Blurring the Line: Bioshock 2 – Staff Review

If you played it to completion, the safe money says you’re not forgetting Bioshock anytime soon. 2K’s recent entry into the hybrid role-playing/shooter genre is sometimes a victim of its own hype, but it never lacks for imagination and proves a fun, engaging journey all the same. Bioshock 2 brings us back to the crumbling city of Rapture, evolving the gameplay in all the right places. Sadly, the plot never quite has the legs to stand on its own, and it seems to keep forgetting that the story of Rapture – and its extremist founder Andrew Ryan – is the more interesting one.

For those just tuning in, Bioshock brought us to a collapsing, isolated city built under the sea during the 1950’s. Intended as an intellectual and commercial haven from Cold War-era governments, the city was turned inside out by the discovery of Adam; a substance that trivialized gene manipulation and made fantastic superpowers something you could buy at a vending machine. To process Adam into a usable substance, a system of gatherers and protectors was developed. Mutated little girls known as the Little Sisters harvest the chemical, and the heavily armed and armored Big Daddies guard them. Bioshock 2 suits you up as an experimental Big Daddy called Subject Delta, bound to protect one Sister above all. Ten years after your “deactivation” you somehow awake to find Rapture in ruin and your Sister held captive by the scientist who shut you down. What is a man with a giant drill-hand to do? What, indeed.

Gunplay and controls are largely identical to those of Bioshock, a standard FPS layout with a few welcome improvements. The most obvious is the ability to wield weapons and plasmids simultaneously. Although the arsenal hasn’t changed much, each weapon has been tweaked in small but interesting ways. For instance, the aforementioned drill is your default melee weapon, which requires fuel to spin but still functions as a bludgeon. The research camera now records video of enemies in combat, awarding bonuses quicker as you fight and dispatch them in more creative ways. A remote hacking tool does exactly what it sounds like, and the hacking element has been reworked accordingly. Rather than the pipe minigame, players now toggle a needle on a color-coded graph in real time, with bonuses for hitting certain blue “sweet spots.”

Tired of learning to fish, our hero ventures out onto the ocean floor to catch fish the old-fashioned way.
Tired of learning to fish, our hero ventures out onto the ocean floor to catch fish the old-fashioned way.

Plasmids are also generally identical to those found in Bioshock, with only a couple new additions, but their upgraded forms now come with more useful bonuses. Lightning, for instance, can be charged up to strike several enemies, and cyclone traps can be powered with other plasmids to form element-based traps. Passive tonics round out your customization options as before, granting always-on abilities like increased headshot damage, stationary camouflage, elemental drill attacks, and so on. Tonic slots have been sensibly simplified into one menu with several slots, rather than three subcategories of six. Vending machines, first aid stations, and gene banks are still in place, giving you somewhere to spend your hard-earned money and swap out various plasmids and tonics. Long story short, there’s very little that won’t feel familiar to Bioshock veterans, with just enough spice to keep things fresh.

As before, you’ll have the option of harvesting or rescuing Little Sisters after defeating their respective guardians, though as a Big Daddy you can also adopt them and seek out corpses for more Adam. Surprisingly, this works in the game’s favor, as this gives you leeway to set traps and prepare defensively for a rush of splicers, Rapture’s hostile and deranged inhabitants. Once two corpses have been drained of Adam, you’ll have to decide what to do with the Sister. Making things more dangerous are the Big Sisters, who appear after you’ve cleared an area of Little Sisters. These grown-up Sisters are armored like Big Daddies, but are faster, more aggressive, and employ a variety of plasmids along with lightning-quick melee attacks. Even just one of these is a significant threat, and she will relentlessly hunt you down once she’s on the scent.

Keeping in the ‘same, but better’ motif are the visuals, with a few exceptions. Some locations suffer from a lack of distinctive features and overuse of cold colors, but for the most part the game does justice to the series’ art deco architecture. Following a disused rail line, Bioshock 2 takes you through the poor neighborhood that built the line, an amusement park warning of the dangers of the surface, an old red light district, and even the ruins of Fontaine Futuristics; the plasmid research firm that almost put Ryan out of business. A lot of effort was spent upgrading the smaller details, with major improvements in animation, splicer variety, and physics. You can survive underwater, and your few trips outside the city walls are visually impressive, if ultimately uneventful.

