Tuesday, March 19, 2013

BioShock 2 - Sea of Dreams

2007 saw the release of BioShock, a First-Person Shooter that seemed to revolutionize the genre in terms of both gameplay and storytelling. It was able to build a unique world and explore deconstructions of concepts including free will in a video game (which some observant gamers may recognize as one deconstruction present in the earlier Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty). Those who reached the end of BioShock were able to see a teaser for a sequel, which seemed to have been named BioShock 2: Sea of Dreams. During development of this expected sequel, the subtitle was dropped and multiple developers had a hand in eventually releasing it in 2010. The game received positive scores, and even eventually made it into a book called 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die, though both fan and critical reception ended up being a little mixed. Regardless, I played BioShock 2 upon release and even posted a review of it on my DeviantArt account, which will now represent my opinion at the time. Since I'm building up to BioShock Infinite, I ended up playing it once more and have found myself enjoying it, but with a view more mixed than three years prior.

The early Sea of Dreams teaser image, for curious readers.

The game begins in 1958, where a Big Daddy named Subject Delta is pursuing his daughter, Eleanor. He sees a group of Splicers around her and kills them all to protect her. However, another man uses a Plasmid to hypnotize him, which is when Sofia Lamb appears on the scene. While Delta is under hypnosis, she orders him to take a handgun and shoot himself in the head; he does so. Ten years later however, in 1968 (8 years after the events of BioShock), Delta wakes up face-down in a pool of water. He is contacted by his daughter and sets out to rescue her from the clutches of Sofia Lamb while exploring what remains of Rapture and learning about the underlying conspiracy that has influenced both his own life and the city's eventual downfall.

From a story perspective, BioShock 2 manages to execute it rather well. The silent Subject Delta isn't always interesting or completely fleshed out, but his connection with his daughter offers a new perspective and eventually the player may feel like protecting her as well. Learning how much of a hand Sofia Lamb had in the events actually becomes rather intriguing, but in the end we don't get to see very much of her. She doesn't even become an end boss of sorts, instead having a mostly off-screen presence and only really makes any physical connection with Delta and Eleanor in the last hour or so of the game. There are other characters that are introduced that have some influence over Rapture in the present as well as Delta in the past, but these characters end up not being quite as interesting and in the end serve to set up a morality choice for the player to make. Fortunately these choices do in the end determine how certain things will play out, mainly the ending, but that doesn't really make up for their near lack of completeness. Basically, the part I was genuinely drawn into about this tale was the father-daughter connection, which I ended up getting caught in the most.

Subject Delta with a Little Sister. Yes, you get to do this.

On the side of gameplay though, this is where the game shows some significant improvements from its predecessor. Plasmids are now improved, with upgrades that do more than just provide a stat boost. Now, for example, Electro Bolt can be upgraded to perform chain lightning attacks, Inferno can eventually form a continuous stream of fire or even be charged and released as a bomb and Winter Blast can freeze enemies in a solid block of ice that can be shattered for splash freezing and still award items. One of my favorites ended up being Insect Swarm, which can be upgraded to summon larger swarms of bees that can linger on the battlefield within corpses so future enemies will be stunned and stung by the hive. Gene Tonics are also no longer assigned specifically to certain categorical tracks, but instead in one large block of three rows to provide more opportunity to mix and match desired abilities. These improvements made using Plasmids more fun and improved experimentation with passive abilities without having to worry about accidentally buying a Tonic or slot for the wrong track.

Weapons are also improved in some aspects, though the same basic weapon types return. Instead of a crossbow however, you get a spear gun with ammo that is almost always retrievable and the machine gun looks more like a gatling gun among other things. Upgrades can make these weapons more super powerful and fun to use, but for most of the game I actually ended up using the Drill, this game's version of the wrench, since the right combination of Tonics and Plasmids could make it more useful in the long run than any weapon available. On the flip side, it was a pain to have to constantly find fuel for the Drill, since it eats it up rather quickly and takes some of the fun out of using the drilling aspect of it unless I needed to quickly kill a powerful enemy like a Big Daddy or Brute Splicer. Melee was best with it though, so I ended up killing Splicers rather quickly with it.

Full Dual-Wielding against a Brute Splicer.

