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Gaming: Bioshock 2 does what a sequel should

Big Sister.

The Big Sister was originally intended to be one character, but were eventually reworked into a rare enemy type, able to hunt down and retrieve ADAM lost by Big Daddies.

(Click the image for a link to the source)

The announcement that a sequel was being made to 2007’s Bioshock was rather cynically received, especially as more details emerged. It was to be a sequel despite the first game bringing the story of Andrew Ryan, Atlas and Frank Fontaine – and with them seemingly the story of the city of Rapture itself – to a close. It was going to add Big Sisters to the original’s combo of Big Daddies and Little Sisters. It was adding multiplayer to the series when all of Bioshock‘s strengths were in its setting and narrative, not how it actually played as a shooter. Worst of all it wasn’t even going to be developed by the same developer, with 2K Marin taking over from Irrational (who it turns out have been working on the recently revealed Bioshock Infinite, moving the concepts of a Bioshock game into a new period and setting). It looked like nothing more than a cash-in from 2K, trying to make a franchise out of a standalone game that didn’t need it and that even the original developer wanted nothing to do with.

I was quite surprised then to find that not only does Bioshock 2 not sully the memory of its predecessor, it actually improves on the first game’s flaws in almost every way. Read on for my reasoning:

I’ll start with the core mechanics upon which the game is built. As a first-person shooter Bioshock was functional but nothing spectacular, with the slightly odd situation of having controls suited to dual-wielding (with the special plasmid powers operated with the left shoulder buttons and the weapons with the right) but not actually letting you wield both at the same time. Even if switching was quick and simple it still made using plasmids and weapons together a little more awkward than it needed to be. Bioshock 2 fixes that by simply letting you dual wield, and casting you as a Big Daddy (more on that later) means that it mostly makes sense that you can wield even large weapons in one hand.

Being a Big Daddy also gives 2K Marin a lot of room to bring in new weapons instead of just running through the original game’s arsenal again. Taking centre stage is the Big Daddy drill (an iconic enough weapon that it appears on the cover of both games), necessarily limited in Bioshock 2 by having it consume fuel. Fuel is just plentiful enough for you to get a lot of use out of the weapon without being able to use it indefinitely to tear through hordes with ease. Almost all the guns you acquire through the game are completely new to the series, with just a couple being modified versions of Bioshock‘s.

More weapons have trap options this time around and they’re much more useful, thanks again to putting you in the shoes of a Big Daddy. Killing a rival Big Daddy allows you to claim his Little Sister and carry her with you to the nearest corpse, where she will harvest the ADAM for you (which is used for buying plasmids and tonic upgrades). The process attracts the game’s more numerous enemies, the Splicers, so prior to triggering the harvest is the perfect time to set traps and prepare for the incoming wave. Combined with hacked security and plasmid traps (or even hypnotised enemies) it means Bioshock 2 offers a lot of the variation and strategy that the original game never quite delivered.

Hacking.

Bioshock's hacking minigame used a version of Pipe Mania, pausing the game while you set up a pipe route around obstacles within the machine. Bioshock 2 uses a gauge challenge (above) that is quicker, just as challenging and doesn't pause the game while it happens, making it much more tense.

(Click the image for a link to the source)

Most of the plasmids are brought over from the first game but this time their upgrades do more than just increase damage, now adding additional effects or attacks. Tonics (passive abilities that boost various things) are no longer split into multiple categories, meaning you can specialise with the tonics you want instead of having to have to split your choices equally across combat, engineering and physical ones. Shallow features from the first game like the crafting system are gone, while others are beefed up into something worthwhile. Researching enemies is a good example, now using a video camera to monitor your battles and granting you more research progress for varying the strategy you use to kill the subject (ie. actually doing research), but some of  the rewards makes less sense this time (like getting a wallet size increase for fully researching a Thuggish Splicer).

