Latchkey Games is a weekly column that takes a look at games that perhaps didn’t quite get the amount of love they deserved: whether it was a game that was panned on its initial release only to become a cult classic, one that stirred the ire of series fans, or simply a game that fell through the cracks and was forgotten by time or overshadowed by a more popular release. This week I’ll take a look at Bioshock 2, 2k Marin’s underrated and unloved follow-up to one of the most important games of this generation.
You’d think that the sequel to one of the most critically acclaimed games of the last 5 years would never appear in an article about underrated games, but making a sequel to a beloved title actually seems pretty difficult. Any time a sequel is announced for a game, especially a popular one, the gaming community in general seems to approach the new title with a certain amount of cynicism: before you can even finish watching the first teaser trailer, chances are the comments section for the video will be filled with self-satisfied, elitist fanboys making claims of it being a “rehash” or “cash in” before anyone knows anything of substance about the new title. I partly understand the cynicism; after all, we live in a time of annualized franchises like Call of Duty or Assassins’ Creed, where new sequels have to be churned out on a yearly basis, whether they’re good or not, simply so that the publishers can meet their sales goals for the fiscal year. On the other hand, some of those iterative sequels have actually been pretty good: I’ve actually liked most of the Assassin’s Creed sequels for instance, and while none of the recent Halo or Mario sequels have been particularly innovative, the general consensus is that they’re all still great games. Hell, I loved Fallout: New Vegas and sunk over a hundred hours into it, and that game doesn’t even attempt to make any major gameplay changes to Fallout 3’s winning formula.
Bioshock 2 falls into the same category. Within seconds of the game being announced, fanboys everywhere were already decrying the game as a shameless cash-in, a complaint that only intensified when 2K Games announced that BS2 was being developed by a new team and would also feature a dedicated competitive multiplayer mode. I understand some of the intial backlash, of course: the original Bioshock was a self-contained story that wrapped up pretty nicely at the end, so a narrative continuation seemed completely unnecessary, and I think we’ve all grown tired to publishers trying to shoehorn multiplayer modes into previously single-player only games that never needed a multiplayer mode in the first place (*cough* Dead Space *cough.)
Sure, Bioshock 2 may have initially been greenlit by some suit over at 2K Games who simply wanted to milk the Bioshock name for additional profit, but regardless of how or why it was conceived, I can confidently say that I’m glad that Bioshock 2 was made and I’m even happier that I ignored the fanboy backlash to the title and still decided to give the game a fair shake, because in many ways Bioshock 2 is a better game than the original.
Bioshock 2 once again takes place in the underwater dystopia of Rapture, and while the city doesn’t feel as unique or mysterious as it did the first time around, the team over at 2K Marin still did an admirable job of making players’ return trip to Rapture a worthwhile one. Instead of casting you as an outsider who stumbles into the city of Rapture like in the original game, Bioshock 2 puts players in the giant shoes of one of the series’ iconic Big Daddies. While playing as a Big Daddy doesn’t actually change the way the game controls all that much, it does offer the player an interesting and new perspective from which to see Rapture: enemy Splicers are noticeably more intimidated by your presence than they were in the first game (which is understandable, given you’re now a heavily armed and armored monster rather than a seemingly normal guy,) and you now have the ability to take brief detours in the underwater expanse beyond Rapture’s walls.
Main antagonist Sophia Lamb isn’t quite as memorable as the first game’s tragically misguided Andrew Ryan or the ruthlessly self-serving Fontaine, but she’s a pretty great villain nonetheless, and by the end of the game you will genuinely hate her for the things that she does to you and your adopted daughter, Eleanor. Lamb’s cadre of followers are all interesting characters in their own right, and just as in the original game, players who take the time to discover their backstories and motives will discover that Bioshock 2’s “boss” characters have more depth to them than even the central protagonists of most other games. While the game’s story does indeed fall just a bit short of matching the narrative heights and surprises of the original game, the story is still leagues beyond what you’ll find in most other titles, and the level of detail and thought that 2K Marin put into each character and each location should be enough to prove to you that Bioshock 2 isn’t the creatively-bankrupt cash-in that some people believe it to be.
Bioshock 2 also makes some genuine improvements over the original game in terms of gameplay as well: in addition to minor changes that make the action parts of Bioshock’s action-RPG formula feel substantially better (like the much needed addition of a dedicated melee attack button,) Bioshock 2 also adds in a new gameplay mechanic that helps fix one of the original game’s most glaring flaws: the lack of consequence when you die. As much as I love the original Bioshock, it’s hard to deny that the game’s Vita Chambers, which allowed you to conveniently respawn moments after you died without any penalty and without the loss of any progress, sort of took the tension out of combat. While fights in Bioshock were still fun, having the safety net of Vita Chambers around definitely made each encounter less threatening, and I definitely put less effort into self preservation and dodging enemy attacks in Bioshock than I did in other action games, simply because I knew it ultimately didn’t matter how much damage I took or how many times I died.
Vita Chambers are still around in Bioshock 2, but now there are parts of the game where you’ll actually be penalized for dying. As in the original game, you can upgrade your character by earning ADAM, the game’s special ability granting McGuffin, by either saving or harvesting each area’s population of Little Sisters. Unlike the first game, getting a Little Sister isn’t as simple as taking down the Big Daddy protecting her; this time, since you are a Big Daddy, you’ll have to protect the Little Sisters as they harvest and convert ADAM from the city’s copious supply of dead bodies. As the Little Sisters collect ADAM, you’ll have to protect them from attacks from crazy Splicers and Lamb’s army of followers, and if you screw up and get yourself killed, you’ll lose any progress you made during the harvest and thus lose out on some much needed upgrades, and you’ll need to begin the process all over again, sans any ammo or supplies you used up in the fight. It sounds like a minor change, but it adds a much needed sense of tension and consequence that was previously missing from the game’s combat.
In the days leading up to Bioshock 2’s release, a lot of people complained about the game’s addition of a new competitive multiplayer mode. While it’s true that publishers nowadays have gotten into the regrettable habit of shoving bland multiplayer modes into previously single player franchises, Bioshock 2’s multiplayer actually isn’t all that bad. While it lacks the balance or longevity of say, Call of Duty, Team Fortress, or Halo’s multiplayer, it is a lot of fun when taken on its own merits, and at the very least, the series’ trademark Plasmid powers help give Bioshock 2’s multiplayer mode a unique feel when compared against the legions of generic military themed online shooters crowding the market. Like I said, Bioshock 2’s competitive online modes won’t keep you addicted for months, but there’s enough depth there to make it worth playing for a few weekends, and despite what people assumed before the game’s release, there’s enough content and thought put into the multiplayer mode to make it feel like more than an afterthought.
Bioshock 2 still gets a lot of hate, even from fans of the original game, and I don’t really understand why, because it does everything that a sequel is supposed to do: while the story isn’t quite as fresh as the original game’s was, it’s still an exceptionally well written piece of fiction that blends pretty well with the themes established by the first game, and the game does manage to make some meaningful improvements over the original Bioshock’s much lauded gameplay. It’s still debatable whether the original Bioshock actually needed a direct sequel, but whether you wanted it or not, it got a direct sequel, and that sequel happens to be pretty good.