Saturday, January 19, 2019

RetroDEX: The only good "Bioshock"? (Bioshock 2)

Imagine how thirsty for artistry and substance gaming was back in 2010 to completely dismiss Bioshock 2 as a cheap cash-in, when in many ways, it's a far superior game to its much more popular predecessor.

Not that I can blame anyone; Bioshock 2 takes place not long after the events of the first game. The main character is a Big Daddy, because Big Daddies were the most popular component of the original game. The setting is the same, there's little in terms of originality and it wasn't even Irrational that made the thing; the game was developed by 2K Marin, a division of the game's publisher, who had literally never made another game until then (and haven't really made any since either).

It's sort of mind-blowing, then, just how much more fun it is actually playing Bioshock 2. A lot of what Irrational made, was improved upon. A lot of what made the original game a chore to play through, has been tweaked, fixed and polished.

First and foremost, the gunplay is leagues ahead of that of the original's. It's actually good; not "Call of Duty-good", but good. The weapons feel nice and weighty and it's much easier to choose between them. Unlike Jack (the original game's protagonist), Delta can aim and shoot. Some weapons have more spread than others, some have higher fall-off damage than others, but all of them have a purpose in the game. More weapons are situational, which means almost all of them will see some use beyond "I have to switch, because I'm out of ammo". Additionally, there's a better variety in Delta's arsenal; the machine gun and the shotgun make their return (as well as the grenade launcher), but most of the other weapons are far more appropriate. Instead of a wrench, you have a drill, as a proper Big Daddy. Unlike the wrench, the drill is a viable weapon, especially after the upgrades. Weapons like the Spear-Gun are also appropriate, as they are wielded by enemy Big Daddies in the game, making them standard equipment and thematically accurate.



Then, there are other cooler weapons, like the rivet gun, which is powerful and accurate and just fun to use. The spear gun is hard to get a handle on, but it can nail enemies on the wall, which is just as fun as it was in F.E.A.R. Their upgrades are far better as well. Sure, there are still the anti-personnel and armor-piercing rounds on the machine gun, but for one thing, they have some use this time around. The inclusion of the Splicer Brawlers, as well as far more Big Daddies as enemies, make switching ammo type necessary. For another thing, any other ammo type or upgrade is just a lot more entertaining. From the trap rivets and spears, that allow you to set up booby traps in the paths of enemies, to the rocket spears, the heat-seeking missiles for the launcher and the phosphorous slugs for the shotgun; everything is just a lot more interesting to use against different types of enemies. Even auxiliary equipment, like the remote hacking tool have their special ammo types, particularly the very useful mini-turret that you can place on the ground to deal with incoming threats. Upgrading a weapon gives a proper edge to the player, particularly in weapons like the shotgun and its Tesla upgrade that adds a good percentage chance of electrocuting enemies in a single shot.

How about them plasmids, though? Bioshock 2 instantly improves over its predecessor by eliminating the need to switch between weapons and plasmids. The plasmids are available alongside the weapons at all times, so those combos these games are so fond of are actually easy to pull off. Sure, there are still not a great many combinations, but removing that extra step of switching to them encourages using them more often. They're also a hell of a lot more powerful than they were in the first game, so plasmids like Frost and Swarm, or even the old reliable Electro Bolt, see a lot more use. The new enemies help out in this regard as well, as you will need to buy yourself more time in certain situations by freezing enemies or knocking them back. Tons of more explosive barrels this time around, which means Telekinesis isn't completely useless past its introduction like it was in the first game.

Bioshock 2 is the anti-Bioshock, in that it's actually fun to shoot at things!

Even the progression has been streamlined. No longer required to choose from three different tonic menus, everything can be slotted in just the one. You get a bunch of slots and you can pick and choose what you want to slot, be it engineering or physical or whatever.

Honestly, it's kind of ironic how much better Bioshock 2 plays simply because it does away with the pretense that this series has anything (in terms of gameplay) to do with System Shock 2 and just admits that it's a first person shooter with a lot of nifty toys and tools. Of course, if for some reason you ever viewed Bioshock as a true successor to SS2 or Deus Ex and enjoyed its clunky shooting and fifty thousand meaningless upgrades that slightly change stats, then I guess this game isn't really for you.



Don't mistake this streamlining of the mechanics to mean that the game is easier than the first; it's just that you feel like you have far more control over it. Splicer damage output has been significantly increased this time around and even with upgraded health, the little buggers can be lethal. Early on in the game, a good shot from a gun-wielding Splicer can take out half of your health. They're still as fast as ever and they are pretty good about flanking, so they provide plenty of challenge.

