Monday, 7 March 2011

Bioshock 2

In one sentence: the Bioshock 2 single player campaign has a worth while story, but the difficulty arc is very iffy.

Summary in more that one sentence:
Game play wise, innovation is comparable to Halo 2 verses it's predecessor, mostly just adding 'dual wield'. There are the same gruesome aesthetics one will have habituated to in the first title, and again they are juxtaposed with the cheery 50/60s style infomercials for deadly plasmid powers. However, the alternative game play section towards the end impressed me in that it genuinely shocked my sensibilities in a very artistic manner. I have not played, and am not commenting on, the multiplayer aspect. The ridiculous protection and Games for Windows Live situation I shall leave alone too.

"All good girls gather"...
Early in the game I found it very tough to successfully defend a little sister from splicers, while she harvested Adam, even on medium difficulty and after careful preparation of traps/defences. I was all out of money, heath packs, eve and trap ammo. But having struggled through, a few upgrades and various weapon acquisitions later, the same situations were far easier. Then the number and difficulty of enemies dropped right off before mid game, making my main problem having so much ammo and money I could rarely pick any up.

The research-your-enemies-while-fighting-them mechanic (inherited from good ole System Shock 2 - 1999) kept things a little more interesting, as in Bioshock 1. But, however diligent, it seems it would be near impossible to get some of them completed until right at the end. I finally obtained 'Armored Shell 2' gene tonic just in time for ending cut scene. I need not have bothered, as I had resorted to turn the difficulty up to full by that point, due to boredom (though it seemed to make little difference).

I think the game would have been better played at pace, rather than trying to find every morsel. One would miss many of the supplemental audio logs, and a few poetically macabre tableaux, but I expect the core of the story would be unaffected. It fact, it would probably feel more urgent and flow better overall, especially if you complete it all in a couple of days. The quick approach seems to have been catered for with the 'Drill Specialist' tonic (can't use projectile weapons, but more efficient eve use) however, I expect one would be continually running out of drill oil. Lacking all upgrades would also help make the game more challenging.

I don't mean to claim that I didn't die (and get revived) a few times towards the end, but that was mostly down to me getting lost in the process of flailing though the unruly selection of weapons/ammo/plasmids. Annoyingly the shortcut keys for the plasmids are forcibly reshuffled each time one is upgraded or added, and it's impossible (or very time consuming and fiddly) to put them back in the order you are used to. The alternative is to scroll through sequentially, but chances are that I would miss the one I wanted on first pass, then with 10 more slots to cycle through would find myself back in a 'vita chamber' before reaching it a second time. 'Turning off' the vita chambers in an attempt to make the game more challenging would thus have just made user interface failures more irritating (as well as contradicting various plot mechanisms).

The plot, the best aspect of single player, was pretty good but can't compete with the feel of originality that came with the first instalment. [Spoilers below!]

It examines the failure to achieve Andrew Ryan's envisaged utopia, effectively blaming inherent human weakness. Elanor Lamb (the Antagonist) attempts to create utopia through the a perfect individual: her daughter, filled up with the 'genetic memories' and abilities of all those trapped in Rapture. Utopia through a 'Utopian' feels like Hitler’s version of Nietzsche's √úbermensch. Indeed, Lamb sacrificed many loyal followers (and enemies) in pursuit of her supposedly selfless ideals.

In contrast to the libertarian theme of Bioshock, this sequel illustrates a tale of religiosity. It could be interpreted as saying that all humans are just one hopeless situation away from spontaneously believing the first crackpot evangelical to come along, to the extent of worshipping her as her girl slaves drain their life from them. Lamb's mind control plasmid perhaps complicates this matter. Her initial recruits to "The Rapture Family" cult (AKA "The Family") may have been through regular persuasion/manipulation, as an ingenious psychologist; she may have only resorted to more forceful, and sinister, means after Ryan had her incarcerated due to their extreme difference of ideals. This mirrors the real world insomuch as religions and big state governments have held tight (often tyrannical) control, suppressing more liberal ideals (which eventually win out through upheavals, etcetera).

A problem I found with the in game story telling of Bioshock was that It felt too disconnected from the reality of the game play, always following a long dead ghost trail, right up until the underwhelming confrontation with Ryan and then the over the top, uber-boss fight against Fontaine. Number 2 feels a little more alive, but it's still fairly unbelievable that anyone would actually be living in the environment, and there's a massive disconnect between the unscathed (and god like) main characters and the regular, messed up splicer canon fodder. It seemed like they were all zombie-morlocks in a Mad Max race to the bottom of a rotting corpse of a city 8 years ago, how the hell are there droves of them still left alive down here now?!

Back to Reality:
Sci/tech realism briefly: genetic memories are an order of magnitude more unbelievable to me than superpowers by injection, but what-the-hey. I will also leave alone the engineering impossibilities of a vast under-sea city, it's existence is an axiom for whole fictional tale, and it is a beautifully ominous setting.

My main criticism is of the implicit use of the lone genius theory of innovation [1] (and/or the 'Great Man Theory' of history [2]). Rapture is too small and isolated from the rest of the world to have forged *ahead* with science and invention (however unrestrained it's laws/morals); historically, cultures that have become physically separated from the rest of civilisation have *regressed*, because there's no long sufficient specialisation to fill all necessary roles (even long, long befre industrialisation) [3 - at 12min30s]. The pool of ideas (memes) is important above and beyond any individual, who can merely increment existing understanding/inventions. This failure of Bioshock dovetails with other subtleties, like the anachronism of the impossibly advanced control electronics and artificial intelligence displayed in the security systems.


N.B. All images are my in game screen captures.

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