With Bioshock Infinite only days away and the recent re-release of System Shock 2 on Good Old Games I figured now would be a good time to dredge up this article from the darkest depths of my drafts.
When I was writing my Games of 2011 there was one game I wanted to include but couldn’t because a) it was released in 2010 and I’d restricted myself to 2011 releases, and b) I’d already written most of this as a separate article. That game was Bioshock 2.
I picked it up on Steam for £3.49 during a summer sale and in truth I didn’t expect an awful lot from it because, while it had generally been well received, it apparently didn’t measure up to its much lauded predecessor — a game which I didn’t share such a glowing fondness for. Whatever expectations I had however, where blown out of the… uh, yeah, I’ll leave that pun in my head where it belongs.
I suppose I ought to start with Bioshock.
I think it was back in 1999 when I played the System Shock 2 demo. I simultaneously soiled myself and fell in love with it, prompting me to go out and purchase the full game. Anything capable of doing such a thing to a person must surely be bought at the highest price. I didn’t get very far with the full game because using a keyboard and mouse is extremely difficult when you’re curled into the fetal position under your desk. Many years later, and with Bioshock not far off, System Shock 2 remained unfinished: I had simply been too scared to play it. So one day in 2006 when I was a jobless bum living with my parents I decided it was high time to man up and finish the thing. And that’s just what I did. Despite the rather dismal closing moments, I loved every minute of it too. I was particularly surprised by how gracefully the Dark Engine had aged. It held up remarkably well thanks to its excellent sound propagation, the sense of weight and connectedness with your avatar and, of course, the lighting. After years of Thief, it was like slipping on an old pair of shoes.
When Bioshock was released in 2007 however, I was surprised by how familiar it felt. There was the hacking and manipulable security systems. There was a similar assortment of weapons: a wrench, a pistol, a shotgun, a machine gun and a grenade launcher, each with their own ammo types. There were plasmids, the game’s techno-magic stand-in for psionics. There were upgrade stations and vending machines. There was a research system that allowed you to gain bonuses against your enemies — enemies that steadily spawned at random keeping you on your toes. There were similarly themed areas: the Medical Pavilion (the MedSci deck), Arcadia (Hydroponics), Hephaestus (Engineering), Fort Frolic (the Recreational deck), Rapture Control Center (Operations — both home to the big reveals). There were ghosts hinting at past events (otherwise known as residual psychic emanations in System Shock 2). There were Vita Chambers (the equivalent of System Shock 2’s quantum bio-reconstruction units). Areas were non-linear and connected by lifts. There were audio logs strewn everywhere requiring the player to piece the story together, and there was a rogue voice guiding you through the unknown. Bioshock even featured the same twist. It was almost as if Ken Levine was reselling System Shock 2 in a different wrapper.
But something wasn’t right. Certain things had been lost, some more welcome than others. Gone was the horrible, suffocating sense of malevolence and survival horror of the Von Braun as you slunk around scavenging for supplies and jumping at the slightest noise or sign of movement. Gone was the character customisation that opened up various play styles but closed off others. Gone was the agonising decision-making that came with it. Gone was inventory management– hell, the inventory was gone altogether. Gone was weapon jamming, maintaining and repairing. Gone was that sneaking feeling that you were going to be assailed any moment because none of the UI overlays (such as hacking, upgrading, purchasing, viewing logs, your inventory etc.) paused the action — time spent gawping at a cybernetic upgrade station was time spent not watching your back. Gone were psionic monkeys.
Simply put, I was expecting more than a retooling and streamlining of System Shock 2. I was expecting something more akin to Bioshock’s original design document (which if you haven’t read already, go and take a look, it’s very interesting). Sure, the game was considerably more competent in the shooting department, it looked and sounded absolutely gorgeous, it had a philosophical edge and satire baked into its very mechanics and… well, it had Rapture, let’s not forget that. It also had Big Daddies and Little Sisters. And a wrench that froze enemies… that was pretty badass. But other than what did Rapture ever do for us?
No, Bioshock felt familiar in too many ways for me to enjoy it as much others. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it, on the contrary, it was just an experience that lost its lustre the more I played it. The real spanner (or wrench) in Bioshock’s works for me was its final third which unfortunately buckled under the pressure of the big reveal. Irrational had turned the volume up to 11 and had nowhere to go — it seemed the only way was down. And down it went through a number of locations that I scarcely remember, a kludgy escort mission, and finally bottoming out with an underwhelming boss battle. After System Shock 2’s nasty closing ten minutes I expected Bioshock’s end game to be a lot better but it disappointed me even more. Third time lucky eh Irrational?
