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Bioshock 2 – Review

There are some games that simply don’t need a follow-up. Those titles that, whilst not perfect, have given you an experience that would only be tainted should a publisher turn around a hurried and substandard sequel. Team Ico’s output is a great example of just leaving things be, but another would have been Bioshock. What more needed to be said about Rapture?

The original surprised and delighted me a great deal. I was so taken by the wonderful art-deco metropolis hidden beneath the waves that I thought returning would only dampen its impact and tarnish its memory. Swapping the developer and incorporating a multiplayer element compounded worries; but people need not always fear change.

Set almost a decade after the events of Bioshock, the underwater city of Rapture has fallen under control of eminent psychologist Dr Sofia Lamb; though with that shift in power away from capitalist Andrew Ryan, things are no better for its denizens and their lives still lie in ruin.

Genetic mutants known as splicers continue to roam freely, hoping to for their next fix of ADAM. Those familiar with the series will know of the Little Sisters, warped young girls who seek out angels, aka dead bodies, and harvest their genetic material, the ADAM the splicers crave. These young children would not last more than a few moments in such a harsh environment if it weren’t for the bodyguards which accompany them. Trussed up in ancient, heavy-duty diving suits, these Big Daddies will protect their Little Sisters at any cost. Naming conventions aside, what you’re looking at is a good old fashioned drug war several hundred metres below sea level.

Into this depressing arena you arrive, the original Big Daddy. Supposedly killed ten years prior, your reappearance is a shock to many, not least of whom is Dr Lamb; who willed you to put a gun to your head whilst your bonded Little Sister Eleanor watched on. Time has not dented this connection and you set out into Rapture to rescue her.

The first thing that is obvious is that Bioshock still looks stunning. 2K Marin have not slipped from the high standard set by Irrational Games, and Rapture is replete with all the ramshackle 1950s styling that you’d expect. The one thing that isn’t there however is the punch that the initial instalment made in its opening scenes, though this isn’t surprising as you can never recapture the awe of seeing Rapture for the first time.

But any slight sense of disappointment is put to one side early on as you are swiftly introduced to your new nemesis: the Big Sister. Just like you she is a supped up guardian of the Little Sisters, but this nimble minx is a world away from your lumbering bulk. Able to vault and spin her way swiftly through the environment, she is a deadly foe.

To aid you in your fight against her, combat mechanics have been revised slightly with the ability to wield both a gun and a plasmid – Bioshock’s ADAM induced superpowers – at the same time. Early on combat can be a struggle, almost chore-like, as you have but one gun and the game does not control as well as the likes of Modern Warfare or Halo; as a straight twitch-shooter it doesn’t stand up. However, as you begin to earn ADAM, more of an arsenal becomes available and things change dramatically. The feeling that Bioshock 2 is a run-of-the-mill shooter dressed up in some mid-twentieth century hand-me-downs fades, and in its place you discover a whole box of toys to play with.

Although this list may seem slightly macabre, instead of entering a room firing blindly from the hip, why not get creative? Set a few flaming hurricane traps for splicers to wander into, or a few electric trip wires just out of view. Get their attention by sending in a swarm of angry bees, and when they come running hypnotise one to fight on your side and freeze the rest before shattering them with your Big Daddy trademark drill – all whilst the hacked security drones mop up the stragglers. Beats a boring SMG any day of the week.

Plasmids are what sets the Bioshock franchise apart from other first-person shooters. And whilst electric bolts, fire balls and icy winds are the staple of any set, there is enough variety to encourage hackers, stealthy assassins, elementals and gun toters to each have their own experience. What you’ll be frying or freezing will be familiar, with thug, leadhead, spider and Houdini splicers all returning and joined by a thug that is not too dissimilar from the Tank in Left 4 Dead; he’s tough and doesn’t mind lobbing the odd block of bedrock in your general direction.

Almost inevitably, taking on the role of a Big Daddy sees you tasked with protecting Little Sisters. There is the small matter of relieving their current Big Daddy of his duties – and of his obligation to remain linked to the mortal coil – but once adopted they can be put to work harvesting ADAM. Each harvesting, however, is a battle of survival as waves of enemies are lured by the possibility of another fix. It is here that all plasmids and special weaponry must be utilised to their fullest to fend them the assailants.

These set-pieces were the highlight of the adventure; they summed up exactly what life in Rapture seemed to be like from all that we have come to know about the Big Daddies. Their thankless task of protecting this warped child while they harvest organs is a panic-inducing experience. There was always the calm before the storm where the area could be prepped with mini-turrets and traps, but as soon as the harvesting began, splicers could appear from almost anywhere, causing an intense and ammo-sapping few minutes until Little Sister had finished and you could retreat and recuperate.

Furthermore, rescue all the Sisters in the level and Big Sister will reappear to reprimand you for freeing her siblings. After a pitched battle the last thing you want to see is an athletic monster come springing towards you, but again it helps capture an experience that has reinvented itself for the sequel.

