Monday, February 15, 2010

Bioshock 2

It was inevitable that a financial success like the original Bioshock would get a sequel. I wasn't overwhelmed with the first game; I thought it average at best, despite some occasionally interesting architecture and some neat water effects. The second in the series is more of the same... or perhaps less. But either way, it is a better game than the first.

It's more of the same because it returns to the setting -the underwater city of Rapture- presented in the first game. The architecture of Rapture was one of the highlights of the original and it's no less stunning in the sequel. The art deco construction is gorgeous, although thoroughly unrealistic. The underwater setting plays more of a role this time out as well. Not only do you actually get to traverse the open seabed this time (unfortunately, thoroughly linear slogs with very little to do beyond gawk at the well-rendered sea life) but the oceanic environment makes more of an impact on the actual city as well. Coral and anemones are everywhere, as is water; Rapture is a damp, leaking ruin and you never forget the crushing tons of water around you.

The weapons and monsters from the former game make a return as well; insane gene-spliced
citizens scrounging a living from the wreckage, hulking protector "Big Daddies" and their helpless "Little Sister" charges populate the city. There are a few new monsters, the most notable of which are the "Big Sisters" who incorporate the endurance of the "Big Daddies" with incredible speed and agility. Your weapons are mix of scrounged up guns and the "Big Daddies'" iconic drill-hand, and super-power "plasmids". There's some variation here from the original game, but mostly your weapon sets are identical.

Where the game differs is mostly in game-play. The first was "the spiritual successor" to the classic "System Shock" action-RPG and itself tried to include role-playing aspects into the run-n-gun game-play. Bioshock 2 distances itself from this a bit; the plot is far more linear and predetermined, although there are still two endings depending on your actions throughout the story. Unlike the original game, in Bioshock 2 you will never have more than a single goal to complete at any one time; the levels are fairly straightforward and rarely do you need to backtrack. Although some might bemoan this loss of freedom, it is actually one of the sequel's strengths compared to the poorly paced original; the action maintains an intensity that was lost with the haphazard wandering in the first game.

Still, beyond the impressive visuals and improved pacing, Bioshock 2 doesn't overwhelm a player with exceptional game-play. The game's linearity does not offer much in the way of exploration and, while architecturally appealing, it lacks any truly impressive set-pieces. You are offered a large variety of weapons and upgrades, but for the most part you will find yourself relying on two or three favorites with little incentive to experiment. The vaunted ability to use the environment itself as a weapon remains, but is largely limited to scattered pools of flammable oil and electricity-conducting pools of water; it is little more than the traditional "exploding barrel" in new form.

The combat is distressingly ordinary as well. Splicers and Big Daddies, the mainstay of Rapture's army, tend to simply charge at you (they sometimes duck behind cover). The new "Big Sisters" are more intelligent foes, utilizing the environmental hazards against you, but they leap about so disconcertingly that combat with them ends up being little less than frenzied mouse clicking. After all the build-up of these new enemies, both with the pre-release hype and in the game itself (initially there was only to be a single Big Sister fought in recurring battles throughout the game), it was disconcerting to realize they were as disposable as all the rest of the monsters. Occasionally you are tasked to defend the helpless "Little Sister" NPCs, which results in an intense but not particularly involving battle against re-spawning bad-guys. And you still end up only using one or two weapons.

A few problems degrade the experience. The limited field of vision is further hampered by a HUD which includes the border of your deep-sea diving helmet; it's only a tiny percentage of the screen but when peripheral vision is already so limited I cursed the loss of even more. Although minimized when compared to the first game, the mini-games to "hack" various devices still aren't any fun, especially after repeating them for the thousandth time. More disconcertingly, there was no apparent way to remap weapons or powers to specific hot-keys; whichever you picked up first was locked to hot-key one, and so forth. That resulted in all the useful weapons being mapped to keys on the far end of the keyboard.

Worst of all, the story wasn't particularly involving, the characters lacked any emotional appeal and the end game -despite the threat of an "ohmigod, the clock is running and we're all going to die" timer, was a tiresome slog through waves of enemies. Too, he developers also expect the player to have some familiarity with the setting as much of the backstory that was so carefully developed in the original game goes unexplained in the sequel. Understanding how Rapture came about or what the Big Daddies are isn't necessary to finish the game, but it is core to the game's atmosphere. The endings (there are two) are completely predictable as well, with the usual chocie of "good" or "bad" depending on your activities during the game. But there's no real surprise either way.

Still, Bioshock is a better game than the original, even if it still sometimes lets its style take precedence over story and game-play. The combat is marginally more interesting, the quest is better focused, the architecture is still wonderful and the water effects remain impressive. It may be damning the game with faint praise to only say that Bioshock 2 is a superior game compared to the first (which, as I said, I felt was wildly over-hyped) but given my low expectations I was pleasantly surprised. It is hardly a classic and it may lack in innovation but it is competent, well designed product.That's saying something, anyway.

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