The first time I played BioShock 1 and 2 was years ago, on the Xbox 360. At the time, I remember enjoying the first game quite a lot, but not having the same warm feelings towards the second. In this convoluted year of 2022, I had an urge to replay the first two games after PS Plus was kind enough to offer the remastered collection. Having had the chance to learn more about BioShock's history, about game development, and mature my own taste in entertainment, this second playthrough was significantly different from the first. Because of that, I decided to come here to share my thoughts with you!
The following text contains SPOILERS.
One thing that I love about these games is how they throw the player right into the action. BioShock 1 opening scene has protagonist Jack falling victim to a plane crash in the middle of the ocean. He survives, though his fortune isn't much brighter when he steps into the bathysphere and he, along with us, is introduced to the wonderfully grim underwater city of Rapture.
The visuals are stunning! BioShock's graphics are beautiful even today, though I cannot help but imagine how much more breathtaking they could be with, say UE5 graphics! The aquatic life, the creatures roaming the corridors, the terrifying sound design, the ruined art deco environments, the biopunk atmosphere - Rapture has earned the crown of one of my favourite video game worlds, and I'm sure I'm not alone on this. It exudes so much personality, and despite being an arguably awful place to live, it boasts an irresistible charm. It's a city that you believe was built by those hypocritical, self-assured people, and when you start meeting Andrew Ryan and his team, it doesn't take long to see that their eventual downfall was obvious. After playing a number of games, I discovered that it's not so common to find fictional worlds with so much life (even if, in BioShock's case, most of this life is either dead or corrupted).
Take BioShock 2, for example. The setting is the same, but the Rapture in the second game isn't as memorable as the Rapture in the first game. I remember places like the Medical Pavillion with its insane J.S. Steinman and where we are introduced to many elements of the world, including our first Big Daddy fight. I remember Fort Frolic with its game machines and Sander Cohen, the crazed artist who asks for those macabre photographs of dead people. I remember Arcadia, its poisonous gas and how Andrew Ryan killed Julie Langford when she tries to help us save Arcadia. And I remember Point Prometheus where we assembled the pieces to become a Big Daddy and convince a Little Sister to help us progress to Fontaine. Now, when I think about BioShock 2, there aren't many locations that made an impression. There's Siren Alley that, for some reason, was the only area that I remembered from my first playthrough... but when I thought about revisiting it, it wasn't with joy.
I could have been the toast of Broadway, the talk of Hollywood. But, instead, I followed you to this soggy bucket. When you needed my star light, I illuminated you. But now I rot, waiting for an audience that doesn't... ever... come... I'm writing something for you, Andrew Ryan... it's a requiem. (Sander Cohen, Requiem for Andrew Ryan)
One of the reasons for this, I believe, is how dependable the second game is on what the first has built. Players were amazed by Rapture in BioShock 1, and when the second game came around, the developers thought that amazement would be enough to carry us on another exciting adventure. While the short swimming sections are pretty, when you compare the interior design of the locations, they look quite dull, like something you could find in other games.
The second reason is even more problematic.
Rapture in BioShock 2 is less compelling because we lack emotional attachment. All the supporting characters from BioShock 1 I mentioned above - J.S. Steinman, Sander Cohen, and Julie Langford - help to bring the world to life. Their personality is infused in the sector they are found, thus making Rapture itself one of the game's major characters.
Now, who do we have in BioShock 2? Secondary characters that work for Sofia Lamb and will be forgotten as soon as you either save or kill them and proceed to the next level.
Augustus Sinclair, our guide for the game, is also a cheap version of Atlas. Despite knowing about the twist, I found myself drawn to Atlas again because he's such a convincing character and a seemingly good person. Despite some hints along the way that Atlas isn't who he says he is (I love that after he mentions his family for the first time, we meet a Splicer acting like a mother to a baby doll), I doubted that many of us discovered his plot on our first play. And after he reveals himself as Frank Fontaine, he's still a good character, though in another sense - Greg Baldwin did such a terrific job voicing him (the whole cast of the first game does a great job, really).
Andrew Ryan, the main antagonist for the first part of BioShock 1, is a megalomaniac. He despises the political giants of the surface (US and Russia), as well as believes that organised religion hinders humankind's progress. Ryan created a society where people can fight for their happiness and their improvement. A society where people think of themselves as the centre of the universe. Or, as Ayn Rand (Russian philosopher whose writings originated the Objectivism, and who was a major source of inspiration for Ken Levine) wrote:
"If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject."
Major characters like Andrew Ryan and Brigid Tenenbaum (a literal Nazi geneticist who discovered ADAM and experimented on children to create the Little Sisters) have ideologies that many would consider twisted, but they aren't written as outright evil. More than once during my gameplay, hearing them speaking through audio logs or directly with Jack, I stopped to consider their perspectives, to inquire if they might be right. And even if I end up disagreeing with them, this philosophical discussion is another element that makes BioShock 1 so powerful.
