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Thursday, 11 February 2010

Bioshock 2 - 4 hours in...

I have to preface these comments by saying that I am only four hours (or thereabouts) into Bioshock 2 at the time of writing and I may revise many of these opinions upon completely the game. However, I have so far found a number of reasons to complain about this highly-anticipated sequel.

The original Bioshock was probably my favourite game of 2007, if not my favourite game of this console generation. It was certainly imaginative when compared to the majority of brown-grey shooters which flood the market. Set in 1960 the player was submerged into a colourful, art-deco, underwater dystopia called Rapture. Rapture was eerie, atmospheric and it held my attention fully, demanding that I obsessively uncovered every inch of the map and located each and every audio recording (the games way of filling in background story). Everything from the kitsch faux-1950’s advertising to the bold fascistic sculptures was compelling and made me want to see more of this place and to find out more about its ruin. The sight of a hulking man in a diving suit, with a pneumatic drill for an arm, protecting a little girl from bemasked, Tommy gun wielding drug addicts to the strains of “How Much is that Doggy in the Window” was something approaching the iconic. Needless to say, when a sequel was announced I was extremely excited by the prospect of returning, even if just to see the same things all over again.

It brings me no pleasure to report that I am a little disappointed by what I have found in Rapture this time around. So what is wrong? Well, it’s little things. One of the pleasures of the first game was combining the use of gene-splicing “plasmids”, which granted you the power to throw fire or lightning at your enemies, with more traditional contemporary weaponry, like the aforementioned Tommy gun. This time around you take the role of a “Big Daddy”, one of the diving suit clad guardians who roam the sunken halls, and so you are restricted you using their weapons. These, so far, amount to a pea shooter, a drill which runs out of fuel very quickly (the use of which sees you die as you attempt to get close to your gun wielding enemies) and a heavy machine gun, which runs out of ammo just as quickly. Whereas, in the first game, these tools of the “Big Daddy” spelled quick death when turned against me, in Bioshock 2 they aren't half as effective and I am left feeling a little weak. Of course, my abilities and weaponry will upgrade through the course of playing the game, so this complaint maybe premature.

Another problem with playing as the “Big Daddy” is the fact that the enemy characters don’t seem to be afraid of me... at all. I remember hearing that they would run away if they came across you alone, and come back in greater numbers. However, in practice they always attack me as soon as they see me. They also have the annoying habit of being brilliant shots. I really don’t like it when enemies in a game seem to get the homing bullets out as soon as you turn a corner.

It is also a shame that the game doesn’t imbue your relationship with the “little sisters” with any personality. The key role of a “Big Daddy” is to protect these little girls, and in the first game you’d hear them chatting away to their guardians as they walked about the place. “This way Mr. Bubbles” they would say. However, in the stretches of the game which see you protecting one, by placing her upon your shoulders, she remains silent. A sad omission, this just leads you to forget you’re even carrying one, when it could have been a really atmospheric and interesting new element of the game.

A cosmetic difference, but one that leaves Rapture poorer, is that the vending machines no longer have the jingles and advertisements that gave them so much personality last time ("Fill your cravings at the circus of values!"). They also added a layer of horror: their enthusiasm and happiness contrasting with the carnage which lay about them. I have also found the environments less interesting this time around, because they seem busier. Writing is all over the walls, along with posters and photos, surrounded by candles and cream cakes (I’m not making that up). The last game had a less is more quality to it which compelled me to seek out the details and to study my surroundings. The sequel is less atmospheric and has less personality. Without wanting to sound pretentious, I felt like each level was a distinct character last time around. There was the place where the crazed artist had made displays out of the dead and his whole level had elements of performance and displays of demented art all through it. In contrast, the two levels I have visited so far feel a little samey.

There have been some nice touches so far, in the Ryan Amusements level you can find a number of animatronic dioramas over which Rapture founder Andrew Ryan explains the reasons for the construction of his ocean metropolis as well as the mechanics of constructing the city itself. As a fan of the world from the first game, this was interesting stuff, but it underlined another problem with this instalment: Andrew Ryan and Rapture's past is much more interesting than the new antagonist “Dr. Lamb” and her the new threat she poses. For the sake of not spoiling either game, I won’t go into any more detail on this here.

