Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water
If you’re old enough to remember the above tag line, and can name the movie that it escorted to a kind of breathless box office pulchritude in the summer of 1978, congratulations; you’re a dinosaur. Welcome to the club, and save me a haunch of iguanodon. I’ll show you the super-secret handshake later.
Jaws 2 made almost $10,000,000 in its first weekend; a paltry sum by today’s standards, but considering that it opened in only 640 theaters, and that an adult ticket cost about two bucks back then, I’d say that it did all right. With the exceptions of Richard Dreyfus and Robert Shaw (Dreyfus was shooting Close Encounters of the Third Kind with Steven Spielberg, and Shaw’s character Quint could only have returned in flashback, if you know what I mean), it brought back many actors from the original cast and went on to earn over $200,000,000 worldwide. It wasn’t a bad movie in itself, but the only way it could have stood up to the original was if Adam Baldwin loomed menacingly behind it and silently pounded one fist into an open palm; basically, the worst thing about Jaws 2 was its inevitable comparison to the original, and of course the salt-spattered litter of squirming celluloid rejects that it spawned in later years.
Sticking a “2” in the title is almost the kiss of death when it comes to judging the quality of a sequel, whether we’re talking about books, films, or video games; the first thing the numerical title sequence is going to accomplish is to beg a comparison to everything that has come before. This is because judging a game on its own merits isn’t easy, especially if your biggest reason for playing it is that it’s a sequel to a game that you loved. Bioshock 2 is no exception.
By no standard can Bioshock 2 be called a bad game. It looks good (in spite of some muddy environmental textures), controls well, and tells a solid story, all while keeping the player’s head firmly immersed in the game world — there are no quicktime events, no rapid button-pressing, and thankfully, no intrusive cutscenes that rip you out of the action simply because you walked across a room. In fact, as far as the presentation goes, I’d say it’s as close to perfect as a game can get; it spins a convincing narrative without whanging you over the head with line after line of insipid, badly acted dialogue and character animation that looks more at home in Madame Tussaud’s living room than in what’s supposed to pass for convincing entertainment. CGI characters cannot act, and it bugs the fruity Christmas fuck out of me when developers try to shoehorn that uncomfortably square peg into the soft round hole of my dramatic expectations. Thankfully, 2K Marin, 2K Australia, 2K China, and 2K Uzbekistan along with Arkane Studios, Digital Extremes, and BF Goodwrench, have largely spared us the pathetic spectacle of watching 1s and 0s trying to mimic the accomplishments of Olivier and Brando, by keeping the story where it belongs — firmly in the action, and for that I am extremely grateful.
One of the places where Bioshock 2 falls a bit flat is in its reliance on stationary set-pieces to heighten the tension; it’s way too fond of locking you in a room and forcing you to finish off every enemy in sight before being permitted to move on, which makes the single player experience feel far too much like it’s trying to emulate a multiplayer match. In addition, any game in which resource management is such a crucial component of survival (and, as a result, to the extrinsic enjoyment of the player) being forced to “deal with” three Little Sisters in one particular level was a cheap and shitty substitute for player-directed action, as it removes the possibility of moral ambiguity; in Dionysus Park, the player must either choose the morality of rescuing the Little Sisters, or the immorality of harvesting them, and thus cannot progress until a decision is made. For a game that wants players to take the “reins of authorship,” forcing a choice in that context was a real ass-move.
Like its spiritual ancestor Jaws 2, Bioshock 2 falls hardest in comparison to its predecessor, and since it is a sequel, such comparisons are not only inevitable, but necessary; Bioshock 2’s road to success was cut, cleared, and paved solely by the accomplishments of the first Bioshock, so an entirely objective evaluation is not only impossible, it would render an inequitable assessment of the first game, which had to earn its way based entirely on its own merit. If a game would reap the benefits of succession to an established, bestselling franchise, it must be prepared to be judged against that franchise, and in this context, Bioshock 2 is a vastly unworthy sequel.
Gone are the picturesque and contrasting locales of the first Bioshock, replaced with uniformly deteriorating settings whose humdrum similarity makes it difficult to distinguish one level from another. Gone are the numerous backstories, as characters like Sander Cohen and Diane McClintock are nowhere to be found; there are still plenty of audio recordings scattered throughout the levels, but the subplots contained therein are not nearly as compelling as those found in the first game. One tells the story of Mark Meltzer, a father who came to Rapture in order to find his kidnapped daughter; it’s a premise which one might expect to elicit a powerful emotional experience, but in the end it failed to do so because of the way the specifics of Meltzer’s story were handled. It could have been a perfectly engineered subplot, echoing and integrating the theme of the two games, which suggests that compromised principles and unchecked extremism lead to disaster, regardless of the philosophical spectrum that guides them, leaving only hapless victims like Meltzer and his daughter in their wake. Meltzer’s story accomplishes nothing of the sort, as it fails to hit any of the requisite emotional chords.
The graphics, though impressive in their own right, don’t compare well to those in the first game, either. Players will notice a slight blur on some environmental textures like walls and floors, and the vita-chambers don’t look as good as they did in 2007. Though the two console versions are visually similar, the sound in the Playstation 3 version lacks the fidelity and detail of its Xbox counterpart; water droplets pinging off the helmet of Subject Delta in the 360 version are notably muted on the Playstation 3, along with various other auditory discrepancies, such the sound occasionally cutting out when visiting vending machines.
Again, on its own, Bioshock 2 is a very good game, one whose biggest strength is also its greatest weakness; it simply cannot stand up to its older sibling, and since the first Bioshock is the only reason that Bioshock 2 exists in the first place, a comparison is inevitable, if not essential. As I learned with Mass Effect 2, objectivity is a two-way street, as you can enjoy a game for what it is, and at once bemoan everything it isn’t, but the latter is only likely to leave you frustrated. The only way I was ever able to even remotely enjoy Deus Ex: Invisible War was to judge it independently of the first Deus Ex, and anyone who held Bioshock in such exalted regard would be advised to do the same with its sequel.
Enjoy what it is, without lamenting what it isn’t, and you’ll have a great time.