Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Unfinished Business: BioShock 2 (Part One)

['Unfinished Business' is a feature where I take up an unplayed game or unwatched DVD that has been languishing on my shelf and chronicle my experiences with it.]

I wanted to start the 'Unfinished Business' feature with a game, because it's going to be the hardest medium to find an appropriate format to use for these articles. With a television program, I can do write-ups a few episodes at a time, whilst a movie can be done as a one-off. Games pose a different challenge though, being lengthier and less easily divisible, given how the feature aims to offer less of a traditional review than a step-by-step account of a first-time experience. 

The plan for BioShock 2 is to write it as two or three articles, including my thoughts on the opening hours of the game and whether it seems to be meeting my initial expectations, and at least one more once I've played it through to completion, looking at how those thoughts evolved - or didn't, as might be the case. Depending on how well these pieces turn out, the format may be altered into something better suited going ahead. Comments and feedback are, as always, very much welcomed. The big question for now though, is whether my second visit to Rapture will stand up to the astonishing first.
I didn't adore the first BioShock as much as many other gamers did, finding it a game with spectacular strengths, but whose ambition often outstripped its execution and which wasn't as inventive with its gameplay as its aesthetics. But those aesthetics were so powerful, with the underwater city of Rapture being one of the most vibrant and atmospheric game worlds in years, that having them attached to what was otherwise a decent but not especially great shooter was enough to make the game stand out from the crowd in a fashion that would make Andrew Ryan proud.

Having played through about five hours of the sequel, including a lot of exploring - which I find to be the most enjoyable part of the BioShock experience, because Rapture is such an inherently fascinating place to look around - my first thought is that it seems appropriate to have a communist - of a sort - be the game's primary antagonist, as opposed to the hyper-objectivist Ryan.

Far from its defiantly distinctive predecessor, my first taste of BioShock 2 suggests a sequel whose main aim is to appease the crowd, sticking to the formula that made the first game such a runaway success and whose innovations predominantly concern resolving the issues that its players had first time around. Consequently, most of the things I've enjoyed in these early hours are things I also enjoyed in BioShock, only with familiarity somewhat blunting their appeal.

Playing as a Big Daddy is theoretically a great idea, but in practice doesn't feel much different from controlling a regular human character. There's little sense of weight or power, though a 'drill dash' move does hint that unlockable moves may tap into that later on, but it seems as though the iconic diving suit you catch yourself wearing in the opening (underwhelming) cutscene doesn't amount to much more than a reskin and the opportunity to use a drill instead of a wrench as your melĂ©e attack, which is admittedly a lot of fun. Even though 'Subject Delta' is an earlier model, it's a shame that developers 2K Marin weren't braver in handing over some of the brute force which makes the Big Daddy characters so appealing. 

Given the affinity for regular siege set-pieces, notably when defending a Little Sister as she drains Adam from pre-selected corpses, handing the player a huge strength advantage over single splicers but a disadvantage against more dynamic groups could have added some tactical depth to battles that feel much the same as similar, if more isolated, incidents from the first game. As it stands, weapons such as the machine gun especially feel woefully underpowered, when power is the one thing that I really wanted from playing as a Big Daddy. The streamlined controls for firing weapons and plasmids encourage more experimentation, but only offer an improved model of the previous game's combat, rather than something which requires practice on its own terms to perfect.

The use of the Little Sisters is interesting, but again seems to settle for minimal disruption of the first game's formula where a bolder move might have yielded more exciting dividends. Since I knew in advance that Little Sisters would feature as part of the gameplay, I was hoping that there would be the option of 'recruiting' one semi-permanently, allowing her to harvest a small amount ADAM from every splicer you took down, receiving a larger boost once you returned her to a safe spot, or harvesting her for a reasonably sized single burst without having to put in the effort of defending her. Limiting the Little Sisters to only draining certain corpses feels like a needless restriction and makes me feel less inclined to save them for all the rigmarole needed for a fairly scant reward.

