Sequels are very difficult things. Whenever we hear the word, all of us can conjure images of those watered down elaborations, of those franchises that have seen some modicum of success only to be redrafted, reheated and reserved to us like last night’s casserole. We sceptically poke it about the plate, looking for some of the original’s flavour and novelty, before daring to take a mouthful only to get burnt.
And why should BioShock 2 be any different? 2K has fewer cards in their hand now. The mystery must surely be diminished: We know the failed social experiment that is Rapture – some of us now know it better than we know Christchurch – we know what a splicer is, we know what Little Sister does.
And the problem will be exacerbated by how fondly we recall the original. BioShock was rightly acclaimed. It is one of the definitive titles of this console generation – a much-loved copy still lingers on our office’s coffee table, partly obscured by a raft of new releases, but still calling to us like the deep and mournful drones of a Big Daddy somewhere down a long and dark passageway.
Further, what we admired about the original is the very thing that sequels typically tamper with unsuccessfully: the concept.
No mistake, BioShock was a middling shooter. Players were offered an index of foes running from fodder through to challenge, and were presented with a crosshair and trigger. Now go to it. We’ve all experienced gameplay like that many times over. And it’s this that led a community backlash against critical praise, to the widespread use of gaming culture’s most disappointing, inappropriate and ubiquitous cliché: that BioShock was something else “dumbed down.”
It’s a criticism that’s missing the point: Where the title distinguished itself was its capacity to take a rarefied philosophical concept like utilitarianism – Ayn Randian objectivism – and to make it palatable and intriguing, to imbue it into the very walls of the setting.
Rapture was a visionary city built under the Atlantic Ocean by character Andrew Ryan: A post-war art deco utopia where a generation’s best creative and intellectual minds were gathered, limited only by their ambition, unfettered by any central authority.
In time, the occupants discovered how to reconstruct the human genome courtesy of stem cells harvested from sea slugs. Called ADAM, Rapture’s citizens were able to create plasmid mutations – inhuman abilities and enhancements. Moreover, they discovered that ADAM could be manufactured by placing these slugs in the stomachs of little girls, who, equipped with a large syringe, could also extract ADAM from the dead.
Unfortunately, ADAM was also highly addictive and in short supply. These little girls, known as Little Sisters, were being abducted and harvested by Rapture’s increasingly voracious citizens. To protect the Little Sisters in their macabre work, the Big Daddies were created. These lumbering, mentally sterilised men – armoured in deep sea diving suits – were re-engineered with no free will, but with an overwhelming paternal instinct to protect their charges.
This is the meticulously crafted irony at the very heart of BioShock: Protecting and propagating the unparalleled achievements of this city of individuals are men and young girls with no free will of their own.
The player is dropped into that complex world as an outsider who has crashed in the mid-Atlantic as the city descends into civil war.
This is the premise that BioShock 2 builds upon. You play subject Delta, a prototype Big Daddy who is bound to a Little Sister named Eleanor. She is the daughter of Dr. Sofia Lamb, and Lamb, finding the bio-engineered relationship between the two of you not at all to her liking, induces you to commit suicide via the use of her own plasmid mutations.
You regain consciousness some ten years later. Since your death, the civil war has run its course and you return a Rapture in ruins. Now its ADAM-addled citizens and the newly-created Big Sisters stalk its barnacle-encrusted plazas under the direction of a new leader – none other than Dr. Lamb.
As with the original, BioShock 2 is an indictment of extremism: Lamb is an ideologue that sits at the opposite end of the spectrum to Ryan. She’s a collectivist who believes she can recreate the glory of Rapture.
Importantly, the plot is now correctly paced. This was one of the appropriate criticisms of the first, which hit the apex of its story arc too soon. Indeed, BioShock 2 features one of the most inspired passages of creative gameplay, design and narrative exposition we’ve yet to witness in any title towards its closing moments. It alone is worth the time investment.
That said, there is indeed less to learn here. Rapture is changed, certainly, but beneath the pooling water and coral is the essentially same city we revelled in back in 2007 – we’re exploring new corners, but we know its ghosts well. Moreover, closely scrutinising the Big Daddy-Little Sister dynamic does peel back some of its unsettling mystery.
Fortunately, the shooter and AI elements of BioShock 2 are vastly improved. The game still advances from level to level in linear fashion, but each rotting and waterlogged environment is more open than in the original. Splicers – ADAM addicts with varying plasmid mutations – no longer bottleneck in front of the player. Instead, they come from all angles and work together to maximise their ability to put some hurt on Delta. They understand cover, they know when you’re focused on them.