Bioshock was always going to be a tough act to follow though — never mind that it wasn’t really intended to be followed — but 2K Marin managed to take a sequel that I suspect was conceived as a cash cow, and turn it into what I thought was a better game. I know many people simply won’t agree with me here, but here goes.
As a shooter, Bioshock provided a sandbox full of weapons, ammo types, abilities, environmental elements and enemies that could all be manipulated and harnessed to give the player the upper hand. Unfortunately, you could only play in this sandbox with one hand. Switching back and forth from weapon to plasmid (as well as through the various ammo types) made the combat more unwieldy than it deserved to be and certainly given how robust the combat system ultimately was. The one-two-punch combo was zap, switch weapon, then whack.
In Bioshock 2, not only did 2K Marin see fit to simultaneously put plasmids on your left hand and weapons on your right, allowing you to fire both at once, but they also gave each weapon a gun-butt melee attack. With an extra hand that sandbox was suddenly a lot more fun to play in. The one-two-punch combo was now simply zap and whack.
One night just before falling asleep following a long play session, I remember wondering whether I could cover a fuel drum with trap rivets and carry it around using telekinesis whilst toting my gun. The following morning I woke wondering whether I could pull enemies on to my drill using telekinesis. Later that day, and much to my gleeful satisfaction, I discovered that both of these things were indeed possible. I can’t think of a combat system I’ve enjoyed more than Bioshock 2’s; it’s creative, empowering, emergent, violent, frenetic and immensely gratifying.
The problem with Bioshock’s hacking system was that it was too obtrusive and — eventually — hard to fail at, so it quickly became tedious despite how solid and thematically consistent it was. It also conveniently paused time so there was never any fear of being caught in the act whether it be by splicers or the turret you were actually hacking. Hacking in mid-air after jumping to reach a security camera wasn’t uncommon either.
In Bioshock 2 there was no more pausing time to play a game of Pipe Mania, instead there was a much leaner and more crucial real-time system in place that involved trying to land a moving needle on certain sections of a dial. It was a quick and twitchy affair as opposed to a cerebral one that worked as well in the heat of battle as it did when the coast was clear. Things started off deceptively easy but before you knew it, you were rushing around trying to find the nearest bot shutdown panel after nonchalantly trying to hack a safe and failing.
There was also the curious addition of the self-explanatory ‘hack dart’ tool which at first seemed a bit pointless to me. However, when I considered that hacking didn’t pause time anymore and certain turrets and security cameras were hard to get close to without getting spotted, it proved invaluable in dealing with them across large open spaces. Firing a hack dart caused turrets or security cameras to zone in on you so you had seconds to successfully hack them before triggering the alarm or getting riddled with bullets. Hacking a security camera from a safe distance in an area crawling with splicers was a very entertaining way of conserving ammo too.
Researching in Bioshock was a counter-intuitive affair involving a camera and snapping enemies as they attacked you rather than trying to defend your soggy butt. The camera made a return in Bioshock 2 only this time, instead of shooting photographs, it shot video. Once you’d hit the record button you had a short amount of time to inflict holy hell on your subject. The more varied your attacks the more data you’d accrue. Coupled with the more dynamic combat this method of researching worked a treat. One of my favourite tricks was to start the film rolling and hypnotise nearby splicers so they’d attack the subject. Add a few security bots and few of my own attacks and the data came rolling in.
There came a point in Bioshock, shortly after the big reveal, where the game ran out of tricks and monotony started leaking in. Much to my own surprise this isn’t something I encountered with Bioshock 2. There were plenty of recycled elements in there but 2K Marin managed to bring enough new ideas to the table and gradually introduce them to keep the experience ebbing and flowing. The underwater down-time between areas, the roll out of the locations and environments, the Adam collecting and Big Sister attacks, the variety of set pieces (particularly one towards the end involving a Little Sister), the few new (and improved) plasmids and enemies. Whether you enjoyed the game or not, it was undeniably consistent. For me, it opened strong and continued this way right to the very end.
The Adam collecting and Big Sister attacks
For me, these were two of the most enjoyable and surprising additions to the game. One of the things that really differentiated Bioshock from System Shock 2 were the Big Daddy encounters. Attacking a Big Daddy required preparation, a plan and a good understanding of your immediate surroundings. It was a great opportunity and perhaps the only real one in the game to make full use of the environment and all the weapons and abilities at your disposal. Sure, you could use them against splicers but they weren’t nearly tough enough to warrant such heavy-handedness — a few rounds from your favourite weapon usually sufficed.
