How do you follow up the critical, commercial, and artistic success of 2007's BioShock? The narrative-driven shooter was one of those rare games that managed to balance art style, and gameplay into a cohesive package. The game's commercial success for 2K and the fans' demand for more pretty much guaranteed a sequel of some kind. So, as you can probably imagine, we've been curious to find out what's going on with the sequel, which is being developed by 2K Marin, a newly minted studio in the 2K stable created specifically to work on the game. Since Marin is just a stone's throw from GameSpot's home office, we stopped by the new studio to get a look at the game and chat with the team about its work on one of the most anticipated sequels of 2009. Please be advised that this preview may contain story spoilers.
In case you missed the original BioShock, the game was a moody, atmospheric shooter in which you played as Jack, a hapless individual who finds himself exploring the undersea city of Rapture--a place that sounded great in theory, yet took a turn for the worse after a seemingly random series of unfortunate events. The once-glorious city was founded by business mogul Andrew Ryan in the hopes of creating the perfect society. Sadly, these lofty ideals were no match for basic human nature, and a civil war between two factions left the city a twisted and ruined version of what it was once intended to be. Instead of being a bustling borough full of shiny, happy people, Rapture became a bleak and dangerous world forever altered by Ryan's genetic experimentation, populated by hostile mutants known as "splicers," genetic collectors known as "little sisters," and the gigantic metal monsters known as "big daddies." Another key aspect of the game was that it had a fairly self-contained story that ended pretty definitively. This posed a challenge for 2K Marin, but the studio has taken the world of BioShock and used it to tell a whole new story.
BioShock 2 is set roughly 10 years after the events in the first game and tiptoes around the various possible endings in BioShock. You play as a prototype big daddy freed from his conditioning by everyone's favorite meddling scientist, Dr. Tenenbaum. The creator of the little sisters has come back to Rapture out of a sense of responsibility for a recent wave of kidnappings. It seems that young girls are being kidnapped by a mysterious creature, a "big sister," and being taken under the sea. While the specifics of the story are still being kept under wraps, Tenenbaum clearly has some knowledge of what's happening and feels responsible. (And let's face it, the lady's a little screwed up in the head, so it wouldn't surprise us if she were at least partially to blame.)
From what we understand, Tenenbaum seems mainly involved with one little sister in particular. It seems that this new big sister might have been one of the original little sisters who were freed by Tenenbaum or Jack at the end of the first game--but who didn't really cope too well on the outside. For reasons that aren't clear, she returned to Rapture and, as a result of some undisclosed process, became the big sister. (And yes, it's safe to say that this creature is also pretty screwed up--spending most of your young life in the ruines of Rapture, harvesting the genetic substance known as "ADAM" will do that to you). Following her transformation, she apparently began heading out and started kidnapping girls. Again, the BioShock 2 team remained cagey about the exact story details but did let slip that the big sister may be working with--or for--a potentially important and powerful enemy character and that this important character may not even be the big bad boss of the game. At the start of the game, your role is as Tenenbaum's champion. The doctor tasks you with helping her free the little sisters who have been converted, as well as with stopping the big sister.
Our demo of the game, titled "Hunting the Big Sister," helped set up this part of the story. We began with Tenenbaum rousing us to consciousness via radio. This time around, your character's identity is made clear, as you see your character's reflection in a pool of water. However, you won't be a typical, off-the-shelf kind of big daddy. Those that played the original BioShock will remember the big daddies as lumbering powerhouses. But apparently big daddies were much faster and more versatile back in the day.
Tenenbaum's chatter is big on tough love and urges the newly awakened big daddy (that's you) to get going. We were able to see the behemoth start walking, much more quickly than the big daddies from the original game, and use his drill (which can be charged up to deal extra damage). But it was much more interesting to see the big daddy use firearms and plasmids. Apparently, before the design of the big daddy was finalized to the models in the original BioShock, these guys could pretty much do it all. We watched our boy as he lumbered around a new section of Rapture, and the team pointed out that the original game let you check out only a small part of the massive ruined metropolis.
