If you've been following my reviews lately, you might have noticed that I've pretty much spent the summer talking about indie games and retro classics. In fact, I haven't touched on any sort of modern mainstream titles since Heavenly Sword last june. Maybe it just left a bad taste in my mouth that put me more in the mood for something different? Well, with the recent release of Bioshock Infinite, it seems like almost everybody I know has been talking about the Bioshock series lately. I thought the first game was amazing, and I've heard nothing but good things about the latest release so far, but I couldn't bring myself to play it just yet. Thinking about Bioshock made me realize that I never fully played through the second game in the series, something I set out to correct.
Since this is a sequel, I should start with a brief overview of the original Bioshock game that this one draws so much from. Bioshock was a first person shooter about a plane crash survivor finding his way into an underwater utopian society that had gone horribly wrong. It was presented as a horror story with a basic message that Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged was wrong, and would be a terrible foundation for any society that wished to sustain itself. The original style and atmosphere were a groundbreaking breath of fresh air in a genre that had stagnated with realistic war sims and the occasional sci-fi alien blast-fest.
Bioshock 2 takes place in the same iconic underwater city as the first, but while the first game let you witness the downfall as it happened, this sequel is set years later as the city has taken on a more desperate post-apocalyptic atmosphere. While the first game had you playing as an ordinary guy in an extraordinary situation, this release starts you off as one of the Big Daddies, the drill armed diving suit wearing behemoths often seen throughout both games escorting the Little Sisters as they harvest the juices of the recently deceased.
Bioshock 2 was a fun game that did a lot of stuff right, but it also did a lot wrong, so I'm going to get my ranting out of the way before I sing any praises to it. First of all, as with Mass Effect, 2K Games made the idiotic choice to scrap the already developed gamepad support from the PC release, even though it works perfectly well on the console versions. Also, the first Bioshock game wowed audiences mostly with the originality of its location and the strength of its story. This sequel has a much weaker story and the atmosphere mostly feels like just more of the same from the first game. The graphics don't really look all that different from the first Bioshock, even though the system requirements were much higher on this release.
The level design felt formulaic as well. Each area generally consisted of: You arrive at a new area, something happens so you can't get to the next area, somebody on the radio tells you that you need to go find a certain thing to be able to get to the next area, but it's on the other side of this area held by somebody who doesn't like you and has an army of people trying to stop you. When you get to this somebody who has the thing you need you get to choose if they live or die, with very little effect on the game's story either way. The gripping suspense and plot twists of the first game were nowhere to be found. You spend the whole game trying to rescue a girl you used to know, who you later find out is very important, but for most of the game you're not told why. For the most part I found myself ignoring the plot and just fighting my way to the dot on my map.
The combat in Bioshock 2 was fun in short spurts, but again it was hindered by design decisions. If you've ever played a first person shooter before, you know that a big part of it is keeping up with how much ammo you have for each gun. This is standard practice that dates back to Wolfenstein 3D over twenty years ago. Some games only give you a handful of weapons, so there aren't many ammo types to worry about. Others, such as the Borderlands series, may give you hundreds of guns, but the ammo types are usually kept down to no more than around eight. Bioshock 2 on the other hand gives you about eight guns, but each gun has two or three different types of ammunition it can use giving you dozens of different ammo types to keep track of in order to fight your way across the underwater battlefields. I spent more time worrying about resource management than I did about the people trying to kill me, and that's just not a fun way to play an action game. Long story short, every time I started having fun during combat, I ran out of ammo. If you play this game, I'd recommend just running up and whacking people with your drill arm instead.
So, now that all of the nastiness is out of the way, what did Bioshock 2 do right? To start with, even though the atmosphere had little of the awe-inspiring originality of the first game, it still looks really freaking good! In many areas the world is much more worn down, rusted, and just plain creepy than before, and that's a good thing. Several of the areas are outside along the ocean floor, and even some of the inside levels were once flooded and filled with barnacle infested walls.
The plasmids (genetic altering injections allowing super-human powers, or Bioshock world speak for magic) are much more useful this time around giving access to new areas in interesting ways, in an almost Metroid style. Melting iced doorways with fire is always a good time, and freezing enemies in place so you can take your time destroying them has never been a let down. Actually, a lot of this game reminded me strongly of the Metroid Prime series, as did the first release. If you enjoy the lonely feeling of dangerously traversing dark and claustrophobic corridors by yourself as you launch destruction from your arm, this game is full of that!
The best part of Bioshock 2 is actually towards the end. It's in the last couple of areas that the game really finds itself and figures out what it is that it wants to be, to finally lift itself out from the shadow of its predecessor. If the first 8 hours or so of the game could have been condensed down into about an hour, and the final two hours of the game expanded, then it would have been a much different experience, and would have left a much stronger mark on the gaming industry at the same time. It's rare that a sequel lets you revisit the world of a previous title in such a different perspective that it really makes you rethink both games. I don't want to give away any spoilers, but the world of the Little Sisters will make much more sense to you after playing through Bioshock 2.
If you're playing the Bioshock series, you might as well play this one too. If you're new to Bioshock games, either of the other two games are probably a much better starting point. It's not a bad game, but it never really grabbed me. I never really missed the game when I wasn't playing it, and I never felt drawn back to it. In fact, I would often get bored with it while playing, and a lot of it felt more like busy work than gaming. I'm still glad that I played it though. Both because of how good it was towards the end, and because I'll be that much more prepared when I eventually dive into Bioshock Infinite.