Seasteading didn't quite work out for libertarian ideologue Andrew Ryan in BioShock, the creepy game released in 2007 to widespread acclaim. Ryan's underwater utopia collapsed, thanks in part to genetic enhancements that gave superhuman powers to the denizens of Rapture, turning it into a saltwater kill zone.
In BioShock 2, one of the most anticipated game sequels ever, you awake eight years after the original left off. You're missing all your memories but you know what you are: a Big Daddy, one of the giant, metal-suited monstrosities that kept order in Rapture before the fall.
See also:First Look: BioShock 2 Takes Bold Trip Back to Rapture
Who are you? Where's your Little Sister? Plenty of obstacles float between you and the truth. Drugged-out Splicers still roam the city, and there's a new antagonist: a hard-left propagandist who believes in collectivism by any means necessary. And she's got an army of Big Sisters aimed at taking you down.
Wait a minute. Big Sisters?
There's been a major change to the sequel's story line since the last time we looked at BioShock 2. Originally, the central character was Big Sister, one of the creepy little enslaved girls from the first game that had come back to Rapture with a hidden agenda.
Big Sister was envisioned as something like Terminator's T-1000: a nearly impossible-to-defeat enemy that would stalk the player throughout the game. BioShock 2 lead level-designer J.P. LeBreton says that this idea was scrapped for reasons that had to do with both the gameplay and the story line.
"In the game, when the player defeats a Big Daddy, they get that satisfaction, that reward," he says. "What we didn't want was a scripted story boss to show up every level without fail and then run away, and constantly deny you that."
As for how the increase in number of Big Sisters will affect the game's story when BioShock 2 arrives in 2010 (it's slated for release on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC on Feb. 9), 2K Games isn't saying anything.
The company's silence is for the best. For many of us who played the first game, the wholly unexpected plot twists proved to be its strongest and most compelling aspect.
For all its tangled narrative strings, BioShock's most profound climactic moment didn't have much of anything to do with Randian objectivism or the relative merits of saving or harvesting creepy barefoot children. It was when we found out that our main character was a puppet, following all the hypnotic suggestions of the game's antagonist.
In that moment, the medium became the message: BioShock drove home the point that as videogame players, even in a game that leads us to believe that we are making autonomous choices, we're still just doing whatever the game tells us to, killing whoever we're told to kill, just as long as it tells us to in such a way that we never question it.
Can BioShock 2 pull off that feat again? Our somewhat limited hands-on experience with the sequel isn't about to answer that question. What it did show is that we're about to get another taste of Rapture's ruined underwater paradise, with all the highly detailed scenery and trappings that made exploring it such a chilling pleasure last time.
From the first loading screen — in which the snappy, upbeat lyrics of 1940s period music stands in sharp contrast to the oppressive gloom and decay — you know you're back. The BioShock 2 demo saw us exploring Ryan Amusements, a learning museum for the children of Rapture. In true Ryan style, it's actually a propaganda pit: It teaches children all about the oppressive world of big government and welfare, to thoroughly scare the crap out of them in the hopes that they'll never want to leave the city.
If you'd just like to blaze through the museum and finish the mission, you can. But BioShock 2 is filled with lots of extra story for players who want it. Throughout the game, you'll find audio diaries left by citizens that will flesh out various aspects of the story. In this particular level, you'll be able to stop at all the museum exhibits and watch as the animatronic robots act out little scenes, telling the story of how Rapture was built and fleshing out Ryan's political philosophies.
Of course, Ryan isn't in charge anymore (the last game's main character beat him to death with a golf club). The antagonist this time is Dr. Sophia Lamb. She's as hard-core as Ryan about her political ideology, but at the other extreme.
Lamb's brought back the Big Daddies and Little Sisters into Rapture, and they're all part of her plan. As a rogue Big Daddy with free will, you'll end up having to fight your brainwashed brothers, because you're the wrench in Lamb's plan. You weren't supposed to still be around.
