BIOSHOCK 2 – Review

BIOSHOCK 2 is a videogame developed by 2K Marin and published by 2K Games for the Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC. The Xbox 360 version was played for the purpose of this review. It was directed by JORDAN THOMAS.

If a singular aspect, alone, can propel a game to greatness, than perhaps the original Bioshock was that game. The game’s opening piece, with an airplane crashing near a towering lighthouse in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and its now famous plot twist are still some of my favorite gaming moments of all times. Games like that don’t need sequels. Especially when their creative director declares they had already fulfilled their vision and moved on to other projects. However, it is not some director’s vision that moves the world of games around. It’s money; and it’s naïve to assume otherwise. So Bioshock 2 was born. An unnecessary sequel. But an unnecessary sequel isn’t a bad thing by itself, mind you – as proved Godfather Part II.

Still, I was skeptical about Bioshock 2 even though the new creative director was the guy in charge of everyone’s (but Tom) favorite area of the original: Fort Frolic. In the end, I was right to be skeptical for Bioshock 2 is schlock whose main achievement is to ease our nostalgia of the underwater city of Rapture.

I actually stopped for a while before deeming the game as schlock. Was I being too harsh? Especially saying that New Super Mario Bros. Wii (NSMBW) was good game despite adding nothing to the Mario canon? Here I realized my own bias of rating sequels: I demand more from sequels of games I loved than from games I disliked. After all, you rate things based on your expectation, which are determined by the original game. Looking back, this thought is consistent to my actions: I absolutely loved Super Mario Sunshine (sorry, Tom) and despised its sequel (sorry again, Tom), Super Mario Galaxy (to which NSMBW is also a sequel). So, for all intents and purposes, that’s why I believe I’m being just with Bioshock 2 in my evaluation.

The biggest problem of Bioshock 2 is that it never justified its existence. It has no raison d’être. In an interview with Jordan Thomas, the man stated he wanted to use the sequel to provide contrast to the schools of thought presented in the first game, a new way of thinking and hopefully take it to a similar extreme. By playing the game, I could see that he tried, but his vision never came close to being fulfilled. In the end, Bioshock 2 improves its shooting mechanics and little else. It learned nothing from the original game’s mistakes, its narrative themes are never fully realized (or even consistent with the ones from the previous game for that matter) and the missions demanded from the gamer are never satisfactorily justified, thus breaking the immersion.

Despite all that, Bioshock 2 is usually able to conserve the same atmosphere of the first game (but not always). Combat mechanisms are also better and new types of enemies helped making this game perceptibly harder. So, considering it improved the gameplay and keeps the atmosphere of the first game intact, shouldn’t I be more forgiving with the game then?

But I don’t care about the combat mechanics.

Maybe I would care if I had access to the multiplayer mode, set as part of Rapture’s Civil War, which attracted me. Does the multiplayer try tell a story? Alas, the game has no offline multiplayer support for any justifiable reason (bastards!), so I was stuck playing the single player mode and, in that mode, the game is first a simulation and then a shooter. The combat mechanics don’t really matter as Bioshock‘s core has never been about shooting plasmid at Splicers anyways. Bioshock is about the living and breathing environment of Rapture, its art and philosophies, its way of life and the conflict of forces being waived inside its dieselpunk/biopunk interiors.

The problem starts with the game’s introduction, which is nowhere near as elegant as the one from the original game. We are walking through Rapture with a Little Sister. We look at the glass wall and the game shows us who we are: a Big Daddy. Shortly thereafter the Little Sister is stolen from us by her real mother, and also the game’s villain, Dr. Sofia Lamb, who takes us out of the picture for 10 years. When we wake up, Andrew Ryan is no more and Lamb apparently took his place. Who wakes us up is Tenenbaum, who apparently escaped Rapture after the first game, but returned after girls from all over the surface started being kidnapped. She is the one that tell us our name: Delta. As far as first impressions go, Tenenbaum is one of the elements that didn’t feel right: her appearance is completely gratuitous. It’s a hey, remember this character from the first game? moment. The fact she returned to Rapture alone is a perfect example of the Dumbest Possible Action propelling the plot and the reason she empathizes with some random Big Daddy with his quest is never explained, but the game isn’t the least concerned with trying to make her character consistent: after the first stage the script completely forgets about her. You will hear neither radio message nor audio tape from her again until you pay more for the Minerva’s Den DLC.

