There are some games that simply don’t need a follow-up. Those titles that, whilst not perfect, have given you an experience that would only be tainted should a publisher turn around a hurried and substandard sequel. Team Ico’s output is a great example of just leaving things be, but another would have been Bioshock. What more needed to be said about Rapture?
The original surprised and delighted me a great deal. I was so taken by the wonderful art-deco metropolis hidden beneath the waves that I thought returning would only dampen its impact and tarnish its memory. Swapping the developer and incorporating a multiplayer element compounded worries; but people need not always fear change.
Set almost a decade after the events of Bioshock, the underwater city of Rapture has fallen under control of eminent psychologist Dr Sofia Lamb; though with that shift in power away from capitalist Andrew Ryan, things are no better for its denizens and their lives still lie in ruin.
Genetic mutants known as splicers continue to roam freely, hoping to for their next fix of ADAM. Those familiar with the series will know of the Little Sisters, warped young girls who seek out angels, aka dead bodies, and harvest their genetic material, the ADAM the splicers crave. These young children would not last more than a few moments in such a harsh environment if it weren’t for the bodyguards which accompany them. Trussed up in ancient, heavy-duty diving suits, these Big Daddies will protect their Little Sisters at any cost. Naming conventions aside, what you’re looking at is a good old fashioned drug war several hundred metres below sea level.
Into this depressing arena you arrive, the original Big Daddy. Supposedly killed ten years prior, your reappearance is a shock to many, not least of whom is Dr Lamb; who willed you to put a gun to your head whilst your bonded Little Sister Eleanor watched on. Time has not dented this connection and you set out into Rapture to rescue her.
The first thing that is obvious is that Bioshock still looks stunning. 2K Marin have not slipped from the high standard set by Irrational Games, and Rapture is replete with all the ramshackle 1950s styling that you’d expect. The one thing that isn’t there however is the punch that the initial instalment made in its opening scenes, though this isn’t surprising as you can never recapture the awe of seeing Rapture for the first time.
But any slight sense of disappointment is put to one side early on as you are swiftly introduced to your new nemesis: the Big Sister. Just like you she is a supped up guardian of the Little Sisters, but this nimble minx is a world away from your lumbering bulk. Able to vault and spin her way swiftly through the environment, she is a deadly foe.
To aid you in your fight against her, combat mechanics have been revised slightly with the ability to wield both a gun and a plasmid – Bioshock’s ADAM induced superpowers – at the same time. Early on combat can be a struggle, almost chore-like, as you have but one gun and the game does not control as well as the likes of Modern Warfare or Halo; as a straight twitch-shooter it doesn’t stand up. However, as you begin to earn ADAM, more of an arsenal becomes available and things change dramatically. The feeling that Bioshock 2 is a run-of-the-mill shooter dressed up in some mid-twentieth century hand-me-downs fades, and in its place you discover a whole box of toys to play with.
Although this list may seem slightly macabre, instead of entering a room firing blindly from the hip, why not get creative? Set a few flaming hurricane traps for splicers to wander into, or a few electric trip wires just out of view. Get their attention by sending in a swarm of angry bees, and when they come running hypnotise one to fight on your side and freeze the rest before shattering them with your Big Daddy trademark drill – all whilst the hacked security drones mop up the stragglers. Beats a boring SMG any day of the week.
Plasmids are what sets the Bioshock franchise apart from other first-person shooters. And whilst electric bolts, fire balls and icy winds are the staple of any set, there is enough variety to encourage hackers, stealthy assassins, elementals and gun toters to each have their own experience. What you’ll be frying or freezing will be familiar, with thug, leadhead, spider and Houdini splicers all returning and joined by a thug that is not too dissimilar from the Tank in Left 4 Dead; he’s tough and doesn’t mind lobbing the odd block of bedrock in your general direction.
Almost inevitably, taking on the role of a Big Daddy sees you tasked with protecting Little Sisters. There is the small matter of relieving their current Big Daddy of his duties – and of his obligation to remain linked to the mortal coil – but once adopted they can be put to work harvesting ADAM. Each harvesting, however, is a battle of survival as waves of enemies are lured by the possibility of another fix. It is here that all plasmids and special weaponry must be utilised to their fullest to fend them the assailants.
These set-pieces were the highlight of the adventure; they summed up exactly what life in Rapture seemed to be like from all that we have come to know about the Big Daddies. Their thankless task of protecting this warped child while they harvest organs is a panic-inducing experience. There was always the calm before the storm where the area could be prepped with mini-turrets and traps, but as soon as the harvesting began, splicers could appear from almost anywhere, causing an intense and ammo-sapping few minutes until Little Sister had finished and you could retreat and recuperate.
Furthermore, rescue all the Sisters in the level and Big Sister will reappear to reprimand you for freeing her siblings. After a pitched battle the last thing you want to see is an athletic monster come springing towards you, but again it helps capture an experience that has reinvented itself for the sequel.
For those who yawn at the thought of a multitude of protection missions there is always the option of simply harvesting the child herself, which will save you an awful lot of time and effort. Though those who do so may find their trip to Rapture curtailed somewhat. That is not to say the game is padded out with these events, but some may wish to argue as such if they find they race through this dilapidated Atlantis at pace.
Of course others remember their first venture into Rapture’s decaying heart for more than the rough and tumble. The dystopian story took in capitalism, morality and a double cross which still stands as one of the best tales of this current generation. Again, throughout your journey you’ll meet many strange folk, each with their own back stories and reasons for helping or hindering as you make your way to the Doctor and Eleanor. There is a seemingly communist undertone to the Doctor, which is an interesting counterpoint to Ryan’s stance on how society should be run.
The environments themselves take in a cross-section of Rapture life. From research labs to housing blocks, theatres to ballrooms, you wander through a drowned society with a level design that may not be the most sprawling but fits itself around buildings that are assembled as though they had proper form and function. That same aspect does mean there is a small amount of backtracking but it is not to the detriment of the game and is nowhere near the scale of Bioshock 1. Instead it reinforces the believability of your surroundings and the design makes clever use of the space.
As already admitted, the initial impact of the sequel was muted in comparison but the way the tale unfolded as a whole I found much more compelling, helped in no small part by the moral choices made and the characters encountered enroute. The closing chapters also take in a pleasant and surprising snapshot of Rapture that helps lift the veil a little on the lore, before reaching a finale which is thankfully no longer a clichéd boss battle.
Initially I ventured into Rapture for a second time thinking that as long as Bioshock 2 didn’t sully the name of the original then I would consider it as acceptable. What I found leaving Rapture for the second time was that 2K have exceeded my expectations. By making subtle tweaks and improvements to the formula and opting for a story that nods in recognition at those that have gone before, rather than following on or escalating events, they have released a game that can stand on its own merits and not just ride on the coattails of its predecessor. The wow factor may not be as strong but those who were concerned about a followup that they didn’t need, should stow their scepticism and descend beneath the waves once more.