unique additions to the cast of enemies.
Also of note is that even after a player has cleared out an area, a return trip might mean running into new foes that have moved into the area. While at times this came as a nice touch, keeping me on my toes, other times it felt like there should still not have been anyone there because I had just cleared the place out. I didn’t feel like enough time had been given for newcomers to find there way there, and that sense of a hidden spawn-point briefly kicked me back out of the immersion.
Far more damaging to the sense of immersion, however, is the way the plot progresses through the first half to two-thirds of the game. The game starts off interesting enough, with an opening cinematic and scenario that leaves the player wondering exactly what is going on. You start out as a Big Daddy, more specifically an old prototype model, which has been out of commission for ten years. You don’t know who woke you up or why you’re still alive, and in many ways you’re set adrift in the beginning area in Rapture. You are re-introduced to Dr. Tenenbaum from Bioshock 1, and you slowly get new abilities like the Plasmids, as well as various weapons.
While it is a nice beginning in many ways, it is also almost identical in pacing and style to the first game, and this really hurts the first couple hours of the game. In many ways you feel like you’re taking the same steps. You get the Electro Bolt Plasmid first, and your pistol equivalent in the Rivet Gun. You’re introduced to an Atlas like character named Sinclair, who becomes your constant guide and audio companion through Rapture. It all feels very familiar. Too familiar.
From there, the narrative begins to pick up, and you’re introduced to interesting new characters like Grace, and well-made levels like Ryan Amusements. While these areas are well done, there are a few thins that keep them from being so great. First of all, while everything is well designed, I feel like there should have been more done to make every area feel unique. While Ryan Amusements is very memorable, and certain areas of Pauper’s Drop really evoke the sense of a slum, most of the areas feel very similar. This may be a side-effect of barreling through the game on my first play-through, however, and could be rectified on a second go.
Another thing I felt was a mistake was placing the Ryan Amusements level so close to the beginning of the game. Being an amusement park, it is supposed to make the player feel like they’re walking through a constructed, linear set. It’s supposed to be like a twisted Disney World, where everything is obviously fake and staged. However, as well as they pulled that feeling off, it made all of the subsequent levels feel similarly constructed and staged. The great thing about Bioshock 1 is that all of the areas felt like real places that would have existed in a thriving underwater city. They felt like places that naturally spawned from the way people lived there. I think that feeling these new areas are staged is a false one, and wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for how early on and successful the Ryan Amusements level is.
But the biggest problem with the narrative structure of the first half or so, is the stop and go, obvious linearity of the story. The player has to make way through the city by using an old train line called, The Atlantic Express. But as the train rolls along, there will come some opposing force that will keep the player from progressing down the line until it is dealt with, whether it be a wall of ice, or a lockdown. This leads to what feels like a very fake series of stage progression. When the train hits that wall and you’re forced to get out, you can feel the developer’s hands pushing you along. The story is at its weakest, and most transparent, when getting on and off the train. What’s worse, the player cannot backtrack to old areas. Not only does this mean there if you missed an audio diary or a little sister there’s no going back, but it also means that the city doesn’t feel like a living cohesive whole. In the first Bioshock, it always felt like you could go back, whether you actually wanted to or not, to any area you ever visited. This sense of a full explore-able world is part of what gave Rapture its sensation of a real living place. That is part of what made accepting super powers and Little Sisters and Big Daddies so easy to accept. Without that sense, the rest looses some of their foundation of believability. The narrative pacing takes a much needed turn for the better the moment the player leaves the train behind. From there on, the world feels fuller, more realistic and alive. It never again feels like a set, or a ride.
That doesn’t mean that the first half of the game suffers from art direction. Rapture was an amazing visual feast the first time I visited it in 2007, and while the engine is starting to look dated, the design remains as unique and striking as ever. The sets in Ryan Amusements are some of the coolest visual treats in the game, and really mirror Disney World style attractions to the tee (with a very Objectivist bent, of course.) I kept coming back to one scene in particular, where animatronics hands would lift a roof off a house and reach inside.
On top of that, there are nice subtle touches that harkens back to the first game, such as a golf club in animatronic-Ryan’s office, and the remnants of Jack Ryan’s airplane crash visible in one of the underwater segments.
Oh, and those segments! While it’s true, and unfortunate, that the underwater segments are basically just hallways that lead from place to place, they are also a nice break from the tense action sequences, and provide some of the most beautiful scenery in the game. If, or more like ‘when’, there is a Bioshock 3, I would like to see some more interesting implementation of these segments. Keep it free of fighting, but give me more exploration or even puzzle solving to keep it fresh and exciting.
As usual, the audio design in the game is brilliant. From the first moment I walked under a dripping ceiling to hear the drops splatter off my metal helmet, I knew that I was in for a treat. The only thing that I feel is lacking is the lack of vending machine sounds. While some players may have gotten tired of the “Circus of Values,” I felt that it added character and charm and I was sad to see it go.
The soundtrack is equally fantastic, with the ending scene’s use of violins being particularly moving and effective. Really there are very few games in the industry today that can match Bioshock and its sequel for music. I only wish I had stumbled upon more jukeboxes or record players playing period piece music. There are few games that immediately merit the purchase of its soundtrack, and Bioshock stands alongside Halo and Uncharted and Uncharted 2 in this regard.
The characters of Bioshock 2 are very well done, and work well in the context of the world and the story. However, none of them quite live up to the bar of Bioshock 1’s characters. Cohen in particular was a standout of that game that has no equal in the second. That isn’t to say that Bioshock 2’s character’s aren’t memorable. I don’t think I’ll be forgetting Sinclair, Mark Meltzer, Grace or Gil Alexander anytime soon (not to mention Sofia Lamb and Eleanor.) It is unfortunate, however, how underused Tenenbaum is. She’s introduced at the beginning of the game and is then dropped off and you never see or hear from her again for the rest of the game.
