43: Bioshock 2

After our Crusader Kings hijinks, Hentzau and I decided to team up to combi-review another game we’d both been playing recently: Bioshock 2.

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Jim: Sometimes you’re watching TV, around about the hour when you’re starting to give up on being a productive citizen, and you’ll catch a glimpse of a half-remembered childhood hero, trying to make it big in America as a singer, or filling in the rubbish cooking quotient of Celebrity Masterchef. “Gosh”, you think, “are they still going?” Similar thoughts crossed my mind when Bioshock 2 flashed up in the Steam sales. I mean, Bioshock had been big when it was released. Big Daddies were an iconic design of 2007, the incredibly meaningful choices were more heavily trumpeted than the walls of Jericho. Then everyone played it, realised a lot of that was blustery bluff that masked a reasonably pleasant, novel-looking shooter, and moved on with their lives. 2K weren’t done, however, and brought out Bioshock 2 a few years later, to a chorus of world-weary shrugs. What the hell, it was £3.75, I reasoned. Let’s see what it’s like.

Hentzau: The road to hell is paved with cheap Steam purchases. I enjoyed Bioshock for what it was; an inoffensive enough shooter that really didn’t do anything to justify stealing the “shock” nomenclature from System Shock, and which ended up being an incredibly average game attached to a spectacular opening as a result. The sequel, though. The sequel’s hook is that you’re playing as a Big Daddy, one of the lumbering armoured juggernauts of destruction that features so prominently on the publicity material for both games and which is the Bioshock franchise’s signature monster. How could they possibly screw that up?

Jim: You still had these memories, didn’t you, of battling those diving monstrosities in the first game. I loved that I had to work up to those kinds of fights, setting elaborate plans and traps and just generally thinking before I shot.

Hentzau: Oh yes. Dodging red-hot rivets, losing half my health to the drill attack — part of the morbid attraction of that kind of power asymmetry is that after dying for the umpteenth time the player mutters under their breath about what they’d be able to do if they had those weapons and that obscene health pool. Bioshock 2 was supposed to fulfil this wish; the concept as stated is pretty much the dream of anyone who played the original Bioshock.

Jim: And so you wake up as said mini-godzilla, espy a splicer bearing down on you and begin to laugh at his puny gun and his puny armour and…oh, you’re dead. Bioshock 2 did not trust you with that level of power, so it made a compromise – you can keep some of the attributes of the Big Daddies, but not all. So out go the obscene levels of armour and health, the powerful attacks and the inbuilt rocket launcher, but you can keep the incredibly slow movement. And the drill.

Hentzau: Except the drill now does sod-all damage to begin with. And has an ammo supply. Which, when depleted, forces you to clumsily flail at nearby enemies with all the brute strength of an enraged flamingo. A power fantasy this is not.

Jim: Basically, they decided that you should play a human who just happens to be wearing a fancy suit. You were forced to mainly use guns, to go for headshots, to be precise and stealthy and everything one of those massive fuckers definitely is not.

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Hentzau: The in-game excuse for this is that the player is supposed to be an earlier model of big series, one which is, and I quote , “a more streamlined and agile type of Big Daddy, meaning they are not as heavily armored, but are faster and more maneuverable”. They got the not as heavily armoured part right, but strangely they forgot the part where the player was supposed to be faster and more maneuverable. In Bioshock 2 — at least to begin with — you move at the speed of a wounded sloth. Just getting from point A to point B is a chore, and you can forget actually trying to strafe or dodge in any way, which is kind of a pain when every single enemy in the game will take off at least a third of your health bar in one hit. There were times when I wished the game was third-person because it would have been quite comical to see this hulking behemoth being beaten to death by two thugs wielding iron pipes.

Jim: And so the game’s response to that difficulty is to literally slap a band-aid on it. There’s a lot of medpacks around and you guzzle them like there’s no tomorrow. It was rare I could make it through an area without needing one or two, and I know I was playing it on hard difficulty (because this year isn’t onerous enough), but it’s weird that you had that problem even on medium and being the world’s greatest manshooter.

