As we get closer to BioShock 2's February release, 2K Marin is finally opening up a bit about its upcoming sequel to BioShock. The original game was a careful balance of stunning design, rich story, and solid gameplay that surprised and delighted players. This time out there's a slightly different mix to the qualities that made the original game special. While there's still gorgeous design, the city of Rapture feels like a familiar place. While there are still some very cool things to surprise and delight players, a fair amount of BioShock 2's punch is going to come from its story, which we can say, now that we've played a bunch of the game, is rich and disturbing. The downside to this is that previews will be spoiler minefields from here on out. We'll go ahead and drop a spoiler warning here and say that while we'll try to be sensitive, expect spoilage ahead.
Our look at the Xbox 360 version of the game started up right after the game's opening cinematic (which 2K is still keeping under wraps), in a sequence titled "10 Years Later". While the basic opening is similar to what we saw back in April for our first look, the sequence was now properly dropping into the game as opposed to a demo of edited gameplay designed to showcase various aspects of BioShock 2. You'll still be roused to consciousness by Dr. Tennenbaum, last seen in the original game, who still hasn't quite gotten her people skills down. You'll get a quick, inelegant rundown of your situation: You're a big daddy that has had his free will restored, and Tennenbaum needs you to haul tail to reach her. Your journey will send you through parts of Rapture that have never been seen, to find her in the old mass-transit terminal.
Your trek starts in the Adonis Luxury Resort, which has clearly seen better days. The once-fabulous spa is now run-down and awash with hazards in the form of splicers. While they are a problem, the splicers aren't the life-threatening issue you faced at the start of the original game, but they do have numbers on their side, so some caution is required. This early part of the game is the tutorial to get you reacquainted with the core gameplay and introduce you to the special hotness of the big daddy, such as the assorted weapons you can use and your drill. The early section also introduces the new hacking mechanic in the form of the hacking dart, which lets you use a funky rabbit-eared contraption to hack mechanisms. The device lets you go into the new hacking minigame by targeting a lock or machine or by getting up close to it, which will let you call up the minigame interface. This time out the minigame has been changed up some and requires timed button presses. You'll need to stop a needle that's moving side to side on green or blue patches on a meter. If you can stop the needle on the blue patches, you'll get a bonus of some kind depending on what you're hacking, such as an extra item from a vending machine or increased damage for security bots.
The early run through the resort also lays out quite a bit of story groundwork via the many voice recorders you'll discover. As before, you'll hear from a diverse array of voices from assorted Rapture residents who, as before, have felt compelled to record their personal thoughts on recorders. The picture that's painted from these recordings is, unsurprisingly, a troubled one. You'll hear pedestrian concerns about someone's day-to-day job or one side of a bickering couple. While all this is an expected storytelling mechanic, there's a new thing that happens as you explore, which piqued our interest. You'll be addressed by the apparition of a young girl named Eleanor, who, you'll discover, is the little sister you've been bonded to. She communicates in visions that yield useful info or items but that make clear she is calling for you as well as guiding you to escape Rapture.
This unique new element to the narrative raises a wealth of questions that, in some cases, only raise more questions when you get answers. For example, Eleanor's full name is Eleanor Lamb, which makes her relationship to the game's new villain, Sofia Lamb, pretty clear…or so it seems. Without spoiling too much, we'll just say that if you thought the Ryan family tree was messed up in the last game, the Lambs are the kind of next level of crazy you'd find on The Jerry Springer Show. Beyond that, it's clear that Eleanor's pretty different from the other little sisters, which is saying something considering what a "normal" little sister is like. More importantly, the residents of Rapture have a very unhealthy fixation on her.
But while the family-tree shenanigans are a big part of the BioShock 2 story experience, the larger issue is the big sister, the big-daddy-killing adolescent terminatrix that we've seen since the game was announced. Our time in the game led us to a confrontation with her that resulted in a window-smashing flood that let us walk outside Rapture for a bit and check out the awesome sights of the city from another perspective. In speaking with 2K Marin reps during our demo, it turns out that this sister is one of several bosses you'll face, although one in particular is going to be a distinct, possibly recurring, problem for you that you'll deal with over the course of the game.
Following the big sister battle and underwater stroll, you'll wind up back in Rapture, again guided by Tennenbaum, and headed for the Atlantic Express section, which houses the city's old mass-transit system. It seems Lamb's rise to power has resulted in a distinct drop in bathysphere usage, mostly because she's having them destroyed, which leaves the subway system one of your only options. The main terminal is where Tennenbaum is hanging out. We're not entirely sure why Lamb doesn't have her taken out, but we expect that's one more thing to discover over the course of the game. The journey to Tennenbaum also introduces you to the various ammo types and weapon upgrades that will be available. We're pretty taken with the trap rivets, which are essentially proximity-sensitive damage dealers you can leave behind to take out enemies. These become key when you're using an adopted little sister to harvest ADAM from a corpse. The rush of enemies that storm you when you set her down and she goes about her business is pretty rough, despite your plasmids and arsenal of weapons, even early in the game. As a result, you'll need trap rivets, upgraded weapons, and security bots in play to survive. We can only imagine it will be tougher farther in, so fans should brace for that.
Our demo ended with a meeting with Tennenbaum, who is holed up in one of the offices in the station with a group of freed little sisters. The pushy doctor is clearly not big on thanks and sends you on your way to another part of the city. The journey dovetails into the Ryan Amusements level we saw not too long ago. The last batch of voice recorders we hit prior to the end of the section of the game that we saw raised some pretty provocative questions about your identity, above and beyond being a big daddy prototype. Much like how Eleanor seems a bit off from her peers, you're a pretty unique individual too, which left us wondering how bad (or good) a thing that is going to turn out to be.
We've waxed poetic on the visuals in BioShock 2 before, so we won't dwell on them too much. The game looks pretty fantastic thanks to the smart marriage of tech and art direction. You'll see a ton of detail complemented by moody lighting and water effects. Your view of the world as a big daddy doesn't differ too much from the original BioShock, although there are new effects in play when your adopted little sister is guiding you to an ADAM-rich corpse for harvesting. There's also a satisfying array of special effects for weapon and plasmid fire, as well as your trusty drill. In our incomplete version of the game, the action zipped along at a good clip regardless of how nutty the action got onscreen.
BioShock 2's audio is sticking well in line with the high standard set by the original game. The voice acting is top-notch. The music and ambient audio are sounding great and, as before, are used effectively in combination with good old-fashioned silence to set the mood. The score has a nice mournful tinge to it that fits comfortably with what we played. There have been some tweaks to the audio effects that change things up a little. For example, we noticed that once you hack a security bot to follow you around, the incessant buzzing has been toned down considerably. We were also digging the sound warping that happens when you're walking on the ocean floor or submerged. So far we have to say we're pleased with where the game's audio is going.
Based on what we played, BioShock 2 is looking like the sort of follow-up fans of the original game will want. There's plenty of quality time to be spent going through Rapture and plenty of new locations to creep you out as you explore. More importantly, the story seems to be balancing a faithful nod to what has gone before but is taking it into some richly messed-up territory. Like its predecessor, BioShock 2 seems tailor-made to put those thinking of starting up their own utopian society right off the notion. We've definitely been left wanting more, and we expect fans will too. Look for more on BioShock 2 in the weeks leading to its February release on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.