Depending on what you call a spoiler, this will probably not contain spoilers. I'm sorry about the length of this writeup, I suppose I just went a bit mad. I'm also sorry that this is not really a proper review, because if you want to know whether or not to buy this game then you probably don't want to wade through this whole thing, and I won't even give it a score out of ten anyway. So for those who just want the short version, here is a summary: Bioshock 2 is extremely good, the gameplay has improved but the story isn't quite as excellent (but still pretty damn great). The gameplay mechanics haven't changed, Rapture is everything it was and more, it's gory but that probably won't bother you if you're a gamer already, and this node will soon become a rambling love-letter to my darling, Bioshock 2. You should definitely play this game if you even remotely enjoy shooters, or if you like games with a sense of immersion and depth.
The Usual Stuff Nobody Really Cares About
Developers: 2K Marin, Digital Extremes (multiplayer), 2K Australia, 2K China, Arkane Studios (level design assistance)
Publisher: 2K Games
Music composed by: Garry Schyman
Engine: Unreal Engine 2.5, Havok Physics
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Microsoft Windows
Release date: February 9, 2010
Genres: First-person shooter, action-adventure, Sci-fi/Retro-futurist/Alternate History
Bioshock 2 is, as you can imagine, the sequel to Bioshock (given a very good writeup by greth), which was the "spiritual successor" to System Shock 2, according to Ken Levine (writer of Bioshock, but not of Bioshock 2). Although it is a sequel, it does not follow on directly from the previous story: it takes place eight years after the events of Bioshock, you play as a new character, with next to no references to the specific events of the first game.
As before, the setting is the great undersea city of Rapture, where the now-dead Andrew Ryan decided to have his utopia, in which there would be no law or religion to strangle mankind's progress and no government to take from the people what they had earned. While he was alive Ryan struggled to save his city from collapse and ruin, but now he is gone and Rapture is a tomb full of crazed mutants and decrepit machinery. Rubble lies everywhere, the walls creak, and the icy Atlantic water leaks in everywhere, giving the feeling that Rapture is perched precariously on the verge of physical collapse, and only a slight push is needed to end it all.
The grander plot of Bioshock, above the ins and outs of the anonymous protagonist's journey through Rapture, was at least partly about taking a swing at Ayn Rand's Objectivism. Rapture was created to be in harmony with its principles, and Andrew Ryan's many recordings that litter the streets of Rapture echo Rand's ideas of "...man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute." Rapture itself is a huge, living monument to the idea of the superman, and it is one that was just a terrible idea in the first place. Bioshock 2, I think, might be moving on from there and instead taking a swing at communism. The main antagonist is now Sofia Lamb, a Psychiatrist who was once a thorn in Andrew Ryan's side and now plays the mother in her "Rapture family". She is a woman who would slit her own daughter's throat for her ideals and the good of the people, all the while calling on the people's ideas of family to endear her establishment to them. She works to create the "ideal utopian", who would serve only the people; an individual literally imbued with the knowledge, memories and personalities Rapture's finest minds, and as such with no individuality. For her, the interests of the many is paramount, regardless of the individual cost; and this is the perfect antithesis to Andrew Ryan's principle of individual rights at the expense of the society. Just like Ryan she uses a cult of personality to her advantage, the only difference being that Ryan told the people to do his bidding for their own sake, and Lamb tells them to do it for the family's sake. While they differ in their methods, their motives are the same: they want Rapture to survive, with them at its head. All that being said, the whole concept of Rapture revolved around Objectivism, and putting a critique of communism in that world seems like a bit of cheating; although I don't think anyone can complain when given an opportunity to explore Rapture again.
In the introduction to the game, we see an opulent masquerade ball taking place ten years before the main events of the game, and there is a sense that Rapture worked for a while. This was what Andrew Ryan had hoped that Rapture could be; but he could not, or would not, see that it could not last. With every citizen and his mum armed to the teeth and shooting fire from their fingertips, there was no way that it could end well. Cutting to the present, the year 1968, we see the remains of Rapture's demise. One gets the feeling that Rapture's precarious physical existence on the sea floor mirrors the instability that was a part of its society since the beginning. So many people confined in such a small world cannot coexist peacefully, and the technological advances that came from bringing the greatest minds in the world together only gave them greater means to rip their world apart. Food for thought.
This game has the best level design (aesthetically) that I have ever seen, mostly because it not only conveys the sense that these spaces were once inhabited by real people and used for a real purpose. Every kitchen, shop, tavern and hallway has a history. It is in the realm of Doom 3 when it comes to that ephemeral thing called atmosphere, but here it is done perfectly without jack-in-the-box monsters and evil cackling. I only recently came to properly understand that this is not the result of a single person's genius, but rather a committed effort by hundreds of people over several years of development. When looking through the art book that came with my limited edition of Bioshock 2, it was clear just how much effort goes into the design of every tiny facet of the Bioshock world that gives it that atmosphere. I really can't tell you how detailed this world is: the vast array of art-deco advertisements that plaster the walls, the creaky floorboards and peeling wallpaper, the graffiti, the neon signs, the leaking pipes, the Polaroid photographs, the grime and the filth. Everything was designed by someone, no matter how small. Half-Life 2's art book, Raising the Bar, had a whole page devoted to choosing the shape of Dr. Breen's glasses. And most of those things will go unnoticed, despite how necessary they are if a game's world is to seem real.