More interesting is the Big Sister who seems to appear once you have taken ADAM from all the level's Little Sisters. She's terrifically designed, a more slimline and feminine model that maintains enough of the Big Daddy design to show the similarity in function between the two, while recalling the Nemesis figure from Resident Evil in her staggered but fearsome appearances. If there's one downside to the encounters, it's again how little I feel like a Big Daddy whilst fighting her. The Daddy's lumbering power against the agility of the Big Sister would have been a terrific match-up and explained why two different models were needed, so once again, the developers' reticence to follow through on that character decision has resulted in a weaker game. 

I'm looking forward to learning more about where the Big Sister came from and whether it is young Eleanor hiding behind that mask, as was my first suspicion. I'm less encouraged by the suggestion that there might be more than one - there's a corpse left behind whenever you defeat her - but it could be explained away by her just being temporarily disabled. It would be a huge waste to have her merely be another enemy and while the game hasn't made the most of its potential yet, I'm hoping it'll do something clever on that count.

The other key female figure in the game - with the returning Tenenbaum, I'm wondering if this will tie into an overall theme for the story - is villain Sofia Lamb, who seems to have taken over Rapture in the ten-odd years since Andrew Ryan made his terminal choice. I don't think it was a great decision to have her interact with Ryan on the returning tape recordings, as it makes her feel less significant by the fact that she wasn't mentioned at all in the first game when she is here presented as a challenger to Ryan's ethos on a similar level to the previous game's antagonist Frank Fontaine.

It would seem to make more sense to me that the remaining denizens of Rapture would be in need of a unifying, crypto-religious figure like Lamb once Ryan had fallen. The scrawlings on the walls and makeshift shrines would certainly suggest that her followers are afflicted with Splicer-levels of insanity, so I'm hoping there's a good explanation of why she had to be on the scene at the same time as Ryan, other than allowing them to partake in recorded 'debates' which show that the writers still haven't added any more nuance to their handling of the game's politics since they actually had a villain shoot a puppy in the first game. At least the voice acting is as strong as you'd expect from this series, even if new character Sinclair's exuberant campness grates horribly.

Other than the predictable communism vs objectivism wrangling, the themes of this game seem to again be mirroring those of its predecessor, although it's not fair to judge so early on. Having Lamb be symbolised on her shrines by a butterfly, whilst a tad baffling in terms of an animal being associated with an insect, would suggest that change/evolution will be a key aspect to her character. Fingers crossed that at least some of these links pay off in a meaningful way.

That feeling is true of most of what BioShock 2 has shown me so far. This early on, it might be that the similarity to the first game is a deliberate choice to help players readjust on their return to Rapture - a shame there was no moment to match the city's grand reveal from the Bathysphere this time around though - and that the game will develop more of an identity of its own in the hours to come. Right now, it comes across as a fairly enjoyable experience, but also a highly derivative one - a problem exacerbated by how distinctive its predecessor was and how little its story needed a sequel. Most of the game's new ideas seem wasted - what the heck is the point of those underwater sections? - and even the atmospheric Rapture locales are  beginning to feel tired. There's a lot of game still to come though, so look out for the follow-up to this article in the near future.



Ryan said...

Hi Xander,

I stumbled across your blog after you posted something on Destructoid and I'm glad that I did. I find your choice of articles and the long format style to be a really awesome contrast from the short quips from gaming news that I read everyday.

I'll get to my point though. I commented on this specific article because I'm extremely interested in having a light discussion with you once you finish Bioshock 2. Reading about your expectations of the game is really cool because I find it very interesting to see what your immediate take is on a game that I've completed 2 or 3 times now.

Bioshock is my absolute favorite game of all time and I do believe that it's sequel is a worthy successor. I hope you have as good a time as I did during my second trip through Rapture.

Good luck,

Xander Markham said...

Hey Ryan (perfect name for a BioShock fan),

I'd be delighted to chat with you about BioShock 2. I'd suggest you either PM me on my Dtoid account or better yet, leave a message on my Facebook page, linked to in the 'What It's All About' column on the right, at the top of the page.

Really pleased you enjoyed the article, my final conclusions are going up on Tuesday - I'm not as big a fan as you clearly are, but there are definitely some interesting points to talk about. I'd certainly like to hear your interpretation of the game.

Thanks for reading and commenting!