It’s very hard to write this review. I adored the original Bioshock for its ability to deconstruct some of the major issues with videogames, the mindless subservience to the designer’s whims. It was so surprising and powerful that what short comings the game had, and there was a fair few, were immediately overlooked. With its parent casting such a tall shadow, can Bioshock 2 possibly pull another surprise out of the bag?
In truth, no, it can’t.
Some time has passed since Jack’s murderous rampage across Rapture, although not that you’d really notice that from looking. Rapture is instantly recognisable as the same cesspool of human detritus that it was before, from the deformed inhabitants to the rusted and dilapidated city itself. Following the first game, a power vacuum has installed Sophia Lamb, a sort of Anti-Ryan, as the dominant figurehead in what remains of this underwater utopia, and she doesn’t much care for you.
As the pre-release gubbins has no doubt made you aware, Bioshock 2 places you in the armoured boots of one of the very first Big Daddies, Subject Delta. In a fitting introduction to the character, the game begins with your zealously protecting your adorable charge, a Little Sister, by brutally slaughtering a few splicers. It’s that power you remember from the first game, the terrifying Big Daddy with the power to bat you across the room with a flick of the wrist and the speed to catch you before you hit the ground. You’re a badass with a drill for an arm, and this is just the opening cutscene. Then Dr Lamb rocks on up with the Big Daddy controlling Plasmid from Bioshock 1 and makes you shoot yourself in the face.
My first thought when this happened was along the lines of ‘Why couldn’t we do that in the first game?’, closely followed by a moment of confusion as the game begins proper with you waking up. I knew Big Daddies were tough, but man! It is at this point where the game gives you control and the charming veneer begins to slip.
For a game that places great emphasis on you playing a Big Daddy, it never really manages to pull off the feeling that you are one of these behemoths. Even towards the end, weapons done up to the nines with shiny baubles that make you sneeze lightning, you’re still too fragile. The real Big Daddies have the same amount of health as a mountain, requiring you to slowly chip away at them while trying to maintain your distance. There are times you can stumble across them crushing a group of splicers easily. You, however, can be felled by a handful of lucky shots.
In the first game this was forgiveable. Jack was an outsider, unspliced and fresh faced, and was therefore allowed to be squishy and weak. Delta is a genetically modified giant welded into a metal suit, and yet this has no impact on the game at all. When you jump you may hear the clang of metal on ground as you land, but for all intents and purposes you may as well be wearing a flannel shirt for all the good it does you as armour.
This is not for want of trying, of course. The weapons you wield are suitably Big Daddyish, from the drill arm and the rivet gun to the mini-gun and the hilarious speargun. But there is a disconnection between them and you that doesn’t sit right. The rivet gun is the main offender in this regard, the in-game model being gargantuan when sat on the floor and disturbingly tiny when held in hand. The drill doesn’t fare much better. Once upgraded it does become astoundingly hilarious, grinding a hole through various foes as they writhe in agony, but all the while an irritating fuel gauge saps some of the joy out of it.
There are only so many issues that can be explained away by the polyfiller that is the word ‘prototype’. Yes, Delta is a prototype Big Daddy, but putting constraints on a player character that similar NPCs don’t have is just annoying. The other Big Daddies could survive a direct hit from a nuclear bomb, leave their drill running for days and defeat an army, so why can’t you?
That’s not to say the game hasn’t made some improvements. As a game, the mechanics are now quite a bit tighter, especially when it comes to hacking. The previous game presented you with a water rerouteing minigame, the splicers around you politely waiting for you to finish tinkering with your turret before they returned to braining you. Bioshock 2 has done away with this, replacing it with a much shorter minigame that doesn’t pause the action. This means that combat hacking is much more dangerous to do, leading you to having to decide whether taking that turret is really worth it.
Or it would, if it weren’t for the invention of hacking darts that allow you to tap into a system from a distance, even ignoring the minigame altogether if you use the rarer variety.
This is how Bioshock 2 seems to work, for every innovation it makes (like a free item from a vending machine for a particularly difficult hack) it detracts from it with something daft (such as the painfully linear nature of the game). This is made all the more painful because so many of the problems are things that the original game dealt with quite well and have merely been reintroduced in the sequel.
But nothing in the game is more frustrating than the Big Sisters.
The ADAM gathering missions with the Little Sisters tend to be rather fun, give or take the odd bit of computer cheating by spawning splicers in dead end corridors, and when it comes to shoving the little tyke into a vent or sucking our her brain slug you can’t help but feel you’ve bonded with her. Every time you harvest or heal one, however, there is a chance that you will earn the ire of a Big Sister.
A deathly shriek will sound, the screen will blur, and ‘Warning, a Big Sister is approaching!’ will flash on the screen. You have scarce seconds to prepare your defences, ready your weapons, and then in she strolls, lithe and athletic in her raggedy uniform. In she strolls to kick your arse.
The Big Sister, as well as being a bullet sponge and demonic gymnast, has some serious Plasmid action going on. They are everything the Big Daddy isn’t: quick, athletic, psychic and unashamedly hostile. This is not a problem in and of itself, everything else in Rapture is out to kill you after all, but the sheer frustration caused by one battle with a Big Sister is unbearable. As they leap, stab and burn their way around the room, you’ll notice that even a top level plasmid and firearm will do little against them, and it all seems so arbitrary.
If you recall, the original idea all those years ago was that Bioshock 2 would focus on a number of disappearances from the mainland, all orchestrated by one spooky Big Sister. This same Big Sister would stalk you throughout the game, an ever-present enemy that could strike at any time. In the final game, the Big Sister’s are random encounter bosses rather than characters, dropping by to annoy you and ultimately die after a painful battle of attrition. The feeling of trepidation just isn’t there, replaced with the knowledge that the Big Sister’s shrill howl signals five or ten minutes of abject vexation.
And this is all so ultimately painful because Bioshock 2 could have been as great as its predecessor.
I like the characters for the most part. Lamb is a poor replacement for Ryan, but he is a tough character to beat. Your new radio operator is entertaining too, and there’s a particular character you meet later in the game who delivers some fantastic lines. And while the story is no-one near as coherent or self-aware as the original’s, it is well maintained by the return of audio logs, continuing to flesh out the Bioshock universe even in a tangential manner.
Special mention goes to a certain section of the endgame, and you’ll know it when you get there, which is so charming and beautiful that it seems so out of place. You get a glimpse of what everyone wanted Rapture to be, which serves to not only heighten the feeling of sadness at its current state, but also the pity felt for its inhabitants. You get a window into their madness, and suddenly it all makes sense.
And this is why Bioshock 2 is so disappointing. Throughout the experience it feels as though it’s trying to emulate its father rather than create its own impression. For every problem it fixes it creates a new one elsewhere, and it’s lacking that one identifiable moment where it all comes together, that one big reveal. It is and can be a fun game, but it never really does what it sets out to do. You never really feel like a Big Daddy, the Big Sisters are never really a source of trepidation, the story doesn’t quite feel right. Although, that said, the one thing it does very well is make you care about the Little Sisters you adopt, which is something in its favour. A little scamp giggling ‘X his eyes, daddy!’ as you immolate a wayward Splicer does wonders for the father/daughter bond.
I know it sounds like I’ve been railing on the game, but I have to make it clear that it’s not a bad game. Any other game from any other series would probably be getting praised at this point, but Bioshock 2 feels like a step back from its predecessor in a way. It does many things right, but not enough. If you liked the first Bioshock you will get some enjoyment out of this game, but don’t go looking for anything as awe inspiring as the first time around. It just doesn’t quite manage it.