Tuesday, June 29, 2010

BioShock 2 (Xbox 360) Review

Three and a half years ago, there were three reasons I bought an Xbox 360 Pro console: Halo 3, Mass Effect, and BioShock. BioShock was the first of these released, launching in August 2007, and as I followed along with the development of the game my anticipation was high and I can say that I was not disappointed by the final result.

Dubbed the spiritual successor of System Shock 2, BioShock was a psychologically disturbing Single Player experience that took gamers into an underwater distopia called Rapture. Rapture was embroiled in a civil war and you were stranded there, stuck in the middle. What followed was one of the most engaging gaming experiences I've played in years, and with the way that BioShock ended it was pretty obvious that a sequel was never intended. So you can imagine that I was both pleasantly surprised and excited at the announcement of the game's sequel, however very quickly I started having both doubts and reservations.

The development of BioShock 2 was being headed up by a new internal studio of 2K Games' entitled 2K Marin, and not only was the game delayed, but three additional developers were brought onto the project; never a good sign. BioShock 2 was also going to include Multiplayer, something unneeded for the style of game that BioShock was, and the Single Player game's footage released thus far looked very actioned-up over the original. So, when the game launched this past February I decided to pass, content to keep playing through Mass Effect 2, however I found BioShock 2 on sale this past May and decided to take the plunge and return to Rapture.

The Single Player experience of BioShock 2 is set about a decade after the end of the original game, and it sees players taking on the role of a Big Daddy, one of the first prototype models created before the Bouncers and Rosie's were perfected. As Subject Delta, you awaken confused and disoriented and you're contacted by Tenenbaum, who's returned to Rapture herself. As you make your way to meet with Tenenbaum to learn what's happened in the last decade and how you can be reunited with your original Little Sister, events begin to unfold that sheds light on the new power in Rapture: Dr. Lamb and her cult, The Family. Like the original, scripted events and audio logs are key to fleshing out the world around you, but the "ghosts" you witnessed from the original game are gone.

Despite the fact that you're a Big Daddy, 2K Marin really didn't stray too far from the tried-and-true BioShock play style. Aside from having rather loud footsteps, you're fairly weak and not at all the hulking brute you've come to expect, and you can also use a whole variety of weapons, some new some old. So sadly, while you are a Big Daddy you really don't feel like one at all. You use Medkits, take Eve Hypos, have Plasmids, Hack machines, eat Food and drink Booze and do a whole lot of other uncharacteristic things that really detracts from the feel of being "Mr. Bubbles," yet as you get towards the end game, you'll come across some plot points that bring it all together. So you are a Big Daddy and you are well within what you should be as a prototype, but of course anyone picking up the game would expect to be a walking tank which is far from the truth.

As I mentioned, you are fragile so you have to play smart, using both weapons and Plasmids to good effect. Unlike the original game, which required you to switch between the two, you can now dual wield a Plasmid and Weapon apiece which makes for some very interesting combinations. You start of with the Drill, which you can use to smash people or spin up to, well, drill them. This uses Fuel, which is the ammo for the Drill, and when it's out, you're limited to the Drill's basic melee attack only. Another change from the original game is that you can now melee with all your weapons by pressing "B," but the Drill is the most powerful melee weapon at your disposal.

Aside from the Drill, you also get the signature Rivet Gun, and your Shotgun is a double barreled variant and the Tommy Gun has been replaced with a rather large Machine Gun that only a Big Daddy could lug around. The Grenade Launcher returns as before, and the Crossbow has been replaced with the Speargun. You also get a nifty Hack Tool which allows you to fire Hack Darts to Hack machines from a distance, and the Research Camera also returns but functions rather differently (more on that later). As before, every weapon save the Drill has three kinds of ammo that you can switch between, greatly altering the use of each weapon. The Rivet Gun, for example, has standard Rivets, Heavy Rivets that do a lot more damage, and Trap Rivets that stick to the floor, wall, or ceiling and leave a nasty surprise for any Splicer walking by.

The majority of the Plasmids you remember are back with a few tweaks, and some have been combined. Oddly enough, there's only two new Plasmids. Electro Bolt, Incinerate, and Telekinesis are your usual staples, and subsequent levels can now charge up and affect multiple targets. Enrage and Hypnotize Big Daddy have now been combined into Hypnotize, and subsequent levels now allow you to use this Plasmid on tougher enemies. Of the two new Plasmids, one is story-specific so I can't go into it, and the other is called Scout. Scout creates a phantom of yourself that can move ahead undetected to, well, scout for you. Really though, there's not much new on the Plasmid front, which is a little disappointing. There are a whole lot of new Tonics, however, and the amount of Gene Tonic Slots you can now buy at the Gatherer's Garden have increased substantially, and you'll need them! I honestly found many of these passive abilities more useful than a lot of the game's Plasmids!

