As the cover for BioShock 2 tells you, it is the “sequel to [the] Game of the Year”. Cheeky, that, but in many ways that bit of advertising copy defines this sequel, for better or for worse. BioShock 2 has big shoes to fill, and a lot of people were either full of anticipation that the second go-round would be as inventive and atmospheric as the first, or instantly dismissive of something that could never live up to the original.
The original game has a reputation of excellence from most quarters. It’s actually the first game I played this generation, when I picked up my 360 back in 2008. I had heard so much about BioShock that I just had to check it out. Also, I’ve always been a fan of “horror” games, which BioShock is to a certain degree. It isn’t a full-bore jump-and-scream gorefest, but it does have an evocative setting and deliberate pacing that fills you with tension and certainly creeped me out.
So when a sequel was announced, I was instantly excited. I loved the setting of the original game, and no amount of multiplayer or skeptical friends were going to keep me from picking up the sequel on release day. Here I am a week later to tell you how it all stands up.
My first impression? Disappointment, to be quite honest, but don’t let that worry you. BioShock 2 isn’t as ambitious a sequel as, say, Mass Effect 2, but it does have its subtle charms, which unfolded themselves to me as I continued playing.
My disappointment was mostly based on my memories of the first game’s opening sequence. When you first entered the world of Rapture, it was mysterious and menacing, full of creepy splicers and moaning, lumbering Big Daddies. The second game drops you almost immediately into full-blown action and no longer focuses on creeping you out. Sure, there is the occasional lunging enemy, but it seems like scaring and/or creeping out the player was not a major goal when the second game was developed. As I said above, I’ve always been a fan of scary videogames, so I was a little let down when this one didn’t even really make an attempt to put me on edge.
The good news, however, is that after I got over my mild case of disappointment and started getting into the game proper, I found myself enjoying the experience more and more. Although the developers of the second game jettisoned most of the tension, they did do their absolute damnedest to make the game at least as much fun to play as the original, and I think they readily succeeded. They also added or refined a few gameplay mechanics in subtle ways that don’t make the game revolutionary, but do keep it fresh and entertaining.
The first and most obvious change to the gameplay is that you are now able to dual-wield plasmids and weapons. In the original game, you had to switch back and forth between firing a weapon and shooting a plasmid. Considering most of the battles required using both, it’s a nice convenience to be able to simultaneously shoot from both hands at once.
Near the end of the first game, you find a Big Daddy suit and spend some time taking a Little Sister from corpse to corpse while she gathers adam. As you do this, you have to defend the sister from waves of splicers that come running while she’s defenseless. In the second game, this mechanic is a major part of gameplay. Every time you beat a Big Daddy in BioShock 2, you have the option of adopting his Little Sister. (You can always choose to harvest her instead, but that’s no fun at all.)
Once you’ve adopted a Little Sister, you will spend time searching for glowing adam-infused corpses so that the sister can gather adam from them. Every sister can harvest up to two corpses, and most of the levels actually have more corpses than can be gathered. It’s actually worth spending some time scoping out all of your available options before plunking down and immediately gathering from the first corpse you see.
It’s also interesting because the game encourages strategic use of traps and explosives to help defend yourself during the onslaught of splicers. I eventually got in the habit of stocking up on trap bolts and proximity mines before every gathering, and then I would scope out possible entrances and defensible corners to set myself up in. It was an exciting challenge to try and set up enough traps that I could avoid being damaged at all during a gathering (why, yes, there’s an achievement for that…)
Of course, once you start adopting Little Sisters, you have the Big Sisters to worry about. The Big Sisters are one of the few parts of the game that are genuinely menacing near the beginning. Once a Big Sister appears on the map, she is going to hunt you down relentlessly until you defeat her. If you get caught unawares and are low on funds and ammo, like I was once, you’re going to spend a lot of time in a vita-chamber. The only criticism I have of Big Sisters is that once you know exactly what triggers their appearances, you can plan ahead and set traps, and they become much easier to defeat. I can only imagine what the game would be like if the Big Sisters’ appearances were truly random.
Now, because I am going to discuss plot points from the first game here, this next section might be considered a spoiler if any of you were silly enough to read this review without having played the first game. Many of you may be wondering if the sequel has anything that stands up to the shocking “would you kindly” twist from the first game, which thoroughly deconstructed the notion of free will in videogames by revealing that all of your questing happened because you were brainwashed. Short answer? No.
Instead, BioShock 2 does something far more subtle but no less unique. It is one of the few games I’ve played that doesn’t end immediately after the climax. Instead, BioShock 2 actually lets you play the falling action and finish out the resolution of the story. It also introduces a few cool bits of gameplay near the end of the game that I won’t spoil here. Overall, the storytelling in the second game won’t go down in history as revolutionary, but I think what it does pull off is compelling nonetheless.
Because no review would be complete if I didn’t also talk about the multiplayer portion of the game, let me first say that basically every review I’ve read so far writes it off as a generic afterthought that isn’t even worth discussing. I was completely surprised, then, that when I jumped into a few games I actually had a lot of fun. Now, to be honest, I haven’t played much multiplayer at all. I joined in the community gaming day we had in Halo 3 a few weeks ago and I spent most of my time dying and feeling lost. I also played a bit of Uncharted 2 multiplayer a few months back… and spent most of my time dying and feeling lost.
In BioShock 2’s multiplayer, however, I felt like I could actually hold my own. Eddy pointed out that the best time to play multiplayer for any game is at the beginning, when the curve isn’t too steep and people haven’t figured out exploits. I’m glad I was finally able to get a glimpse of the fun inherent in a multiplayer game, because up until now it just seemed like a good way for foul-mouthed 12 year olds to kill you with a headshot. I’ll be curious to see what more seasoned multiplayer fans think.
Overall I think the game is best suited to folks who were fans of the first one. There isn’t anything here that would convince a skeptic to change their mind about the series, but for those of you out there who loved the world of Rapture and want to see more of it, there’s plenty here to keep you entertained. I know that once the inevitable BioShock 3 rolls around, I’ll definitely be picking it up.
As far as numbers go, I beat the campaign on normal in a week of playtime, probably about 15 or so hours of playing total. I’ve put in about 45 minutes of multiplayer time, and tried out the “Survival of the Fittest”, “Civil War”, and “Turf War” modes. I actually feel like I’ll continue to be drawn to the multiplayer for at least a little while. Although the game isn’t perfect, I couldn’t put it down for the past week, and that really says something in my book.