BioShock 2 Review

After the critical and commercial success of BioShock, the creation of a sequel was handed by 2K Games from Irrational Games (temporarily called 2K Boston) to 2K Marin, a newly created subdivision that worked on the BioShock PS3 port. To me, there's a sense of disinterest in this, the handing of a valued franchise to a competent set of hands simply to cash in. The fact that as of this writing BioShock's spiritual father Ken Levine hasn't even played BioShock 2 really says it all, and makes one wonder (if he won't bother, why should I?) Well, should you?

BioShock 2 is set in 1968, eight years after the events of BioShock. The player character this time around is a Big Daddy (referred to as (Delta)) and the overall goal of the game is to find the Little Sister you were paired up with. The two were separated 10 years earlier by the game's main antagonist, Sofia Lamb, and Delta has to find his way through the ruined city of Rapture with the help of several of its residents, uncovering the events of the preceding 10 years along the way including the events of BioShock 1.  

Graphics, Atmosphere, Sound, Technical

BioShock 2 uses the same engine as BioShock, a modified version of Unreal Engine 2.5 and is showing its age when it comes to the pure technical end of matters. Some surprising graphical oddities drag it down further, as at multiple points in the game I noted really low-quality textures used for walls and floors, or small-scale props used to represent enormous, far-off buildings which makes your view of Rapture in its entirety a lot less impressive.  

BioShock 2 also inherits BioShock's grand art design, and in the spirit of wisdom decided simply not to mess with it. The sleek, lithe Big Sister is the only addition that feels artistically out of place, as the rest of the game features locations and enemies that might as well be from BioShock 1, and indeed it seems to reuse a lot of art assets.

Once again supported by a great soundtrack excellent in both original tunes and in licensed golden oldies and absolutely rock-solid voice acting, it should come as no surprise that the biggest draw of this game is its incredible atmosphere. Rapture still looks amazing from an aesthetic viewpoint, and while the (people taunt you as you walk around) thing is weakened by the game's writing it still works, and BioShock 2 pulls no punches drawing you into its atmosphere.

Perhaps because it is so similar to BioShock 1 it does drive home one problem shared by both games: the gameplay doesn't really fit the atmosphere that well. Atmospherically, Rapture is ideally suited for a survival horror, or adventure/RPG type game. System Shock 2, the spiritual predecessor to both games, balanced this well by not throwing too much action at you, but in both BioShock games you are drowning in shooting action, and it ruins quite a bit of the experience.

BioShock 2 is surprisingly messy for such a big title. The game is fairly buggy, including hard crashes and graphics bugs. One problem I had myself and read of others having is the Big Sister fight music looping an entire level, which I hope to Frith is a bug because if it is by design then the sound designer has to be incompetent, as this loud, intrusive theme gets very annoying very fast.

On top of that, BioShock 2 runs with layers of DRM. When I was running it, I had to run the game, Steam (not obligatory, but I bought it through Steam), its native DRM, and Games for Windows Live. This feels unnecessary, and it is no wonder this stack of software occasionally hits a snag or conflict and decides to just quit.

Gameplay

At its core, BioShock 2 plays the same as its predecessor. It is a fairly simple FPS with some RPG elements thrown in, and they have been neither expanded nor cut back. What BioShock 2 did do was address some minor annoyances to make the gameplay experience better overall: your gun and plasmid are now active at the same time, considerably expanding your options in using them. The guns are different but consist of more or less the same basic sets, while the plasmids are mostly the same but with more upgrade capabilities, leading to new special charged plasmid attacks. A few new enemies have been added, such as the large brute splicer and dangerous Big Sister, which together with what seems to be a slightly improved enemy AI makes up for some of the challenge lost to you being a powerful Big Daddy. The last significant upgrade is the replacing of the old pipefitting minigame for hacking to a faster timing-based minigame, which doesn't freeze the game when it's in use like its predecessor bizarrely did. An odd gameplay tweak is the removal of the pausing weapon/plasmid selection screen, taking away the opportunity to calmly switch tactics mid-battle, harming tactical thinking in favour of hectic action.

BioShock 2 has a number of underwater sequences which, to be honest, are just devoid of gameplay, and thus completely pointless. There's a similar sequence later on in the game that is longer and similarly devoid of gameplay. While all these sequences serve some aesthetic or narrative purpose, they don't really work. It's odd, because the game's atmosphere will have you crying for something different than the rote shooting gameplay offered, yet the only alternative the game has is to not have any gameplay at all. Opportunity missed, by a wide margin.

Another big new thing was the Big Sister, widely incorporated in the game's expansive PR. And, well...she's a failure, pure and simple. Her design barely works, as she's essentially a skinny, lithe Big Daddy, which negates much of the menace of the original Big Daddy's excellent design. But while that's not a complete wash, the way the character is used is. The Big Sister is introduced way too early, but at least she's a distant threat, interfering with your progress but not facing you directly. It seems to be the perfect set-up for a long-term, menacing nemesis that you slowly learn to hate. And then BioShock 2 ruins that aspect by not just having you fight her early, but by having you fight a Big Sister every level, each time a short while after you harvested/saved the last Little Sister.

This repetitive level design is probably the game's biggest flaw, and the Big Sister's part in it serves to completely ruin the last vestiges of decent character design you could attribute to her. Almost every level will provide three Little Sisters you can adopt by killing her Big Daddy. Once saved, the Little Sister can harvest two corpses that you're pointed to by your map and the Little Sister. While she's harvesting you have to protect her from a horde of splicers (and later Big Daddies). Rinse and repeat three times, and the Big Sister will appear. Even though BioShock 2's diversity of weapons, traps and plasmids allows some variations of gameplay here, you're essentially grinding out the same activities over and over again, and it gets old pretty fast.

You can skip saving the Little Sisters, or harvest or save them immediately after adopting them. You'll be short of Adam if you do, but I wouldn't think by very much. Like its predecessor, BioShock 2 is ridiculously easy, and even a non-FPS player like myself just breezed through it on normal. The game pretty much drowns you in Adam, as not only do you double up on it if you have the Little Sister harvest, dead Big Sisters and Adam Slugs from the underwater sequences provide even more. As in the first game, the gameplay consequences of saving or harvesting Little Sisters are nearly non-existent as you'll get Adam bonuses for saving them anyway. Hypnotize plasmids just top it off, as on normal difficulty an Alpha Big Daddy needs nothing but you recharging his hypnotized state every now and again to deal with the entire level for you.  

Again like its predecessor, BioShock 2 seems to be afraid to let you fail, not just in its low difficulty and deluge of Adam, but in the presence of the Vita-Chambers and a constantly present quest arrow. I can't imagine anyone would ever need either and fortunately you can turn both off, but the combination of multiple fail-safes is borderline ridiculous. Also like its predecessor, BioShock 2 tries to fool you into believing that you're being challenged even when you're not. It might be effective for some people, but it was painfully transparent in both games to me, and it's hard to get spooked when you know no fight will challenge you, just like it's hard to feel the rush of a (the level is collapsing!) sequence when you immediately figure out the level isn't actually collapsing with a timer, but rather waiting for you to walk through it so it can trigger a cutscene.