Many would rather patrol genre borders than to explore their undefinied wastelands. This is why, perhaps, the reason Bioshock stirred such enthusiasm and weirdness in equal measure. A curious phenomenon, then, to see a game provoking philosophical discussion about free will but realizing that when it came to playing it, was about slapping around mutants wearing rabbit face masks who ran up the walls. All because Ken Levine took it upon himself much of the burden of claiming Bioshock was “simply” a first-person shooter while everyone elese talked about how it was “more” than that. Nothing new in ludic territory, then: once again we had a design of emergent pedigree (Thief, System Shock, Deus Ex) hiding bigger issues behind the simplicity of its play mechanics and once again we had a 19XX design becoming popular again in 20XX. To a certain elite of PC gamers, it was worthy of scorn; to the console gamer masses, it was a diamong shining brighter than the drab shooters they were used to.
Which was certainly a stroke of genius: above all, it was a way of saying that System Shock, over a decade later and wearing different clothes, was still a game capable of captivating us. If in this fast food world the greats of yesterday are the worst of tomorrow, and if certain games or genres’ lineage lose some of its power due to the continuous burial of our memory as if history were a disease, the game was enough proof that things don’t always have to be like that: it was (is) still possible to reconcile the past and the present. Far from perfection but very close to restrained ambition, Bioshock was more than enough evidence that design can be timeless while there’s a spark of savoir faire, and as such, was also more than enough evidence of Levine and Irrational’s talent.
A talent which seems absent of Bioshock 2.
Put it another way: Bioshock 2 is a better first-person shooter than its predecessor. It’s simply not a better game.
Bioshoch 2 is “simply” a first-person shooter as well. The key difference is that the sequel makes that nature more evident through combat. Which is, truth be told, a lot more alluring than its predecessor. Bioshock was clearly a game of exploration and little big moments: the chance encounter with a Big Daddy looking for girls while lonely hammering at deco vents, an enthralling audio log or a handful of Rapture’s inhabitants clinging to a certain degree of humanity when the meaning of the word was long lost to their minds. Bioshoch 2 waves goodbye to many of those lulls and condenses the formula in significant ways. The first is a slight revision of a lapse, intentional or otherwise, found in the first game: where once you could only alternate between weapons and Plasmids, the powers born out of the genetic material Adam, now both can be used simultaneously. It’s something that becomes necessary in order to survive: combining a freezing power with a rivet gun whose ammunition fires up on contact, or releasing an electrical storm from our left hand while we launch grenades with the right one make up some delicious moments. And brutal as well – ten years after the fall of Andrew Ryan’s dream, the citizens of Rapture are more hostile, attack in larger numbers and show a more intimate knowledge of their surroundings.
This becomes more noticeable in the mexican standoffs created by 2K Marin. In Bioshock 2, the Little Sisters are still very much under the spotlight and now, as they harvest Adam from corpses they draw attention from the Splicers, which come from unexpected places and with their sights set on tormenting her and killing us. There resides one of the finest aspects of Bioshock 2: setting up defense perimeters to protect the Little Sisters while they do their thing. The alternative ammunitions of several weapons and the Plasmids are, therefore, more important than ever and mixing rivets which drive ferociously against anyone in the vicinity and air currents created by Cyclone Trap, or planting small stationary mini-turrets alongside proximity mines, are almost a tactical puzzle that can result in something glorious or a downright chaos. You lose some scope in discovery and gain some urgency in flowing from one battle to the next.
However, that chaos doesn’t come from Splicers’ unpredictable patterns alone. Bioshock 2 has the terrible habit of spawning enemies behind us and far away from our traps, which ends up making the tools we have far more interesting than the moments we need to use them in. At certain points, carefully understanding levels to avoid being caught off guard is necessary: not thinking vertically is all that’s needed to see them attack from the ceiling. At others, we know something’s wrong when we booby trap all access points into an area and we realize our plan failed because the game cheated at the very rules it forces us to accept and spawns Splicers automatically inside a room and away from our defenses. If only the standoffs were the only case of this but it’s common throughout the game, to the point where moving through a meagre couple of areas springs enemies unexpectedly behind our backs, coming from empty places we’ve just been through.