In fact, your Little Sister is a big part of whatever Lamb's cooking up. Her followers have built churches in Rapture, all devoted to worshiping your Little Sister, who they believe will lead them to salvation. "She's gotten a hook into people's minds in a very different way than Ryan did," LeBreton says.
Meanwhile, there's Sinclair, a guy in your earpiece on the radio who's telling you what you need to do to keep progressing in the game. BioShock players know not to trust people like this, but for now, he's all you've got.
"Sinclair is this guy who contacts you early on because he realizes that you and he have a common interest," says LeBreton. "Friendly but sort of shady, he's part of this organization that gets stuff done no matter the costs ethically. He's a pragmatist who sits in contrast with the other characters of the world," who are ideologues.
As the demo begins, Sinclair lets you know that if you're going to escape the propaganda playground, you'll need the Incinerate power. Plasmids, the aforementioned suite of genetic enhancements, are again a big part of BioShock's first-person shooter gameplay. As a Big Daddy, you've got a couple of awesome built-in weapons. There's your massive drill-hand, which you can use to charge enemies and put big holes in them, but it requires fuel. And there's your rivet gun. But you'll also need to splice your genes to do things like throwing fire or freezing people into blocks of solid ice.
Before you get hooked up with Incinerate, you'll need to creep through the museum, taking out the insane Splicers that still roam the halls, finding audio diaries, listening to Sinclair's and Lamb's rantings and generally soaking up the atmosphere.
BioShock isn't specifically a horror game, but the original had some great cheap, scary moments. So did this demo: At one point, while exploring the women's bathroom (what, like that's not the first thing you do in any game?), I looked up from a toilet stall to see, perfectly outlined in a flickering shadow, a Splicer with an ax raised, ready to strike. I wheeled around frantically, having not seen it coming.
What you'll always see coming are the monstrous Big Daddies. As with the previous game, until you attack them, they won't hurt you. So when you see one gallivanting about with his Little Sister, you'll have time to prepare by healing yourself and buying ammunition from the vending machines that are scattered about the world.
Like in the last game, you can "hack" any of these machines to give yourself lower prices. This mechanic has been totally changed — instead of playing an occasionally lengthy puzzle game, you play a very short, timing-based game in which you attempt to stop a fast-moving needle in the green area of a gauge. Hit green and the hack is successful; hit red and you'll just damage yourself in the attempt. Hit the very small blue areas and you'll get a bonus.
Once you take down a Big Daddy, you have the choice of either adopting or harvesting his Little Sister. This isn't as simple a choice as in the last game, because if you decide to adopt her, you'll actually have to accompany her around the level as she gathers more Adam, the extremely important substance that lets you upgrade your genetic abilities.
This means finding a dead body and protecting your Little Sister for a short span of time while she goes to work. At this point, you'll want to use some of the booby traps in your arsenal, like "trap rivets" that will explode on contact with invading Splicers who want the Adam for themselves. This adds a different gameplay mechanic, one in which the enemies won't stop coming and you can't leave your position until the harvest is done.
If all this sounds like a bit too much to deal with, you can just harvest the Little Sister, killing her and taking her Adam. But BioShock has a way of causing bad moral choices like that to come back and bite you in the ass later.
Either way, Lamb doesn't like you being involved with her Little Sisters: No matter what you do, a Big Sister is going to eventually come after you. You don't get extra time to prepare for these fights, and the Big Sisters are faster, stronger and more deadly than any Big Daddy. They'll jump around the level and raise hell while you're desperately trying to take them down.
After our 90 minutes in the world of BioShock 2's single-player game, we got to try the new multiplayer mode. This is something of a persistent online experience — rather than just jumping in and playing a few matches, you're actually building up your character's array of weapons and Plasmids every time you play. The next time you jump in, you'll be more powerful.
We saw three different types of multiplayer. Two of them, deathmatch and team deathmatch, probably don't need to be described. You can create custom "loadouts," combining the different gear and abilities at your disposal, then swap between these sets every time you die, which will probably be pretty often.