The addition of new enemies also keeps you on your toes; the Brawlers are just as annoying as the older Big Daddies were and don't even get me started on the Big Sisters, most of which can sponge up your entire armory before they drop. Ironically, the easiest enemy in the game this time around are Big Daddies, especially the standard "Rosie" models. They take a lot more damage (particularly when using specialized ammo types) and they're far less aggressive in comparison. Just as well, considering the Little Sister mini-game has been expanded and that there are regular Big Daddy enemies outside of Little Sister encounters.

Vita chambers are still vital in some of the harder stages, but everything seems to balance out in the end; when you get into the harder battles, it always feels like you have a chance and the vita chamber is just a second wind. That's a far cry from the first game, where a Vita Chamber was often your only means of winning a difficult encounter.

While we're on gameplay, let's take a few moments to appreciate the new hacking mini-game. Gone is the frustrating and tedious RNG pipe mini-game. Now it's all just a timing challenge; land the needle on the right spot and you're done. The game doesn't pause and the process takes a lot less, making the requirement to hack a lot less flow-breaking. You still have just as many things to hack as before, but there's less of them in each level. The very useful remote hacking tool adds a new layer to manipulating machines in the game. You can still Electro-Bolt and then hack a machine, but in certain remote areas, you can remote-hack a camera or a turret and clear a room, without ever having to fire a single shot (or even get into the field of view of the enemies). If you're in a hectic situation and can't take the time to manually hack, don't worry; the hacking tool comes with specialized "ammo" of auto-hacking darts that will do the work for you. There's not many of them lying around, but they significantly change the dynamic of some encounters.

The whole game just feels so much smoother, so much more entertaining! Everything (well, almost) has been balanced and you never feel ill-equipped to deal with the challenges. There's a lot less downtime and combat feels a lot more animated and exciting. The game controls a lot better than its predecessor and split-second decision making is easy to implement in fights. Bioshock 2 is just a good shooter.

There are some kinks still, though and many of them are carry-overs from the first game. The hacking is a lot easier than before, but the consequences for failing one can still be extremely annoying. Much like the other enemies, bots also output a lot more damage this time around, so landing the needle in a "red" area without a Bot Shutdown mechanism in the area means either running around like a headless chicken or just hitting quick reload.

Another bad carry-over are the Little Sisters. Much like the first game, they're optional encounters (most of them, at least), but the process has been expanded upon, which is not necessarily a good thing. If you don't care about getting the bad ending, you can always just kill their protectors and harvest them, still. That's easy enough.

If you want to rescue them, though, it's no longer a single button press. First you have to defeat the Big Daddy protector. Then you have to adopt her. After that, you put her down to drain ADAM from two specific dead bodies. The problem there is that while she's doing this, she attracts a whole host of Splicers and these encounters can get very challenging very early on; you can go through a whole host of ammo and healing items during those battles. After that's done, you take her to a vent. There you still have the option to harvest her, after taking advantage of her (for maximum piece-of-shit points) or you just rescue her and send her on her merry way. After you've cleared each area of all Little Sisters (usually three per level), a Big Sister is going to come after you and, arguably, they're the toughest enemies in the game.



As you can imagine, all of this takes up quite a bit of time to do. To make matters worse, skipping on the upgrades can be a real problem in the later game. I'm actually not even sure what the point of difficulty settings in these games is. Challenge is largely determined by how much time you've spent upgrading. Much like in the first game, I understand the reasoning that if you want the best ending and you want all the upgrades, you need to work for them a lot more. Taking shortcuts (like harvesting Little Sisters) should be punishable, relatively speaking. But the mechanic, just like in the original Bioshock, just breaks the flow of the game. Little Sister encounters are in a very weird place where they both exist in a vacuum and they are necessary for the main game at the same time. The way both games treat this mechanic forces the player to stop the game dead in its tracks to deal with this distraction for a reward that's largely essential to keeping the game's difficulty curve somewhat balanced. In theory, I like the idea of harvesting bodies for ADAM (since you're a Big Daddy now and everything) and I even enjoy the implementation of the Big Sisters. I just wish they were organically implemented in the game, instead of still feeling completely separate to it.

In all fairness, you are not actually required to harvest dead bodies for ADAM, you can just lead the Little Sister directly to a vent; but this is a secret the game does not make explicitly known (I discovered it by accident myself) and this still does not address the problem of breaking the game's flow to deal with them, especially since no matter what route you take, the Big Sisters will hunt you down.

I was half-joking earlier when I said that I don't see how Bioshock 2 became the black sheep of the Bioshock trilogy. Though it's superior in terms of mechanics and gameplay to the first game (and arguably Infinite), it's also a very hollow experience. The new levels expand upon Rapture (the game's underwater city world) and 2K Marin deserves some props for not just revisiting the areas from the first game, but the game still largely feels like a retread. I know I gave Bioshock a lot of shit for its shortcomings and I do think there's a level of pretentiousness in that title, but it's hard to argue with how memorable the trek through the underwater city was. Every time you entered a new area, you'd stop and look for the tape recordings, to read the various posters on the wall, to check every nook and cranny of that game for oddities that defined Rapture culture and society, as well as its history.

