Thursday, February 25, 2010

Review: Bioshock 2

I'll admit, when I first heard a Bioshock 2 was in the works, I was less than pleased. The original Bioshock was one of the most phenomenal, self contained experiences in the history of videogames. The world was perfectly realized, the characters were memorable and the story was superb. Games like the original Bioshock are why hyperbole was invented.

Bioshock's story of an underwater utopia gone horribly wrong reached players on so many levels. The ideas it put forth and concepts it forced the player to consider are some of the most successful attempts to make a player actually think before acting. It had a beginning, a middle and an end. In short, it was a prime example of a game that did not need a sequel.

It is with great pleasure, then, that I report the studios behind Bioshock 2 have somehow defied my expectations and crafted a follow-up worthy of the original in just about every regard. Not only that, but Bioshock 2 improves on its predecessor in so many ways while only taking a few steps (some unavoidable) backwards.

You will have to pardon any vague ramblings that follow. With a game sporting such an interesting story to follow, I'm one of those folks who believes the experience is best enjoyed firsthand and too many details, no matter how minor, might take away from said experience.

First the bad. The world of Rapture is extremely familiar in Bioshock 2. This is one of those unavoidable negatives I mentioned above. The original was so, well, original, players spent most of the game in a state of awe, marveling at what lay around every corner, who was attacking them, and where the story would take them next. It's been 10 years since the original, in the game's timeline, and while the corridors of Rapture certainly appear a bit worse for wear, walking through the city often feels like a return visit despite the new locations.

The scares, too, are less effective. You know most of the tactics being utilized and you've been startled by the different types of splicers before. This is not to say the creepy atmosphere is wholly missing. The old timey soundtrack adds a subtle amount of unease, the ambient noises keep you guessing and, from time to time, there are some great "jump off the couch" moments. I was kept on edge through most of the game, true, but I fear Cohen's "plaster room" from Bioshock 1 may have absolutely spoiled me.

So the game is a bit too familiar and the scares don't keep the blood pumping quite as fast this time around, but that's literally all I can find to complain about.

While I enjoyed hacking in the first game, the new version of turning bad bots good is much more streamlined, taking place in-game within a matter of seconds but still just as hard on the ole nerves. There's a couple of new weapons and plasmids, some of which can now be charged, making for plenty of variety when it comes to dispatching the bad guys.

Shooting a weapon and firing a plasmid can now be done at the same time. After you get used to this new two-trigger set-up, you'll wonder how you ever got through the first Bioshock switching back and forth between the two.

The splicers themselves, too, have received an upgrade. There are a couple new varieties to keep things interesting and all of them behave more realistically. This makes for a tough first few hours of the game as you struggle to earn new weapons and abilities while stronger, faster, more dangerous splicers attack in larger groups than ever before. Get past that initial hump, though, and the rest of the game will feel like a perfect balance where combat stays just shy of becoming too tough.

Playing as a Big Daddy and not being a fan of escort missions, I was also worried when I heard much of my time would be spent guiding a Little Sister to a corpse so she could harvest Adam while I watch over her. (I bet that sentence would sound amazing taken out of context.) Again, I was very pleased with how this portion of the game was handled.

After you take out another Big Daddy and claim his bundle of joy, she rides on your shoulder and is completely untouchable. The spots you where you can put her down are chosen for their varied strategic requirements and, once you've set up your booby traps and set the Sister to collecting, the battle that follows is tough but, again, manageable. You need to keep the bad guys away from the Sister so she can finish her work, but she has no lifebar to keep an eye on. Thank. God.

What originally sounded like a pain ended up being a nice change of pace peppered throughout the otherwise familiar gameplay.

Bioshock 2's cast and story, too, were top notch. Definitely on par with the original and, in some cases, even better. It's a small thing, but I even enjoyed the voice recordings, each giving a little more history of the world of Rapture, better this time around.

I'll take a quick detour to talk about the online then finish up. If I was originally against the idea of a Bioshock 2, I was doubly against the idea of this new game having online. It made no sense to me. Once again, I was proven a fool.

Players are given an apartment to spend time in outside of matches where bits of Bioshock's story are slowly revealed through progression in the online mode. Unlike any online mode I've ever played, Bioshock 2's multiplayer component actually feels like it's a part of the world it inhabits. There's a reason for the carnage and players are rewarded with more information about Rapture for taking part in it.

The modes are pretty basic, but with a Bioshock twist and the mixture of weapons, plasmids and perks keeps things interesting. Elements from the game proper (vending machines, finding eve hypos, turrets) are utilized well and, though a bit too fast and frantic for my usual taste, the gameplay is quite fun.

Taken as a whole package, what this all boils down to is better gameplay in a return trip to a world that's not quite as captivating to explore the second time around. Keep in mind that this is me being very, very picky. Bioshock 2 is a marvelous adventure and, even if Rapture has lost a little of it's polish, I enjoyed every minute I spent there.

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