Some abilities let you recharge your health faster, or dash and jump away from enemies with superhuman speed. The original BioShock's "research" mechanic, in which you take photographs of dead enemies, makes a return here. Taking a picture of a corpse from another team lets you get a damage bonus on them once they've respawned.
The most interesting multiplayer mode thus far is a variation on Capture the Flag, but what you're capturing is a Little Sister. Each round, one team tries to capture the Little Sister while the other tries to defend her.
The team on defense will begin each round with a random member appearing as a Big Daddy. And unless this person is a total stupid idiot, you'll have to band together with your team to kill him before you even attempt to take the Little Sister, as the Big Daddy will pretty much always be able to stop anyone from getting near her if he stays by her and protects her.
I can't say I'm entirely sold on the idea: Multiplayer mode in BioShock seems like it was added purely for marketing concerns, as if the game wouldn't sell enough as a purely single-player experience. If it gets the sequel into more people's hands, that's probably worth it. But from my time with both modes, single-player seems like the big draw for BioShock 2.
My favorite part of that single-player demo was the moment that you learn about the Incinerate power. When you finally get your hands on Incinerate, there's a little sequence, like something out of Disney's Tomorrowland, that teaches you about the wondrous things you can do around the house with the ability to throw flames.
A nuclear family of mannequins sits around a fireplace. Just ignite the wood and give them a nice toasty fire, says the tinny voice over the PA. So I do, but unfortunately the little window display has fallen apart and been vandalized over the years. Specifically, an oil spill in front of the fireplace catches ablaze and lights the whole family on fire, burning the mannequins to a blackened crisp.
It's a perfectly BioShock moment: A tutorial for how to use a vital gameplay mechanic that simultaneously fleshes out the story while delivering a bit of commentary on the unintended consequences of progress.
If 2K can keep that level of subtlety and surprise up throughout the whole game, it could have a worthy follow-up on its hands.
Top image courtesy 2K Games
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It should go without saying, but just in case we'll say it now: Use your research camera! Simply starting your camera before a firefight will net you some pretty cool bonuses as you level up your research. Check out the various bonuses below.
|Level 1||Increased damage against thuggish splicers|
|Level 2||Increased wallet cap|
|Level 3||Increased damage against thuggish splicers|
|Level 4||Scrounger gene tonic|
|Level 1||Increased damage against leadhead splicers|
|Level 2||Slowed security response|
|Level 3||Increased damage against leadhead splicers|
|Level 4||Thrifty Hacker gene tonic|
|Level 1||Increased damage against Houdini splicers|
|Level 2||Easier to spot Houdini splicers when teleporting|
|Level 3||Increased damage against Houdini splicers|
|Level 4||Natural Camouflage gene tonic|
|Level 1||New drill dash ability|
|Level 2||Increased melee damage|
|Level 3||Increased damage against brute splicers|
|Level 4||Armored Shell 2 gene tonic|
|Level 1||Faster movement speed|
|Level 2||Spider splicer organs act as first aid kits|
|Level 3||Even faster movement speed|
|Level 4||Fountain of Youth gene tonic|
|Level 1||Increased damage against the alpha series|
|Level 2||Increased ammo carrying capacity|
|Level 3||Increased damage against the alpha series|
|Level 4||Elemental Storm gene tonic|
|Level 1||Increased damage against big daddies|
|Level 2||Increased drill damage|
|Level 3||Increased damage against big daddies|
|Level 4||Arms Race gene tonic|
|Level 1||Increased maximum EVE capacity|
|Level 2||Free health restoration after gathering ADAM|
|Level 3||Increased maximum EVE capacity|
|Level 4||Drill Vampire gene tonic|
|Level 1||Increased damage against security|
|Level 2||Double ammo on destroyed security|
|Level 3||Increased damage against security|
|Level 4||Deadly Machines gene tonic|
Gene Tonic Locations