Let me preface this by confessing that I am a Bioshock infidel. While I know quite a bit about it and my respect for the game is not in question, I didn’t play the first Bioshock. I plan to, some day when I find the time or quit my day job or catch up on the one hundred thousand other games I’ve missed along the way.
Naturally, going into Bioshock 2, I’d heard a lot of hype about the first game. So let me put this out there so we can clear the air.
1. I think in some ways I am well positioned to review Bioshock 2 because I have a kind of clear-headed respect for its predecessor without any fanaticism or nostalgia to cloud my judgment.
2. I’m not one of those people who dislikes shit just to go against the grain or be alternacool. If I like something I like it, and if I feel self-conscious about that I’ll just say it’s “ironic” or “retro” or “super fucking personal nostalgia-drenched so don’t question it.” The latter is never true but it means you can’t bug me about it because maybe I played that game or wore that shirt with my ex-wife who died in an unspeakable something accident and look now i’m crying.
Like I said, Bioshock 2 had a lot of hype. Along with a lot of 2010 releases, it’s a sequel in a franchise that gamers hold so dear nearly any permutation of the original material could end in flames. Conversely, of course, these games could go on to exceed the footsteps of the originals, improving upon a winning formula that will guarantee a good five more years of follow up games. See: Assassin’s Creed 2, Modern Warfare 2, Mass Effect 2, Uncharted 2, etc. In this wild west of sequels, the first games get off easy. They are often runaway critical successes in spite of their flaws because they are a) original and b) exceed expectations. Bioshock 2 had an epic fuck ton of expectations which I tried to not absorb. So here’s my 100% accurate 100% correct 100% awesome take on Bioshock 2!
WELCOME TO RAPTURE:
Whoa. From the opening cut scene everything I’ve heard is true. Rapture, Bioshock’s 2’s legendary setting, is absolutely gorgeously rendered and totally, totally messed up. But don’t worry, right? You’re this hulking iron beast with a drill for an arm and a really retrosweet old school diving suit. Er, right?
So yeah, you’re a Big Daddy, one of the iconic monsters of the first Bioshock. As a big daddy, your sole purpose in your weird semblance of an underwater life is to protect a Little Sister, a creepy little zombie girl who collects ADAM. ADAM is Rapture’s primary export: it makes you into an insta-superhero through mutation, so naturally everyone wants their hands on it. For more backstory on what the hell I’m talking about, check out our Bioshock 2 preview.
All right cool. I’m a Big Daddy, some f*cked up stuff happened in the opening sequence and SOMEONE STOLE MY LITTLE SISTER I AM SO PISSED. So there you go- it’s on. Get her back- easy, right?
Unfortunately, this underwater metropolis in ruin is clearly host to a number of unseemly mutant couchsurfers (called “splicers”) who want to eat your brains or something, not to mention a lot of devious-sounding folks espousing a lot of Ethics 101 worldviews who you hear throughout the game. Namely because objectivism led to the first fall of Rapture, and collectivism led to its second fall. Now Rapture’s just plain broke-down.
BIOSHOCK 2’S GAMEPLAY:
Going into Bioshock 2 I kind of had no idea what the gameplay was actually going to feel like. As it turns out, to me it felt pretty clunky. Granted, you are a massive clunky dude. I get that. But, as this is a shooter that speeds up frantically every time you round an algae-covered corner, all of the weapons and plasmid juggling got in the way of combat for me. Oh, awesome — a huge pack of crazed splicers is coming! Fast paced action ahoy! Oh wait- Hold up, guys.
I want to switch to my rivet gun, so let me either a) pause and slow down the pace of this fight to the point of lameness while I pick my killing tool of choice from the weapon wheel or b) mash the top right button frantically without pausing and wait for it to slowly cycle through my implements of death while my enemies murder me violently? This aspect of Bioshock 2’s combat system felt extra-clunky to me. I’d liken it to how I feel when I dig around in a purse to find my keys. Seriously annoying.
My other main annoyance in Bioshock 2 goes nicely with the previous digging-through-my-purse analogy. As the game starts out, I realized that resources in Rapture were pretty scarce. My health bar and EVE bar (think mana — every time I shoot a bolt of electricity my EVE meter inches down a little) don’t replenish over time. I’m kind of a conservative gamer and kind of a hoarder (but not a Hoarder — don’t call A&E), so naturally my packrat instinct went into overdrive. I could hardly get ten steps without stopping as I ambled my way through Rapture. A little voice nagged me to search every nook and decaying corpse for shiny things.
Sure some of these were super useful; I needed first aid kits, shots of EVE and the occasional gene tonic, but there were also types of ammo I rarely wanted, bottles of absinthe, cans of beans (weird) and all kinds of other “nice-touch” but unuseful items. Then when I found them, I had to put the crosshairs of my target exactly over their tiny glinting shape and press a button to pick them up. This was tedious and it got old for me really quick. Even in the final action-packed moments of the game, I almost couldn’t stop myself from scanning every room for the sheen of a probably-not-necessary thing. Because for as many tiny little things as there were strewn about, I needed surprisingly few of them. Beyond health and EVE, all I really wanted were the audio diaries. But I searched for shiny things with the persistence of a big iron magpie. And I think sometimes I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. The forest being Rapture, in all of its unsettling beauty and intricate, stylized detail. I guess the trees were the shiny things.
I held out hope that there would be some sort of “gene tonic” (in-game ability upgrade) to fix these gameplay woes. I wanted to pick items up just by walking near them. Or pointing my crosshairs almost exactly at them. Hell, even Sonic collects his rings like that. Alas, the upgrade never came. Unless the little blue tonic bottle was well hidden in especially decrepit, especially secret little corner of Rapture.