For those who yawn at the thought of a multitude of protection missions there is always the option of simply harvesting the child herself, which will save you an awful lot of time and effort. Though those who do so may find their trip to Rapture curtailed somewhat. That is not to say the game is padded out with these events, but some may wish to argue as such if they find they race through this dilapidated Atlantis at pace.

Of course others remember their first venture into Rapture’s decaying heart for more than the rough and tumble. The dystopian story took in capitalism, morality and a double cross which still stands as one of the best tales of this current generation. Again, throughout your journey you’ll meet many strange folk, each with their own back stories and reasons for helping or hindering as you make your way to the Doctor and Eleanor. There is a seemingly communist undertone to the Doctor, which is an interesting counterpoint to Ryan’s stance on how society should be run.

The environments themselves take in a cross-section of Rapture life. From research labs to housing blocks, theatres to ballrooms, you wander through a drowned society with a level design that may not be the most sprawling but fits itself around buildings that are assembled as though they had proper form and function. That same aspect does mean there is a small amount of backtracking but it is not to the detriment of the game and is nowhere near the scale of Bioshock 1. Instead it reinforces the believability of your surroundings and the design makes clever use of the space.

As already admitted, the initial impact of the sequel was muted in comparison but the way the tale unfolded as a whole I found much more compelling, helped in no small part by the moral choices made and the characters encountered enroute. The closing chapters also take in a pleasant and surprising snapshot of Rapture that helps lift the veil a little on the lore, before reaching a finale which is thankfully no longer a clichéd boss battle.

Initially I ventured into Rapture for a second time thinking that as long as Bioshock 2 didn’t sully the name of the original then I would consider it as acceptable. What I found leaving Rapture for the second time was that 2K have exceeded my expectations. By making subtle tweaks and improvements to the formula and opting for a story that nods in recognition at those that have gone before, rather than following on or escalating events, they have released a game that can stand on its own merits and not just ride on the coattails of its predecessor. The wow factor may not be as strong but those who were concerned about a followup that they didn’t need, should stow their scepticism and descend beneath the waves once more.

8 /10

Resource Allocation

Originally published on www.7outof10.co.uk

Games, if I may take a moment of your time to state the obvious, are complex items. Most modern titles are the result of many multiple of years’, if not decades’, worth of man-hours. Bioshock didn’t happen overnight; Ocarina of Time wasn’t dropped into Miyamoto’s arms by a passing stork; and the original Metal Gear Solid was definitely no happy accident. Each were carefully and lovingly assembled by a dedicated team who in the hope that they all might sit side by side in harmony and produce something magical as a result.

From inception to release the entire process is about resource management. Early on a small team, maybe skeletal in numbers, will work on a concept aiming to produce a prototype that not only gets across their core concepts but also acts as a showcase that can also be used to pitch their vision to a publisher. This could be the ubiquitous “vertical slice” or a more focused experience targeting just a solitary aspect. Either way, the choices of where their effort should be focused can be crucial. Many games never make it beyond this point, and not just because they are poor ideas; the design may be fixated on one aspect that the publishers simply don’t want or staff are spread so thinly across multiple areas that the overall quality suffers.

Should the concept be “green lit”, then the same issue arises again but on a far broader scale. With the team moving into full production the purse strings are loosened and extra staff are brought on board, either from other internal teams that may have recently shipped or with new hires. From having to initially impress the publishers, the target is to now impress the public and it is imperative that the increase in headcount is used effectively.

However, no matter how many producers and schedulers are involved there will be hiccups along the way. Requirements will change with internal/external influences, technical difficulties will crop up at inopportune moments, and the design has a tendency to evolve over time. One way to continue to meet milestones and stay on target is to cut whole sections of a project. If it’s not utterly integral then right up until the gold discs are pressed then features can hit the cutting room floor to save time in both development and testing. Something I can attest to first-hand.

An experienced team will know exactly what to remove. Having lived with the game since its birth then they will have a pretty good idea as to its strength and which areas need to be addressed. It is at this point that they don’t need a remit handed down from on high stating that no matter what feature X must stay. Or worse still, be added.

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Speaking to Giant Bomb a couple of weeks ago, Ex-Midway producer John Vignocchi spoke of being forced to add multiplayer elements into Stranglehold, the 2007 game from John Woo. Claiming it was the “worst part of the game” he admitted that “no one wanted it” and in doing so he struck a chord with a great many people, both developers and gamers. There are countless games that have had multiplayer forced upon them simply because designers or, even worse, management feel that they need to include it. What then usually follows is a mediocre death match rehash that steals resources from the main game and yet adds nothing of value to the package as a whole.

