Tuesday, February 23, 2010

BioShock 2 Review

My fishbowl grew legs!

BioShock 2, simply by having BioShock in its title, is in an impossible position. I do not envy those who were given the task of building a follow up to the best game of 2007, but economics being what they are (read: publishers like to make money) someone had to do it. Someone turned quickly into someones as it became clear that recapturing the dark magic of the first game would not be as easy as dropping in an ill advised 'look we can do it, too' multiplayer and calling it a day. There is not only a shortage of new ideas, but the new ideas there are just aren't very good, especially with the first game still relatively fresh in our minds. I attribute most of this to the absence of Ken Levine; there is nothing wrong with the technology in BioShock 2, but there is no soul hiding inside its cumbersome exterior. BioShock 2 is a big daddy with no little sister: slow, loud, and on a short road to coma and death.

The opening sequence of BioShock should be required viewing in 'I want to make a video game 101.' I can think of no other game that grabs your attention and introduces you to a new world as quickly and efficiently. BioShock 2 tries to do the same, but it also assumes that you have played and remember the first game. To veterans of Rapture it will be immediately clear that they are playing as a big daddy, that there will be little sisters running around to either harvest or save, and that the splicers with be skulking in the darkest corners waiting for the perfect moment to get your insides on the outside. With the exception of the protagonists walking speed, nothing has changed. The feeling of been there, done that was never present in the first game (probably because I never finished System Shock 2, shame on me) but it never stops in BioShock 2. Andrew Ryan's failed experiment is old hat, and the first eight hours of the game make no attempt at shaking things up.

Burning Man: The Game.

Everything that is old is here again. There are vita-chambers that conveniently resurrect you from even the most savage beating. It is possible to turn them off this time around, but beyond scrounging for achievement points there is no reason to do so. Most of the same plasmids are present, the same combinations that worked before will work now, but it does seem easier to max out their levels. Adam is more abundant in BioShock 2, mostly because you can escort a little sister on a few harvesting missions before you either tear off her head or cure her. This one new mechanic is about the only way the player will ever actually feel like a big daddy: the little sister gets to work with her over sized hypodermic needle and splicers begin to ooze out of the duct work. They come in force, in greater numbers and with better tactics than anything the first game had to offer. Preparation is key; setting traps actually works this time around and even then the splicers will find a way through. They are hectic, tense battles that highlight everything that works about the game. It is a pity that the random encounters and boss battles never reach the same level.

The big sister debut was not a big secret. She appeared in several game magazines months prior to release. Who was actually in the suit was never made clear, which is a good thing, but I always assumed there was only one, that she was some kind of anomaly that filled the power vacuum created by the deaths of Ryan and Atlas. The first encounter with her, triggered by interacting with the little sisters, is an intense battle. Then she has he audacity to die, and any danger associated with further encounters with the now generic big sister dies right along with her. Making her a common enemy, especially one as easily defeated via freezing plasmid shenanigans, was a mistake. They show up about once per level, eventually two at a time, but they might as well be a slightly more powerful splicer, as they inspire neither anxiety nor fear. It was a wasted opportunity to do something that the first game never managed to do either: make me afraid of an enemy.

Hey, watch where you are pointing that!

For three quarters of its length the game lumbers on, beautiful and contemptibly familiar at the same time. As the big daddy grows in power he becomes indistinguishable from the hero/villain of the first game; just another plasmid wielding bad ass in rapture, this time with a drill instead of a wrench. Finally, when the game had tested even my patience, new things happened and I remembered why I loved the first game. I will not spoil it here (check old blog entries if you must know) but the last two hours of the game almost, almost, make the first eight forgivable. There are surprises, intense battles, missions with more than one linear objective; everything that was missing suddenly reappears and it is finally BioShock 2 instead of BioShock 1.5. I really wonder what part of the game was made first, the beginning or the end. If the ending was made last, congratulations, you made a great save. If it was made first, same on you 2K, you could have done so much better.

Sequels to critically and publicly acclaimed games are dangerous propositions. Yes, they will sell well at first based on name only, but everyone will be looking more closely the second time around and repeating yourself will not be tolerated. For every God of War II and Uncharted 2 there is a KotoR II or, worse yet, Ghostbusters II. While the second BioShock is certainly no worse than the first game, it is no better and misses out on several opportunities to improve. The bar never stops rising, BioShock 2 has simply fallen behind. Is it worth playing? Of course, but it will not leave you with the same fuzzy feeling the first one did. BioShock was a genre defining event, one that is rarely repeated in the same series. While BioShock 2 was not a bad game, I do hope it is the last we see of the series. Eight hours of tedium to get to two hours of excellence is much closer to working for a living than I want my gaming time to be.

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