BioShock 2, accidentally or not, went in the opposite direction. As much as Sofia tried to make me think sometimes, to question whether Subject Delta had the reason, she's a miserable, unsympathetic antagonist. When she debates with Andrew Ryan in the audio logs, they do have an interesting clash of ideals, but it all falls apart in the main narrative of the game.
Perhaps part of this is the narrative scale of the second game. While the first BioShock was more about Rapture itself, its inhabitants, and its fate, with some personal matters thrown in to spice things up, BioShock 2 is much more personal. Telling the story of Subject Delta and Eleanor Lamb, the game shrinks, and the whole plot orbits around this family drama.
Look, I love personal dramas. And this shift in focus could've worked well since the first game was mostly concerned with the broad life of Rapture. However, for this kind of narrative to succeed, the characters must work. We must relate to them. And, personally, I barely related to anyone in BioShock 2. Eleanor's struggle to help her father and then her transformation into a Big Sister was the most compelling part of the story for me, but Eleanor isn't our main character. She becomes more present in the last sequences of the game (arguably the best ones), and that's it.
Those supporting characters I mentioned were all worried about Eleanor and not allowing Subject Delta to get to her. We missed getting to know them as people instead of just Sofia's dummies. There is no depth to them - they're simply an obstacle in our path and you won't even be able to kill them if you want to get the trophies.
Even Tenenbaum, when brought back to the first level of BioShock 2, seems like a frail, good old woman who only wants to save the Little Sisters. And despite Tenenmbaum showing her concern over the girls in the first game and helping Jack, we all know she's no angel!
As my imagination ran wild with ways in which the story in BioShock 2 could've been better, I wondered how cool it would've been to play with Johnny Topside for, say, the first half-hour of the game or less. In quick scenes, we could've witnessed him arriving at Rapture, being seen as a celebrity just to be imprisoned by Ryan, and the genetic experiments he went through before becoming Subject Delta. I believe it would invoke more empathy than hearing Delta's backstory through other people. Then, perhaps they could've divided the story into Eleanor's drama and the city. Make Eleanor's transformation the halfway point, perhaps? Because BioShock 2 followed the plot points of the first with ridiculous faith (without the twists and turns, that is), but what worked for one, didn't work for the other.
Apparently, BioShock 2 went through some development issues, not to mention orders from the publisher, so maybe this wouldn't be possible... but one can dream!
I remember having some trouble with BioShock's gameplay when I first played it. I was used to more "dynamic" shooters, with options for cover and all that. It took me a while to get comfortable with the game's movements, but this second time, I didn't have nearly as much trouble. See, I'm no pro in BioShock warfare, but at least I can get around the controls with ease!
If there's one sphere where BioShock 2 surpasses the original game is the gameplay. I mean, the fact that you can wield both a weapon and a plasmid at the same time is already a huge improvement! Enemies are much more varied, the hacking is faster and has more options, the photographing mechanic is cooler to use, and adopting a Little Sister is a great way to expand on one of the best features of the first game.
One thing that I immediately realised while playing BioShock 2 is how game-y it feels. Sure, the first game also feels game-y sometimes, but here we go back to the lack of emotional investment. Go there, do this, pick this up, brings this to me. It sometimes felt like a supermarket list. Worst of all was when Stanley Poole asked us to "get rid of" three Little Sisters, which is something I'd do anyway, and because of it, that whole level felt quite unimaginative.
But there's some other thing that prevents BioShock 2's gameplay from being truly great. And maybe we can blame development hell (or the inexperience of the new team) for this, but think about it: we're playing as a Big Daddy, the fearsome mini-bosses from the first game! And still, playing as a Big Daddy feels the same as playing as Jack. I never felt the power I expected to feel as a Big Daddy; the power that I saw used against me in the first game. Such a waste!
CONCLUSION: It's easy to see why BioShock is considered one of the best games ever made. Its integration of story, mechanics, and environment makes it not only a great game but also a masterclass. The less-than-heroic cast is another example of how grey characters can be so much more interesting. The sequel, unfortunately, couldn't live up to its predecessor for what I assume are various reasons since this is not an uncommon occurrence in our games industry. Pressure from the players and the publisher definitely played a big role here - after all, how do you make a sequel to a game that was put on a pedestal? I didn't want to be on their skin! Despite BioShock 2 not being a great game, I had fun replaying both of them. And now I'm even more curious to see what's in store for the future of the franchise! Will we play as a Big Daddy again? Will Big Daddies and Little Sisters (or some other twisted family member) even play a role in the next game? So many questions!
Thank you all for reading, and feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below!