BioShock 2: Hands All Over It
I stopped by the Access PR offices this week in New York City to put my hands under the shirt (and the bra) of the latest up-to-the-minute build of BioShock 2.
The original was far and away my Game of the Year choice for 2007. But the sequel, since it was first announced, as it always is with games that I absolutely love, has been a cause for great anxiety for me. It is, and will continue to be, the Sequel I Am Officially Most Worried About. After seeing the game today, and talking to Jordan Thomas, the game's creative director, it's official: I'm a little less worried now.
Couple of things.
I confess, I'm really not all that excited about playing as a Big Daddy. And, after spending about 45 minutes with the game today -- the demo was a level set in and around an eerie carnival-type level called Ryan's Amusements -- I have to say, I didn't really feel like a Big Daddy. I just felt like a very slow-moving, lumbering thing in a first-person shooter. (I've been assured that Plasmids later on in the game speed up the Big Daddy's movements.)
Beyond that, the Big Daddy was the soul of the original game. I loved his odd loyalty, loved that he wouldn't pester you unless you pestered him. Yes, later on we discovered that Big Daddies were actually people who had been trapped/enslaved inside the diving suit. Which only made the Big Daddy seem more tortured and lonely.
But letting me walk a mile in his old-timey diving suit, as you do in the sequel, definitely diminishes some of the mystery and horror of this character. "We've talked about that issue a lot," Thomas said. "But there are things in [BioShock 2], we felt, that are even bigger mysteries [than the Big Daddy]. Things that will keep you interested and engaged; things that you will learn about the world that are so much more horrible."
One of those things, obviously, is the presence of the Big Sisters. Again, I wasn't all that thrilled with the concept of the Big Sisters. So, there are lady versions of Big Daddies? It didn't sit right with me; it just didn't feel like BioShock. (I even began referring to BioShock 2 in my notes during demos as "Fake BioShock.") And, when I was able to get up close and personal with one of them today in the demo, it was fairly anticlimactic. Yes, the Big Sisters are bad-asses. They're fast; they use Telekinesis with a great deal of effectiveness. They will make you die a lot. The one that I saw came after me with a bloodthirsty tenacity that made a regular Big Daddy seem tame by comparison. Watching the Big Sister dart around the room, I inexplicably found myself writing in my notes, "LOOKS LIKE SAMUS ARAN FROM METROID."
I kept waiting to feel something BioShock-y throughout the demo. And you know what? After seeing the game at various intervals over the past six months, after hearing about multiplayer (no!) and Big Sisters, and that Ken Levine wasn't involved, and all the other things that felt so much like core aesthetic betrayals of the original, today's demo actually did make me feel a little BioShock-y at times. First moment of BioShock goodness: I got to adopt a Little Sister. I was given an on-screen prompt: PRESS X TO ADOPT. I picked her up. Held her in my arms. Then put her on my shoulder so that she could ride around with me. I actually got a little emotional when I picked her up. Aw. Who knows. Maybe I was having a rare paternal moment. She kept referring to me as "Daddy," which I liked.
Also: I have a weakness for all carnival culture; I love the false cheeriness of it all. (Hooray for old Coney Island.) The Ryan's Amusements level feels like an upside-down Disney Land. There are little tableaus where a creepy animatronic Andrew Ryan, still functioning, comes to life and talks to you about his life and philosophy. Later in the level, scenes of oppression are played out via tin animatronic displays of his principles. We see a robotic farmer tilling his field. We see his robotic family standing on the steps of his humble tin home. We see a giant animatronic hand come out of the darkness and lift the roof from the farmer's house, and reach inside, taking whatever it wants.
I love shit like this. It feels very endemic to Rapture.
So the environments finally have me intrigued. The gameplay itself feels both a little sped-up and dumbed-down, which is no doubt done in the name of potentially appealing to more of a Call of Duty-sized audience. The hacking mini-game is now incredibly simple (press A when the needle enters a green zone before the timer expires). "We felt the hacking mini-game in the previous game got a little tedious in the later levels," Thomas said. (Agreed.) "So we made it more accessible."
Overall, that seems to be the two-word mantra behind BioShock 2: More accessible. Weapons feel more powerful, and have alternate-fire options that are absolutely devastating. (Wait until you try the Spear Gun; it literally lifts enemies out of their shoes and pins them to distant walls.) The Big Daddy can wield Plasmids and a weapon simultaneously now. And when Splicers swarm? Boy, do they ever swarm.
Finally, BioShock 2 is actually starting to feel like BioShock. Development shifted this time from 2K Boston to 2K Marin. I always thought there was a bit of Boston in the original game's DNA. I asked Thomas if he thought any of the Bay Area had crept into the sequel. "Oh, I think it has," he said. "Wherever a game is made, I think, influences that game in big and small ways. One way in which it has literally: There's a character's last name in the game that's taken from a Bay Area street name."
One legitimate criticism of the original game is that the third act is kind of soft. "We're definitely aware of that," Thomas said. "I can't say much now, but the entire final third of the [new] game is very much dependent on giving more free will to gamers."
What does that mean? Thomas obviously wouldn't say. My guess: The first game was about a man who eventually wound up becoming a machine, and discovered that his experience wasn't "his experience" at all; the second game, I think, will be about a machine becoming a man.
At one point my Little Sister said to me, "Smell the ADAM, Daddy?"
Yes. For the first time since BioShock 2 was announced, I think I can smell the ADAM.
This preview is based on a hands-on demo of an Xbox 360 build of the game.
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