The second game is even more linear and there's just not much new to see. The new tape recordings are well-written, but they don't really reveal anything new or particularly interesting about the game world. There's this segment early-ish on in the game, where you walk through a propaganda ride. Pressing buttons on the displays there prompts recordings from Andrew Ryan that explain his approach to politics and his city of dreams. These are nice, but they don't add any new information nor are they well-done enough to be engaging. The entire game is like this. There's nothing new to see, nothing new to discover. Even the new enemies, like the Brawlers or the different Big Daddy models, are retreads. They add to the gameplay, but their designs and character models are lifted from the original game, as all of them had been earlier models for regular Splicers and Big Daddies when that game was still in production. Yes, a lot of what Bioshock 2 offers relies on recycling discarded content from the original game.

It really feels like a mission pack for the first game in terms of presentation and while the familiarity of Rapture upon returning to it is still pretty effective, the actual content in it isn't. The best thing about the game from that perspective are the new segments where occasionally the game will throw you into the open ocean. There's not a lot to see there either, but at least it gives Rapture some scale with its inter-connected areas, which the populace could reach only via donning a diving suit (or riding a Bathysphere.

The story is also easily a throwaway. The Ayn Rand-ian nightmare of the first game was memorable, it stood out. It made players want to discover more about Rapture. The plot in itself wasn't great and it outstayed its welcome, but the world-building kept that game going. Without that latter component, the story in this game is forgettable and no more worthy than a standard side-quest. It's a story in a smaller scale, revolved around Little Sisters and specifically one, the daughter of one psychiatrist Sophia Lamb, who was accidentally turned into a Little Sister and then paired with the protagonist Big Daddy, Delta.

So far, so good. Unfortunately, the story is also about how the very collectivist Lamb tries to turn her daughter, Eleanor, into a super-splicer and a symbol for the people of Rapture to rise up and take power in their own hands. Her plan was set in motion years ago, but only after the events of the first game (and Ryan's death) does she actually get to put it fully in motion.



The whole thing doesn't feel well-fleshed out. Lamb is a figure both unsympathetic and somber. She doesn't have the presence of Ryan or even Fontaine. Her mocking to Delta and her pleas to Eleanor fall on the player's deaf ears, because they have nothing to communicate. Eleanor herself is a very poorly-put together character. There are some audio recordings that provide context for her upbringing and they're fun to listen to, but she's a lifeless objective for most of the game. The different endings rely on her (based on your actions in-game) and whether she turns out to be kind or a psychopath has little effect on the player, because of how little we get to know her in-game. Eleanor is very similar to Bioshock Infinite's Elizabeth; the child of the main villain, kept in a "bottle" with the intent to make her a messiah for the people of the city. Unlike Elizabeth, though, Eleanor doesn't get the same exposure through dialogue and her interaction with the player to make her sympathetic or a character worth investing into.

Similarly, the Atlas stand-in, Sinclair, is woefully underdeveloped. Through various audio recordings, I thought Sinclair would turn out to be a back-stabbing son of a bitch, but the game doesn't even go that far. His exit from the story comes unceremoniously, without the player ever really getting the chance to meet him. He acts as a glorified objectives screen; Atlas in the first game (before the Fontaine twist) was better developed than Sinclair, in a far shorter time.

The story in itself is a bit of a jumbled mess, thematically at least. Ryan's objectivist failure was at the forefront of the original Bioshock, but Lamb's collectivist Utopia has much less steam in it. There really isn't enough context to grasp her dream in the game. The various recordings from random citizens don't really describe life under her regime and the religious-like zeal from some supporters (who have built actual shrines to both Sophia and Eleanor) are a poor substitute. The story ultimately still clings to that sappy idea of binary morality, sprinkled with bits of personal freedom, much like the original game; but without the rich context provided in the first game, it's even harder to connect to or take seriously.

The primary issue with the writing is that it feels phoned in. There was no coherent, unified idea of where they wanted to take the story after the first game. The story could've worked either by making it bigger or by making it a lot smaller. The scale in this instance matters. If they were going for "bigger", they'd have to expand a lot upon the collectivist attitudes of Sophia Lamb. They'd need a lot more audio recordings and communications with the character and a better insight into her views as a psychiatrist to make her a compelling villain. Additionally, they'd need to set this game at least another ten years into the future, perhaps in a rebuilt Rapture that was really just hanging from a thread and quickly shedding the skin of this poorly-stitched together "Utopia" that rose to replace Ryan's Objectivist dream. Of course, this would require twice as long to plot out, write and develop for, so this was probably out of the question as soon as the game went into pre-production.

