Thursday, February 18, 2010

Sea of Dreams: A Review of BioShock 2

I was wrong. This is all I thought while playing BioShock 2. And it actually hindered my enjoyment of it. I sabotaged myself with my own mind. With my own cynical, idiotic thoughts I slightly tarnished a near-perfect gaming experience. But BioShock 2 is so good, at times so powerful and immersive, that it managed to distract me even from myself.

I never believed I would like this game, that it would be good, nor that it would do justice to the first, as evidenced by my long and pretentious blog on the game I wrote prior to experiencing it. I still stand by what I wrote in that blog, I simply never expected 2K Marin to deliver on everything I desired and for them to prove my presumptions wrong. And so I've learned an important lesson. I will no longer presume to know what any medium of entertainment will produce before I experience it. I will no longer judge a video game before I have the right to do so. I will not watch video previews and read interviews and renounce a game based on these misleading snippets. And I will not bad-mouth designers because I suspect they are forgetting their audience by making a direct sequel. I never expected that 2K Marin would actually make a game for the BioShock fan and not the casual gamer that just thinks plasmids are cool.

There were only a few minor gripes throughout the entire wonderful and engaging experience that is BioShock 2.

1) The menu screen does not have the lovely piano notes that sound off when you select an option. This gave personality and depth to the first game in a subtle way.
2) Arranging the placement of plasmids should be a thousand times easier. When the player goes into a gene tonic station the arragement should match the formation of the selection wheel so you're able to put the plasmids exactly where you want them without any difficulty.
3) Towards the end I missed the old hacking. While I really enjoy the new hack tool a great deal, by the end of the game I was reloading saves so many times after failed hack attempts that I wondered in what way this new system is actually easier and more user-friendly than the first game's tubular mini-game. Continually re-loading also breaks the immersiveness of the experience. I found this timing-mini-game to actually be much more difficult and it certainly results in more failures than the first game's system. The good thing is that you never have to do it, though, it's purely your choice.
4) The story structures mirror each other, as does every other facet of the game. This is welcome (BioShock 2 does manage to set itself apart in the end, however), but it would have been nice if the "big reveal" that occurs right around the same time and manner as it does in the first BioShock were anywhere near as unsettling and surprising. The developers went a different route. You witness the revelation, in the same flash-back style as the first game, but the fact that it's done in the same style made me feel that it should have been bigger and more interesting. This was done purposefully on the part of the designers, however, to make the moments that occur after the "big reveal" that much more meaningful and powerful.
5) The plasmid controls are a little off sometimes. Holding down the left trigger doesn't always result in the attack you desire. Also, the plamids do not appear to upgrade in the little hand animations while you're not using them as they do in the first game. For example, in 1 you see ice-spikes shoot out of your hand after upgrading to Winter Blast 2. Such is gone in the sequel.

These small grievances aside, BioShock 2 is an excellent continuation of the series. It's one of the best sequels I've ever played, and while I abhor the word franchise BioShock has proven itself to have become one of the few actually good and artistic franchises in existence. I have to give 2K Marin all the credit they deserve for creating an artistic and beautiful and deep entertainment experience that is, at its core, extremely fun and, subsequently, ultimately daring. I took issue with the fact that it was a direct sequel and that it had the number 2 in its title. Well, I should not forget that it was originally titled Sea of Dreams (a phrase that appears in an audio diary), and I have to acknowledge that returning to a familiar Rapture ignited a joy in me I did not expect. There was something wonderful in that familiarity and I felt less like I was playing a sequel and more as though I had just loaded a save from the first game and was venturing into new, undiscovered territory.

While the first BioShock cannot be surpassed, this is not meant as a criticism of BioShock 2. It's simply a testament to how wonderful the first game is and what it did for video games. But the sequel carries on that tradition, at first from a very simple and enjoyable perspective. Returning to Rapture is simply fun. It's fun to open crates, listen to audio diaries, collect tonics and plasmids, and notice little details along the walls. If one plays this game at a crawl they'll see wonderful little artistic flourishes in the landscape that cannot be seen anywhere else. As much as I didn't want to admit to msyelf that I was enjoying the game in the opening, I could not deny how much I was captured by the experience once the Big Sister appeared and stole a Little Sister right in front of me. I took off after them, screaming at the television. It was at this moment that I realized this was a good game, that the developers had done it, and that I was captured by something meaningful.

Following this the game only gets deeper and more enjoyable, with audio diaries detailing Sofia Lamb's ascent to the leader of Rapture, experiments with Big Daddies, and the mournful stories of Raptures twisted inhabitants. There is one particularly wonderful batch of audio diaries that details a father's story from the surface who came down in search of his daughter. You get to listen and finally see how this man's life plays out, but it's not a quest. It's not a narrative that affects the main story in any way. It's an intelligent aside that works toward giving the game that much more history and personality.

The relationship between gamers and Little Sister is much stronger and the gather missions are truly intense and enjoyable battles that put ones skills to the test at the hardest difficulty.

From a gameplay standpoint very little has been changed with the exception of a few smart little improvements, most notably re-mapping the health hotkey to the right d-pad. The drill is the most satisfying weapon in the game and the charge ability truly makes one feel like a powerful Big Daddy. A couple other little touches that enhance your sense of being one of the big brutes is the sound and subsequent rumble that occurs when you jump or drop, as well as seeing the visor of your helmet in the corners of your screen (which goes away inexplicably when the level does not begin with you in water...just an odd little flaw). The new hacking is fun and a logical progression from the first system in some ways, but grows frustrating in the end, where as the updated video camera for research is a much better improvement. It simply takes some getting used to. Not everything is spelled out initially. Players are encouraged to discover things on their own.

Above all the game continues the tradition of marrying gameplay and narrative perfeclty with both informing each other and never getting in each others' way. BioShock 2 takes the time to develop relationships between the characters as well as the player and the world they inhabit. The philosophy and artisty of the first game is back and not in the contrived manner in which I predicted. It feels natural. And above all, it feels unique to this game. BioShock 2 establishes a life of its own through metaphor and imagery that subtely ties into the most important aspects of its narrative. Butterflies abound. Lamb's eyes are always prominent on walls. Her text, Unity and Metamorphoses is scattered everywhere. So change, rebirth is the theme of BioShock 2 I quickly realized, so, throughout the entirety of the game, I analyzed every word, every image as I would a novel or a film. And when I discovered that there clearly was a recuring theme in the game, I knew that I had sold 2K Marin short. They obviously know that a BioShock game has to be a game with a theme, one that makes statements on humanity and morality. They did this and gave me the experience I craved. The main theme comes to the forefront of the story in the final act of the game and even the most skeptical of BioShock 1 fans will be shocked and moved by how the theme manifests itself.

This is an excellent video game, an absolute joy, and leaps and bounds better than most of the films, books, or other games out on the market today. At the time of this writing I have yet to jump into the multi-player, but the fact that it's there is another welcome addition, espeically now that I know nothing of the main campaigne was lost to it.

BioShock 2 continues a great tradition and teaches us to put all presumptions aside, whether they be that a sequel to a classic will inevitably fail, or that a story has to follow a predictable path. While the game doesn't have a moment as powerful as meeting Andrew Ryan and the "Would you kindly" revelation, it provides you a different and almost equally powerful moment, and all of it leads toward a conclusion that is actually more satisfying than the finale of the first game.

If you loved BioShock, you will likely love BioShock 2.