Thursday, February 18, 2010

Taking the Safe Route - Bioshock 2 Review

bioshock2Bioshock did not need a sequel.

With a few notable exceptions, the 2007 release was as powerful an artistic statement as one can expect from a multi-million dollar action game. It had a carefully crafted and breathtaking environment, it interfaced with some Big Ideas about philosophy and free will, and it was a damn respectable entry in a genre dominated by HaloBioshock told a reasonably well-crafted and self-contained story, and any follow-up was bound to be disappointing by comparison.

This is where 2K Marin’s Bioshock 2 comes in.

Rapture – A Recap of Bioshock

For our non-gaming readers, I should sum up the original Bioshock – there’s a bit to cover here, but it will save some time to let the game speak for itself. If you’ve played the first game, you can probably skip to the next section, since there’s nothing here you haven’t seen.

Andrew Ryan (ably voiced by Armin Shimerman, known to some as Quark from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) built the undersea city of Rapture on the foundation of good intentions and lofty ideals, but in a city where the individual was unconstrained, anyone with a strong personality and ample resources could eventually rise to take Ryan on for control of the city. That person was one Frank Fontaine, and the first game’s events are primarily concerned with the power struggle between the two men.

Ryan and Rapture both subscribe to Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy, which essentially boils down to “every man for himself” – a person earns what he or she earns, and nothing is set aside for taxes or religion or welfare. The first game interfaces with these ideas and with the idea of free will with a surprising adroitness, all staged in the near-ruins of a failed utopia. Exploring Rapture is easily the best part of the first game; it’s a haunting environment that is equal parts fascinating and grim.

If Rapture was finally torn apart by Ryan and Fontaine’s power struggle, ADAM exposed the first cracks in its facade. ADAM is a miraculous substance that modifies your genetic material, modifying defects, augmenting your appearance, and allowing you to shoot lightning from your fucking hand. “Splicing” one’s DNA with ADAM and Plasmids became quite popular in Rapture, but the substance is both addictive and corrupting, and before long Rapture was overrun with the decaying junkies known as Splicers.

The one last thing you need to know is the means by which ADAM is collected, one of Rapture’s greatest sins. ADAM is made by sea slugs found on the ocean floor, but to be produced in marketable quantities Rapture’s scientists embedded the slugs inside young girls, the Little Sisters – this process renders them zombie-like, with no memories of who or what they were. To protect the Little Sisters as they go about gathering ADAM from dead bodies, Rapture’s scientists also manufactured the Big Daddies, genetically modified supermen whose sole task is to single-mindedly guard their charges from ADAM-hungry Splicers.

Okay, I think that’s all the backstory you need. If you want more, buy this game – I don’t know why you haven’t played it yet.

Lamb is watching – Ten years later Enter Bioshock 2, set a decade after the events of the first game. You play Subject Delta, not the first Big Daddy, but a prototype that was the first to be bonded to a specific Little Sister. Your Little Sister’s name is Eleanor Lamb, and her mother Sofia is the primary antagonist this time out.

Doctor Sofia Lamb is the antithesis of Andrew Ryan – where he placed the individual above all, she advocates the strength of the whole, a philosophy rooted in Communism but running much deeper than that.

The specters of Ryan and Fontaine still hover over Rapture’s ruins in the form of audio logs and propaganda, though they of course take a backseat to those who still live. The game does a surprisingly solid job of inserting Lamb’s big personality into a city where only two big personalities previously existed – if you’re paying attention, it’s just about plausible that Sofia Lamb could have loomed so large over Rapture in the age of Ryan and Fontaine while still going unnoticed in the events of the first game, not that there aren’t some issues.

Bioshock 2’s largest narrative problems are concerned with timing – first and foremost, it is completely implausible for Rapture to be standing ten years after the events of the first game. The environments seem as though they would have fit much better in the last game, set just a couple of years after Rapture’s fall – obviously civilization was here recently, but it has gone and it’s not coming back. Maybe someone takes care of Rapture when the city isn’t a hornets’ nest that your character has just kicked, but that much is not obvious from a playthrough of either game.

