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Sea Change: Eyes-On With BioShock 2

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.

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