In Bioshock 2, following the acquisition of a Little Sister came the possibility of collecting Adam from specific ‘angels’ situated in various locations in the area. When your Little Sister started collecting Adam every Tom, Dick and Harry in the vicinity came flooding in to stop her. Selecting the right angel to collect from was one thing but rigging the place with all manner of traps and stacking the odds in your favour was quite another. Suddenly all those trap rivets, electro-spear tripwires, proximity mines, mini-turrets, cyclone traps, oil slicks, fuel drums and other environmental opportunities had another use besides dealing with Big Daddies. Instead of focusing all your arsenal on one tough predictable lumbering foe who would in turn focus their attacks on you, you were up against a sizeable mob of weaker enemies that could come from any angle en masse and cared very little for you — they were after the girl. It made a refreshing change to say the least and felt a smidgen like tower defence, which, incidentally, I love.
Big Sister encounters occupied some unnerving middle ground between the two and only appeared after harvesting or saving all the Little Sisters in an area. Their entry point was unpredictable as was their movement. They were tough, considerably more agile than Big Daddies and formidably equipped with plasmids. They were a welcome adversary that required the player to think fast and act even faster. And there was nothing quite like watching a hypnotised Big Daddy face off with one and a bunch of splicers. Pure carnage.
Free of the System
If Bioshock felt overly familiar — resembling a sort of System Shock 2 having an identity crisis — then Bioshock 2 in the hands of another developer felt like a separate entity; unpredictable and free from expectation (albeit still anchored to Rapture). Bioshock 2 knew it was a shooter first and foremost and geared all of its mechanics towards making the very most of that. And in a world where writers across various mediums are falling over themselves to out-twist each other, Bioshock 2 perhaps had one of the biggest twists of them all.
Spoiler paragraph ahead.
Seriously, there’s a spoiler in the next sentence. It didn’t have one, despite it feeling as though I was going to get stabbed in the back at any moment. No, Bioshock 2 didn’t distract you with big twists and turns, instead it focused on what amounted to a much more direct, personal and — to me — compelling story spanning a number of beautifully designed environments and featuring a cast of memorable characters, some of whom you get to meet face-to-face for a change.
There were also a couple of actual, for real, interesting moral decisions that didn’t involve Little Sisters that subtly affected things later on in the game. One in particular had me sitting there for a good ten minutes deciding what to do. Then there was a string of audio diaries that were so intriguing that I couldn’t help but comb each and every area for fear of missing one and consequently missing out on perhaps my personal highlight of the game. What was truly wonderful about this side-story was the subtle blink-and-you’ll-miss-it resolution. If you happened to notice it, it was a real punch to the gut.
But that’s what ultimately set Bioshock 2 apart for me: its surprising identity as a sequel and its consistency. It avoided the familiar beats of Bioshock while refining and fleshing out the more compelling parts of it. I could moan about the irritating antagonist, or the continued use of audio diaries, or the same abundance (and hoovering up) of supplies strewn across Rapture (a place supposedly stripped dry by splicers), or even the absurd number of hotkeys for your weapons and plasmids (number keys 1-8 and F1-F8, no less, and not a radial menu in sight on the PC version). Rapture was never going to have quite the same magic a second time round but 2K’s return to it held me under its spell a lot longer, in fact, I couldn’t stop playing it once I’d started, which, for somebody like me who seems to be getting more and more easily distracted these days, is quite something.
What’s more surprising though, is that after 30-40 hours I still wanted more. Unfortunately, the patch required to play Minerva’s Den (the critically acclaimed DLC by some of the developers now at The Fullbright Company behind Gone Home) totally screwed the sound up on my system — from silent Little Sisters(!) to inaudible gunfire and explosions — so it remains unplayed in the fetid bowels of my GFWL account. This made me so angry I banged my head on the rather incredible brick wall that is 2K ‘Support’ for several months trying every damned ‘fix’ imaginable before they told me that formatting my PC might be the only way to be certain it isn’t an issue with my system. Aren’t they great? Thanks for the bone 2K Support. One day, when I next format my PC, Bioshock 2 and Minerva’s Den will be the first things I install, and if they still don’t work then 2K Support better be ready for Return Of The Gregg: The Problematic One Has Returned. They may have marked my problem as ‘solved’ because I never followed up their mildly inconvenient format-your-system-and-download-and-reinstall-everything-again-with-a-1.2Mbps-connection advice, but I’m still unable to play Minerva’s Den thanks to a patch.
Anyway, looking forwards and not bitterly backwards, to Infinite… and beyond… the sea…
(Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)
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