Sea Change: Eyes-On With BioShock 2

By Alec Meer on April 23rd, 2009 at 12:07 pm.

The problem with the leaked Game Informer cover a few weeks back, and the reason a whole bunch of folk, myself included, reacted to it with knee-jerk negativity, was that it appeared to tell a complete story. You’re back in Rapture, and the Big Daddies are now ladies. Oh God, must it really be so obvious?

As it turns out, that’s only a fraction of the story. It’s barely even the story at all, in fact – in the name of attention-grabbing marketing, that single, strangely self-contained image discarded all the more interesting questions around Bioshock 2. Even now, having yesterday seen the game in action and discovering nothing’s anywhere near as simple as it had seemed, I’ve a very clear sense there are a great many more questions yet to be posed – let alone that I’ll discover their answers any time soon. Which, really, is why Bioshock 2 is so exciting to the breed of gamer who we like to think reads this site.

We already have the measure of it as an action game, after all. We know roughly how its combat works based on our experiences in Bioshock 1- the revelation that we can now dual-wield weapons and plasmids, that we can mash people up with a Big Daddy drill and that there will be more Splicers attacking at once, is something we can mind-map out fairly easily. It’s clearly aiming to be a more brutal, frenetic breed of first-person-shooter than the first was – all well and good, but what we really want to know is the whys behind it all.

While the footage I saw looked unmistakably like Bioshock – familiar Rapture architecture, Splicers and an aura of rusty menace – the really compelling questions were hidden in the details. Don’t look at the excessive fountain of blood that covers the screen when you push your drill-arm into a Splicer’s face. Don’t even look at the otherwordly plants and looming towers that cover the ocean floor when Rapture’s glass walls shatter and the protagonist finds himself wading slowly but purposely through the sea.

Look, instead, at the strange new, elephantine growths on the Splicers’ faces.

Look at how the Little Sisters appear ten times cuter than their sinister Bioshock 1 incarnations.

Look at the curious medical braces on the Big Sister’s legs, the way that, despite her breathtaking movement speed, she stands like a wobbly-kneed newborn foal. For all her power, that’s something tragic and sad about her.

Look at how the Big Daddy you play as has much more human hands than the stubby, armoured fingers of those in the first Bioshock, how he can swap out his drill-arm for all manner of curious weaponry.

Look at how Doctor Tenenbaum, a returning character from the first game, doesn’t awaken and greet you from your unspecified slumber in person, instead speaking to you via faceless radio from some unknown location.

Questions. Mysteries. Tiny details upsetting what, from that leaked cover, had seemed so complete, so obvious a picture. What’s wrong with the Big Sister? We know she’s a grown-up Little Sister, returned to Rapture for reasons unknown, but we don’t really know what’s under that suit and mask. And what’s wrong with you, a prototype Big Daddy now locked in a power struggle with Big Sis for reasons unknown?

Being a prototype, the experimental first of the line, you’re demonstrably more powerful than any other Daddy – some of which you will get to clash with, incidentally – so how come they weren’t all made in your image? Is it simply that you’ve got some dangerous measure of free will, or is there some more terrible reason your template wasn’t mass-produced? And, if your training to protect Little Sisters means you see them as far more adorable than they really are, what else might you be misinterpreting? In turn, perhaps the most important question – who in Rapture is good, and who is bad? We now know the basic constructs of the game’s plot, but we flat-out don’t know why it’s happening.

There will, apparently, be some underpinning philosophical conceit/debate to Bioshock 2 – not a repeat of the Randian objectivism question from the first game, but something else, something that will clarify what’s going on in a further dilapidated Rapture, 10 years on from the ending of the first game. To reveal that concept now, I’m told, would give too much away – but what we can extrapolate from that is that this won’t simply be a game about bashing zombies under the sea. Someone has a purpose for Rapture, something they want to achieve with its resources, its remaining populace – or perhaps even you. Is it the Big Sister? Is it Tenenbaum, always a character with muddy motivation? Or is it someone else entirely?