Morality in Bioshock 2 is far muddier than the original. While the Little Sisters are as hard to kill as ever, the game does a much better job of showing you just what your deeds, be they evil or good, have wrought. Furthermore, the addition of characters, some who deserve death, whose lives are placed in your hands are a very nice inclusion, and add an overall more satisfying sense of morality than the first game.
The plot itself manages to really pick up in the last half, and it continues to grow in steam till the very end, where there is a very satisfying conclusion, not to mention one very special sequence near the end involving a Little Sister. The themes of family are terrific, and while there may not be a shocking twist like in the original Bioshock, that doesn’t mean that the sequel doesn’t have a surprise or two waiting for the player.
At this point, you probably know everything you need to before skipping down to see what my final score is, so I’m going to take the opportunity to talk in more detail about what I liked and dislike about specifics in the plot, as well as the characters, sequences and themes. Just skip on down past the second Spoiler Tag, and you should be good to go.
Okay, if you’re still reading and you haven’t played the game yet, you’re either an idiot or you don’t care about spoilers, which I guess is fine, but… man, I don’t know how you do it… anyway, here we go.
Something I really appreciated about Bioshock 2 was how willing it was to completely screw with its characters. Sinclair’s demise was very effecting to me, and I just stared in disbelief when he turned the corner as a new Big Daddy and placed his hand against the window. I’d never had the guiding voice of a videogame wrenched away and screwed up like that before. The fact that I had been with him and even friendly with him, despite his own flaws, for most of the game, and then I had to gun him down… it was a powerful moment.
Perhaps as powerful was the peripheral tragedy of Mark Meltzer, who followed his abducted daughter down to Rapture, only to be captured and forced to choose between death and becoming a Big Daddy. I had been following his story ever since the teaser website “There’s Something in the Sea” was first posted, and to find out how he ended up, a dead big daddy, killed by my hands… wow. I can only hope that I managed to save his little girl in my time in Rapture.
Gil Alexander was also one screwed up guy. He may have been morally askew, but he helped out Eleanor, and that was reason enough for me to feel sorry for the guy w hen I found out how completely messed up he’d become. Seeing his… blobby mass through that tube was very disturbing indeed.
The morality system was very well implemented, and I appreciated the fact that the good choice wasn’t a button press. The Little Sisters retain a strict dichotomy of good choice vs. bad choice, and you have to press a button for either. The fact that the good choice for dealing with Grace and Gil and Stanley Poole and so forth wasn’t a button press, it was simply walking away, gave it a more striking emotional punch. It should sound obvious, but whenever the gamer feels like they aren’t pushing a button, they’re committing an action, a game shows how good its storytelling is. I didn’t press the “good” button. I spared those people’s lives.
The very best aspect of the morality system, however, tied directly into the overarching theme of the game. Whereas the first game was more directly a critique of Objectivism, the second game is less a critique of Altruism (Or more accurately, Collectivism) as it is a celebration of family and relationships between parents and their offspring. The fact that the way you treat the people and the Little Sister throughout the game transforms the personality of your daughter, Eleanor, and the way she acts, is perhaps one of the most perfect approaches to the topic of parenting. Just as real parents, and their behavior, creates off-spring that often match (such as abusive fathers creating abusive sons or loving fathers encourage loving sons) so too does your action effect the way Eleanor sees the world. In effect, every Little Sister was your daughter, and the way you treated them translated into the person your daughter turned out to be.
I really can’t say it better than Charles Onyet from IGN did in his article, Building A Better Story In Bioshock 2. I highly recommend reading his work, and I agree with his viewpoint 100%. If it weren’t for a lackluster beginning and first half of the game, I would go so far as to say that the game is better than the original.
There were a lot of set pieces that I really enjoyed that weren’t set pieces in the typical action sense. Two that stick out in my mind in particular are the mysterious unstable teleporting plasmid (which I want to actually be a power in the next game,) and the section in which you briefly control a Little Sister as I hinted at in the main review. The teleporting plasmid was creative and hilarious (the plasmid bottle chasing the splicer was classic) and even a little creepy (the tonic room.)
The Little Sister Segment may be one of the best in the entire game, with a very interesting look through the eyes of the Little Sisters at the world as they see it. This segment also manages to introduce a completely new environment in a game that needed to set itself apart from the first. The only qualm I had was how hard it could be to pick up stuff you found lying around in that mode.
SPOILER ALERT ENDING
SPOILER ALERT ENDING
Ultimately the first Bioshock’s story is better. Not because it tackles a more worthy topic (it doesn’t – the second’s topic is much more interesting,) but because of how perfectly wound and structured it was. If the second game’s narrative structure had been tighter and more effectively planned out, and if the characters had been as strong and as memorable as the original’s I would likely be telling you how 2K Marin did the impossible and surpassed the first game, right now.
While I am disappointed that, in the end, I can’t say that Bioshock 2 surpassed the original, I can state with supreme confidence that 2K Marin did a fantastic job. They not only captured much of the atmosphere of the original, they significantly improved the combat, and though structurally flawed, the story stands nearly as tall as the first with more compelling and emotional themes.
There are some people who won’t be able to look past the wonder that was the first game to enjoy the second one. To them, this game may very well be a letdown. But for any gamer that gives this game a chance, and for anyone who peers past the layers of similarity, you will find that Rapture is still very much a world worth diving back into.