This will sound bad, but the last thing I expected was for BioShock 2 to be worthwhile. It’s like making a Fight Club 2 – either you’re not gonna have that twist, or we’ll kinda see it coming. It wasn’t any lack of faith in the team – BioShock was very much Ken Levine’s gig, sure, but the prospect of a Jordan Thomas gig is just as enticing. But starting from a position of Least Necessary Sequel Ever, given too little time to both form a studio and significantly reinvent the game (MoonShock!), and committed to the obsequious inclusion of multiplayer – I could see fun, I could see interesting, I couldn’t see “I’m glad they made this.”
I am glad they made this. It feels like a remake, a ridiculous thing to do immediately after a great game, but some of BioShock’s systems needed it. By the last third of that game, you’d found enough interesting plasmids and tonics to develop some properly demented playstyles, ones very personal to your preferences. BioShock 2 is saying: what if that moment was just a few hours in, and you could just keep getting more bizarre, manipulative and powerful from there? Mechanically, it finishes BioShock’s clever sentence.
Plot-wise… I guess my only problem with the plot is that I missed almost all of it. As a Big Daddy might, I grasped that I was after my Little Sister, but all the other voices in my head seemed like a very long list of names all angry at me for something I didn’t understand. After hours and hours of hearing her talk about it, I still have no idea what Lamb’s plan for Eleanor was, or even what she believes in – except that it isn’t ‘the self’. I thought doing philosophy at uni would help, but I think I need a degree in listening. I can barely process basic information in a game unless it affects the level in front of me.
Both BioShocks often feel like two different game ideas, layered on top of each other but not convincingly connected. There’s the Ecosystem, this alien world of inhuman protectors stomping around with delirious gatherers, while packs of crazed aggressors try to steal them away. Then there’s the Backstory, a tawdry tale of fifties dames and johns doing the dirty on each other while high-minded well-to-dos carry on like they own the joint.
I buy into both, and I even buy into the Backstory leading to the Ecosystem, as the failed utopia finds a physical outlet for its neuroses in Adam, and creates something monstrous. What never works for me in either game is that the Backstory is still going on. Ryan set these Splicers on me? Why, don’t they just attack everything anyway? And now these Splicers are working for Lamb’s Family. They came to see the fundamental validity of her ethos in the last ten years, did they? In between screaming “Semen! On EVERYTHING!” and scampering across the ceiling with meathooks?
It makes it hard to understand what’s happened in the ten year gap. Lamb’s seized control – of what? What does control constitute in a leaking city of lunatics and corpse-sucking drones? And it leads to a structural clash: you must find your child and stop the demagogue psychologist as soon as possible! WAIT: You have not harvested or saved all the Little Sisters on this level, are you sure you wish to proceed?
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BioShock 2 is hurt by the disconnect more often than the first game, whose story was more about uncovering the past than following an unfolding plot in the present. But funnily enough, 2 has the one moment when the two really gel. You become a Little Sister – a great nod to the first game’s sojourn as a Big Daddy – in what initially seems an unspoilt area of Rapture. Then, as you approach a parlour-perfect body to extract some Adam, you get a flash of reality: you’re in a dark, wet, broken hellhole kneeling over mutant corpse to drink its blood. You get to experience a little of both worlds, which makes the ruins of Rapture feel horrific rather than drab.
I wasn’t as crazy about the bit after that, where I had to break into two pediatrics wards so that Eleanor could turn the children into lava to boil away some ballast water. Wouldn’t turning the water to steam leave the ballast container with the same overall density? Also the lava children thing, in the form of a question? As usual, though, I didn’t grasp a word of what was being said to me, so I’m probably misunderstanding.
Eleanor’s final decision about whether to kill Lamb, and what to do about your death, depends on how you’ve treated the Little Sisters and the three killable characters during the game. Jordan calls this refraction rather than reflection of your moral choices: instead of the game saying “LOOK WHAT YOU HAVE DONE!”, it says “This is what your kid did, following your example.”
Both BioShocks read me wrong: I killed the Sisters in the first, but I wasn’t planning on hijacking a nuclear sub with Splicers as the ending presumed. I saved them in the second, because the first taught me that doing the right thing is also more profitable in this moral universe – helpfully removing the decision-making process. Eleanor’s response to that was to spare Lamb, when I would have much rather she skewered the twat.
The difference is that in BioShock 2, it made sense: I inadvertantly had set a good example, Eleanor probably would have learned mercy from me. And in BioShock 2, you don’t have to fight a giant award.