Another element that poorly handled is the definition of your goal: to rescue that Little Sister, now grown up, from Dr. Lamb. After 20 minutes of aimlessly roaming inside the game’s first area, the Adonis Luxury Resort, you will receive a telepathic message from Eleanor, your Little Sister, asking you to rescue her. The game doesn’t care to give you any other justification other than her request. Go save her, would you kindly! This message is accompanied by a gift from her: your first Plasmid (again, Electro Burst), so you can be certain that this was not some sort of Big Daddy Hallucination caused by being apart to your Little Sister; Eleanor really did speak to you (How is she a telepath anyways?) and said she wants her father.

Maybe the developers simply assumed gamers understood the Big Daddy/Little Sister relationship from the first game so well, that this bond alone would be enough to motivate you towards saving Eleanor, but this never happens and it is ultimately the biggest problem of Bioshock 2: you never identify yourself with the with the Big Daddy avatar.

In the first game, the Big Daddies were mere obstacles for you to fight. Sure, there were tragic enemies, but obstacles regardless. The game appears to ask us You’ve seen a Big Daddy. Do you want to be a Big Daddy? But, you know… controlling him as if he wasn’t a Big Daddy? because everything that made the original Big Daddy unique is gone here: their slow pace only accelerated when his protégé is attacked; their unique visual style, hidden behind the player’s first person perspective and the game’s lack of reflective surfaces; their lament, etc. The game itself never feels confident enough with that lack of identification: one would expect that the Play as a Big Daddy blurb would be the first one at the back of the DVD case, but this endorsement it is only stated for the Multiplayer Mode.

The fact is that Big Daddies are not real daddies. It would make much more sense if the game allowed you to play as a real father going after his daughter. The way it is, Bioshock 2‘s main driving factor seems disingenuous – something that gives me the impression this game was originally designed at a PowerPoint presentation that included Play as Big Daddy! as the first bulletpoint. The story should have the patience to make us care about Eleanor from the very start! Had the game invested in this relationship some more, by allowing us to actually play as Delta when he still had his Little Sister, instead of merely using a cinematic (which was, frankly, wholly unnecessary as there was no reason for us not to start controlling Delta from the get-go), we might have invested some more into the Delta/Eleanor relationship.

The big reveal of the original game is great exactly because it was able to reach something Bioshock 2 never could: it created a moment in which you were able to relate yourself to the protagonist completely. So that’s why when Charles Onyett, from IGN, claims that Bioshock 2 is a game in which story, setting, and gameplay are expertly blended to create an experience that’s as thought-provoking as it is entertaining I have no choice other than shaking my head.

Finally, to conclude my first impressions, I rarely felt like 10 years have passed after the original game. There are no accounts on how the lives of the Rapture inhabitants have been between the fall of Ryan and the rise of Lamb. Rapture itself remains almost unchanged, its decay is not much greater than it already was in the first game and the whole the ocean is taking over theme can be found nowhere outside the game’s logo. As I expected a darker Rapture, I was met with irony when I entered Dionysius Park, an area that has been flooded for even more than 10 years, whose consequence was not a darker, more abandoned setting, but an even more colorful one. Apparently all underwater plants possess a unnatural glow of their own. Furthermore, we never revisit any areas of the original Bioshock to actually see the influence of both our efforts in the first game and the passing of time.

