Rapture 10 years on is a fitting setting for BioShock 2. Not so much in that it represents an accelerated dystopia from the one you either liberated or came to rule (in essence), but that its crumbling halls, myriad leaks and decaying furniture parallel the game itself. The BioShock engine - at one time a marvel to behold
- is looking old. Very old. It struggles to do the things it should, like an ancient hulking beast burning the fuel at both ends just to remain employable... oh wait, how fitting - you play just such a character in one of the narrative's very first Big Daddies.
The comparisons are appropriate. BioShock 2, for what it adds in expanded lore and the odd gameplay innovation hasn't really shifted itself beyond the shadow of the first game. Like so many looming, noire-esque silhouetted beasts threatening your very existence throughout the game, so too has BioShock threatened BioShock 2 at every turn, and just like the mindless, single-track casters of those shadows; Rapture's denizens-gone-mad, Splicers
, BioShock is completely unaware of what it's doing to its younger, more fragile offspring.
This was always going to be the case though. As soon as word of Ken Levine's minimal input and 2K Boston's full departure from the series hit, alongside word of the existence of a sequel, consumer concern was imminent. Further disclosure more and more teams would be added to the development mix also didn't help - was no one capable of handling this precious new IP on their own? Clearly not, and it shows throughout. BioShock 2 lacks a severe amount of polish and progress, especially given the time and resources being thrown at it by 2K Games, but the devs have handled a few things very well, and despite the game's many shortcomings, it's still a driving romp; a great action title with some excellent and even innovative ideas that will push you to the bitter end.
BioShock 2's initial downfall starts where all initial downfalls should - at the beginning. The game presumes you've played the first game, and makes no apologies for dumping you in the proverbial deep-end if you haven't. That said, it then ignores this stance, putting you in the large, heavy boots of a Big Daddy who is probably the weakest one ever produced. The narrative would suggest your special place within Rapture's halls and history make you unique and powerful, but they apparently only make you especially vulnerable, and if
you did play the first game, you'd be more than aware that facing any
Big Daddy is one very daunting task. What's more is, a solid three hours in, I still had Splicers smashing me about the head with led-pipes marginally more powerful than my drill arm.
The design goal here is obvious - the objective is to become more powerful, but the problem is it appears the main character never was powerful. Usually in this type of game, a pre-textual portion of play allows you to see just
how powerful you can become before introducing a story element that strips you of said power. Like giving a horse a carrot so he knows he likes it, allowing you to tie the next one on a pole and string and dangle it in his face; ostensibly giving you recourse to lead him wherever you like.
Unfortunately that is not the case here, and what you get in wake of a poor decision is an intro that feels alarmingly similar to the first game, and utterly out of context. What's more is, turning off the Vita Chambers and playing on the hardest setting (something I did with the first game, and repeated here) has once again seen a back-step in the save/checkpoint system, in that there essentially is none. While I understand the onus is on me to remember to save given my choice to play with the Chambers off, I reviewed the game on Xbox 360 (the copy we were sent) and there is no such thing as F5 on consoles. A quick save button would be a welcome addition, but even more so, at the very least, area-specific checkpoints - there's nothing worse than getting sucked into the flow of combat and progression only to die and realise you were so immersed you didn't think to hit Start and go through the annoying act of manually saving. Ultimately this breaks the flow of the game, and pulls you out of context and character, and could simply be implemented a lot better.
Other archaic decisions have come along, which add to the familiarity factor of playing the first game. For one, letting your health drop without manually applying a medkit will see you dead, even if you have several kits on board. The insult to injury here is, your EVE replenishes automatically if you have reserves, making this decision very annoying, and again, given the fact you're initially the weakest Big Daddy to set foot in Rapture, and the Splicers seem to be much, much stronger, you're forced to attempt to fend for yourself while fumbling to replenish health; swearing at the screen in disbelief because a massive guy in body-armour with a drill for an arm can't really do enough damage to take any of them out.
Despite all of this though, there is a plan in place, and it is about progression and becoming more powerful and it begins at the very first Power to the People weapon upgrade station you come across. These stations allow a single item in your inventory to be upgraded in the form of more powerful attacks, more ammunition storage and so on. While initially I upgraded my rivet gun, I later learnt the real money is in my aforementioned drill. An upgrade or two of this baby, and you begin to feel like the powerhouse you should. The drill needs fuel to run (which is ridiculous because if you stand near another Big Daddy who has a little sister, his drill is running non-stop - must have an endless supply of fuel), so it's a good idea to upgrade that, also. Moreover, the stations come into play much quicker this time around, showcasing the absolute need
for you to power-up, and there seem to be more of them, which is fitting because the one area BioShock 2 stands out over the first is in its combat, and with so much else painting an early negative picture, it was a wise decision on the development front to show players these tools as early as they have.
The action is paced very differently to the first game. Whereas in BioShock everything was new; each and every area a visionary site to behold of Andrew Ryan's goal to create the ultimate, free man's utopia (allowing for a slower pacing), BioShock 2 does no such thing. The closest we get to being gob-smacked visually is during underwater traversing, which I must admit is very cool, though slightly underwhelming. So combat has become the new 'scenic route', and it begins with the very reason you're in Rapture in the first place: Little Sisters.