Hentzau: Well I probably wouldn’t go that far, although it’s worth mentioning the aiming reticule is a massive empty circle which actively dissuades precision targeting. But yes, even on medium I was chugging at least one health pack after every fight. At the beginning of the game, before I had a full stock of gene tonics and health upgrades and my Big Daddy was at his most fragile, I even dipped into the difficulty settings to check that I hadn’t accidentally managed to misclick Hard when I’d started it. But no, this was medium. I really didn’t feel like I should be coming out of a fight with a couple of basic enemies nearly half-dead. This absurd level of vulnerability is completely incongruous with what you are supposed to be, and did an awful lot to turn me against Bioshock 2 from the outset.

Jim: Given your size and noise made it impossible to get the drop on them until you get that one tonic that makes you invisible, yeah. The other way they tried to balance it was via the vita-chambers, presumably. If the difficulty was too high, if you ended up dying a lot, well, didn’t matter, you could just jump out of that magical tube, sparkling new. I loathe the very idea of those things, though, it takes away all tension in a fight if you know you can never actually die..

Hentzau: Admittedly it’s just an active gameplay substitute for your average FPS player’s standard operating procedure, which is to quicksave every sixty seconds. However, I feel the vita chambers are more insidious than that because they basically remove the penalty of failure that underpins all FPS games. Die in Bioshock and — oh no! — you have a thirty second walk back to where you were, with everything else being exactly as you left it. Actually it’s often less because the damn things are so ubiquitous.

Jim: I did disable them and quicksave like the spawny git I am, but I still curled my mouth into a dismissive sneer every time I walked past one. And that’s just the fundamentals of fighting, there’s an awful lot that Bioshock staples on in order to try to keep these things exciting. Plasmids, for example, were one of the big selling points of the original game, a sort of organic magic that, once again, Big Daddies didn’t have but you do for no reason this time because you’re special.

Hentzau: Did you ever use any plasmid that wasn’t the electro-stunning attack?

Jim: Occasionally I had to melt ice to get some ammo, and I quite liked the one that summoned security bots, but honestly it was a chore switching between those things in combat. If an enemy chucked a bin at you, I estimate he’d have to do it from around thirty miles away to give you enough time to switch to the telekinesis one to fling it back.

Hentzau: This is especially annoying when a lot of the mini-boss fights are built on using specific plasmids within a split-second window. Electrocute the Big Sister to stop her crawling over the walls! Catch her firebombs and throw them back at her with telekinesis! There were all these special attacks that I was supposed to block with plasmids, but which I had to soak up because I had no chance of switching to the correct plasmid and firing it off correctly in the heat of the moment.

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Jim: Most of the fights in the end do devolve into a sort of frantic slow-motion backwards jog, firing off rivets in the general vicinity of the opponents heads and hoping they connected. Occasionally you’d spam out some electricity and see what happened. The key thing missing, I suppose, is control. You never felt master of the fight (until right near the end), you were this breakable, endangered diver boy who was constantly hiding in alcoves.

Hentzau: The thing that gets me about this is that there are a couple of gene tonics — Drill Lurker and Natural Camouflage — that are actively supposed to promote stealthy gameplay. Stealth. Gameplay. In a game about a one-ton armoured bastard carrying around guns roughly the size of a filing cabinet. The approach to the whole thing is just so conventional and completely backwards to what it should be.

Jim: You’re also an investigative Big Daddy, don’t forget. Early on in the game you stumble across a camera and the most ludicrous concept of all is introduced: research.

Hentzau: This is yet another of many, many things which have been recycled wholesale from Bioshock. It worked in the first game when you were a stranger to Rapture; you’d never seen any of these mutated monstrosities before and the existence of a magical doohickey that let you find out their strengths and weaknesses made thematic — if not exactly logical — sense. Here, though, you are a mutated monstrosity, and instead of laying waste to your foes you’re wandering around taking holiday snaps of them so that you can gather research points to get a small bonus to damage or whatever.

