Bioshock 2 Developer Demo Impressions

I have to admit that I was extremely skeptical of Bioshock 2, as I felt the first one was a fully self-contained game.  Furthermore, I felt that it was a game that had worn out its welcome in the final quarter.  So when Bioshock 2 was announced, it sounded a bit like a heartless cash-in.  This was confounded by the first look we saw of the concept art for the Big Sister model, which I thought missed the point spectacularly.  The Big Daddies were iconic.  Bulky, lumbering men in turn of the century diving suits.  An icon we’ve all seen before.  The Big Sister model just didn’t make much sense.  It’s a bulky lumbering diving suit that’s also trying to be curvy and voluptuous?  Looked more like a cyborg ninja to me, and at odds with the more understated, realistic tones of the first game.  Thankfully, after seeing the above nine minute developer demo, I have been completely turned around on this sequel and am very excited indeed.

The first thing I noticed was that since you play as a Big Daddy this time around, enemies don’t pose as much of a threat.  In terms of conventional game design, this should be a bad thing.  We’ve been trained to think of combat in games as something difficult that one must overcome, but that is not the case here.  In Bioshock 2, you play as the ultimate badass and the game knows it.  Rather than just launch a horde of cannon fodder at you as you tear them to shreds, the enemies react realistically to your presence and will gang up on you in groups before fleeing when the going gets tough.  My favorite moment in the trailer was after the player murdered a group of splicers, then queued up his drill at the sole survivor ran away in horror.  I’ve seen enemies fall back behind cover before, but to see one who wants to retreat from the fight entirely–and in response to your drill revving–was a sight to behold and gives the player a sense of empowerment that I’m not sure I’ve seen in a game before.  This may diminish the sense of challenge from the game’s combat, but I don’t believe that challenge was ever the focal point of the first Bioshock or the direction that the series should take.

Since Bioshock was such an immersive cinematic experience that already had no loss condition due to its vita-chambers, it makes me wonder what you could do with a game that features easy combat that only exists to add drama to the proceedings.  As an action game, this wouldn’t work, but for a game that focuses on exploration, choices, puzzles, and narrative, I’m surprised that this hasn’t been done before.  I’m not saying Bioshock 2 will be that game–as there will still be challenges in the form of the Big Sister–but this looks like a nice first step towards an interesting new direction for combat in gaming.

The other interesting thing about making you so overpowered is that it appears to keep self-preservation from being the primary goal of the game.  Instead, you’re tasked with rescuing Little Sisters (or harvesting them, if you so desire).  I’m reminded of Ico, a game where you could not fall in combat but would lose if your companion was captured. While I do have some mild concerns that guarding a stationary Little Sister from a horde of splicers whilst she extracts Adam from a corpse could get old after awhile, the core idea of having to protect the poor girls is an intriguing process and one that could add another layer of emotional complexity to the proceedings.

It may seem like a surface detail, but the idea of being able to explore outdoor environments is such a simple concept that I’m amazed I’d never though of it before.  Of course, the big barrier there was the fact that everything outside is underwater, but a diving suit is a perfect way to get around that. It is a bit odd that they nixed the fish-eye view from the Big Daddy helmet.  I’d just assumed that since you were a prototype Big Daddy, maybe you weren’t wearing a helmet, but then you can breath underwater with no visual indication that you’ve got anything between your head and the water.  At any rate, the underwater  portions looked gorgeous and add some much needed variety to an already fantastic setting that appeared to have little room for expansion.

Not much is known about the story other than that it takes place much later than the first game, and that it will supposedly make sense no matter which ending that you got in the original Bioshock.  This sounds like a tough thing to do, as one ending had you being a saint and the other a sinner. Since both ended with you leaving Rapture, it appears that whatever you went on to do with your life is rather inconsequential down at the bottom of the sea.  In fact, the first game took place only a year or two after the city fell to pieces, and since this takes place a decade later, it leaves room for the designers to go wild with all sorts of madness.  The first game’s setting was already pretty messed up, but just imagine what things must be like for the few remaining survivors who have been losing their minds for over a decade.  Rapture’s descent into madness could prove to be very, very, intriguing.

Bioshock 2 looks like it’s doing what a great sequel should; take what made the first game brilliant and approach it from a brand new angle, rather than just trying to do the same thing again.  The world of Rapture is a fascinating one with a rich history, and with any luck, it looks like we’ve only yet scratched the surface of what lies beneath.

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