This week, Zero Punctuation reviews BioShock 2.
I've had a lot to say about sequels in the course of this series, how some are good but a lot are ropey strings of flavorless wallpaper paste squirted from the backsides of uncreative publishers with seriously fucked-up eating habits. I think I've worked out the formula now. A good sequel like Half-Life 2, Silent Hill 2, Tranmere Rovers 3; is one that uses the original as a jumping-off point for a whole new story with whole new technology, while a bad sequel merely wallows in the original, like a hippo in a vat of liquidized children.
So where does BioShock 2 go? Well, I'm ashamed to admit it might actually transcend the formula. Just as the original had a surprisingly intelligent undertone that deconstructed the very nature of linear gameplay, Bioshock 2 is a sophisticated satirization of the very concept of a sequel that- ha, ha, I'm just messing with you, it's a knock-off piece of shit!
So the wallpaper paste-squirting bean counters from 2K asked themselves, "What was a popular aspect of BioShock 1 we could focus on in the sequel in order to ring as many pennies as we can out of the property?" And someone said, "The Big Daddies, of course! I think you should get to play as one!" "What?", said someone else. "Those haunting, monstrous things that trudge around as if they can barely support their own weight? Those tragic figures reduced to single-function robots with no trace of humanity left that seem to embody the downfall of the city as a whole? That's a stupid fucking idea. It'd be like a sequel to Half-Life where you get to play as a gun turret." "No, no, no," said the first guy, "play as a prototype Big Daddy who can move at normal speed and use multiple weapons and plasmids." "Well you're not a Big Daddy then, are you?" said the second guy, "You're just the bloke from the first game with a fishbowl on his head. And besides, why would a prototype be more efficient than the finished model? Did they think that Big Daddies being fast, flexible and capable of self-preservation was just not being fair on everyone else?"
The story deserves close examination, because BioShock 1 was incredibly strong in this aspect. That's kind of the point, there was no need to tack another story on. It's like ordering the lobster thermidor and sellotaping a Snickers bar to it. Ten years on, Rapture's somehow still inhabitable, despite last time around it having more leaks than British military intelligence, and has been taken over by a political dissident with a voice so smug that you want to jam a comically-oversized syringe in her eye every time she opens her fucking mouth who has turned the whole place into a sort of psuedo-communist cult. Your quest is to rescue your Little Sister, now just a plain old Normal-Sized Sister, who can communicate with you and the other Little Sisters telepathically, a plot point that kind of hopes to slip by unnoticed but which you then grab and pull back by one of its dangling threads. How can she do this? Is this because of ADAM, or did she just wish upon a star? Oh, it's for convenience, I see. Anyway, your psychic hotline friend is to be the victim of a procedure that will combine all the great minds of Rapture into one person, and how the fuck does that work? Wouldn't her head need to be about six foot across? I think ADAM has become the equivalent of the Force in Star Wars - all-purpose cavity plot insulation.
Most of the gameplay is pretty much unchanged: a largely resource-based shooter where you take one or two hits from pretty much every fight, but then you hunt through the neutralized areas and scarf down a few cratefuls of cakes and potato chips. Through your helmet apparently, or perhaps ADAM lets you absorb nutrients from the fucking ether. Just as before, the right combinations of boosts and plasmids can totally break the game. In my case, I found that slinging hypnosis blobs around and making all the sploicers attack each other allowed me to spend most of the combat sitting in the corner mashing candy bars against my faceplate.
So what is different? Hacking, for a start. Instead of playing Pipe Dream for half an hour at every turn, you do a pseudo quick-time event for a few seconds instead, and apparently the universe is about to explode, because a quick-time event has actually improved a game. The other major difference is that instead of rescuing Little Sisters straight away, you have to carry them around and let them gather ADAM for you, which evokes that one bit in BioShock 1 where you pretend to be a Big Daddy and defend Little Sisters from sploicers. You remember, the absolute worst fucking part of that game?
Here's the BioShock 2 moral choice: fight a Big Daddy (no small task), adopt the Little Sister, carry her to a corpse somewhere along the level, defend her from waves of sploicers for a minute using up half your heath kits and ammo, carry her to another corpse, defend her again to use up the other half, then carry her all the way to an exit vent and only then can you rescue her. Alternatively, fight a Big Daddy, then pull the Little Sister's fucking spine out. Yeah, you get the bad ending, but fuck it, I've got places to be. And both options have a chance of spawning a Big Sister. So if you, say, used up all your health and ammo defending your Little Sister, then it's time to take a probe right up the Mariana Trench. Here's an idea, 2K: how about only spawning a Big Sister if I take the evil harvest option? Surely that would give the Big Sister a valid reason to be cross. Otherwise, she's all like, "Grrr, your selfless compassion fills me with murder frenzy!"
Alternatively-alternatively, just don't even fucking bother. ADAM is not as vital as the game would have you believe. All you need are a few core combat plasmids and the right gene tonics, a lot of which are just lying around for free. By the last couple of levels, I just played live-and-let-live with the Big Daddies and got by just fine, although one I had to kill in self-defence for various unimportant reasons, so I just left his Little Sister loudly weeping by his corpse while I went off to loot. Stop crying, you little bitch, I'm trying to eat these cakes!
The usual line at this point is, "If you liked BioShock 1, you'll like this, because it's pretty much just more of it!" But I don't think that applies, because if you did really like BioShock 1, you'll understand that it works perfectly fine by itself, the story very tight and self-contained with no dangling plot threads. Our hero escapes, Rapture falls and all the leaders are dead with 9-irons jutting out of their skulls. A sequel like BioShock 2, riddled with metaphorical stretch marks trying to squeeze in enough retcons to get another plot out can only diminish the effect of the original. But if you're thick and just want to play with the Big Daddies some more, than I guess it will tide you over until BioShock 3, which presumably will let you play as a fucking vending machine.
Shocked through the heart: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
Never mind how he eats food, how does he see past those fluorescent green lights in his face
Would you kindly stop the video now