Saturday, April 09, 2011

Future Shocked

In my ever-continuing odyssey of finishing popular games years after release, I've recently wrapped up Bioshock 2. This is the sequel to one of my favorite FPS-ish games of recent years, which in turn was the spiritual successor to the most amazing survival horror game that I've ever played. Bioshock 2 upholds the legacy, without advancing it... it's a thoroughly satisfying game that maintains the best elements of the franchise, but can't provide the same sense of exponential growth and, well, shock that its predecessors did. Simply put, expectations are now high enough that just meeting them is an impressive accomplishment.

Graphically, the game looks similar to Bioshock, though I think the overall quality may be a tad higher. The design of Rapture still looks the same, which is excellent; it's this really cool, almost steampunk-ish / art deco look. One amazing new angle is that you periodically venture outside of Rapture, in a full diving suit, and the visuals there are just gorgeous. It's a burst of organic sealife, a nice contrast to the industrial elegance inside the structure.

The voice acting continues to be excellent. They've brought back most of the characters from the first game; thanks to the magic of audio recordings, we even get to hear from some people who didn't survive it. There are many new characters as well, and the majors have well-thought-out, complex personalities.

General gameplay still feels pretty similar: you will probably end up specializing in a couple of weapons (short-range and long-range), using those for most of your combat, and breaking out your plasmids for the big fights. There are some pretty significant improvements here, though. The first Bioshock game technically had traps, but I almost never bothered using them; they just didn't seem effective, you usually didn't have opportunities to set them up before encountering enemies, and they were much more of an obstacle to you than to your foes. They've refined traps in the sequel, and as a result, they're more effective and MUCH more fun. One small change: you don't set off traps yourself, so you can happily apply Trap Rivets or Proximity Mines all over the place without worrying about where you're going. There are also many more gameplay situations now where traps are useful: you'll clear an area out, know that you'll need to defend it against a bunch of incoming Splicers, set your traps accordingly, then wait for them to come in.

That actually speaks to one of the things that I like best about Bioshock. On the FPS/RPG continuum, it's much closer to the FPS side, but it does resemble the RPG in the way that it lets you choose between multiple solutions to any problem. In the combat scenario that I laid out before, I'll generally spend a minute setting up cunning traps, and snipe off the ones who make it through. If you're more into twitchy action, though, you can just break out your machine gun and your strafing shoes and go at it. And, if you're into hacking and there are turrets or security cameras nearby, you can enlist them in your action as well.

That's another big improvement in the sequel: in the first Bioshock, you technically could get a security bot follower, but it was really hard. You usually had to set off an alarm, wait for a bot to come, then get close enough to it (while it's pelting you with bullets) to start a hack, and hack it or buy it out. Every once in a long while you would run across a Splicer with a bot who you could kill and then hack. Because of that, I rarely had companions, and when I lost one, it would be a while until I'd get a replacement. Here, though, you can get a new Plasmid sequence called Security Command, and the second and third levels let you summon security bots on demand at any time. You're limited to two, but still, that's really awesome. For the latter part of the game I usually had both of them in tow, which gave me a lot more flexibility in how I approached most combat.

A lot of other stuff from the first game has changed slightly:
  • You can now hack items at a distance using a dart gun. This is helpful for turrets, but I generally still hacked everything else up close like before. Also, the game no longer pauses while hacking, so you don't want to do it while in combat (and don't ever want to hack a turret at close range). There are a limited number of Auto-Hack Darts that let you instantly hack anything.
  • Hacking is way less fun in this game. I still do it whenever I can, but the minigame is totally twitch-based. In Bioshock, I could at least pretend that my brain had an impact on the outcome.
  • Most of the weapons stay the same, but the alternate ammo changes a bit. There's no more Electric Buck, but we do get one that has more stopping power.
  • Some plasmids now have alternate effects if you charge them up by holding down your fire button. For example, Incinerate 2 tosses off a quick flame when you tap, but holding and then releasing creates a fireball that can engulf multiple foes.
Okay, plot time!