Jim: It was another layer of ballache onto the already horrible mini-boss fights that you were constantly having, too, a couple of times I’d sweat my way through some big daddy fight only to find that I’d forgotten to get the research done at the start, which I knew I was going to need. And let’s not forget that amazing research bonus for the thuggish splicer.

Hentzau: Ah yes, that fantastically complex technology that you had to perfect through hours of painstaking observation and analysis of your opponents’ behaviour in combat: a bigger wallet.

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Jim: I was already crying with laughter when I realised there was a wallet cap, and that you could expand it just sent me over the edge. Back to those bossfights, though. Bioshock’s marketing was all about the confrontations with the Big Daddies, as we’ve already mentioned. Bioshock 2, unsurprisingly, is exactly the same. How many times would you say you’d slogged through that exact same fight?

Hentzau: Fifteen, I think. Or at least, that’s roughly the number of Little Sisters you can rescue/murder, which means that’s the number of Big Daddies you have to kill.

Jim: And then every time you kill them you go through two more identical “stand here and get rushed by waves of baddies” fights as your adopted Little Sister gathers Adam from appropriately glowy corpses for you.

Hentzau: That’s if you made the decision to save them, mind. Killing them presumably circumvented the whole tedious process, as did just stuffing them into a vent straight away (the game doesn’t tell you this is an option, though). However, in order to get over the difficulty hump and become less fragile you need gene tonics, which means you need Adam, which means you need to stand over the Little Sister and protect her from hordes of splicers while she gathers Adam. Skipping straight to vent-stuffing is only a viable option after you’ve unlocked most or all of the plasmids/tonics and you don’t need the Adam any more. It’s a remarkably unpleasant, repetitive gameplay mechanic which, yet again, is lifted wholesale from Bioshock 1. Except that game at least had the good sense not to make you do a pair of tower defence missions every time you wanted to save one.

Jim: Splendidly, about halfway through the game they run out of ideas and remove even the pretence of that gathering being optional, when that newspaper man tells you that he’ll only lift the barriers if you rescue three little sisters. Because they…..have….a genetic memory or….just do it alright. Your objective is to do the optional metagame objective.

Hentzau: Here’s what I don’t get, right; Rapture is apparently a functioning society because you’ve got all these characters who have survived there for years with no problems, and this guy sends you after the Little Sisters because he’s concerned with his standing in this society and doesn’t want certain plot-sensitive information to become common knowledge. Yet the Rapture I walked through was a leaky dystopian hellhole full of monsters. I doubt they’d have cared much about his dirty laundry.

Jim: My only theory on that is that the only people alive now are people who managed to lock themselves in a booth. Almost every character you interact with has placed themselves behind the unbreakable plexiglass so presumably they can’t be got at. It’s maybe even more worrying that the only time you’re allowed into a room with a person who isn’t a raving monster, is when the game is leaning on you very heavily to kill them.

Hentzau: It was like the game was telling me I couldn’t be trusted to be left alone with these people, that I had to be supervised and separated from them at all times lest I do something stupid. Your interactions with the NPCs in this game are basically a series of prison visits, conducted through a glass screen and a two-way intercom system. And that’s why, every time the game wanted me to kill someone, I didn’t. Not out of any moral concerns or because I was trying to get a certain ending, but because it was my way of giving two fingers to the developers and their ridiculously constrictive, on-rails level design.

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Jim: The whole game was “follow this compass arrow”. Not because it was interesting to explore, not because the world invited a sense of wonder, not even because you wanted to get to the bottom of this awful plot (and it was so tremendously awful), but just because it was there. I was paying as much attention as I could and, honestly, I still don’t know what the plot was about. I understood the words they were using, yeah, but it followed so little logical sense. Despite the hundred little recorded diaries, the constant intercom announcements, all I picked up was a constant squabbling static.

