The original Bioshock was largely hailed as a masterwork of videogame narrative and design – a title that set the bar for how stories in games should be told, how players should be allowed to experiment in play, and the kinds of worlds gamers should expect from developers in the future. It was a self-contained, almost perfect game that didn’t necessarily warrant any further additions in the form of sequels or spin-offs.
When it was announced that Bioshock was being primed for franchise material shortly after the game’s release (following the title’s impressive sales performance), warning bells began to sound amongst the game’s already rabid fanbase and questions began to be raised: How would a follow-up be handled? What stories from Bioshock were left to tell? Was the game’s publisher 2K Games simply going to wring the brand for cash?
The subsequent concrete announcement of a sequel in development, which was to include a multiplayer component of all things, had fans worried, while the revelation that a new studio, 2K Marin (seeded with developers from 2K Boston/Irrational), would handle development duties put serious doubts into the minds of those who had finally come around to the idea of a follow-up, and shortly before release, fans had resolved themselves to expect a game of lesser quality to the original, but still ‘good’ and possibly even ‘enjoyable.’
Post Bioshock 2’s release, however, and after soaking up the atmosphere of the singleplayer mode and following its highly intriguing story, and after competing online in the game’s extraordinarily fun and addictive multiplayer component, I can say that not only is Bioshock 2 ‘good’ and ‘enjoyable,’ it reaches the high bars set by the original title in the series, and is in my mind more than a worthy successor to that modern masterpiece.
The story of Bioshock is very much the story of the underwater city of Rapture, and one man’s dream to build a paradise where the individual could flourish by the work of his own hand, and not be intellectually and financially crippled by the ‘parasites’ of government and religion.
Good intentions and high concept philosophies are good on paper, perhaps, but in practice (as world history and the story of the original Bioshock shows) such things seldom work out as planned, as a clash of ideologies, corruption, greed, a power struggle and the uncovering of dark secrets sent the promise and utopia of Rapture crashing into ruins, while the people of the city (supposedly the ‘best and brightest’ the world above had to offer) went crazy on publicly available self-improvement mutagens called ‘Plasmids’ (‘make yourself better, stronger, faster’), sending Rapture into further chaos, and a self-contained civil war.
That was the story of the original Bioshock, and how the city had come to its disastrous state, but the story of Bioshock 2 picks up ten years after the events of that game, and deals with the story of how Rapture is trying to rebuild itself under new leadership, and a new approach to everyday life: Instead of focussing on the hard labour of the individual and his just rewards, Rapture intends to rise from the ashes by relying on the group effort of the community – the family – and sharing its wealth according to an individual’s need (a principle that sounds vaguely and treacherously familiar…).
The tragic back history of Rapture, the tumultuous ongoing story, and glimpses of a hopeful future for the city are told through audio diaries picked up throughout the environment; the remains of the environment itself as the city falls apart around you and the ocean tries to eradicate any trace of the lives and sins that once thrived here; the characters you ‘meet’ along the way as they drop in and out of conversation with you through radio communication; and the scarred, monstrous denizens (Read: Enemies) of Rapture you meet and fight along the way, who ably tell the tale of a once civilised population who have fallen victim to jealousy and greed, and the temptation and allure of the quick-fix Plasmids.
Bioshock 2’s narrative is very well paced, and keeps you hooked for the duration of the game, although I must admit for the first hour and a half (a period of time I consider to be the ‘magic’ period, where a game needs to shine in order to take hold of a prospective player), I was pretty much disillusioned by the whole experience, feeling very much like I was simply replaying the original Bioshock, in the original environments, except this time I was in the body of a Big Daddy (one of the chief antagonists from the first title), stomping around with heavy weaponry, but after this disheartening period, something clicked and grabbed me, and after that time, I was hooked. If I go any further into the details of the story, however, I fear I may spoil it, so let’s skip ahead to what you’ll be doing in the world of Rapture.
Like the first Bioshock, Bioshock 2 is first and foremost a first-person shooter (and a very good one at that), but with some very light role-playing game elements with the ability to upgrade your abilities and weapons, buy additional supplies, and make some interesting decisions about how to progress, either going in guns blazing or taking a more thoughtful approach to a given situation.
This time around, though, you play as a hulking Big Daddy (although a slimmer, more nimble series), able to be equipped with heavier weaponry compared to the armaments from the first game, all of which are upgradeable to become more efficient killing machines, which come with cool visual changes too, making them more personal. You’ll also have access to a range of Plasmids this time, too, ranging from the ability to throw fire, ice, lightning and swarms of insects at enemies, to summoning security bots and leaving your body temporarily to scout out a situation ahead, plus a few other neat tricks. Plasmids, too, are upgradeable, resulting in more powerful and more useful abilities that come in handy to outwit and overpower foes.