After Tenenbaum is dropped into oblivion, your guide throughout the rest of the game is the cunning smooth-talking entrepreneur, Augustus Sinclair. Sinclair was, by far, my favorite character of the game. Sure, he lacks Atlas’ or Ryan’s passion, but he is one of the few well-rounded and believable characters I’ve met in my second excursion to Rapture. His demise is perhaps the most tragic moment of the game. Not because the moment itself is involves any particular kind of grief (although it tries), but because of the way the game decided to dump Sinclair: as mere afterthought.

On the other hand, I’m pretty sure Sofia Lamb’s hypocritical holier-than-thou attitude and constant nagging will rank her among Slippy Toad, Navi and The Laughing Dog as one of the most annoying characters ever created. The mark of a good villain is the fact he believes he is the hero. Half-Life 2‘s Doctor Breen and Bioshock‘s Andrew Ryan were like that – in fact, the Audio Diaries of Bioshock 2 puts Ryan under an even more tragic light. Dr. Lamb, however, is a pale substitute. She’s there because the game needs a villain and, for this particular game, she is there to personify some kind of collectivism philosophy, as opposed to Ryan’s own individualism philosophy. But while a good villain would try to convince us he is doing the right thing, Sofia usually is either talking to herself or demonizing us for not wanting to be part of her family (which is a bold assumption of her considering the protagonist never talks). The result is a speech lacking in substance and so poorly developed it is pitiful.

Her goal is not well explained either. Everywhere we see writings on walls about Rapture being reborn or rising but that menace is seldom manifested in the plot. In fact, during the first two thirds of the game, we think that the game’s only conflict is that Sofia is trying to keep her daughter away from you, which causes you (1) to empathize even less with the protagonist, a baby snatcher clad in iron and (2) to take Lamb’s collectivism even less seriously, after all, she’s trying to save her one real daughter by systematically sacrificing the collective family, sending tons of her other “family members” to their doom.

It’s only during the last third of the game that Bioshock 2 starts getting some momentum and comes close to shining. After huge missed opportunities that could be used to paint a better picture of how was life in Rapture – who bought the smuggled bibles from the first game, how life was at the poorest parts of Rapture, how was life inside Lamb’s Collectivistic Family – the plot finally finds its center and make us care for Eleanor (although still not explaining any of her unnatural abilities). More importantly, it allows us to know her as well as not limiting the result of our past decisions to the game’s ending alone.

While talking about endings, it’s too bad that Bioshock 2 determines the Good Ending of the original Bioshock as canon. Fighting the evil protagonist of the first game would not only be much more interesting than putting up with Sofia Lamb, but it would allow for a scenario with real stakes: the nuclear weapons stolen from the surface. The fact the protagonist of the first game is more in tune with Ryan’s vision when he goes down the evil path also allows for a bigger ludonarrative resonance in the first game.

Bioshock 2 doesn’t have as much ludonarrative dissonance as the first game had. The ludic contract worked in the sense that I actually felt the themes of the game being expressed through mechanics as I saved all Little Sisters because they were my family – although the difference between killing or saving the Little Sister is still negligible and the conflict around the amount of ADAM you could get is now less about your values and more about how much work are you willing to do in order to protect the Little Sisters as they harvest ADAM from dead bodies. In fact, the story (although poorly handled) is also harmonious to collectivism ideal (although (also) poorly handled), as the player is forced to save Eleanor simply because she’s family instead of acting according to their own self-interest.

As one plays Bioshock 2, the structure of the game becomes plainly obvious. Its mechanisms are so evident, they scream this is a videogame!. One of these mechanisms is a new enemy called Big Sister, which tries to be Bioshock 2‘s thing, but the game dilutes her importance by making her appearances part of a pre-determined pattern: the player will always know in which occasions he will confront her. The game itself is structured into stages. You start at a train station and you see that there are a few stops between you and your final destination – and boy! you can be dead certain you will be forced to stop at each and every train station to do some arbitrary task before you are allowed to continue. Some of these tasks can be quite ludicrous: one of them asked me to deal with all Little Sisters of the stage before allowing me to move on, which is not much of an actual justification, but what would already do anyways. It’s like asking Mario to jump before allowing him to clear a stage. The game structure is so painfully evident, that despite the fact the last area is not linked to the Rapture rail system at all, its location is still pointed out at the rail map anyhow.

