BioShock 2 (PC, PS3, Xbox 360 [reviewed])
Developer: 2K Marin, 2K Australia, Digital Extremes
Publisher: 2K Games
To be released: February 9, 2010
Single-player (Jim Sterling):
Set ten years after the events of BioShock, BioShock 2 puts players into the thumping boots of a Big Daddy. Not just any Big Daddy, either. This is Delta, a prototype protector who was designed to have a lasting bond with a single Little Sister for reasons too convoluted to go into here. Waking up long after the fall of Rapture, Delta discovers that Andrew Ryan is dead and the Libertarian utopia has become a Communist ruin, ruled over by Dr. Sophia Lamb. Lamb, a longstanding rival of Ryan's, has turned the Splicers into her "family," an army of deranged cultists who have freed themselves from Ryan's ideals and now strive toward creating their own twisted view of Heaven on Earth. Now separated from his original Little Sister, Delta strives to win her back from Lamb's clutches and escape Rapture. It's up to the player whether Delta's story will be one of mercy, or revenge.
Let's get this out of the way early so we can move on -- BioShock 2's story is not as good as BioShock's. Is it bad? Not at all. It is, however, noticeably forced in places, and lacking the same scale of exploration and depth as the original game. The game expects us to stretch our imaginations a little more than is comfortable -- for example, we're supposed to believe that characters like Sophia Lamb, allegedly a huge part of Rapture and inextricably linked to Andrew Ryan, managed to stay completely anonymous and totally unmentioned during the course of the original game. Characters now revealed to be integral to Rapture's history only appear in BioShock 2, and it's very hard to believe that they exist in the same Rapture we saw during the last game.
Despite the plot's weaker elements and the fact that it clearly cannot match the original game, it's still an engaging and interesting story for the most part. The themes of forgiveness and the pursuit of utopia are put across very well, especially thanks to a slightly more interesting use of moral choices. While the Little Sister "Save or Harvest" plot is wearily redone, there are slightly more meaningful choices found throughout the game that have an impact on the way the story concludes.
While the plot may be a touch inferior to the original BioShock, the same cannot be said for the gameplay. At worst, it's almost exactly the same, which means it's automatically a solid, versatile and fun shooter. However, the decision to put players into the role of a Big Daddy opens the combat system up. Delta is far more capable of holding his own in a fight than Jack Ryan. In fact, battles against Big Daddies are far less dangerous affairs, and most players should be able to tackle the tougher enemies without the same fight/die/resurrect repetition of the first game. That said, BioShock 2 is no cakewalk. New enemies, such as the muscle-bound Brute Splicers or the Rumbler Big Daddy, provide plenty of challenge, while the much-lauded Big Sisters present some very tense, scary battles indeed.
Delta's arsenal of weapons and Plasmids is not only more effective than Jack Ryan's, but more fun as well. On the weapon side, Delta gets access to some iconic Big Daddy artillery, such as the drill arm and rivet gun. He also gets a launcher, shotgun, machine gun and spear gun as he progresses through the game. Each weapon can use multiple ammo types, such as phosphorus shotgun buck that lodges inside enemies and explodes after a few seconds, or trap rivets, which can be placed on the floor and will fire when they touch an enemy. These weapons can be upgraded at "Power to the People" stations and ultimately become incredibly devastating items. For instance, the final form of the rivet gun will randomly detonate rivets, setting targets on fire.
Many of the Plasmids from the original game return, and they can be upgraded into some awesomely brutal powers. Abilities such as the Cyclone Trap and Insect Swarm have been altered to become far more effective and useful. I didn't find the brand-new Plasmids, such as Scout, to be all that great, but a third-tier Incinerate Plasmid that effectively turns your hand into a flamethrower can hardly be sniffed at.
BioShock 2 starts off a little too frustrating. It's stingy with cash and items, and the first few stages will feel like a struggle. However, as the game progresses, players will access so many toys and so much stuff to play with that they'll be spoiled for choice. The game becomes a playground of carnage by the end of the adventure, and it's impossible to see all that BioShock 2's combat has to offer on the first play.
Hacking returns to BioShock 2, but has been improved immeasurably. Rather than a dull puzzle game that takes players out of the experience, hacking is now done in real time by timing button presses as an arrow moves along a semi-circular dial. Pressing the button while the arrow is in a green or blue area of the dial yields a successful hack. The white area shocks Delta and lowers health, while the red area triggers security bots. Getting the blue area also yields an extra bonus, such as getting vending machines to drop free items, or health stations to dish out a first aid kit. Hacking feels more natural and enjoyable this time around, and the fact that the game doesn't pause while hacks take place creates a more tense atmosphere. Delta also gets access to a hack dart gun, allowing him to perform his business remotely. Again, it's a fantastic addition that makes hacking more fun than ever before.
Another old gimmick with new life is the Little Sister portion of the game. As always, the player can liberate Little Sisters from their Big Daddy protectors. However, once free, the Little Sisters can be harvested, saved or adopted. Adopting a Little Sister places her on Delta's shoulders and players can then gather up to two batches of ADAM from corpses. The catch is that Splicers will instantly swarm to the Little Sister when she gathers. Players will have to prepare before each gathering, setting traps and getting their weapons ready. Once the sisters are saved, Delta must then face off against a Big Sister. This new dynamic is a terrific addition to the game, but it gets very repetitive as the game goes on. By the time the game is in its closing chapters, it's likely you'll be very sick of the lengthy process.
