Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Problem With Bioshock 2 (And Why I'm Cautious About Bioshock Infinite)

So this isn't going to be a proper review because I'll be honest: I haven't beaten Bioshock 2. I got what I think is about halfway through the game, and I just stopped playing. In fact, I only recently finished playing the original Bioshock.

Now, the original Bioshock is a great game. It had some issues, but is remembered for a fantastic, absolutely phenomenal ending that was really a deconstruction of the nature of games themselves, and then continuing for about three more hours of crap, because having an unhappy ending would be bad. Alternatively, if you're the kind of twitch-reflex Call of Duty fanboy who doesn't care about a fascinating deconstruction of the very nature of games themselves, it had Big Daddies.

The game took place on one of the best settings ever in video gaming, the city of Rapture, an underwater utopia turned underwater distopia. It contained a lot of interesting aspects, and entire discussions could be had about the first game alone, and have been. Is it a cautionary tale of the need for morals? Is it a warning that man should not play God? Is it just a haunting tale of an underwater city? Would the city have been doomed without the discovery of Adam, or was Adam itself what led to the downfall? Interesting conversations could be had about any of these.

In addition, the game had good, albeit perhaps not great, gameplay. Except the hacking, that sucked. But the introduction of Plasmids, which could essentially rewrite the human body to do anything led to some interesting mechanics. My favorite, although not the most useful, was the one that let you shoot bees at people.

So why would a sequel to this beloved game be bad? Well there's a few reasons. First of all, Rapture as a set piece was more effective as you explored and learned about the history of the city. It was a brilliant example of how games can be art, and how games can offer a different storytelling experience than a film can. Once you already know the history of the city, it loses a lot of effect. While the city is still beautiful and haunting, you've already experienced it, and it becomes a more familiar place. One of the greatest things about discovering Rapture is just how alien it is, just like the oceans below us can, at times, seem alien.

In addition to this, the story of Bioshock was rapped up beautifully in Bioshock. And then the game decided to keep going for about three hours- Ok, sorry, that's not what this is about and if I talk about why the game should have ended at the big "Would you kindly" scene, this post will be about something different. The point is, Bioshock had a great story. That story was told in Bioshock.

So a sequel to Bioshock was always going to be tricky, they ran the risk of shoving another tale into a setting that had already been explored. And in truth, that's exactly what they did. While the story in Bioshock 2 isn't bad, per say, nothing carries the same emotional, or philosophical weight. For one thing, this one paints the church in a negative light. Now, I could tolerate that, except it kind of goes against everything the first one was about. Now, I don't claim Bioshock had some sort of religious message, that would be foolish, but one possible interpretation, in fact something that's essentially said within the game, is that a society where every man fends only for himself and not for some form of greater good, is doomed to fail. Say what you will about religion, it's all about serving a higher power and doing the correct moral thing.

In addition to this, the characters introduced in Bioshock 2 (or what I've played of it) all seemed forced into the setting. Rapture had fallen, and almost everyone was dead by the beginning of Bioshock, and the survivors had turned the city into a warzone. With Bioshock 2 taking place ten years later, I find it hard to believe that the splicers would have survived another ten years fighting and killing each other constantly in a city that was falling apart. Plus, all the new characters seemed forgettable. I remember the characters from Bioshock one, even the minor ones. The deranged surgeon who likened himself to Picasso. The artist who had you hunt down and kill certain individuals on Rapture to use pictures of their corpses in his sickening art gallery. These characters are haunting, and sickening, and stay with you long after. I don't think any of the characters in Bioshock 2 had any of the same weight.

Now, the game isn't all bad. In fact, in pretty much every gameplay aspect, it's an improvement. The guns are all bigger and better and actually pretty fun to use, and the ability to have both a plasmid and a gun out at the same time is huge. But in a way, the guns are very telling of one of the games faults. Bigger and better syndrome. It just had to be bigger and better. Instead of a submachine gun, you get a machine gun. Instead of a pistol, you get a rivet gun. Instead of a wrench, you get a giant drill.

But none of these things are Bioshock 2's main problem. Bioshock 2's main problem is the protagonist, Alpha.

One of the most memorable aspects of Bioshock was the Big Daddies. The Big Daddies were giant monsters who usually wouldn't attack unless provoked, who guided the Little Sisters around Rapture as they collected Adam from the many dead bodies. They were scary. They felt big and heavy, with giant diving helmets, making loud noise and shaking the very ground as they walked near. You couldn't reason with one, you had no idea what they were thinking, they couldn't speak, only make bizarre grunts, and they didn't seem human. They felt more like an extension of the city itself. Not human, not even really beasts. You didn't have any idea what was going through their heads, if they could even think. They were one of the aspects that made Rapture seem the most alien.

Then Bioshock 2 made you one.

Suddenly, they lost all that effect. They felt human. If you were one of them, albeit a prototype one, then they were just as reasonable as you. Sure, for all intents and purpose they function the same as they do in the first game, but they feel different, knowing they can be reasonable. They aren't the same force of nature they were in the first game, they're just people. In a way, perhaps some may find that more disturbing, but they weren't really disturbing in the first game, just alien. The Little Sisters, now those were disturbing in the first game, but the Big Daddies? Not really.

