A day (or few) late and a Plasmid short, but here it is, finally - our verdict on BioShock 2. We have good excuses. You want to hear them?
One: Xbox 360 code arrives, and our preview unit red rings. Anyone out there feel our pain? I am betting more than a few...
Two: PS3 code arrives, and it has a big crack in it. What sorta pressure do you need to apply to do that, I wonder?
It seemed for a while that the universe didn't want us reviewing this game, at least not before the release date. But, these things happen, and now the promo copies are in (and everyone who was going to buy the game has gone out and bought it!) we can finally bring you our impressions. We'll try to keep it nice and short, spoiler free for anyone who has recently suffered a personal tragedy so mega they have not been able to play it yet, and just as sharp and analytical as you ought to expect from your friends at NZGamer.com.
Putting you in the monumental brass shoes of Subject Delta, the first ever Big Daddy, you'll be expected to plumb the depths of the underwater city of Rapture, ten years on from the Splicer slicing days of Andrew Ryan. Little girls are being kidnapped along the world's shores, and this mystery, as well as its connection to self-stylised deity Sophia Lamb is central to your quest. Don't worry, though. At its heart, this game is the shooter to end all shooters. Knowing what a love affair the gaming public had with BioShock has meant the developers have been beavering away on a sequel to make all self-respecting gamers weak at the knees.
The first thing you'll notice about BioShock 2 is that in the Big Daddy, you have access to the drill, and that your left hand is free to use for Plasmids, which you'll pick up as you go. Naturally, some of the spikier Plasmids will return from BioShock, but there are a few surprises in there for you as well. Dual use of weapons/ Plasmids has to be one of the coolest elements of the game, allowing you to combine your cans of whoopass however you choose.
And there is ass to whoop. Believe it. As well as contending with the bulbous and pustulating Splicers, you'll also have Big Daddies on your case and of course the slash-n-dash Big Sister. Her unique combination of hatred of you, fealty to Lamb and those mechanical grasshopper legs is terrifying. As she brought her smacketh down upon me, I recalled the words of 2K's Kent Hudson - "She will find you."
Fortunately, the game arms you for battle with a fantastic range of weapons, and each can be upgraded with varying iterations. Whether this expands ammo capacity or stopping power is really up to you, and BioShock wouldn't be BioShock without choices. The weapons also have a range of ammo types for each, amping up the experimentation factor and giving you that many more ways to protect your Little Sisters.
Naturally, as a guardian of these wee ones, you'll be able to use the Little Sisters to collect ADAM for you. They'll be able to lead you to the appropriate corpses, but as in the first game the juicy suck of a hypodermic needle brings the crazies a-running. Spending some time setting up will be key if you want her to stay alive, as the hoards come forth with wrench, golf club, pistol and tommy-gun. As in the first game, poking about in your sea of carnage will yield glorious profits and, for me, is actually an extremely exciting part of the game. Is that weird?
At vents around the city of Rapture, you'll be able to choose to harvest or cure your Little Sister. Harvesting is of course the harshest option, but the ADAM it gives you back may just scratch that moralistic itch. Of course, you can save the mite in exchange for a smaller amount of Rapture's wonder drug, but only if you're confident that nice guys won't always finish last. A good stock of ADAM will push you further along as you upgrade your Plasmids.
It's important we don't get too bogged down in process here: BioShock 2 is one of those games where the A to B quickly becomes obvious. It spreads the love among experienced and novice gamers, so depending on how you feel going in, you can tailor the experience to your own needs. Regardless, even if you're picking it up for the first time, the how-do-I-do-this and the what-happens-when-I quickly gets answered by a helpful and (most importantly) unobtrusive narrative system. Hitting select allows you to check out the map, get a hint, and see what features are nearby.
So what of Rapture itself? Well, it's just as much a character as any living entity in the game - and in its own way, it is alive. Thick with ten year's growth and rickety with the same amount of decay, 2K's artists have done an amazing job of bringing Rapture back for the sequel with fresh surprises. You can hem-and-haw about whether or not the graphics have made true leaps forward, but damn if it doesn't look so delicious. Count on the fact that every thread of atmosphere from the first game has been carried over. That sense of trepidation you felt walking into a new area, where every shadow was a reason to fire off a couple of rounds, has doubled. Many reviewers, including our own Tristan Clark, said that BioShock was scary - BioShock 2 is even better (or worse, depending on how you roll). Outside of the city, walking the sea floor is a feature many were excited about pre-release. This extra dimension adds what is essentially an entirely different world.
Using the environment to your advantage is an integral element of success, and it's impossible not to love this about BioShock 2. One of the loading screen tips is to have a plan of attack before you take on a Big Daddy. You'll need to steal Little Sisters from the brutes, so making sure they're adequately destroyed beforehand means much more than opening fire. But it's not just the biggest, baddest enemies that require a bit of forethought: it seems like every Splicer in the game has its own ideas of how to bring you down. Sometimes, as fierce as the battles with Big Daddies or the Big Sisters are, just taking on more than one lower level denzien is work enough. Again, toy with the difficulty if you're finding things a bit tough, but however you play it, walk into BioShock 2 with eyes wide open. Use the weapons and traps that work for you. Figure out what Plasmid you're going to hit 'em with before you start pounding out the Heavy Rivets. If you're going to hit and run - know where you're going. And if you don't do the job properly, you're going to learn all about it.
Those with special editions of the game will be enchanted with a book called "Deco Devolution - The Art of BioShock 2." The reason I mention this (aside from the fact that the SE cranks up the value of the purchase immediately) is that this book shows some of the creative process that has gone into the characters. Conceptual drawings, sketches and full colour finals are all displayed herein, and it works as a reminder of the kind of effort that has gone in here. It shows how weapons and gameplay elements were put together, along with 2K's version of 1968. If you can get your hands on a copy - do.
Laying aside the fact that some of the music during the epic load times is woeful (and thats probably just a taste thing) the sound in BioShock 2 just pops. Back on the atmosphere again, the chatter of the gossiping, scrapping Splicers is chilling, the voice acting of the pivotal characters not a touch overdone, and the in-game music just right. Again, the special edition can really help you immerse yourself in the proceedings, with the musical score. Take some time to listen properly; it's worth it.
The frame rate can be a it jerky when there's lots going on, but there is an option to lower the quality if you want it all nice and smooth. You're trading off graphics for gameplay, here, and it's really that simple. The decision, like all the others you'll make while playing BioShock 2, is entirely yours.
I feel like I have used an awful lot of words to say very little, but what's important about this game is what 2K have tried to, and in most cases successfully, achieved. There won't be a lot of gamers picking up BioShock 2 without having played the first game. The few that do might wonder, really, what all the fuss is about: it's pretty good, they might say, but it's not as amazing as those snooty game journos say it is. In that case, the opinion of those brand new to the BioShock franchise might actually be a very good yardstick by which to measure the game's success...
But come on. BioShock 2 is a game developed for all those square-eyed shooter fiends who wanted to explore the ocean floor, shoot-em-up with others online, and never play one of those annoying pipe-puzzlers again so long as they lived. I have heard firsthand that what the developers really wanted out of this game was something people would love to play, love to talk about and more than that, just out-and-out love.
It seems to me like they made it.