It seems like a small quibble, but after exploring the immersive Rapture of the first game, it’s distracting to be drawn out of the environment to constantly wonder why the hell there are still functional and fully stocked vending machines dotting Rapture like a teenager’s pimples.

Obviously, the game’s timeline was fudged to better fit the crux of the game, which becomes clear toward the end. In the last two or three levels of the game, Sofia Lamb’s intentions become clearer, and the differences between her misguided extremism and Ryan’s misguided extremism finally show themselves enough to engage the player in a meaningful way.

Bioshock ended on a low note, with a cartoony boss battle that absolutely didn’t fit the timbre of the rest of the game. Bioshock 2 begins more weakly, but picks up in the last few hours toward an ending that I found much more satisfying than the 30-second FMV that followed the first game’s climax.

Choices made throughout the game still result in only a simplistic Good-or-Bad ending, but at the last the choices you’ve made manifest themselves in a more fulfilling way. The result is a bittersweet finale that feels more a part of the game than did Bioshock’s.

Familiar territory – The gameplay of Bioshock 2

UntitledI don’t have to draw parallels to tell you that 2K Marin chose the safe route here – little in Bioshock was broken, so little in Bioshock 2 has been fixed. This is a common tack for a high-profile sequel to take, and it stands in opposition to the more irregular Mass Effect 2, which left no stone unturned when it came to changing gameplay that didn’t work and sanding off the rough edges.

Since Bioshock 2 does not change itself as much as did Mass Effect 2, it obviously opens itself up for more direct comparisons – luckily, it manages to hold its own most of the time. None of the levels quite match the peaks of the Fort Frolic section of the original, but none are markedly worse than anything found in the first game. Gameplay itself is largely unchanged, though some elements have been given some appreciable polishing – new mechanisms for hacking and researching enemies make gameplay flow more smoothly, as does the ability to wield a plasmid and a weapon at the same time instead of just one or the other.

The weapons at your disposal, however, have barely changed. Plasmid upgrades now behave slightly differently from one another – Incinerate 2 is no longer simply a more powerful version of Incinerate – but the core functionality of plasmids do not change, and few if any new powers are introduced.

On the weapons side, the Big Daddy’s drill hand is a visceral and satisfying replacement for the original game’s pipe wrench, but the rest of your arsenal is virtually unchanged. A major marketing point for Bioshock 2 was the ability to play as a tank-like Big Daddy, but in practice there’s little difference between Delta and the Average Joe you played as the first time around.

Finally, the stuff that wasn’t fixed or polished, and the new additions that just barely count as additions at all. As in the first game, you’ll spend ages searching for loot and increasingly contrived audio logs on every corpse and in every desk that you find, much more time than you’ll actually spend moving forward or fighting.

The difficulty curve remains shallow, and once again by the end of the game you’ll be bristling with such an arsenal that no enemy presents a true threat, even the fearsome Big Sisters. And speaking of, the Big Sisters make for intermittently entertaining mini-boss encounters, but taking them down is really no harder than taking down a plain ol’ Big Daddy.

Also new since the first game is the ability to be submerged underwater, but no combat takes place on the sea floor and you’ll only be underwater for the two minutes it takes to trudge from one of the game’s levels to the next. More could have been done here – imagining a sort of open-world Rapture accessible by underwater travel is nearly enough to make me shiver, but such ambition was obviously outside the developers’ scope.

As good as it could have been – Drawing conclusions

stayclose As expected, Bioshock 2 doesn’t have the impact of the first game – it simply isn’t as essential a release. That much is to be expected. What I didn’t expect was that it did succeed on its own terms – it polished most of the gameplay elements that needed it, and its narrative, while not as immersive or as intriguing as the first, does not entirely eschew the ideas of the first game in favor of another brainless first-person shooter.

That being said, at no point does Bioshock 2 transcend the medium of videogames to be something more, as the first game strived (and occasionally succeeded) to do. It is first and foremost a game meant to entertain, not to engage with philosophy and morality.

In the end, I didn’t expect Bioshock 2 to top the original, and so I ended up reasonably satisfied with the game I got. Fans of the first game should not be beating down doors to get copies, but most of them will find something to like here if they were willing to forgive Bioshock its flaws. I’ll ultimately leave the decision up to you – a man chooses, a slave obeys.