Both Bioshock 2 and its predecessor were games that attempted, with a good deal of success, to combine Role-Playing Game (RPG) and First-Person Shooter (FPS) elements in a logical way. The player starts out being fairly weak and works through a system of challenges and rewards to gain upgrades that make him (or her, but most likely him) incrementally more powerful, and also shoots things from a first-person perspective. As far as the RPG elements are concerned, not much has changed since Bioshock: the player collects gene tonics, which may give the player some special combat abilities, and plasmids, which will give the player some special combat abilities. One might think that this isn't much of an addition to the standard FPS formula, but it forces the player to make some tough decisions, since only a limited number of tonics and plasmids can be used at any time. Another RPG element that is present is the need to search the environment for loot - money, ammunition, first aid kits, food - which in most FPSs are thrown at the player in great enough volumes he (or she!) can focus on shooting stuff. While I think that, in the end, the use of these RPG elements is a good thing, searching through what seems like a thousand cash registers and cupboards in an abandoned arcade can become very tedious indeed. When people worry about video games turning children into spree killers, I wonder why they don't worry about RPGs turning them into kleptomaniacs. I suppose because that would require that they actually play the game, because picking up a chocolate bar doesn't look as dramatic in a screenshot as an exploded head. And that segues nicely into the next section...
The Murder Simulation
One thing that has been improved greatly since Bioshock is the combat. When making a game in which the action is basically about nothing more than killing people with guns, this needs to be a satisfying experience. While Bioshock was a shooter, the shooting itself was a chore and almost felt like an interruption of the game. I don't really know why this was, but in the end I didn't find the action elements of Bioshock interesting or enjoyable at all, I preferred just walking around and exploring the city; which was fantastic, but probably not the designers' intention. Also, most of the guns were quite unsatisfying to use, because both their effects and their animations did not convey a sense of power. Bioshock 2 remedies all this and makes the player feel powerful, while still keeping the fights exciting (and, at times, very challenging). The guns have a heavy feel to them, the enemies are smart, and the levels have well-designed areas for fighting (not a lot of long, narrow, shooting-gallery hallways). Planning for a fight is one of my favourite things to do; setting proximity mines and crossbow trap bolts in the doorways and watching the splicers set them off with a snap makes me smile inside. Fighting one of the new enemies, the Big Sisters, is one of the most frantic and exhilarating things I've ever experienced in a video game.
On top of all this, Bioshock 2 is among the most violent games I've played. It's hard to explain, but although one kills far fewer enemies here than in, for example, Prototype, the violence is far more affecting. Prototype allows the player to fly around Manhattan, killing and consuming, in various vicious ways, an essentially limitless number of its unassuming inhabitants until the streets are awash with their spaghetti bolognese innards. This is the kind of gratuitous violence that concerned parents would like to see banned, but it is a thoughtless act and to me it is like stepping on ants, because the people are faceless nobodies and as such their deaths mean nothing. In the Bioshock world, on the other hand, the enemies have personality, they speak to each other when unaware of you, and some are really quite tragic characters, so their deaths can be important. Movie reviewer Bob "MovieBob" Chipman1 (I actually hate this man's reviews), made an excellent point when he said, in a review of Zombieland, that the appeal of zombies in films is basically that they are inhuman enough that one doesn't feel bad for mowing down a thousand of them, but they are also human enough that mowing them down satisfies people's inner misanthropy. That is to say, it's violence against people that matters. This game makes great use of that effect by giving all its enemies enough personality that their deaths can be an event, not just another blip on the radar. Having main characters that are more than plot devices is important too, and this way Bioshock 2 makes the player feel conflicted when choosing whether or not to let an antagonist live, even when that antagonist is a giant pulsating mass of flesh in a glass tube. A little violence can go a long way in this game. Being able to eviscerate a person with a gigantic motorised drill helps too.
At least one reviewer has criticised Bioshock 2 by saying that it is "not as fresh this time around2." While I resent the fact that they probably would not use such a criticism on a game like Final Fantasy Thirteen, I must agree with them. Descending into Rapture for the first time was a completely original experience, and familiarity has dampened the sense of awe somewhat. The antagonists of Bioshock were more interesting, and Bioshock 2 doesn't quite deliver a moment as amazing or perfectly climactic as the confrontation with Andrew Ryan. Regardless, there are a lot of new places, characters and stories in Rapture to discover, and being a sequel allows it to move ahead without holding the player's hand quite as much. Bioshock was criticised for trying to be a shooter and an RPG at the same time, and not doing either of them particularly well, but I think Bioshock 2 has gone some way towards fixing that. I was a little disappointed with the underwater sections of the game, which sounded like a great opportunity to explore the sea floor, but they turned out to be completely linear walks along a corridor of sand that is walled off by pipes and coral, however with some rather spectacular views.
All in all, I think that Bioshock 2 is a bit of a mixed bag when compared with Bioshock. On one hand, the gameplay has been improved and the combat is much more enjoyable, the voice acting is still top-notch, the level design is even better, and those goddamn vending machines don't shout at you any more. On the other hand, the story seems somewhat less ambitious than before, and none of the characters are quite as intriguing as Sander Cohen and Dr. Steinmann were. If you ask me, though, it is still leagues ahead of most games, and joins Bioshock and few others in proving that video games can be art.
1 - He does video reviews for the webzine The Escapist, found here
2 - From a review in issue 52 of the magazine Australia & New Zealand Xbox 360, accidentally left in my bag by my brother.