The question of your character’s free will, raised in Bioshock but abandoned part way through as part of that infamously unsatisfying third act of the narrative, is raised again. We’re told the prototype Daddy has free will, but he seems to be following Tenenbaum’s instructions. Again, too, the fact he sees the Sisters as something other than they really are suggests his mind is scarcely his own after all.

Regardless of their appearance, the sisters introduce a whole new mechanic to Bioshock. The choice to Harvest them for instant Adam/Plasmid upgrades remains, but the alternative is no longer to free them to achieve nebulous, off-screen moral point-scoring – instead, it’s to adopt them. They become your partner, finding Adam for you – and, it’s hinted, other rewards – but if you ask them to retrieve it you’re placing them in danger.

Adam attracts Splicers in vast numbers, so as the girl slowly harvests the strange substance from special corpses that contain it, waves of enemies will attack, in greater and more aggressive numbers than the first game. It’s your job to fend them off, as the broken-brained zombie men will kill her without hesitation. If you’re low on ammo or Eve, perhaps it’s best to carry on, to ignore that tempting, glowing corpse, rather than place both your and your tiny charge’s life in danger.

Especially as doing so too much attracts the murderous attention of the Big Sister. Your hyper-fast, hyper-skinny nemesis is not one you’ll solely clash with in a contrived end-game boss fight – you’ll battle her again and again in these scripted-but-optional Adam-harvesting scenes. It’s unclear how you defeat her and what happens when you do, but she will be a constant, visceral threat, not simply a looming, ethereal menace as were Ryan and Fontaine in the first game.

I’m told, too, that developers 2K Marin, headed by Jordan Thomas, the brainiac level designer behind the Sander Cohen sequence of Bioshock 1 and the legendary Cradle map in Thief 3, are well aware of how and why the first game failed at times. This doesn’t, of course, guarantee we’re not in for another terrible ending, but to know that this game isn’t being made under an arrogant presumption that the first one was flawless is enough for even its greatest detractors to show some interest in this sequel. It looks like Bioshock, it feels like Bioshock, but it’s somehow different – and, most importantly, it genuinely restores mystery to something that seemed so resolved.

Questions, so many questions. And each new one makes Bioshock 2 more enticing – somehow, the more we see of it, the less we know about it. That cover, that first leaked image, answers precisely nothing after all.

__________________

« | »

, , , .

68 Comments »

  1. Stupoider says:

    I thought Bioshock was great. In fact, I considered it to be one of the best games of 2007.

    But one thing I don’t like about it is a sequel. :< I’d rather Bioshock had just finished, there and then. Now that a sequel is in the works.. well, I hope it doesn’t disappoint. Wouldnt’ want it to shatter my love of Bioshock.

  2. Jon says:

    Absolute cynicism and and absolute credulity are equivocally useless :P

  3. Frosty says:

    Bioshock was a great game, i really enjoyed it, but it still doesn’t hold a candle to System Shock 2. I recently managed to find a copy and played through it for the first time. You can see where Bioshock grabbed so many of its gameplay elements. System Shock just does them better.

  4. jalf says:

    Jeez, that’s just mean. Posting two BS2 stories at the same time was confusing enough, and then Alec goes and posts the same comment in both as well. I thought you’d gone on a major deleting spree in the comments here, until I realized that this is the *other* BS2 post. :D

  5. Velvet Fist, Iron Glove says:

    “Speaking to you via faceless radio from some unknown location.”

    When will game writers learn to avoid this cheapest of storytelling crutches? It’s painful to me to see it in game after game after game.

  6. Jeremy says:

    Well, I wouldn’t really call it cheap in this game, considering about 95% of all the storytelling was through radios and tapes. It was the form of storytelling for the game, it would seem out of place to not have it.

    I’m really hoping the explore more of the humanity side of things in this game, rather than free will. Asking the question of what makes something human, and can a Big Daddy actually be something human, even though as far as well all know, it is a monster to fear. It could actually bring some interesting thoughts into the storyline. If there was anything missing from the first game for me, it was that aspect of humanity throughout the game. It told a story about humanity destroying itself, and at the end it tried to contextualize all the decisions you had made in the game into something human, but that human aspect wasn’t really present through the majority of it. Just my thoughts.