Likewise, the mechanisms that made the game nature of the original Bioshock evident (Why some many people in Rapture are using Audio Diaries for no apparent reason? Why are you munching down whatever piece of food you can get your hands on?) were not only maintained, but made worse! Now we can add to the roll of questions: why did Mark Meltzer, an intruder from the surface, also start to use Audio Diaries? How can Delta eat so much without ever removing his helmet? Why is hacking now (thankfully) different even though the machines being hacked are exactly the same? How are you able to save the Little Sisters now, when in the first game you needed a Plasmid given by Tenenbaum to do that? Why every non-spliced character in the game happens to have an important connection to Delta? Well, at least Bioshock 2 uses new character models for non-spliced characters, unlike the first game, where, with the exception of Andrew Ryan himself (who had some kind of weird plastic skin), all other characters shared recycled models from enemies.

This obvious structure is what ultimately undermines what was supposed to be the focus of the game. As put by Jordan, The focus here is on choice. There are three moments in the game requiring Delta (who apparently has free will, adding another of what is now a series of unanswered questions introduced by Bioshock 2) to make ethical decisions (and no, deciding whether or not a Little Sister should live or die is no more a decision than it is a behavioral pattern) that will affect the game’s last third. While Onyett sees these clear moral choice mechanics as an improvement, the fact they are so obviously a mechanic strips these choices from much of their meaning. Other games like Rockstar’s GTA4 featured better decisions by masking them under a layer of uncertainty. I believe that, ultimately, that’s the biggest flaw in most attempts by developers to add decision-making in their games. Real lives decisions have a good degree of uncertainty behind them. For example, I may decide not to drive drunk and get a taxi and end up in an accident anyways because of some other driver, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t make the right choice; it only means that a good choice doesn’t guarantee a good outcome – it only increases the probabilities of achieving it. In videogames, however, choices are imbued with a great degree of determism, making them lose their importance. It’s like picking up ice-cream flavors. Last time, I chose chocolate, so this time I will choose to let Grace Holloway live. Or, how Chris Kohler from Wired more elegantly puts it, it’s hard to escape the fact that the original BioShock pre-emptively put the lie to the theme of its own sequel. ‘Free will’ in a videogame is ultimately a false choice. One can still mask that lie by either adding uncertainty (or some kind of pseudo-uncertainty) like GTA4 did, harnessing the characteristics of the medium like the original Bioshock did or adding time and replay limitations like Dead Rising did if one wants to brake free from the Choose Your Own Adventure convention Bioshock 2 falls in.

In the end, I found Bioshock 2 to be mildly competent, but mediocre. It’s mediocre because it lacks the guts. Its gameplay improvements are rather obvious and yet I’m surprised so few new plasmids were added. The game adds little to the franchise’s overall narrative by never fully answering what’s happened since my last time in Rapture. I would probably enjoy Bioshock 2 more had I been a fan of the original exclusively because of its shooting mechanics, but I didn’t – I liked Bioshock because of its uniqueness and I’m willing to bet that most people that loved the original game for the same reasons I did would rather have an honest prequel, in which they could relive Rapture’s downfall into Civil War.

Jordan Thomas defended that this kind of prequel would sacrifice a lot of what made Bioshock 1 work.

Well, Jordan, there can be no sacrifice without guts.

Other reviews that were mentioned:

A detailed analysis on the ludonarrative dissonance of the original Bioshock can be found at Click Nothing.

One Comment

  1. I have yet to (finally) play Bioshock 2, though I have watched the opening sequence. I actually liked the sequence, but that’s rather moot.

    Your suggestion about taking the evil choice of the first game as canon is something I’ve never read elsewhere (and I’ve read a ton of reviews of this game) and something that would have made the sequel something I played on day one. Instead of it (still) gathering dust on my bookshelf.