Yes, let's shoot the armored guy holding the minigun.  That's been working so well for you guys so far.
Yes, let’s shoot the armored guy holding the minigun. That’s been working so well for you guys so far.

Audio fares quite well, with appropriate use of licensed period music – Bobby Darin’s “Beyond the Sea” makes a welcome return – and skilled orchestral compositions throughout the game. Apart from the rivet gun, sound effects are convincing, and ambient conversations between packs of splicers are more individualized over the first Bioshock. Named characters pull their acting weight capably, with a few disappointing exceptions. Newcomer Sofia Lamb serves as the game’s villain, though she comes off as too detached, and simply talks too much towards the end, to be more than a persistent nuisance. Conversely, her lieutenants are rather well acted and interesting characters in their own right, and although Ryan himself doesn’t show up – Bioshock veterans know why – his audio logs do a good job of stealing the show.

The chief things holding Bioshock 2‘s story back (apart from the Parasite) are comparisons to Bioshock. Ryan is central to the story of Rapture; he fetishized the free market until it did something he didn’t like. His failings were human, and his confrontation in the first game is one for gaming history books. Bioshock 2 wisely doesn’t try to outdo the now famous twist, but the first Bioshock wrapped things up nicely and the sequel feels somewhat tacked on at times. Lamb is basically retconned as a major nemesis to Ryan, and human elements of the story are either abandoned quickly – such as Delta’s identity prior to being suited up – or wedged into the game’s black-and-white morality system. Logs show up periodically that reference events from the first game, as if to say “Hey, remember that cool part from Bioshock?”, but they add little to what’s going on here.

Other nagging annoyances pop up here and there, some more glaring than others. Although the Big Daddy prototypes, such as Delta, are billed as faster and less armored than the production models seen in Bioshock, it’s still jarring to go down from a handful of pistol shots. How Delta eats and drinks through his suit is anyone’s guess. The timeline is a problem in itself, as Rapture has somehow been carrying on for ten years despite being ready to collapse at the time of the first game. It doesn’t help that your Little Sister, Eleanor, is basically a talking MacGuffin who comes up with powers exactly when the plot requires her to have them. And the less said about the plot effects of Vita-chambers, the gene-specific revive-o-matics that bring you and your equipment back from death, the better.

BIG DADDY STILL DISLIKE ELECTRICITY (and upgraded revolver shotguns, which work quite well I might add)
BIG DADDY STILL DISLIKE ELECTRICITY (and upgraded revolver shotguns, which work quite well I might add)

One of Bioshock 2‘s genuinely new additions is its multiplayer mode. Consisting of Bioshock-themed Team Deathmatch and Capture the Flag modes, multiplayer has the benefit of tying into Rapture’s backstory. Occurring during the civil war that tore the city down, players take sides in a tug-of-war for the supply of Adam between Ryan and Atlas, Ryan’s archenemy from Bioshock. As in the singleplayer game, players start with just basic equipment and a small amount of tonic/plasmid slots. Completing objectives and scoring kills gains experience, which give access to more (and more combinations of) special abilities, and certain modes even feature Big Daddy suits for particularly aggressive players.

As far as playtime goes, Bioshock 2 joins its predecessor in being fairly meaty. Although you can’t revisit older areas, the game carries on for a good ten-twelve hours, and the variety of plasmid and tonic combinations provides a good amount of flexibility in approaching combat. Apart from the choices you should know affect the ending – whether to kill or save little sisters and Lamb’s subordinates – the gameplay is rewarding enough to merit more than one run, and finding inventive ways to dispatch Big Daddies and Big Sisters is always entertaining. Difficulty modes are aptly scaled, and the option to turn off the Vita-chamber system can add a new dimension of challenge to the game. Multiplayer may not see the traffic of more straightforward shooters, but it will likely find a dedicated playerbase for quite some time.

All told, Bioshock 2 is a solid follow-up to Bioshock and an enjoyable shooter to boot. Whether the original game really needed a direct sequel is up in the air, as this one feels more like Bioshock 1.5 than its own story. However, where it falters, the gameplay picks up the slack in a big way. Its improvements over Bioshock are evolutionary and intuitive; the developers made sensible adjustments and didn’t fix what wasn’t broken. Personal mileage will vary as always, and much of the city’s mysteries have long been solved. Still, anyone who at all enjoyed the minute-to-minute action and atmosphere of Bioshock will be well served here.

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