You can’t shake off the feeling that Bioshock 2′s singleplayer campaign is one large training session for its online multiplayer modes and, in that regard, there’s nothing disappointing… Or convincing beyond its competence. The context on display aims to offer players a chance to take a part in the civil war that heralded Rapture’s fall. A system not far from Modern Warfare 2 rewards players according to their proficiency on several levels: number of enemies killed, assisting enemy kills, researching enemies with the Research Camera and even completing certain challenges like using Plasmids a given number of times are the bread and butter of the experience. Capture the Flag, for instance, replaces the titular flags with Little Sisters and it’s curious to watch them protest against their kidnapping as you secure them into nearby vents. Bioshock 2′s combat system is emergent enough that you’re in for some hours of multiplayer fun but while there are no structural flaws in it, there’s nothing particularly fresh either. It’s a series of shooting sprees that use Rapture as a prop and as such, it’s hard to imagine it will persist as long as Infinity Ward’s game or even as long as Team Fortress 2. Neither contemptible nor remarkable, it will only last as a mechanically sound but thematically superficial exploration of Rapture.
Which in a way kind of describes the singleplayer aspect. The most blatant example of this is subject Delta, the very first Big Daddy to be successfully bonded to a Little Sister and the protagonist of the game. In some online modes the patriarchal diving suit can be found and used in the maps, and when it does players are “conditioned” to become a Big Daddy as the game’s mythology took upon itself to build – slow and with little in the way of abilities, but resilient and incredibly powerful. In singleplayer, however, he is like any other silent character the likes we’ve seen in countless first-person shooters: a speedy, walking arsenal which apart from his likeness to the protective giants, retains little imagination beyond the name. Why? Was it frightening that the Big Daddy concept would be unintelligible the moment we had control over him? Was it a paralyzing fear that controlling such a methodic and deliberate character as the Big Daddy would fail to spark the desire of those who looked at this creature and shouted “awesome, I want to be like him!” but who in truth gives up understanding the character as long as they can look like him?
The sequence that introduces us to this side of Rapture seems to profess that fear, giving up a personal reading to force an authorial presence. We’re far removed from the long and intimate train ride in Half-Life 2, removed from the feeling we’ve been pushed out of our comfort zone like we were in that first Modern Warfare sequence – and why not go ahead and say it, away from our first journey into Rapture? – but this has a purpose. Big Daddies are guided by that patriarchal instinct they nurture over the Little Sisters – without that grotesque genetic bond they are as black cinema screens waiting for a film to be projected upon them. We’re far but still close. We don’t realize our Big Daddy condition through the investigational model made possible in first-person perspective: here, that’s 2K Marin’s domain, who guides our eyes through a Rapture where spirit and grace was still a part of its daily existence. We are not made aware of our existence by choosing to look ourselves but resigning ourselves with a certain spark of humanity behind the diving suit. The Big Daddy has a fleeting glimpse of himself as he gazes upon his reflexion, then quickly leaving that behind while trying to protect his Little Sister from a gang of thugs.
Of course, this is all beyond our control, and is perhaps a good way of suggesting how a Big Daddy sees the world. It’s all a dream, a constant state of instinct and survival. The gang is cold and brutally killed until certain events are set in motion and, ten years later, see our Big Daddy awaken and returning to Rapture. But if donning the Big Daddy diving suit is to play a role, it’s not a role thatcorresponds with it completely.
