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Way back when the HeadStuff Gaming section was still in its infancy I tapped Richard Drumm to write an article on BioShock for the game’s tenth anniversary. The article, I think you’ll agree, is a satisfying vindication of everything that BioShock did well and an evisceration of everything that tried to copy it. Now, two years later I find myself in the unenviable position of having to write a lesser article about the lesser sequel: BioShock 2. The sequel found itself floundering in the same waters as its predecessor’s imitators did. That is to say it became the butt of the phrase that made BioShock so iconic: “A man chooses, a slave obeys”.
Ten years after his hypnosis induced suicide Subject Delta – one of the armoured carers of the ADAM gathering Little Sisters known as a Big Daddy – wakes up. With his vitals fading Delta must traverse the crumbling undersea city of Rapture in search of Eleanor, his original Little Sister, the only one capable of ensuring his survival. Intent on stopping him is Sofia Lamb, a supposedly altruistic psychologist with delusions of collectivizing Rapture’s population into one big Family using Eleanor as a mental conduit. Delta must rescue Eleanor, defeat Lamb and escape Rapture before the whole city falls into the abyss.
Despite the high concept, End of Evangelion-esque ideals held by Lamb BioShock 2’s story was relatively simple. There was no revolutionary movement to complicate things and nor were there multiple villains that were either willing to die for their impossible beliefs or turn Rapture into their own underwater Xanadu. There was only Delta, Eleanor and Lamb. The game would almost have been a short, straight line were it not for the numerous supporting characters and the need to help them in order to move the game forward. Still, it’s characters like Grace Holloway, Stanley Poole and Augustus Sinclair that make the story of the BioShock games fun and interesting even if they didn’t compare to Sander Cohen.
BioShock 2, by virtue of it being a BioShock game, is still better than the numerous BioShock imitators that have come and gone in the last dozen years. Lamb’s ideology requires a bit more thought than it should to really figure out and it pales in comparison to the grand but well-explained ideals of Andrew Ryan’s brand of Objectivism. Even so the BioShock games ideology and politics aside were always games with one main narrative thrust: fathers and daughters.
Whether it was the bare bones story of Jack saving or harvesting the Little Sisters in the original, the more developed tale of Eleanor and Delta in 2 or the gripping, heart-wrenching odyssey of Booker and Elizabeth in Infinite the series has always had a focus on the relationship between fathers and daughters. Both appear in many forms from the Little Sisters to the Big Daddies and from Atlas to Songbird but Delta and Eleanor would be the first time in the BioShock series that these very broad archetypes became proper characters.
Much like the previous game BioShock 2 offered players a choice between saving or harvesting each Little Sister you rescued (read: violently freed from an opposing Big Daddy). Saving them gave you less ADAM but would reap dividends later on in the game. Meanwhile harvesting, despite it’s immoral cruelty, gave you more ADAM right then and there. These two choices didn’t add up to much beyond the two game’s binary good and evil endings and it would be scrapped altogether by the time Infinite came out but it was a good way to tie themes to gameplay in an era that was still very much defined as gameplay over story.
Like a lot of games from 2010 BioShock 2 is showing its age. Even with the remastered edition packaged in The BioShock Collection in 2016 (four years ago, Jesus Christ) the cracks are showing through the glossy new paint. It was never a question of graphics, Rapture still looks unique and beautiful in a way no other game ever really tried to capture. It’s more the mechanics of the game itself. BioShock 2 doesn’t move as fast as it used to. It’s hacking mini-games and cap on resources like money, health kits and EVE hypos feel distinctly old-fashioned when put next to its frenetic firefights.
Although BioShock Infinite moved faster than both its predecessors combined BioShock 2’s combat still manages to feel like fighting through absolute chaos. Firing off shotgun rounds, rockets and bees in those tight corridors and having to constantly switch between weapons due to limited ammo gave the game a desperate, claustrophobic feel. In certain sections it would open out into larger arenas and pit you against one or more of the new Big Sister enemies. These shrieking sirens in lighter armoured suits were vicious enemies even on lower difficulties. Where the splicers and security bots could be easily plowed through with the right tactics the Big Sisters required everything in Delta’s arsenal to take them down.
BioShock 2 can be summed up as less than its original. How else can you compare it to one of the greatest and most influential games ever made? BioShock Infinite stood on its own because it’s world, despite shared themes, was aesthetically and ideologically different from where the series had sprung from. BioShock 2 felt like the weak left arm of the series compared to Infinite as the strong right hand. It feels like a Little Sister riding on her Big Daddy’s shoulder. Although it actually developed its main characters beyond rescuer and rescued it remained in the shadow of its older, smarter sibling proving that in some cases logic trumps love.
There is a new BioShock game in development. Much like Ubisoft 2K see all their properties as limitless franchises. It’s worth asking what a new BioShock will look like when it’s eventually shown? It’s also worth asking whether we really need one? A great many franchises are doomed to repeat on past successes with increasingly limited returns. We’re far enough away from Dark Souls 3 now that we can admit that it mostly felt like a greatest hits collection. It was similar with BioShock 2, why bother returning to Rapture when there was so little left to tell? Sure the DLC Minerva’s Den was an exciting, emotional addition but BioShock is filled with dozens of these small stories and a return to that arrogant city beneath the waves would feel banal. After all as a very altruistic woman once said: “The Rapture dream is over…”