Hentzau: There’s one part towards the end of the game that’s particularly absurd; you find a message from a man who knows he’s going insane and wants you to kill him. To this end, he has left you detailed instructions on exactly how to do that. Except they’re not all in one place, because that would be far too simple and — dare I say it — logical. Instead he’s decided to scatter them across a pair of levels in easily-digestable bite-size chunks that automatically play whenever you finish the next step of his ridiculously elaborate plan. It’s an approach which certainly avoids taxing the attention span of the player, but which is absolutely nonsensical when placed in the context of the game world. How do the messages know to play only for you? Do they play for every random splicer who walks by? And why did he split the plan up anyway?

Jim: That’s it, though, the game world makes no sense, it has no structure. Bioshock was a game that was actually fun to explore, you had the pleasure palace, the run-down slums, the farms, the orphanage and so on. I remember more standout interesting moments from the original game, and I last played that about four years ago. The only things they’ve changed, they’ve made worse. Hacking, for example…

Hentzau: In the UK we have something called a driving theory test which you have to pass before they let you behind the wheel of a car for real. Part of this test is hazard perception, where you have to watch a video of somebody driving and click the mouse button whenever you see a potential hazard. Clicking the mouse button too late will result in failure but — hilariously — so will being particularly observant and clicking the mouse button too early as soon as you spot the danger. Instead you have to click the mouse button when the person who made the test thinks you should spot the danger. And this is the best analogy I have for Bioshock 2’s hacking minigame, which sets you the pulse-pounding challenge of clicking the mouse button inside a series of steadily decreasing time-windows three or four times per hack. I know Bioshock’s Pipemania minigame got a lot of stick, but even that was nowhere near as braindead as this is. And of course the worst thing about this is that everything in the game can be hacked. Everything. They even introduce a remote hacking tool so that you can hack places that would normally be inaccessible to hacking!

Jim: Hacking on the go for today’s busy professionals who are trying to juggle their home and work commitments.

Hentzau: It’s utter garbage, it really is, and failure either giving you a damaging shock or summoning security bots to kill you is just the shit icing on a cake made of shit.

Jim: Okay that’s a great big list of complaints there, and they all boil down to the utter lack of innovation or care about this gameworld, relative to the original. What Bioshock 2 mainly is, is a poor-quality copy. So many of these things we’re complaining about have just been transferred straight across, apparently without thought on how they’d fit into this alternate viewpoint. Bioshock was if nothing else, glorious to look at and explore. Bioshock 2 is a mess.

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Hentzau: Is there anything you liked about the game, Jim?

Jim: I liked the seaweed. The seaweed was ridiculously pretty, there were these shoals of fish swimming about that looked like real shoals. You?

Hentzau: There was a bit where you’re walking around an animatronic display about the building of Rapture and this rickety dummy scientist raises his arms after making a discovery, only for a pair of giant hands to descend from the ceiling and take it from him. That was good.

Jim: Yeah there were a couple of really nice moments. You get a brief glimpse of Rapture at its peak, right at the end, a swathe of mahogany, velvet and dinner parties, and after tramping through this rusty tin can for many, many hours, it was a lovely sight. I would also add that, once you threw enough upgrade juice at it, the combat finally became a little bit fun, you finally felt like this halfway-invincible ironclad.

Hentzau: If the difficulty curve had started there I’d have had far fewer complaints about the game. As it is it’s ass-backwards; starts out diamond-hard and steadily becomes easier as you unlock more passive bonuses and expand the amount of ammo you can carry. It wasn’t until the end of the game that I felt I had enough bullets to really go hog wild on the basic splicers instead of saving all the good stuff for the inevitable miniboss fights.

Jim: Ah well, there’s always Bioshock Infinite eh?

Hentzau: I’LL KILL YOU.

2 stars, 14 hours played, finished once on hard

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