The problem comes with the devastation in interactivity that follows, which does nothing to retain those first moments. At a first glance the character seems to be a Big Daddy in every possible respect. His movement is heavy, the industrial drill where his hand should be is deadly. And then, afar, we see a Tonic that allows us to move faster. Later, we’re discovering Tonics that, in the long term, give him endurance and bolster his drill significantly. With each new discovery we pressage a pubescent roar: “playing with a Big Daddy is too slow, we want to be all powerful!”. And there you have it – all the mythology surrounding it is pushed aside to present a certain “gameplay” which, after the initial sequence comes to an end, lapidates all the magic surrounding it. The “thing” under our control becomes less a Big Daddy as time goes by. Devoid of a greater understanding of the reasons which made that monster an interesting character, devoid of a larger audacity in making players actually “become” the character, we’re left with hoarding and researching new weapons and powers to guarantee a sense of might. And it’s only closer to the game’s later levels where we really feel a certain authority, a certain presence, in that diving suit but it’s one that comes at the expense of hours of predictable motions, many of which were also a part of Jack’s journey in Bioshock. Much as if Valve had come halfway through Portal’s development and thought “y’know, players are going to find this unbearably slow, we better put some AK-47′s in it”, Bioshock 2 builds a chance to see Rapture through the eyes of a Big Daddy but then only has a blindness to offer.
Rapture is still an essay about a society (which reflects upon a particular group of people, and which explores their features), but also a larger reflection about the condition, the behavior of man as an animal. Not only on the social spectrum, outlined, among others, by Andrew Ryan’s political theatre and Sofia (the sequel’s antagonist) Lamb’s utilitarianism, but also of man as an animal, made and unmade by both – Jack as the social parasite in Bioshock, subject Delta as the pre-human being in Bioshock 2: both held as opposing elements to the philosophies of both ruling agents until their stories are concluded, a moment where they are free of their personality abuse and inner violence, whether as a result of a genetic legacy (Ryan) or manipulation (Lamb). Yet, it is a post-conflict world where motivations seem predestined to an absence of conflict itself. If in Bioshock Jack was a blank slate whose awareness unleashed his motivations, in this second tour around Rapture Delta’s motivations are aparent from the start. As you put on the Big Daddy diving suit in Bioshock 2, there’s an entire history and mythology associated with that role. The moment we know what a Big Daddy is about, is it still sensible that he can go against his role?
The father and daughter relationship, corrupted by science, is built on a solid premisse but is one that remains uncaring until the game’s very last chapters, when Eleanor assumes an attitude in keeping with our decisions to preserve or abuse the Little Sisters and to save or kill three key figures of Rapture, which offers predictable but satisfying conclusions to the narrative arc. Which results in a kind of narrative dissonance: the genetic bond between the Little Sisters and Delta’s own nature, for instance, are distorted when the protagonist goes from protector to exploiter, from someone who saw in those monstruous children a certain innocence that was important to protect against any corruption into someone who can now contemplate them as objects subject to selfish drives. If Delta’s memory is impenetrable and the ideal of fatherhood can be rewritten by our decisions, how do you justify a bond with Eleanor, Lamb’s daughter and also the Little Sister he was bonded to? If Delta’s body breaks down the longer he remains away from Eleanor, why does that narrative device takes hours to kick in and when it does, has no consequence beyond a special effect recicled from Bioshock – an effect which, curiously, was also associated with a condition imposed on Jack during the prequel but also never affected him?
Lamb tries to explain all of this. She is a figure of intelectual and psychologial intimidation, who doesn’t hold back on invading our senses with alusions and winks to a kind of radical rationalization, who sees in the protagonists pre-human condition and super-human efforts a clinical curiosity, waiting to be dissected. Yet, most of her interjections are sedative, little more than quotes from a psychology textbook. Which kind of works: whereas Ryan saw in Jack a threat to his ideology that needed to be taken down, Lamb sees Delta as cat sees a rat before a final, surgical blow or someone who coldly registers facts during an autopsy. Lamb is a woman whose feminin side seems to have been entirely drowned out by her analytical mind. While not exactly a Shodan, it is not inappropriate to say she has made Rapture a very personal territory, almost like a womb – as a space completely under her control, as a place no outsider can penetrate and as a space nurtuting the Utopian, a supreme being. Her scientific jargon and concern over Eleanor are the only expressions of desire she can muster. Shodan’s echoes in System Shock 2 were almost sexual in tone. Lamb’s omniscience in Rapture, if indicative of any sexuality, is one that promotes itself as a means to an end, as an exercise in power. When Lamb floods an entire section of the city to prove her control over Rapture and over us, something in that voice and in that torrent of water which leaves us defenseless comes dangerously close to a sexual climax.