You remember that part near the end of Bioshock 1, where you transformed into a Big Daddy and escorted some Little Sisters? They kind of took that idea and built a whole game around it. You ARE a Big Daddy, which has a big impact on both gameplay and plot. For gameplay, you have a much closer and more involved relationship with the Little Sisters. It doesn't end when you defeat their protectors; instead, you'll escort them around Rapture, find Adam-filled corpses, and stand guard over the Sister while she collects Adam, as dozens of raving Splicers swarm over you. You still have the Rescue/Harvest choice as before, but collecting Adam takes much more time. I didn't mind, though; the corpse locations are very varied, and I liked how each one requires you to study the lay of the land and work out a strategy before starting to gather.

The plot seems to occur slightly after the events of the first Bioshock: Ryan is already dead, as is Fontaine, but Rapture is still chugging along and swarming with Splicers. The game's creators have retconned in a new villain, Doctor Sofia Lamb. She's a fascinating character, and pretty much the opposite of Ryan: where Ryan was a full-on Objectivist Libertarian, Lamb is totally devoted to collectivism and the common good. The most interesting parts of the game come through the audio diaries as we unearth the story of how this conflict between philosophies evolved, eventually turning into a physical conflict that touched off a civil war.

As best as I could piece it together, here's the basic story:
Andrew Ryan recruited Lamb, a psychiatrist (or was it psychologist?), to help Rapture residents cope with live under water. She hid her true objectives until after she was established in Rapture: she's fanatically devoted to strengthening the bonds between people and communities, and she sets about subtly subverting Ryan's individualist society. Publicly, she sees patients and prescribes treatments; privately, she looks for people who share her vision, and gradually forms them into a secret society she calls The Family. Ryan eventually finds out. There isn't really any government on Rapture, but there are businesses, and those businesses essentially act as the state. Ryan Enterprises puts the pro-Lamb areas of Rapture under lockdown; after a public trial, he sends Lamb off to confinement.

Lamb has a daughter, Eleanor, whom she has been grooming to be the vessel of humanity's redemption. Lamb's ultimate goal seems to be to harness the plasmid technology of Rapture and use it to make humanity evolve into a single consciousness, thus freeing it from strife and conflict. Eleanor has been chosen to be mankind's savior. When she's sent away, Lamb entrusts Eleanor to the care of Grace, a poor singer who is one of the most dedicated members of the Family. Grace raises Eleanor. Eleanor learns that the man appointed as caretaker of Lamb's domain, Stanley Poole, has been throwing wild parties and generally debauching in her absence; she confronts Stanley, he panics, has Eleanor abducted, and sent to the Little Sister orphanage, where she's transformed into one of those creepy little girls.

Around this same time, you arrive on the scene. Most of Rapture's residents were drawn to Andrew Ryan's vision and followed him below the waves; you, though, are a deep-sea diver who stumbles across Rapture and decides to stay. You become a Big Daddy, and become the guardian of Eleanor.

That's all well and good, until Dr. Lamb leaves confinement. (I'm not clear on whether she was released, broke out, or if her faction seized power.) One of the very first scenes in the game has Dr. Lamb ordering you to pick up a pistol, hold it to your head, and fire; you kill yourself, while creepy-eyed Eleanor looks on in horror.

Your Adam gets harvested. We learn in Bioshock 2 that, in addition to collecting Adam, the Little Sisters are also able to collect an individual's thoughts and personality. They usually ignore this, but Eleanor, who had grown very attached to you as a father figure, gets the other Little Sisters to secretly collect this information. They eventually find a new body, and you are reborn into it. Eleanor has a telepathic link with you, and very occasionally will send you encouragement or warnings.

In the game proper, you initially meet with Dr. Tennenbaum (sp?) from the previous game, but before long she collects her rescued Little Sisters and flees Rapture. She hands you off to Sinclair, who provides a role similar to that played by Atlas in the first game: he's your most frequent communicator on the intercom, guiding your movement throughout the game.