There aren’t many new enemies introduced, and for most of the game the only new additions are one new Splicer, one new Big Daddy and the Big Sister. Seeing as it’s still set in Rapture that makes sense, but it does mean there’s a lot of familiarity there. Likewise, returning to Rapture means a lot of assets are re-used from the previous game, giving it consistency across the series (it wouldn’t make much sense for these parts of Rapture to have entirely different assets) but keeping the sequel’s environments from impressing or feeling as new. Character models are an area that have received major improvements, with the non-Splicer humans in particular looking much more human and less made of plastic (which is a common issue with games using Unreal Engine 3).

Audio diary.

Audio logs are plentiful, and particularly at the start of the game feel like there are a little too many. They do a good job of expanding the story though and some have multiple particpants, including public debates between the antagonists of the two games that really do flesh out the rivalry between them. One set of logs paralells the main story, following a man who has come to Rapture to rescue his abducted daughter, and ends memorably.

(Click the image for a link to the source)

The first few levels in particular suffer because of the plot, which only requires you to get from where you start to the Little Sister who has been stolen from you. Technically it would mean only taking the most direct route and not seeing much of Rapture, so the game keeps erecting plot-driven doors that require you to go all over each area to collect things, activate switches, pump water or kill somebody who has the key. In these early levels it doesn’t do a good job of making you feel like anything more than an errand boy for other people, essentially as powerless to make your own decisions as the protagonist in Bioshock (where it was a plot point).

It doesn’t take too long for that to stop mattering though, thanks primarily to the story. The game kicks off with you, a Big Daddy called Subject Delta, escorting your Little Sister Eleanor around Rapture, but it’s not long before she’s taken from you by her mother, Sofia Lamb, and you start your long journey to try and retrieve her. Taking place almost a decade after the events of the first game means Lamb has had plenty of time to take advantage of the power vacuum and assume control of Rapture. Where Andrew Ryan espoused the virtues of the individual, that every man should be free to use his talents to rise above others, Lamb is essentially the polar opposite, believing that individuality is essentially bad and that all people should work together to help one another. She manages to form most of the Splicers together into a group called The Family and has been steadily shaping Eleanor into the ultimate representation of her ideals, not just somebody to continue her legacy but who can take it to heights Lamb is unable to by herself. It’s not a destiny Eleanor embraces and throughout the game she provides help and sends messages, trying to help you reach her without alerting her mother.

Sofia Lamb is the central character around which most of Rapture now revolves, so while you rarely see her the other characters you do interact with or read audio logs from are all thoroughly altered by her, most of them bribed or persuaded into subscribing to her philosophy. There are several points in the game where you can decide the fate of some of these characters, which feeds into the ending in a way superior to that of the first game’s. In fact Bioshock 2‘s ending sequence (not just the final cinematic but the entire final set of levels) is one of the best I’ve played through in quite some time, being tense, varied and surprisingly emotional. That the story is basically built around a custody battle for Eleanor between her biological mother and the Big Daddy who raised her (who Eleanor considers her father) makes it an incredibly personal one and the game is all the better for it.

As a follow-up to a game that has been heralded as a masterpiece (with Bioshock‘s Metacritic score at an incredible 96 out of 100) it was perhaps inevitable that Bioshock 2 would not fare as well in reviews, but for me it absolutely does almost everything a sequel should do. Bioshock was a good game with a fantastic setting but its story petered out before the end (finishing with a disappointing boss fight), and while it had plenty of great ideas a lot of them were half-formed and never properly capitalised upon. Bioshock 2 is better as a game, tells a story that is at least as good and builds up to a satisfying and memorable conclusion, polishing up the good elements of its predecessor, scrapping the bad elements and adding new features that all work well. It really doesn’t deserve to be written off as a cash-in made by a B-team as it’s not just a great sequel but an excellent game in its own right (though I appreciate that writing over 1,500 words comparing it to Bioshock might not have made its value as a standalone game particularly clear).

Game of the Year 2010 Status: As only the fifth game on the list it might not seem like much that Bioshock 2 takes the top spot, but even as the list fills up I’d be surprised if it doesn’t stay near to (or at) the number one position as it really is excellent.

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