Though you visit all new areas of Rapture, some of which were spoken of in the original game, the style and design are very much in line with what came before. Considering the strength of BioShock's level design, this is not a bad thing what-so-ever and the areas actually feel larger this time around. The one downer is that you can no longer go back to a previously explored location, so once you exit a level, you now exit it for good. This means you'll want to be extra meticulous in your exploration to get every last drop of Adam, every Power to the People Station, and every Research Subject you can before you leave.

Speaking of Adam, now that you're a Big Daddy you gather it rather differently than you did in the first game. Before, you had to kill a Big Daddy which then allowed you to Harvest or Rescue the Little Sister he was protecting. In BioShock 2, once you take out her protector you can adopt her for yourself! The Little Sister will happily go with you, and you can either deposit her into a vent (Rescuing her) or Harvest her right away or you can find Adam enriched corpses for her to gather from. If you do this, you set her down and must defend her from waves and waves of Splicers looking for their fix. Once you finally decide to Rescue or Harvest her, however, you may be in for a very serious fight. Big Sisters, a new menace to the world of Rapture, will randomly show up when you deal with a Little Sister, and they're the toughest enemies in the game. They're fast, strong, and make great use of Plasmids and once one shows up, she will not stop hunting you until defeated so running away is not an option!

I am happy to say that, unlike what the promotional footage suggested, BioShock 2 is not "actioned up" over its predecessor at all and has the exact same feel and pacing. Splicers will randomly spawn to populate areas, even areas you've already "cleared," so you always need to be on your guard. All of the old enemies make a return save for the Nitro Splicer, as Lead Head Splicers can now throw grenades rendering them obsolete. The Brute Splicer is new, and he's a muscle bound problem that's nearly as tough as a Big Daddy, so thankfully they're rare. The Rumbler is a new kind of Big Daddy that you'll encounter, and he packs a Grenade Launcher and Mini-Turrets, so you'll want to make healthy use of Telekinesis or get in close to take him down. There's also another great new enemy encountered later in the game, but it's story related and I don't want to spoil it for you. Suffice it to say, once you encounter a few of them one story aspect will make a little more sense to you.

Like the original game, Vending Machines, Health Stations, Gatherer's Gardens, etc. are all present and most of them can be Hacked just like before. Sadly, as far as I'm concerned, 2K Marin ruined Hacking. Instead of the really fun pipe mini-game from the original, Hacking now brings up a needle that quickly moves back and forth between a bunch of bars. You press "A" to stop the needle on a specific colour bar which either Hacks the machine or moves you onto the next round. Green is a success, Blue give a bonus (a free item, extra damage from a Turret, etc.), Red triggers an alarm and white delivers a shock. The problem I found is that the game doesn't always consider landing the needle on the edge of a bar a success, but sometimes it does. Hacking is therefore inconsistent and more of a trial in frustration than a fun mini-game.

As mentioned above, the Research Camera makes a return but you no longer need to stock up on Film for it like ammo. Now when you take a subject's picture, your screen takes on an old-style motion picture film effect and the camera is actively researching the subject in real time. Fight the subject in unique ways each time and you'll get a higher score once time runs out, eventually unlocking bonus damage and unique Tonics for you. Unlike Hacking, I did enjoy the new method of Research as it's simply more of an involved process for the player, and more positive engagement is always a plus.

BioShock 2 once again uses Unreal Engine 3, and I personally didn't notice a huge graphical jump from the original game. Texture pop-in and fade-in happens regularly and up close character's faces look very stiff and plastic-like. Of course that's not to say that the game looks bad, not by any means, but don't expect the sequel to visually re-invent the wheel. It does look like they improved on lighting and shadows, however. Strong light sources are scattered about all over Rapture and shadows can give away the positions of enemies before you really see them. Being a Big Daddy, your own shadow is rather large, which made me jump a few times thinking an enemy was behind me; the fact that I'm a large character when I felt like a normal Joe took some getting used to. It is cool that when you Adopt a Little Sister, her shadow is clearly visible on your shoulder when viewing your own silhouette.