This pandemic has existed for a long time, occasionally spilling over into a delusion that the multiplayer component is so strong that it can stand on its own (see Turok: Rage Wars). It has, however, been exacerbated by the introduction and standardisation of online platforms such as Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network. The comparative ease at which an online mode can be created means that developers feel compelled to do so. The likes of Prey, The Darkness, Haze, Stranglehold and Condemned 2 have all sullied the bandwidth of ISPs everywhere (although probably only briefly) and whilst none of their single-player components could be described as dreadful I doubt that the amount of man-hours invested in what – in most cases – felt like a tacked on multiplayer could not have been better spent elsewhere.

To put this into context, imagine if a good proportion of the Fallout 3 development staff had been taken off the main game to create a competitive shooter. Whilst this may make some salivate, think about which portion of the game’s polish you would sacrifice to obtain that. Would it still have received such glowing reviews across the board if it were compromised in such a way?

A growing trend is that whole separate studios are drafted in to develop a game’s multiplayer, which then could be argued that they are no longer dividing a team’s focus. Ultimately, though, there is still a cheque being written for the that work somewhere in the world.

But it is not just a division of resources. Part of what made Bioshock so incredibly special was the complete and immersive nature of Rapture. You were alone in a world of unhinged maniacs with nothing but the trickle of water and series of dubious syringes for company. Had the team not had the strength to resist the urge to put in an online component then I doubt it would have the same rush when I think back to my time spent under the waves. The sense of solitude would be dashed if, in the very same environment you had just lumbered as a Big Daddy, a pop-up exclaimed that you had just unlocked that map in Team Splicematch. The next time through I would not be able to shake the thought of other players having fought each other where I stood, most probably turning the air blue at the same time.

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Of course, all single-player repercussions aside, when multiplayer works as well as it does in Halo or Call of Duty then many things can be forgiven. Those two brands alone have captured what fans what from an online shooter and over several iterations have managed to improve and refine the experience. Every ounce of effort poured in has paid off and they have made a daunting benchmark for any studio wishing to steal bragging rights from Bungie and Infinity Ward. So it begs the question, why would they try?

Returning to the list above, did Prey honestly believe itself better than Halo? Were those at Free Radical really thinking that Haze would actually dethrone Call of Duty? Deep down developers know where their game stands long before Metacritic begins its aggregation and I’m sure if they were being honest they would say “no”. Just because a game features guns it does not mean that is also has to feature multiplayer and it’s a shame that more developers aren’t brave enough to admit this.

The most interesting online modes that have emerged in recent times are those that try a different tact or where serious thought has been put into the strengths of a game: the one-up-manship in Red Faction’s destruction frenzies; the MMO stylings of Borderlands; and the care and attention lavished on Uncharted 2. There are enough shooters in the world that a mediocre and unloved multiplayer bolt-on should no longer be tolerated; and if we never see a co-op as lacklustre as Fable II’s again, we’ll be making progress.

Birthday Honours

I have now turned the ripe old age of 27 and to commemorate the fact I thought I’d do my own honours list to celebrate the games that over the last year that have taken my fancy.

The First Annual Birthday Honours Awards Award

For services to shooting: Halo 3

I’ve said plenty on this little beauty so we’ll leave it short: personally, I don’t think you need anything else with its sandbox encounters and expansive multiplayer.

For services to storyline: Bioshock

I can’t actually remember when I game grabbed me and pulled me in so deeply to a plotline. Admitedly it was a little ropey at the end but it was a wrench everytime I had to put the controller down as I always wanted to find out what audio diary was around the next corner. Simply put, this is a beautiful and well put together title that everyone should give a chance to.

For services to originiality: Portal

I still haven’t touched the rest of the Orange Box. Portal was the only reason I bought Valve’s value collection and alone it is still worth the price of the whole thing. The humour, the gameplay, the challenge and the final payoff all make this one of the smallest games of the year I think ever conceived… despite the cake being a lie.

For services to board games: Carcassonne

Although Catan may have been my first step into European board games online, Carcassonne was the one that really hooked me. A devestatingly simple game but with a great depth of tactics and possibilities.

I like it so much I now have about three different real-world versions at home.

For services to kelptomaniacs: Crackdown

Some say “take the orbs out of Crackdown and you would have nothing”; why on earth would you do that? Crackdown was not only fun because of its over-exagerated crime fighting but for its hide and seek orbs. I liked nothing more than bounding around the city, spotting a glowing sphere in the sky and then setting about scaling great heights to grab it.

I even reset my game so I could go through it all again.

Honourable Honours Mentions

Whilst they may be my Top 5 games of the year I think others deserve a mention.

I had great fun with Rainbox Six: Vegas at the start of the year, a great tactical shooter that is now unfortunately gathering dust.

Catan should also be given a nod and if it weren’t for those stubborn, headset-less wearing players that refused to trade online it may have been given more.

Overlord, a delightfully British game where you basically control evil Pikmin. If it wasn’t for Bioshock coming out at roughly the same time I would (and probably should) have made more of it.

And, finally, Sneak King. My god. Has there ever been a more sinister game created by man’s own hand?