Now, admittedly I haven't gotten far enough into the game to know what the Big Sisters are exactly (though I have my suspicions), but they aren't really scary either. Sure, they're deadly, but if the Big Daddies are just people they lose a lot of effect, and the Big Sisters probably are as well.

I mean, we knew from the first game Big Daddies were once humans, but I assumed they underwent some sort of brainwashing- In fact, I'm fairly sure there were audio logs confirming that they did.

Now then. I've said my piece on Bioshock 2, let's talk about Bioshock Infinite.

Ok, Bioshock Infinite, for those not in the know, is the new Bioshock game. It's a Gaiden Game in every sense. Now, let me start off here by saying I am cautiously optimistic about Bioshock Infinite. I'm not completely sold on the game yet, for reasons I'll go into in a moment, but it does have a really cool setting, art style, and it looks like it does some very cool things.

The game is going to take place on the floating city of Columbia. It's set about 30 years earlier than Bioshock, and it has nothing to do with Rapture, other than that apparently Rapture will someday be built in this universe. Columbia was built as a wonder of the world by the U.S.A., before it went rogue and started a war with China or Russia or something, at which point the U.S. denied any affiliation with it, saying it had gone rogue. Since then, Columbia has become a sort of bogeyman, floating around and attacking cities, hard to destroy with the technology of 1910, but very strong itself.

The setting is very steampunk, and the game looks cool aesthetically. It contains "Tonics" instead of "Plasmids" and features time manipulation as a main mechanic. The main character, as opposed to Bioshock or Bioshock 2, is not a silent protagonist, but a man fighting to survive on Columbia which seems to be experiencing a Rapture-style fall.

Now at first you might say, "Hey! Why wouldn't you love this to death? The game looks awesome and it addresses all the complaints you raised about the first game, even introducing new psuedo-cyborgs called Handymen instead of Big Daddies! The new setting will provide you a new interesting locale to explore, and a new story to enjoy featuring what seem like two great new characters named Booker DeWitt, a name that sounds like it came out of a 1940's detective serial, and Elizabeth, a name which is a name." To which I would, naturally, reply "Right you are theoretical yet very well informed person who is addressing my skepticism of the game. Now would you kindly tell me why the game is called Bioshock?"

It takes place years before Rapture was built, has nothing to do with any of the characters from Bioshock or Bioshock 2, takes place in the sky instead of in the ocean, features new villains, monsters, powers, characters, and gameplay mechanics, and according to some inside sources may even TAKE PLACE OUTSIDE THE BIOSHOCK TIMELINE ENTIRELY. WHY IS THIS NOT A NEW FRANCHISE CALLED COLUMBIA? I mean sure, I'd be calling it a Bioshock clone if it were a new franchise entirely, but there's nothing wrong with being a Bioshock clone! Some of my best friends are Bioshock clones, although admittedly they have the advantage of containing Batman. (Note: That's not quite fair, Arkham Asylum is more like Splinter Cell with a Bioshock skin pasted on, and then a Batman paint job.)

The idea of a Bioshock like game taking place in a steampunk city in the skies isn't a bad one at all. In fact, like I said, the game looks gorgeous. There's like a robot dragon on a giant floating city, for crying out loud, how can that not be cool? But it just doesn't seem like this game has anything to do with Bioshock itself.

I really do think Bioshock Infinite looks like a lot of fun, and they are doing some interesting things with the mechanics, like having Elizabeth be with you the whole time, mind you if they mess that up at all this game will be awful, and we all know how easy it is to mess up escort missions since there hasn't been a good escort mission in the history of gaming. Ok, Half-Life 2's Episodes, but being put up next to a Valve game for comparison means you have some pretty big shoes to fill!

There's nothing wrong with Gaiden Games (games which, though set in the universe of one game, are their own stories with little interaction outside of reference to the main series), I mean fans of this blog will know how big a fan of Portal I am, and that's a Gaiden Game to Half-Life, but the best Gaiden Games feature new settings that fit in flawlessly to the main universe. I have no difficulty believing Aperture Labs exist within the world of Half-Life, nor that the Combine were kept out by GLaDOS. I have no problem accepting it when Cave Johnson rants about Black Mesa stealing Aperture's experiments. But part of the point of Bioshock was that it seemed like the world outside Rapture was just like our own, with the exception of, well, Rapture existing. If Columbia existed and these Tonics which rewrote your genome already existed, why was finding Adam and creating Plasmids a big deal in the first place? And if it's true that this doesn't even take place in the same universe as Bioshock, then I ask again, why is it called "Bioshock" Infinite? It seems like a cash in to me, that's all.

This would quite possibly be the game I'm look forward to the most if I didn't have a feeling of dread that Infinite is simply going to be either another game that retcons the original Bioshock in a way which quite simply makes it less good, or it's going to be something completely different that shoves in a cameo from the main Bioshock world using the time manipulation powers. Seriously, I wouldn't be surprised at all, since we already know that at certain points Booker and Elizabeth get pulled through portals to different time periods like the 1980's, if at one point you get pulled onto Rapture for five minutes, fight a Big Daddy, and then get flung back to Columbia and act like nothing happened.

I wouldn't be surprised, but that's not to say I wouldn't be angry.

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