They need to be. You are, after all, an armoured Big Daddy designed specifically to deal with cradle-snatching splicers from the outset. Unlike the original, players are also able to dual-wield plasmid abilities and a weapon. At the most elementary level this will give you the ability to one-two exposed enemies. As the game advances and the splicer mutations you encounter become more crafty, so too must your use of plasmid abilities, the range of which are greatly enhanced. In time, you’ll be able to prepare any environment for an incoming onslaught by summoning security bots, setting plasmid and rivet traps and hypnotising burly splicers to attack their allies.
You’ll be doing this often: In order to upgrade your abilities, you still need ADAM, and to get ADAM, you need Little Sisters to harvest the dead. Throughout the game you’ll encounter docile Big Daddies and their Little Sisters spending time together, still collecting ADAM, serenely unaware that Rapture lies in ruins around them. A prototype, Delta has the ability to adopt or harvest any Little Sisters he finds – once he’s dealt with its protector.
Should you adopt a Little Sister, (she wants upsies, Daddy) she’ll guide you to ADAM-rich corpses and begin her sweetly parasitic work. As she does so, splicers descend on her and it’s your charge to defend her. After you’ve done so, you’ve got the option again to harvest her – a process she’ll not survive but one that awards you with more ADAM – or to rescue her by taking her to a vent that she’ll scramble into with saccharine farewells.
As with the original, your decision to harvest or rescue Little Sisters dramatically impacts on the outcome of the game. But whether you choose to rescue or harvest Little Sisters, you’ll raise the ire of the Big Sisters.
Former Little Sisters, these are Rapture’s new supreme predators. Simultaneously lithe and crippled, they’re armoured like a Big Daddy and move like arthritic spiders. Their desire is to see the Little Sisters go about their work – your interference in that process is at your own risk. On a mechanical level, their environmental AI is sublime: Big Sisters will vault railings and jump off walls with natural impunity. Keep your eye on the ball, however, they’re as deadly as they are fast.
You’ll die to Big Sisters. You’ll die at their hands particularly when they close on you as you’re mid-combat with splicers and your wild shooting has provoked a hitherto placid Big Daddy. The game once again employs vita-chambers as respawn points. While some players felt that this death penalty system was much too forgiving in the original, we never took particular exception to it. After all, we were far more interested in understanding Rapture’s nuances than going through the motions of learning merely passable shooter encounters piecemeal. To that end, a lenient penalty system ensured longer passages of play. But however you felt about them, you’ll be getting very familiar with them in BioShock 2. If you’re insistent on the matter, their functionality can now be turned off at any time via the in-game menu.
Gathered ADAM is reinvested in any number of plasmid upgrades and gene tonics. There are more options than you’ll have ADAM, meaning that your own Delta will be personalised and that custom combat builds employing complementary plasmids and tonics are very much central to gameplay.
At any one time you’ll have access to eight plasmid abilities, selected from a radial menu that pauses the action. Additionally, you can have 16 pre-selected gene tonics – passive ability upgrades. Both plasmids and tonics can be swapped out at the gene banks littered throughout the levels.
Graphically, the quality is much the same as the original (again, it’s built on the Unreal 2.5 engine, with some few enhancements) which was a leader at the time of its release. Given the hardware limitations of the platform, it appears there has been little room for growth, but we are curious as to just how it will stack up on the PC.
The accompanying audio strikes the correct tone, foreshadowing what can’t be seen, enhancing what can. The game’s musical score is another collection of post-war radio hits harking back to an era when the state endorsed the growth of the civil nuclear family. In this instance, it’s a charming wink to the Big Daddy-Little Sister relationship, but also smugly ironic when juxtaposed against the societal collapse we’re witness to on-screen.
Unfortunately we've been unable to try the multiplayer content in BioShock 2 as the code supplied to us from 2K simply didn't include it, nor were we likely to come across too many people playing the game online several days before the release. So stay tuned shortly for a summary of this content. Naturally, we reserve the right to change our score should it drastically change our impression of the game.
That seems unlikely however. 2K have once again proved that Rapture, through all it's wild, twisted and crazy moments, is an unforgettable place to be. You may think you've seen it all before, but that's no reason to deprive yourself of what is sure to be one of the best titles of the year.
Continue to the next page for a multiplayer overview.