Probably my single biggest problem with this new instalment of Bioshock is the opening. The first game had you sitting on a commercial airplane, which crashed into the ocean. You were then placed in the middle of the ocean in the dead of the night, your path lit by the bright yellow flames of the rapidly sinking fuselage. You swim to a tower which stands on a small island, in the middle of nowhere. You climb the steps and go through a huge metal door which closes behind you. The lights turn on and you find that you are in a magnificent lobby. You walk down a staircase and get into a small submarine, which begins its descent whilst playing you a video message from Andrew Ryan explaining his intentions for Rapture. This video is pulled away to reveal a window onto the ocean and you look out in wonder at the city on the sea floor and the sea creatures swimming about it. It stunned me and had me deeply immersed in the world of the game from there on in. Check this intro out below:

There is nothing so grand about the opening to Bioshock 2. It opens with a cutscene, which was entertaining, but over which I had no control over and so it didn’t immerse me at all. The first steps you take as a player find you already in Rapture and the game begins immediately in earnest. I can see why the developers at 2K Marin (a different team to that behind the first game) might feel that people who had already played the first game might want to hit the ground running this time around. But for me Bioshock is about atmosphere and having an interest in discovering Rapture is crucial. In terms of gameplay there was nothing really original or groundbreaking about the first game and, obviously, there is even less originality in this sequel.

So, with the game (so far) failing to replicate the atmosphere of its predecessor, I am left feeling a little short-changed. The fact that I have only played the game for four hours since its release on Tuesday speaks volumes.

Come back soon for a full review.


  1. I am of a similar opinion. I've played about the same amount you have, apparently. I find the nonsense with the Little Sisters just irritating, the drill is the most exciting thing about the game so far, but woefully low on fuel and the only thing that makes you a 'Big Daddy' is your inability to jump and your selection of weapons.

    I have noticed that the tiny girl children do occasionally remark on the hack-and-slash of some drug monster, but that isn't enough. The eery beauty of them in the original game was the way they led around the lumberers, with childlike innocence and unholy intent. Now they're merely a boolean variable and entirely ineffectual. I daresay apart from the original one, you could probably avoid all interaction with them throughout the game with minimal consequence. You wouldn't have Adam and its benefits, but you've got the peashooter and the drill and a lightning bolt.

    I could go on, but my main point is this: Bioshock 2 hasn't improved enough on the original game and in a number of cases, has failed to emphasise things that made the original so good. As you say, there is less atmosphere; this may be partly because the characters I've encountered are just less interesting, with less motivation.

    Not that there aren't interesting things about the new game; as I said, the drill is drilltastic. I won't say too much as I'm not sure if you're there yet or not, but I've encountered one storyline driven upgrade and prey for more. It's a lot better than the wrench. I enjoyed the lighting when I was wandering about underwater, but apart from that improvement, Bioshock 2 has almost gone Gears of War on our asses and made everything look (feel?) gloomy and unappealing (at least compared to the original game). The 50's optimism is all gone and Mexican-proverb-ammo-machine-voices with it.

  2. Glad you're playing it too. It's ashame you agree though, as it would be better if the game lived up to the original, obviously. Eurogamer wrote that it starts slowly and gets better, so maybe its awesome and I'm not there yet.
    Brilliant second paragraph about the little sisters. You should be writing the blog.

  3. Hah, cheers Mr. Beames.

    I think part of the problem was that I expected too much; I've been playing it today and I'm enjoying it more as it goes along. This may be because I've cast off those expectations now or perhaps it's just because I enjoying being in Rapture again, even if it hasn't really changed since I've been away.

  4. Same, I have also been playing a bit today and it is getting better and better. The story is coming into its own now that it's starting to reveal how lamb fits into the fall of Rapture, and now that I have the shotgun and have worked out that the rivet gun is best used as a sniper rifle, the weapons are much better than I had thought.
    I am going to review the game fully when it is completed.