Audio-wise, Rapture is an absolute joy. The game is filled with wonderful period piece music, strong voice acting and audio logs, and powerful weapon and effect sounds. Like BioShock before it, environmental audio plays such a huge part, not only for immersion, but also as a warning, and it really pays to stop every few steps and simply listen. You could hear enemies in the distance, a Security Camera, a Little Sister, or any other combination of threats or aid, and the few seconds you'll gain by paying attention to what you hear can really help you plan an attack or defence in advance.

The multiplayer portion of BioShock 2 is developed by Digital Extremes, and is set just before BioShock. Players take control of one of several characters to fight in the civil war that ultimately tears Rapture apart, competing in the usual assortment of game types on maps that are based on areas found in the first game.

What's really cool about the game's Multiplayer portion is that it actually starts with an intro and sees you waking up in your Rapture apartment after splicing up. The apartment has a recorder from Sinclair Solutions that plays promotional messages, a Gene Bank to allow you to configure a few Load Outs, an Audio Recorder that has logs from all the different Multiplayer characters, and a Wardrobe that allows for minor visual customization. Once you're all done setting up, you can leave your apartment and head to the Bathysphere which takes you into matchmaking.

Some of the gametypes available are Turf War, which pits two teams, one for Ryan and one for Atlas, against one another. Capture the Sister is a unique twist on Capture the Flag in which players need to steal and rescue Little Sisters to score. Stealing her is easier said than done because the defending team always has one player randomly spawn as a Rosie Big Daddy, complete with Rivet Gun and Proximity Mines. If you do manage to steel a Little Sister, the one carrying her can not fire their weapon but they can use Plasmids.

Hacking and Research are also present in Multiplayer, but they're rather different from their Single Player counterparts. Simply hold "A" next to a Hackable item for several seconds, and you'll automatically Hack it, bobby trapping Vending Machines or turning that Turret to your side. Stand over a fallen enemy and hold "A" for several seconds to Research them, giving you a damage bonus against them.

The weapons you get are akin to the original game, so the Pistol, Shotgun, Tommy Gun, etc. are all back. Ammo spawns at Vending Machines and you don't need Money to buy them, and your Health regenerates when you stop taking damage for several seconds. Eve Hypos are also scattered about the maps and spawn at Vending Machines. Plasmids contain a mix of new and old, and there actually seems to be more new Plasmids in the Multiplayer game than the Single Player!

I was pleasantly surprised with how much fun Multiplayer actually is. It's not Halo 3, mind you, but it really is quite enjoyable and the BioShock gameplay mechanics work very well to mix things up from the norm. My only gripe is with the leveling system itself. As you play, everything you do earns you Adam, and there's also little vials of Adam scattered around that you can collect. Once you complete a match, your total Adam earned is tallied up and if you gain enough you level up. As you reach new levels, you'll unlock more powerful weapons, Plasmids, and upgrades and Tonics. While the reward system itself is great, this means that when you're first starting out, if you're matched into a game with higher level players not only will they be more experienced than you but their characters will actually be much stronger. What this translates into is that early on you'll get killed a lot, which isn't very much fun. If you can grin and bear it, however, and if you don't mind a poor kill/death ratio for your earlier levels you'll eventually unlock better items and be able to compete more fairly.

I honestly wasn't holding out much hope for BioShock 2, as so much of what I was seeing looked like bad design decisions on the surface. I'm quite happy to say that I was wrong, and both Single Player and Multiplayer-wise, BioShock 2 is a great experience and worth every moment of your time. The story isn't as strong as the original game's and the gameplay doesn't stray too far from the original, but considering that a game of BioShock's calibre is few and far between a slightly lesser version of that masterpiece is still a Big Daddy to most other titles out there on the market. The Multiplayer game was also surprisingly fun, and hardly a half-baked tack-on to try and appeal the game to a different audience.

My first playthrough of the Single Player game took me about 20 hours, and there's apparently 5 more endings available, depending on what choices the player makes throughout the game, and combined with different Plasmid, weapon, and Tonic combinations, the Single Player game's replay value is high, and that's not even taking into account the life added with Multiplayer. For anyone who hasn't taken a second plunge into Rapture, I highly recommend it. BioShock 2 is a worthy successor to the original, and a great extension of the franchise that once again combines action, light role playing elements, and psychological horror to unique effect. So go splice up, and wander the sea of dreams.

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