The wonderful thing about combat encounters in Bioshock is that they’re entirely up to you as to how they play out, depending on the weapons, plasmids, upgrades and abilities you’ve chosen to equip yourself with and the environment you find yourself in, creating a true ‘sandbox’ feel. Maybe you’ve equipped yourself to be more like a quick ‘attack and shock’ type character, as you run circles around your enemies, or perhaps you’ve gone the heavy ‘explosives and fire’ route, as you stand your ground and pummel opponents with missiles and shotgun rounds. There are many, many combinations to play around with, and add to that the different environment conditions (water + enemy + electricity = good for you, bad for them), and an enemy’s innate ability to fight, every encounter feels fresh and challenging.
While running around the world, you’ll also need to take up the true mantle of ‘Big Daddy,’ as seen in the original Bioshock. For those who don’t know, there exists a symbiotic relationship between the armour encrusted Big Daddies and the dainty little girls, the Little Sisters, who together roam around Rapture in search of a most important genetic currency called ‘Adam.’ Adam is what makes the world of Rapture tick, and it’s what allows you (and the inhabitants of the city) to buy Plasmids and upgrade: If you have Adam, you’re powerful and rich. If you don’t, you’ll do anything you can to get it, even if it means trying to destroy a Big Daddy in order to get to a Little Sister, kill her and get her harvested Adam (collected from dead bodies).
In Bioshock 2, it’s up to you to find Little Sisters in order to either immediately harvest the Adam from them and be on your merry way to get Plasmids and upgrades, or help them find dead bodies, protect them, and then ‘save’ them instead of harvesting them, foregoing a greater wealth of Adam for a smaller amount, but a greater peace of mind – one of many moral quandaries Bioshock 2 poses to you that have dire ramifications for how the game ends.
And while running around the world, in search of these Little Sisters, you may just get hopelessly caught up in the exceptional attention to detail the level designers and artists at 2K Marin have put into Bioshock 2, as you absentmindedly begin to explore entire rooms and areas that have no influence or dependence on the main story, but are nonetheless detailed and crafted just as lovingly as the rest of the world, with extra audio diaries to find, items to discover and private stories to absorb. This world of Rapture is a fully fleshed out place, and after roving around the halls for extended periods of time you could be mistaken for thinking that it really exists, if only in the virtual realm – a remarkable achievement, more or less on par with the original Bioshock (which is a compliment, to be sure).
Other than an entirely different and much simplified hacking mini-game in Bioshock 2 (no more Pipe Dreams!), which will be used to get you access to security bots that mean to do you harm, safes that contain untold riches and vending machines with exorbitant prices, that about covers the singleplayer portion of Bioshock 2, but what about that controversial multiplayer?
In a word, Bioshock 2’s multiplayer is ‘fun,’ or even ‘very fun,’ if I’m allowed two words. There’s nothing especially revolutionary about it either, except for the merging of the aforementioned ‘sandbox’ gameplay of Bioshock (with the use of the Plasmids and the environments) and standard multiplayer modes such as Deathmath, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, Domination, etc. (although all repackaged with their own Bioshock-themed names, which are cool), as well as a very well implemented ranking system which rapidly rewards you with weapon and Plasmid unlocks, perks and new challenges, continually keeping you playing to try this or that new thing (which are persistent across all game types).
There are also a few other Bioshock-specific additions, such as the ability to research a downed opponent in the middle of battle to get a damage bonus against him/her the next time you see him/her, while Big Daddy suits randomly appear (kind of like a quad damage power-up) during matches, available for anyone to pickup and wreak havoc until they’re eventually taken down. Additionally, vending machines and turrets are able to be hacked mid-game to create traps for opponents. Add to that some very well designed, attractive and flowing levels, an already active online community, and exceptionally lag-free matches (on PS3 at least), and Bioshock 2 multiplayer is a brilliant addition to an already amazing singleplayer experience.
Bioshock 2 is the exact opposite of everything hardcore fans of the original entry to the series feared: It has an excellent, well-paced and highly intriguing story, it follows the core gameplay and narrative formula of the original Bioshock with a few additions and (gasp!) fixes to streamline the experience (the game is shorter and more compact, to its benefit), a lot of care and attention has been put into the game, and the multiplayer portion detracts not an ounce from the singleplayer, and in my mind contributes a significant ‘value add’ for a potential gamer looking for a great singleplayer game and a great multiplayer game to keep them occupied.
In my mind, Bioshock 2 lives up to the masterpiece of the original, and can proudly call itself its sequel, plus extra. Despite my own reservations over Bioshock 2 before release and my doubts about whether or not a studio other than Irrational could create something worthy of its own creation, I now can’t wait until Bioshock 3.