That said, parts of Bioshock 2’s gameplay were pretty fun. I liked to play with a new plasmid, especially something like “hypnotize,” and sit back while the splicers tore each other apart. I made good use of fun plasmids like “insect swarm” and “winter blast,” but unfortunately didn’t even get to play around with other clever ones like “decoy” (basically cloning yourself as a diversion) and “scout” because the game rarely necessitated creativity, even though it was built in. I tended to switch things up a bit more with regular ol’ spicers rather than the boss fights against Big Sisters and other Big Daddies. Because Big Sisters moved so fast I could hardly keep up to turn to face them, much less strategize about what clever roundabout plasmids I should off them with.
Eventually I couldn’t be bothered to shuffle through my plasmids and weapons, so I mainly stuck to throwing fireballs with my left hand with a machine gun blazing in my right. Also, don’t get me started on the research camera. The awkwardness of whipping out a video camera rather than a shotgun as a terribly mutated sonabitch comes running at your face with fire in its eyes cannot go unstated.
THE LOOK AND FEEL OF RAPTURE:
Strangely, I think I would’ve enjoyed Bioshock 2 more if it was a game like Myst, as lame as that sounds. Because whatever flaws I may enumerate here, Bioshock 2 is absolutely visually stunning and I just want to look at it. You’re prowling through this glowing, sunken ill-fated former City Upon a Hill and every time you look up there’s a peeling advertisement for some kind of plasmid or eerie phosphorescent graffiti on the walls foretelling some kind of reckoning.
I can’t possibly do Bioshock 2’s immersive (pun not intended but intended now that I noticed it) atmosphere justice, but it’s kind of like a cross between the Art Deco movement, a Steampunk’s wet dream and Mad Men. But underwater and creepy as all hell. But still beautiful. That made sense right?
I expected to be irritated with all of the much-lauded audio diaries (also in Bioshock numero uno) since I’d generally prefer subtitles to off-key voice acting. Remarkably, I found myself hungrily listening to them whenever I came across a tape- again, the atmosphere, voice acting and all, couldn’t be better. I even found myself Googling the song lyrics in a loading screen (the loading screens are awesome looking by the way). I’ll probably buy the soundtrack, assuming it’s cool music from the era and not just the terrifying, echoing dying-whale noises of Big Daddies moaning.
I could have stalked around Rapture in my big diving suit forever. But unfortunately, lots of things wanted to kill me. And then I wanted to kill them, in turn. Sadly, I probably won’t revisit the game. While Rapture, steeped in all of its mystery and foreboding, could have been the perfect setting for sidequests, I think the dev team spent their efforts on a multiplayer mode instead so perhaps that would’ve been too much to ask. The multiplayer didn’t catch on at all for me- it lacked all the appeal of the single-player exploration and naturally focused on a stilted combat system that never really grew on me.
THE FINAL MOMENTS (SEMI-SPOILERTOWN, WATCH OUT!):
I didn’t want to write this review until I finished the Bioshock 2 entirely. I avoided spoilers, but had heard that the game did indeed pick up in the last three hours or so. Of course I won’t say exactly what goes down, but basically 100% of Bioshock 2’s highlights were crammed into this chunk of the game, starting around when you hit the Fontaine Futuristics level. The game suddenly gets a lot cooler and more foreboding and you feel the welcome exhilaration of being observed by something sinister and sentient rather than just having your actions narrated by some talking heads.
As this part begins, you start to descend deeper and darker into the ocean. I love this kind of shit. Like that movie The Sphere that probably really sucks but I’ll love it anyway. You just keep descending, not at all sure what the hell kind of man or monster you’re about to stumble upon, so there’s no readying yourself, really. And when you do stumble upon it, well the first of a few “its,” the game becomes an amazing psychological creepfest. I’m such a sucker for an abandoned psychiatric hospital setting. That’s the way to a girl’s heart. Especially underwater!
The most brilliant plot moment for me (and also another visually mind-blowing one) involves a cut scene with the ittle-sisters-lay and the ose-ray etals-pay. That’s pig latin, which is the universal language of spoilers. That part was so ucking-fay ool-cay. Okay, maybe this isn’t working so well.
**Semi-spoilers are done! **
BIOSHOCK 2 AND ETHICS 101:
A lot is made of the Bioshock world’s moral ambiguity and its ethical repercussions. I didn’t find the ethical murk all that murky, but I did appreciate it. It probably stimulated more neural activity on occasion than most other games, especially shooters of course. Who knew totally wreaking havoc with a vast array of destructive and murdersome implements could have moral consequences? Huh. You’ve probably heard there are a bunch of different endings, and that’s a cool touch (I YouTubed that shit- I won’t be playing through 6 times). While the twin failures of Rapture’s successive philosophically-minded leaders seem to inspire a kind of deep moral ambiguity that wasn’t really reflected by the good/bad/badder possible ending sequences, but Bioshock 2 was still much smarter than your average bear. Or first person shooter.
Ultimately, I fell hard for Rapture, but I didn’t fall in love with Bioshock 2. The game was immersive, smart and literally dripping with atmospheric touches, but all in all, I didn’t have that much fun. Sure my Big Daddy moped around and kidnapped little girls like he was supposed to. But setting down a Little Sister and protecting her from throng after throng of sawed-off shotgun wielding oncomers became a chore after a few rounds. And it turned out my Big Daddy didn’t have all that much to do beyond abducting little girls, and as exhilarating as that sounds, I started to think the big clunky guys were moaning like helldemons because they were just bored.
Maybe I’d feel differently if the whole journey through Rapture had the psychological urgency and sheer terror of the last chunk of the game. I’d love to return to Rapture, but I’ll be happy if I never see another glowing eyed little creep with ponytails again. Now if somebody could just get all of those god- forsaken mutant zombies outta there so I could go back and spelunk around, that’d be perfect.