Once again the creepy young girls are back, but this time you can adopt them directly, even after taking out their own Big Daddies (apparently they're not too picky). Once you've adopted one, holding down the X-button will present a pheromone trail to follow, leading you to ADAM. ADAM is the building blocks of Plasmid life in Rapture, and you'll need it in order to upgrade. So once the Little Sister has found her ADAM apple tree - usually a dead Splicer - you set her down and she starts poking away with her unnervingly cute syringe. The problem is, as soon as she does this, other Splicers can smell what's going on and crash the party to get some of the gear for themselves. Everyone in Rapture is a drug addict and as such, will go to extreme measures to get their next fix.
Obviously this poses a problem because the Little Sisters take their time extracting the ADAM, and as witnessed in the first game, your very job in Rapture is to stand watch over these little ladies while they do their job. A tactical stance is in order then, and it's here BioShock 2 sets itself apart. Before setting the Little Sister down to fetch ADAM, you have room and time to ensure any Splicers who come knocking will never knock again. New weapons have allowed for setting booby traps, such as trap-rivets, which can be shot into any surface and will project a trip beam which when triggered, will send rivets flying. You can shoot them into the ground, into doorways - even dead or live bodies, and they're invaluable early in the game. You'll also usually find oil-slicks around you, where you can carefully place an explosive barrel that won't only do some serious explosive damage to everyone around you, but set the oil on fire so anyone else approaching feels the aftermath. Proximity mines also come into play, while eventually new Plasmids will allow you to arm your traps in a variety of different ways.
All of this ensures battle is never quite the same, and there's enough room for your own style of play that you're likely going to be creatively opposite to how anyone else plays. Much of this tactical combat can also be applied to the Big Sisters you'll face - grown up little ones who're almost the antithesis to Big Daddies. They're quick, nimble and downright scary, so much so they're not worried about warning of their impending approach with a banshee-like wail, in fact they likely get off on it. Essentially the tool-set you're eventually rewarded with, and how you use it, will determine the length and severity of battles with Big Sisters, Splicers and other bosses, but it's the most redeeming feature of BioShock 2 overall, and one worth playing through the game for, regardless.
The other core difference to the first game (beyond the aesthetic, also) is BioShock 2's overall narrative which is both good and bad, with some unflavoured bits in between. It's no secret the fan-base has been divided with knowledge you play as a Big Daddy, and while it's an honour to play as one of the first
Big Daddies, it's not really the driving factor. Without spoiling too much, you're nicknamed Delta, and it's 10 years since the events of the first game. Since Ryan's death, his political rival, Sophia Lamb, a psychologist brought down to Rapture to help denizens adapt to their new world, has taken over and she has a plan for the city, and a plan for its Little Sisters. What's more is, Rapture seems to have become a revolving door, with citizens coming and going as they please, and even land-dwellers procuring their own submarines to stumble upon the decaying underwater metropolis. Specifically, this happens because young girls the world over have been disappearing from beaches, which lead to a father following his instincts by following her trail to Rapture - all of which you learn via voice-recordings, once again strewn about the game-world.
There are some excellent ideas presented from Lamb's altruistic perspective, and her use of psychology has clearly turned all of Rapture's citizens into her own encourageable army. But aside from a few philosophical differences, her role is almost no different to that of Fontaine's in the first game - though she's less brute and far more cerebral.
While engaging, BioShock 2's overall story lacks the mystery and discovery of the first, and it's but one direction they could have taken things - especially after the disappointing endings of the first game. But like that, you can service yourself different outcomes here based on decisions you make with the Little Sisters - and one Little Sister in particular (we won't spoil it for you though).
As for multiplayer, BioShock 2 serves to dish up something of an interactive telling of just when splicing became the norm for Rapture's citizens; multiplayer essentially offering a narrative context to 'testing abilities'. It's a shallow and somewhat tacked on affair that has some interesting moments and ideas, but really nothing of the lasting gain of games like Modern Warfare 2 (even sans dedicated servers) or Left 4 Dead. Though in saying that, it might have been worth looking into a stand-alone cooperative story add-on rather than the usual affair of deathmatching et al. It'll be interesting in the coming months to see if it stacks up and keeps players coming back.
Ultimately though, BioShock 2 is not about multiplayer. It's a story-driven action experience that takes cues from the first game and expands upon combat and engagement, while holding back in far too many areas, with far too few technological progressions since 2007's debut of the first game. The engine is looking tired (though is still capable of some pretty cool stuff, and everything runs smoothly), but it would be nice to see Rapture in more detail.
The hurdle here was always going to be asking players of the first game to leave their investment with Jack and offer it to someone new, and a Big Daddy, no less. But their ambition is clear, and it's a well-crafted experience. It just lacks the punch and innovation of the first game, presenting itself more as a tangent than a true sequel. But if you liked the setting of the first and need more Rapture love, BioShock 2 will sate - just don't go in expecting to be wowed in the same way you were the first time.