The alternative to making the story work would be to scale it back. They could keep everything the same, only they should've shifted focus from Lamb to Delta and Eleanor. The game does try to make a father/daughter connection, but it never really works. Delta is not only a silent protagonist, he's also a monstrous Big Daddy, for who we have little understanding outside of every other Big Daddy (i.e. a mindless tool). Eleanor seems to be a lot more infatuated with Delta, but only because it will get her away from her mother. There are shades of something truly great here; Eleanor's inner conflict of having lived two lives, the life of Sophia's daughter and the life of a Little Sister at Delta's side. She could've been brought to legitimate dilemmas, having to choose between the beauty and the beast.

Likewise, Delta could've been a more compelling character, even as a silent protagonist. The story touches upon the fact that he's a slave and some of the best audio recordings are those that detail the Protectors and Little Sisters projects. As a re-awakened slave, Delta could raise the question of whether or not caring for a loved one is really free will or just another form of slavery the protagonist subjects themselves into. The genetic bond manufactured between Big Daddies and their Little Sisters nicely mirrors the evolutionary bond between parent and child. Does Delta actually care for Eleanor, or is he genetically compelled to care? Does Sophia's abuse of her own daughter means she's really free of her evolutionary shackles, or is she only rationalizing those same shackles by deifying Eleanor? The story could've really dug into these existential themes and question whether or not our very innate, human desires and impulses are really all that different from the social and biomechanical conditioning we're subjected to.

These ideas aren't novel; in fact, they exist in this very game. But they're very poorly put-together and they never really amount to anything. Sophia does question whether Delta's infatuation with Eleanor is of his own free will or if he's still just a slave. Eleanor does say that love is just a chemical and choice (and our actions) is all that matters. But all of these things come too little too late and not with nearly enough exposure to really make an impact. It's a pity, because the story could've been a lot more personal than the pretentious mess of the first game, the binary morality choice system would be contextualized better and the game would've differentiated itself more clearly from Bioshock Infinite, which has a similar plot.



Not all of it is bad in regards to the writing, of course. The story is all over the place, but dialogue is good and the audio recordings are still fun to listen to, even if they're not as illuminating as they were in the first game. The main characters are flat, but the antagonists (sans Sophia Lamb) are varied and well-rounded. There are encounters with a few non-spliced humans in the game, most of who you get to either kill or spare and they're all really fun to listen to. They're sympathetic in their own ways and their actions in the framework of Rapture are (mostly) understandable.

Beyond all that, the game's just as pretty as the original, but admittedly lacks just a bit of that claustrophobic, dense atmosphere that the first game had. There are a lot less dark areas and the whole game seems just a pinch more colorful than the first game. It works, as Bioshock 2 drops all pretense of a horror element in it, but it is admittedly less memorable because of this. Also, there are some really nice segments in the game that stand out. My favorite is undoubtedly the portion where you get to play as a Little Sister; for the first time, you understand why the girls speak the way they do and how they view the world. As you walk in their shoes (or lack thereof, for that matter), the world changes from a glamorous, lively, Disney-palace like world to the real, steampunk, rusty mess of Rapture.

I specifically like this portion of the game, because of how well it works for Bioshock 2 in particular. If the original game had this bit, it would've been a disaster; it would've removed the intrigue and mystique of the Little Sisters and it would've made their odd appearance and speech patterns a lot less unsettling. However, because of the framework of the second game, it works perfectly here. It also provides a nice real-life parallel for children and adults; the children view the world in a far more hopeful light, even death is something that through their lens isn't as ugly and terrible as the real thing. This is juxtaposed to the player, their protector and father figure, that sees the world in all its terrible ugliness. I like this;the visual metaphor of the hulking Big Daddies and the fragile (albeit immortal) Little Sisters was always great and seeing it expanded upon in this game adds to the charm. If you're going to sell out and have your protagonist be a glorified collector's edition statue, you may as well do cool things like this.

I admit the title of this piece is click-bait. I don't know if Bioshock 2 is the "only good" game in the series, primarily because I don't remember much about the third game (and nothing of what I remember has to do with its gameplay). But I do think that in the end, it's a better game than Bioshock. The original Bioshock doesn't hold up. Not only are its mechanics dated, they were fundamentally broken from the start. It's exactly the type of game that would benefit from being a puzzle game or a walking simulator instead of a shooter. Bioshock 2, on the other hand, holds up for what it is: a fast-paced, entertaining shooter with a lot of cool toys to play with. If you, like me, skipped the game in the past thinking it to be a hollow corporate cash-in, give it a shot; it may surprise you. 

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