Research on Splicers in this game is also done a little differently. Instead of a camera that takes still shots requiring rolls of film, players instead film enemies and earn research points based on what went on during the encounter. No longer needing to buy film was a great upside and the bonuses for getting certain levels of research points felt worth the effort to use the camera. However, you'll need to mix up what you do from time to time to get research points quicker, but even with a Drill-focused run it's still very possible to get something different to happen.

Enemy variety is also changed up a bit, with the form of the new Brute Splicer, which focuses on physical strength, Rumbler Big Daddies, which focus more on using explosives and mini turrets, and the Big Sister, which acts as a sort of mini-boss whenever you rescue or harvest enough Little Sisters. I had no qualms about the Brute Splicers and Rumblers, but I've always had a problem with how the Big Sister was handled in the final product. In the promotional material, I expected the Big Sister to be a sort of overarching antagonist that would serve as a final boss, which the first encounter even supported. However, when I faced her more than once and there turned out to be multiples of her, I thought the potential was wasted a little. Since playing the game, I've felt, and still feel, that she should have been used as a single recurring boss that would always be just a little more powerful as the player improves and then serve as a boss at the end that would test how much the player has learned over the course of the game. Basically, I expected more of an adversary that would try to impede my progress and instead got just another enemy type.

Fighting a Big Sister is not as cool as it looks, trust me.

One other thing the game does right however is improved graphics and good voice acting. Rapture has certainly aged over ten years and the developers did a good job of translating a post-BioShock environment into a video game with new areas to explore and interesting underwater segments that finally allow opportunity to explore a little of the outside. I also thought that the voice actors were able to match their characters pretty well and give some pretty solid performances.

However, there are a couple of things that I just couldn't really get over across a few aspects as I played. While there are new places to go in Rapture, eventually it all starts to feel the same. There are only so many ways you can make the same city look new again, but after a while there's little joy in trying to explore everything as it gets closer to the end due to the overall sameness of everything. Within the city itself, it is also much easier to come across money, ADAM, EVE Hypos, First Aid Kits and ammunition, making the overall atmosphere a little less tense in the long run due to the more forgiving environment and ease of acquiring godly powers (but who am I to talk, I mostly used the Drill, so my ammo was almost always full).

Then there's the main selling point of the game, which is the ability to play as not only a Big Daddy, but the first Big Daddy. This is a very good concept and the reason to pick up a copy, but it takes too long to truly feel like one. Thanks to how the game is set up, and the initial lack of superpowers, it's only in the final hours of the game that I felt like I could kill anything just by existing. So while the concept is pulled off, it takes a little too long for it to fully come to fruition. The opening action also felt a little more abrupt than the previous game, but I was able to get into the swing of thing within a few minutes of play. Finally, there's also the fact that the game is a lot more linear in overall design, since you travel by train most of the time and can't go back to previous areas. While I didn't have too much of a problem with this, fans of full city exploration may have a few qualms, especially with the need now to try and do every possible thing in each area before trying to continue on. Also, there's no way to care about the character of Mark Meltzer unless you followed the Something in the Sea ARG before the release of the game (Spoiler: I didn't).

Mark Meltzer, for future reference.

A final addition made to this game is the presence of an Online Mulitplayer component, which I felt that with the setup of Bioshock's world, and it being an FPS, could actually work. While I'm not a Multiplayer kind of guy normally, I was convinced three years ago into trying it and found myself a little underwhelmed. While the gameplay modes were alright and you were able to customize a Splicer with Plasmids and stuff, I just didn't feel motivated to keep playing since I wasn't on the same level as other players who had obviously memorized the maps and already formed complex strategies with each other that I didn't have the time to invest in trying to do. Also certain combinations were broken, so there's that.

In the end, BioShock 2 is a rather mixed bag for a sequel. While the gameplay is greatly improved over the original, the story is a little lacking and certain things end up being a little disappointing. Environments don't do enough for me to feel varied and even some fun underwater sections couldn't make up for it all that much. However, the game does do a good job of building a father-daughter bond and the gimmick of being a Big Daddy is worth the experience alone. Fans of BioShock should give this a go and it is actually pretty safe for newcomers to jump in as well, since the only connections that are made to the previous game are ones that don't need to be understood for full enjoyment.

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