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Monday, 15 February 2010

'Bioshock 2' review: Now that it's finished...

Last Thursday I posted my first thoughts on Bioshock 2, based on having played about four hours of the game. I was unimpressed and felt the title was falling way short of its glorious predecessor. However, I have since completed the game and can now say with confidence that Bioshock 2 is a very good game which not only lives up to, but improves upon, the original in most respects. I should probably start by directly explaining the reasons for this change of opinion.

Bioshock 2 is a slow starter. As I mentioned before, you begin the game a little underpowered. But any misgivings I had about the weapons at the beginning of the game were long gone by the game’s climax. Not only can you power up the original weapon set so that it becomes quite effective, but the game also introduces a number of more powerful weapons (not least among these: the shotgun and spear gun) which dramatically improve your offensive options. While I never ended up feeling like an all-powerful “Big Daddy”, I did end up really enjoying the combat the game offers.

A big part of the combat in both Bioshock games is the ability to use “Plasmids”, injections which genetically alter your character enabling you to acquire superpowers, and these powers are better balanced and more refined than those in the original game. There are two good examples of this. The first is that the only Plasmid I ever felt I needed to use in the original game was telekinesis. In the first game the telekinesis plasmid was overpowered to the extent that you could pick up any item (a tin of beans say) and hurl it at an enemy with the effect of killing them. I saved a lot of ammo that way and it was pretty fun, but it wasn’t great game design.

The second example of an improvement in balancing the Plasmids comes in the shape of combining what were once two separate (and therefore largely pointless) abilities into one much more effective one. In the first game you could use the “Enrage” Plasmid to make an enemy fight against his comrades, whilst using the “Hypnotise Big Daddy” power enabled you to force one of those hulking guardians to come to your aid. Now, in the place of these is an improved “Hypnotise” Plasmid, which at its lowest level causes enemies to fight amongst themselves and at a more advanced stage enables you to convince any enemy (Big Daddy’s included) to defend you. So two Plasmids I never bothered to equip last time became the one Plasmid I couldn’t do without, in the sequel.

It is also fair to say that the game has some interesting locations which rival those seen in the original. Whilst I was at first concerned that it lacked the same personality, as the game progresses you reach some really nicely realised sections of Rapture, which never feel repetitive or too similar to those seen in the first game. Whilst I am still unhappy that the developers removed some of the games personality (for instance by removing the jingle from the vending machines), Bioshock 2 is not a personality free zone, as I had orinally thought.

In my original post, I also expressed some concern about the games story, saying that Dr. Lamb was not as compelling an antagonist as those battled in the previous game. Well, as with just about everything else, the story really got going after that initial spell of playing, and whilst it is certainly worth criticising the game for failing to really capture my imagination from the start (in the manner of the original), it is also worth pointing out that this game improves on its predecessor’s sloppy ending. Without giving anything away, Bioshock 2 does build to a good climax and the story ends up enriching the story of Rapture (and its fall) in a way I never expected. I had wondered how a character that was never mentioned in the first game could suddenly become such an important part of the story, but the game addresses this issue satisfactorily and does well to keep continuity with the original.

I’ll stand by some of my initial complaints though. Enemies don’t really seem to fear you (but then again they don’t seem to mind taking on the regular “Big Daddys” this time around either) and the “Little Sisters” you protect don’t have enough personality about them. They do occasionally chime in with “look daddy another angel” or something similar, but this is merely functional and not done to provide that illusive “atmosphere” Bioshock 2 ultimately rather lacks. Perhaps they need to be singing nursery rhymes or something. I can understand why a developer might cut something like that out in order to avoid annoying the player, but I think it would have added something, and would have made me feel a little creeped out (which is how the spooky corpse-inspector children should be making you feel, right?).

I don’t want to get too far into talking about the new online multiplayer mode. This is partly because I haven’t yet put the hours into playing it, but mostly because there is a lot I had to write about the single player, which takes precedence. However, I will say that from what I have played the multiplayer it is a solid addition to the game. I was impressed by the effort that has gone into its setting, as the Bioshock 2 multiplayer is based during the fall of rapture, and as such tells as story (complete with collectable audio logs) which serves to complement the main event. It is certainly nice to glimpse Rapture in a less run down state and it is refreshing to come across a mulitplayer mode that has clearly had some effort put into it.

Ultimately, Bioshock 2 manages to improve upon the (excellent) first game in terms of the gunplay, with a slightly improved control system, as you can now wield a weapon and a Plasmid at once. Add to this the refined set of weapons and Plasmids and the combat is quite brilliant. The additional gameplay element of defending the “Little Sisters” is welcome and quite enjoyable, although it is not exploited enough during the campaign. The story is a little stronger this time around and the end section (including the ending itself) is much improved over the original, although it lacks the original’s pacing, taking longer to get going. In terms of atmosphere Bioshock 2 fails to generate the same tension and never pulled me into Rapture completely, despite some nice level design and interesting visual elements (like the shrines around some of the “Little Sister” vents). Perhaps this is simply because I have been to Rapture before, rather than that the game is made inferiorly, as I can’t really put my finger on what is missing. However, the fact can't be avoided that Bioshock 2 is a sequel and so can't really be expected to make as great an impact as the original.

I would definitely recommend Bioshock 2 to fans of the original game. And although I would probably advise new players to experience the original for a proper introduction to my favourite city under the sea, playing the first is by no means essential to the Bioshock 2 experience.

Bioshock 2 has been available in the UK since the 9th of February and is rated an '18' by the BBFC. For a look at the game from a technical view point, head over to IQGamer.

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