BioShock 2 will not only let you revisit an old haunt or two, but you'll also be able to explore a whole new chunk of the city. One of the new spots you'll visit isn't even in Rapture itself--it's on the outside. A new gameplay mechanic lets you make use of your fancy diving suit to take a stroll around the outside of the city. The underwater segments are being incorporated into the game to offer a breather from the tension and the generally hazardous interior action. The short walk we saw as part of our demo let our boy gain access to another part of the city that would otherwise be inaccessible if he had simply stuck to the interior. The walks will be hazard-free and will give you the chance to check out the exterior of the city (which looks incredibly cool) as well as the surrounding ocean life. One of the more interesting and subtle details you'll see throughout the game is the impact that Rapture and ADAM are having on the larger sea environment. As it turns out, it's not a very pretty impact. Coral and plants are shaped oddly and mesh weirdly with the city. It's beautiful but also a little creepy.
The interior section our character then entered was part of Fontaine Futuristics, which fans may recognize as the place where the plasmids come from. The area looked like an unmistakable part of Rapture, being a combination of slick art deco and neon design--and rundown rubble. A little sister, one of the new models who wear dark dresses, was being menaced by some splicers, which we dispatched with our handy drill and firearm. Once she was saved, the little sister showed off one of the new perks of playing as a big daddy in BioShock 2: characters will react differently to you than they did to Jack. In the little sister's case, it was like she had just met an old friend...or Elvis. Rather than running away, she eagerly approached her savior, which called up a new set of moral choices. You'll once again have the option to harvest ADAM out of your little friends, but in the sequel, you'll also have the option to "adopt" them. This means they'll hang out with you and help you find sources of ADAM (you know, corpses). You'll use ADAM to enhance your abilities (though these abilities are still being kept under wraps). So, adopting little sisters seems like the smart thing to do. Once you've adopted one, she'll sit on your shoulders and enhance your vision, which will let you see where the ADAM is. Since you're the muscle, you'll have to take them to the source and get them to harvest it.
Harvesting is a new gameplay mechanic that will definitely offer a different experience from the previous game. To get ADAM, you'll have to set your little sister down and let her go to work. In the demonstration we watched, the game actually popped up a progress bar to let us know how far along our companion was in her collecting. Unfortunately, setting her down also serves as a starter's pistol for every insane slicer to come out of the woodwork to try to kidnap her and kill you. The action gets pretty nuts, but thankfully, you're a tank with feet, a drill, firearms, and even plasmids.
At this point, we had a chance to see more of the combat system--which should feel partially familiar to those who played BioShock. You'll be able to aim and shoot your firearms as well as use your handy drill--which we have to say looks very satisfying to use. As far as firearms go, you'll apparently be able to get access to the full suite of big daddy weapons seen in the original game, along with some tweaks and new surprises. As before, the weapons will be upgradable, and just like before, the more you build them up, the bigger and more menacing-looking they'll be.
The plasmids are, well, let's say they're a surprising new addition to BioShock 2. It just feels odd to see a big daddy wielding them, but after seeing the clown car's worth of splicers that came out of the woodwork to cause problems, we doubt anyone's going to complain too much about having a powerful genetic arsenal. We were able to see the incinerate, telekinesis, and cyclone plasmids in action. As before, the enhanced abilities can be leveled up, but this time, they can also be charged and combined. The charged version of the incinerate power, for instance, looks appropriately flashy. We also had a chance to see the cyclone and incinerate plasmids combined, which created fiery tornado traps that could be laid in the paths of our foes. These abilities all seemed crucial to fending off the horde of enemies. Unfortunately, the action caught the attention of the big sister, who showed herself in spectacular fashion.