BioShock 2's single-player campaign trades in some narrative quality for superior gameplay, and it's a fair trade indeed. No, BioShock 2 may not feel like a fantastic follow-up to its predecessor, but it still feels like a part of its universe. It also throws in its own memorable set pieces, and quite a few terrific characters. Alex the Great is a particularly brilliant new addition to the cast, although I don't want to give away any more about him than that. Perhaps the worst that can be said of BioShock 2 is that it lacks the "wow" factor of the original. Much of the fun of the first BioShock came from exploring this brand new world, and finding out how it became a fallen dystopia. We already know that about Rapture now. Much of the charm, much of the mystery, has been removed, and there's nothing 2K Marin could have done about that.
Ultimately, BioShock 2 is a great sequel to a superb game. It can't quite step into its father's shoes, but it does a solid and commendable job in its many impressive attempts.
Multiplayer (Rey Gutierrez):
The inclusion of multiplayer has drawn criticism equally from fans and press, and it's been very interesting to see how the game's engine and visual language would lend themselves to all-out plasmid-fueled chaos in Rapture.
Rapture remains Rapture. The magic of the underwater city and its colorful cast of characters and corridors remain intact, as do the perils and set pieces that play into strategic combat. As in the single-player campaign, you can punish your opponents by freezing doors and electrifying puddles -- these devious moments are scattered around each map and are fun to exploit. The maps are so gorgeous, in fact, that you might get a little distracted by the scenery.
You can create up to three different Loadouts, where you can customize your primary and secondary weapons, modify your plasmids, and add different upgrades and tonics to your character. There are plasmids aplenty: Electro Bolt, Incinerate, Winter Blast, Aero Dash, Geyser Trap, Telekinesis, Houdini, Insect Swarm. And you can marry them with tonics: Security Evasion, Speedy Recovery, Eve Saver, Metabolic EVE, Deadly Machines, Head Hunter.
Picking and choosing the right weapon/plasmid/tonic combo is key to winning a match. Being able to freeze your opponents with a well-timed Winter Blast, and shattering them to pieces with a round from your machine gun is always fun. So is using Houdini to disappear and reappear behind your enemies' turrets, where you can safely hack them. Then again, you might just get lucky: Big Daddy suits will randomly spawn in the map, turning you into a walking tank with all the Big Daddy perks.
Last but not least, this game has something for pranksters and those who love bragging rights. You can humiliate your opponents by taking pictures of their lifeless avatars, gaining you different bonuses for the round.
You can choose up to six different characters, all with individual personalities and audio taunts ... and that's about as much depth as you're treated to. Customizing characters is extremely limited; youʼre only able to change their masks or headgear and melee weapons. But it can be pretty funny beating someone over the head with a frying-pan or candle stick.
There is also a lack of any original multiplayer modes -- you'll be treated to iterations of age-old tropes you can enjoy in better-executed multiplayer games. Still, it's cute, as they do have a small pinch of a BioShock twist. Capture the flag is known as "Capture the Little Sister," where you have to steal the opposing team's Little Sister and return her to your vent.
Perhaps my biggest gripe is that the maps and scale seem to get in the way of the battle. The original art style of Rapture was intended for single player eye-popping map lust, not chaos. The multiplayer maps may look pretty, but the single-player experience of appreciating the artwork and different rooms of Rapture is lost when youʼre having a hard time navigating and jumping over the scenery. To be more specific, you'll often find yourself thinking something like, "Is this rock here because it is beautiful and therefore untouchable, or can I jump on it and club someone in the face?" Expect lots of trial and error as you figure out what is art and what is actionable.
That said, the gameplay is more about luck than strategy. BioShock 2 plays more like early PS2 multiplayer titles such as TimeSplitters rather than technical, multi-faceted experiences like the Call of Duty games. There's a lot of visual noise: with a chaotic room of plasmids going off, the screen can get pretty crazy, and you might have to resorting to merely melee-ing anything that happens to stumble in front of you. Most of the environments are closed in, with not a lot of room for error. What's worse is that a lot of the rooms start to look the same. In some maps, there didn't seem to be any notable landmarks at all, making it difficult to differentiate one area from another.
The multiplayer can be fun, but it can easily come off as gimmicky. The designers borrowed a lot of elements from other games, but gamers recognized the world of Rapture for its fresh art direction and storytelling, not for following the standard. Itʼs not fresh or new, just a different coat of paint. BioShock 2's multiplayer doesn't bring anything new, but it's a nice distraction from the campaign. If you're playing BioShock 2 for its multiplayer and not its narrative, then you're doing it wrong. Think of it as nice-to-have bonus materials in the pocket of a DVD you've been waiting for. You will enjoy it and it does add some value, but I doubt you'll often come back to it.
Overall Score: 8.0 -- Great (8s are impressive efforts with a few noticeable problems holding them back. Won't astound everyone, but is worth your time and cash.)
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