Bioshock 2 has the same binary morality as the first game. The most obvious choices to make are whether to rescue or harvest the Little Sisters. It's interesting that, in this go-round, you develop much closer relationships with the Sisters than before: after you adopt one, you'll typically lead her around for a while and defend her while she collects Adam. It would be unusually cold-hearted to harvest after that, and I always picked the rescue option. As before, this initially means less Adam, but over the long run you not only get bonus Adam but also unique gene tonics and other goodies as thank-you gifts.

Besides the Rescue/Harvest quandary, there are several points in the game where you need to decide whether to kill or spare a high-level opponent. These were at least a little more interesting; in one case the other guy had caused a great deal of anguish for many people, and in another, the other person has very explicitly asked you to kill him. Still, it's ultimately a black-or-white, on-or-off approach to morality, which isn't very interesting to me in this post-Dragon Age era.

On the whole, the rhythm of progress through the game feels very similar to the preceding entry. You explore one large area of Rapture at a time. In the first part of the game, each new area provides you with a new weapon and a new type of Splicer to worry about. Much of the game is spent exploring, killing Splicers (who respawn, which I hate - how can there possibly be this many people left after everything that has happened previously on Rapture?), collecting limited quantities of ammo, and eventually fulfilling the requirements to leave and go to the next area. There's no back-tracking between levels, so you need to fully explore if you want to make sure you have all of the important stuff like Power to the People stations taken care of.

Also like in the previous game, most of the plot is revealing the past and not the present, which is overall a cool way of doing it; it gives the game world a nice sense of grounding.

MEGA SPOILERS (for this game, as well as the first Bioshock and System Shock 2)

In a way, I'm putting this in "mega spoilers" so I don't give away the fact that there really aren't any mega spoilers in this game. Unlike the mindtwisting, astonishing reveals of Bioshock and System Shock 2, stuff actually progresses more or less in the way you expect it. Except, of course, I had been conditioned to expect that there WOULD be a twist. Throughout the whole game I kept wondering: was Sinclair really the transferred mind of Ryan? Or maybe Eleanor was secretly an evil prodigy, manipulating events around her to bring about Armageddon? Nope: Sinclair really is a reform-minded business tycoon, and Eleanor really is a slightly scared young lady with enormous talents who wants to do good.

Lamb made a good villain. She's philosophically the exact opposite of Ryan: her communalism to his individualism, her religion to his business, her Tyrant to his Parasite, her Green to his Libertarian. I like how the series underlines that extremism in any form is the danger, not any particular philosophy. I also like how much credit it gives to its villains, letting them speak at length and lay out their thoughts.

A few relatively minor complaints: I totally didn't get the bit with Sinclair at the end. I could understand it if Lamb brainwashed him, or something, but it's just bizarre for him to be completely lucid and instructive and still trying to kill you. I was also bummed that there doesn't seem to be any option to save him. It felt like forced failure, especially after you were able to save the other folks in the levels before that one. Let's see, what else... mmm, I guess that might be it.

Things I loved:
  • The final battle was really epic and exciting. I laid out everything I had and won, but it was quite challenging, which I enjoyed.
  • The new gene tonics were great. I especially enjoyed Fountain of Youth (or was it Life?) that regenerates health and Eve when standing in water.
  • Late in the game, my standard load-out was Insect Swarm 3 with two Security Bots in tow. I could take out almost any enemy without even directly engaging. A couple of times I completed an Adam harvest without any harm to me or the Little Sister. 
  • Favorite weapons: generally the shotgun, but I probably used the Rivet Gun more. Both are awesome once fully upgraded. I also had a lot of fun with the Spear Gun, and would have enjoyed even more sniping opportunities.
  • It was really fun to get the cameos from the first game. Ryan is still a larger-than-life presence, and it was cool and creepy to hear from Fontaine again.
  • That said, the whole Lamb thing is pretty ham-handedly retconned. The end result is great, but it really doesn't flow at all from what we saw in the previous game.

I just recently noticed that there's a new Bioshock game coming up, called Bioshock Infinite. I'm very curious to see what it has to offer. The first two games have been great, but it would be cool if they can move past the world of Rapture and do something more. For two games now they've been hinting at what happens when the advances made by Ryan Industries are unleashed upon the world, and I hope we'll get to see and participate in that.

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