Given the raw power and range of abilities of the big daddy you'll play as, the team felt the need to create a formidable predator. We saw hints of her handywork in the debris throughout the level, which included numerous battered big daddy corpses. But it wasn't until she popped into sight that we got a sense for how dangerous she is. The big sister is a lithe being that's unsettlingly thin but has a fat needle arm and a cage on her back to hold little sisters. She's fast and maneuverable and has special abilities of her own. In her brutal attack in the demo, she had what appeared to be a telekinesis plasmid, which she used with deadly accuracy. Though she initially seemed to just be stalking our character, we quickly realized that she had been herding him into a specific area by smashing glass and letting in the ocean. Before he could get his bearings, she unleashed a telekinetic barrage of debris and followed up with a mighty slam that temporarily incapacitated our hero. This is an impressive and menacing adversary, and her eerie animations, which resemble a cross between a splicer and a jungle cat, and her overall design, make her look like a very dangerous and disturbing foe.
The demo ended with our character in that particular peril. We'll assume he survives that encounter, since it's apparently part of the beginning of the game. But, later encounters? We'll see. As for what we didn't see, the team mentioned that you'll eventually meet up with other residents of Rapture--some spliced and some not--and find out more of the city's history before, after, and during the events of the original game. You can also expect to make use of vending machines again in some manner and even engage in hacking, although the team is remaining mum on how those systems will work. Moral choices will play heavily in everything that you do and will definitely change your experience in the game both in the short and long term--this should, like in the original BioShock, keep you thinking twice about your next move.
Visually, BioShock 2 looks quite solid--even though the demonstration was from an early Xbox 360 version of the game, it ran pretty smoothly and already looked impressive. At first blush, the visuals in BioShock 2 seem on par with those of the first game--but after carefully scrutinizing them, we saw many subtle improvements. Lighting has been polished up considerably, and the overall level of detail seems to have been increased, too. We're especially fans of the particle effects we saw both indoors and underwater. The game is using an enhanced version of the technology from the original game, which helps maintain the look and feel of the battered city. The architecture and design all stay true to the art deco aesthetics set in the original game but don't seem to be beholden to them. The passage of time has also apparently afforded the art team some creative license that is reflected in both the distressed look of city areas and in the clear signs of the ocean's inexorable push to reclaim its turf from the city. This isn't to say things are totally grim; the ocean sequences offer a chance to show off some gorgeous, detailed environments. However, since this is the sequel to BioShock, the beauty isn't perfect. Like we mentioned, the presence of ADAM has changed the ocean floor--you can expect to see some odd glowing things and other misshapen things when you go for your underwater constitutionals.
Splicers and little sisters also have new looks. In BioShock 2, the splicers have basically become walking advertisements against the long-term use of plasmids. The enemies look even less human--their bodies have mutated further in line with their behavior. So, for example, spider splicers have longer arms and legs. Little sisters sport darker dresses and look a bit more sinister, which may reflect the new process being used to create them.
The audio in the demo already seemed on par with that of the original game, so expect to hear more creepy ambient sound and lots of unsettling echoes when you return to Rapture. The voice acting we heard also seemed on the money--Tenenbaum and the splicers sounded comfortably familiar, and uncomfortably (but appropriately) unsettling. Of course, the prize for most unsettling voice in BioShock still goes to the little sisters, who continue to add their own special, weird charm to the game in a way that only small children who extract gunk from dead bodies with giant syringes can.
Based on our early look at BioShock 2, the sequel seems like it's headed in the right direction. It seems to be covering the bases it needs to in order to give the fans what they want, while also tossing in some intriguing new stuff. We're anxious to see how the new, old big daddy really handles and exactly how the big sister fits into the action. It should go without saying that we're also looking forward to exploring more of Rapture and seeing just where the story is going to go. If you were a fan of the original BioShock, there appear to be plenty of reasons to check out BioShock 2. Look for more on the game at the Electronic Entertainment Expo this June and in the coming months.