  7. Vanderdecken says:

    “underpinning philosophical conceit/debate to Bioshock 2 – not a repeat of the Rayndian objectivism question from the first game”

    I’m confused… Ayn Rand or Rayn And? :P

    I really liked this article, some wonderful conjecturing in it, and several moments during reading my brain went: “OHSHI– I hadn’t thought of that! That means– the implications!”. Which is exactly why I read RPS, and why I love games journalism as a whole. It’s also one of the reasons I loved BioShock, as the storyline gave me several of those moments.

  8. CrashT says:

    So who wants to take bets on the player character turning out to be the father of the Big Sister?

  9. Funky Badger says:

    The demo of Bioshock is still one of the highpoints of the *accursed console*’s life-cycles. BS was great. The twist was neat, but poorly implemented and the end didn’t match the beginning. But it was still great.

    High hopes for the second.

    Also, crossbowing Sander Cohen in the face as he descends the stairs means you never get access to his hidden room. *sadface*

  10. ilves says:

    The first game was ok. I wasn’t too happy with the lame hacking mini-game (especially how time just freezes during it), the repetitive combat (all the enemies behaved exactly the same way), and the fact that you could basically have all and every plasmid and gun in the game with no penalties, I would have preferred some restrictions or requirements of choice. But as a shooter goes it wasn’t bad, but it could’ve been much better (i’m not even going to go into the stupidness of vita-chambers or the final boss). I also think the game should’ve basically ended at Andrew Ryan, with some minor wrapping up.

    As for #2, this sounds more promising, but really won’t have an idea until you play it.

  11. EBass says:

    I haven’t heard anything that makes me think this will be anything particularly special.

    If something mentions new duel-wielding as one of its selling points I instantly know somethings up. If its worth doing why not have it in the first game? If its not, why put it in the second? Always just smacks of wanting a “cool” new feature for the morons out there.

  12. daysocks says:

    All I want to know is how the hell splicers have survived 10 years.

  13. Jeremy says:

    Ebass, the problem is, you’ve just put them in a lose / lose situation. Anything they now add you’re summing up to either:
    1) It should’ve been in the first game or
    2) If it wasn’t it doesn’t matter that it’s in the second game

    Except, everyone would complain if there was nothing new added to gameplay, so what do they do? I’m also fairly certain that the splicers have survived in much the same way as all humans do, through diet and routine. 10 years isn’t exactly a mind boggling amount of time to survive.

  14. daysocks says:

    The point is that they’re absolutely nutters and they can’t look after themselves. I can’t imagine them having a little farm 50,000 leagues under the sea and growing crops when they’re quite happily running around murdering stuff.

  15. Chris R says:

    Everyone annoyed with the ending of Bioshock 1 should read this post by Pentadact and his take on how Bioshock should have ended. Great stuff in here, and I just imagine that this was the actual ending for the game.

    http://www.pentadact.com/index.php/2009-04-15-ending-bioshock

  16. DigitalSignalX says:

    It’s time to reinstall bioshock and actually finish it methinks.

  17. JP says:

    I want to point out that citing the Looking Glass lexicon “problems vs puzzles” concept is NOT to be construed as comparing Bio2 to Shock2. We use fancy words all the time, but that doesn’t mean we’re making the same (amazing, inspirational) games as the good folks who coined the fancy words 10-15 years back.

    To give a bit more context to that quote from me, it was in response to a Tom question about whether Bio2 would feature puzzley sequences like the “challenge rooms” found in the Bio1 PS3 DLC. Apparently I couldn’t resist using my best GDC language instead of just saying, “no.”

  18. David Mac says:

    This preview effectively makes me want to play Bioshock 2. I felt the first ended well enough and tied up all the loose ends, but this idea of two new creatures, both human and not human at the same time, competing for dominance in an underwater dystopia – filled with junkies and creepy little girls – should be enough to excite anyone about the story. Sure, the politics in the first one were okay, but if you want a political story, you should read some Ayn Rand or something. I think this game is going to surpass the first (okay I HOPE this will surpass the first) in every way.

Comment on this story

XHTML: Allowed code: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>