As a voice we come to fear, respect and ignore at the right moments, Lamb has some merit. In one of her clinical monologues she speaks of Rapture as a body, of herself as its voice and the Big Sisters as the hand. Interesting choice considering the Big Sisters, more agile than the Big Daddies and with a blood red visor on their helmets, are expressions of retribution, which we must suffer as we save or destroy the Little Sisters. Interesting because they remind one of the “red right hand” in Milton’s powem, which was God’s avenging hand, a deific position Lamb would reject with her analytical mind but would not be wrong to use judging her impact on Rapture – the mass conversion of its inhabitants, the criation of the cult and the Big Sisters’ mission.
On the other hand, many of the explanations that surround her utopic plan are mere dazzling fireworks, wrapping themselves in pseudo-science and an inability to spark some curiosity about her plans. What an inconsequent little thing: to be assaulted with her bombast for hours only to then discover more of her plans, explained in a simpler and direct way, through audio logs or several characters in the game. The moments where Lamb shines are very few in contrast with hours of monologues typical of an antagonist of boring pomp and circumstance. And the foundation of her masterplans also seem untidy: what moves people, who have left the upper world in favor of utopia and objectivism, to embrace the Cult of Family that Lamb introduced? What moves them to sacrifice free will in favor of an indoctrinated colectivism? When Lamb is retroactivel introduced into the first Bioshock’s continuity, you’re left with the idea that somewhere along the way, the opposition to Ryan’s Charles Foster Kaneisms – found in Atlas’s intrigues and the genetic arms race – were neglected or, at least, shoved aside in order to highlight Lamb’s arrival to Rapture. The Big Sisters fail to kee themselves stimulating beyond first contact as well, falling into the same routine that the Big Daddies and Little Sisters fell into in the original game. From a concept full of potential, we move to a series of regular as clockwork encounters that gradually become a formula with little in the way of expression.
In this aesthetically recicled side of Rapture resides, above all, a certain honesty: it’s a place where killing ugly people in beautiful ways gains more prominence than the moral bricolage. There’s little surprise to be found: Lamb is a scale whose balance between duty and emotion grows increasingly precarious, the Little Sisters are still moral questionnaires waiting to be filled, the Splicers – both new and old – guaranteee a certain anarchy whose shadow covers the entire city, the audio logs are still a narrative exposition crutch which either convince by their dramatic delivery as they are borderline insulting (a striking case being the log inside the room of Grace Halloway, a black singer whose motto of “We Are Family” juxtaposed with the presence of the Big and Little Sisters of Rapture can only be seen as a pleasant nod to Sister Sledge, which robs us of any sense of discovery as it becomes painfully obvious in intention and suggestion). Eleanor is a psych profile for the player, who emotionally and inteligently registers our actions towards the Little Sisters and builds a personality, a moral code and a survival manual from all that.
All things considered, what we have here is a more down to earth story, a soberer but less imaginative one than the prequel, which agglomerates some of the elements that made Bioshock a great game but then doesn’t pay them enough attention. It would be hard to surpass the first game and 2K Marin’s missions was an inglorious one before it was executively forced upon the studio, and the result is plain to see. It spends too long retracing the steps of the first game before it decides to take a chance and when it does, it comes after hours of indifference. At a certain point we get to control one of the more symbolic figures of Rapture and of the Bioshock mythos, in a surprising but polarizing moment, revealing itself as a criative exercise firm in context but a total contradiction of the rules cemented throughout the entire game. And once again that roar clamoring for an easy awe gloating over reason. But even if Bioshock 2 is more of a technical accomplishment than an imaginative one, it’s still a good game. It’s a dynamic first-person shooter, with its little big moments and a very competent multiplayer. But in a sea of dreams it ultimately leaves a lot of talent adrift and doesn’t go beyond the mere obligation of creating “content”. Perhaps because that content is molded after the same clay that offered us the first game, it’s still an interesting theme park.
But returning to it no longer evokes a feeling of exhalted youth; all it can offer is a disenchanted maturity.