Creating a follow-up to what many consider the best game of 2007 is no easy feat. Neither is getting a sneak peek at that follow-up and then having to wait nearly four weeks to tell anyone about it.
But, hey, rules are rules. At an event in San Francisco in early October, 2K Games gave an extended look at BioShock 2, due out Feb. 9.
Jordan Thomas, the game's creative director, gave about a 20-minute demo that took place in the Siren Alley area of Rapture. Afterward, attendees were invited to play through one of the game's early portions, a level called Ryan Amusements, a theme park designed by Rapture creator Andrew Ryan that served as a "propaganda paradise to scare [children] out of going to the surface and spoiling the secret of Rapture to the world," Thomas said.
Story: The plot takes place 10 years after the fall of Rapture, the undersea paradise-turned-distopia inhabited by genetically mutated "splicers," ghoulish Little Sisters and their protectors, the Big Daddies. Sofia Lamb, a psychologist and political rival to Rapture's creator, the late Andrew Ryan, has taken over the city. Where Ryan believed one should act in one's own self-interest, Lamb espouses the idea that we have a "moral obligation to the world entire," Thomas explained during the demo. "We like to think of Rapture as the sort of the place where good ideas, when taken to the extreme, turn monstrous," he said.
Amid all of this, the player assumes the role of a prototype Big Daddy who has been awakened and given free will. His focus is to find the Little Sister to whom he was once bonded, but "as the player closes in on his former Little Sister, he realizes she's not just important to him, she's important to the entire city."
New enemies: Because much of Rapture is flooded, the goal in Siren Alley was to find a pumping station to rid the area of excess water. Standing in your way, however, was one of Lamb's lieutenants, a half-crazy (and in Rapture, who isn't?) cult leader.
Before getting to him, though, we were introduced to some new enemies. Since we needed Adam, we had to find a Little Sister. That meant defeating her Big Daddy protector. In BioShock 2, there's a new kind of Big Daddy, the defense-minded Rumbler. Again, as long as you don't attack him, he ignores you, which gives you the chance to properly arm yourself and prepare. Once provoked, the Rumbler will lay down a perimeter of mini-turrets and fire at you from behind a powerful bazooka. To combat this, the demo showed the player summoning Security Bots to help defeat the Rumbler.
Later in the demo, we came across a Brute splicer, who, Thomas explained, had been splicing himself stronger and stronger since the events of the first game. Because he's essentially at the "top of the Adam food chain," he's much more difficult to defeat than regular splicers, often throwing objects or charging you as a means of attack. To address criticism that splicers' behavior tended to be too predictable in the first BioShock, the enemies now will come at you with in a variety of ways, both offensively and defensively. (In the demo I played, a note popped up on screen that said, "Beware, a splicer is trying to heal at a health station." I got him good.)
Finally, there are the Big Sisters, as dangerous as Big Daddies but otherwise opposite in nearly every way. Lithe and quick, they come looking for you after you've rescued or harvested a Little Sister. In a way, their presence serves to address the complaint that going up against a Big Daddy just doesn't sound as daunting when your character has become one himself. It was a point the developer obviously wanted hammered home: Yes, the protagonist is much stronger, but, this time, Rapture is much meaner.
"We wanted the Big Sister to not be just like another Big Daddy," said JP Lebreton, the game's lead level designer. "We wanted her to be fast, to be agile, to be scary. She's darting around the environment, she's jumping off walls, she's jumping down off balconies or behind you. A lot of people are saying, 'Well, if you're a Big Daddy, what do you have to be scared of? You're the most powerful thing in the environment.' It's like, well, no, wait a minute. There's this other thing. You're a big, strong dude, but these Big Sisters are a whole different level of challenge for you. And they hunt you."
Weapons: In this respect, the biggest change to the game is being able to wield weapons and plasmids independently and simultaneously. As a Big Daddy, you come equipped with a drill, so if melee combat is your thing, do so Big Daddy-style: First freeze your enemy, then drill him to pieces.
Your other main weapon is a rivet gun. One type of rivet ammunition allows you to shoot rivets so they stick in the ground or on a wall; when an enemy approaches, they act as a sort of proximity mine. Other weapons include a machine gun and a spear gun, with which you can fire rocket spears, projectiles that embed themselves in enemies and cause them to fly around the room before exploding.
There are new uses for plasmids, too. In one instance, the demo showed the player setting some traps for enemies by using Cyclone and combining it with Winter Blast – unsuspecting splicers would wander into the mini tornadoes, freeze, get blown into a wall and shatter. Sure, afterward you can't collect anything off the bodies, but it's a small price to pay for iced splicers.
Combat and strategy: Once you capture a Little Sister, you can choose to harvest her on the spot or adopt her. If you pick the latter option, she hops on your shoulder and becomes a guide to bodies from which you can harvest Adam, the substance that's necessary to gain new plasmids and tonics. Clicking a button allows you to see a "pheromone scent," the path that leads you to Adam-filled corpses. Once there, she will tell you to put her down so she can begin her work. First, however, you must set up a perimeter, because as soon as she begins her harvest, splicers will relentlessly come after her for her Adam. This is where it's handy to have a mini-turret from the Rumbler and to set up Winter Blast-infused Cyclones. When you're done with a Little Sister, you can again choose to harvest her or free her.
A major change to how you progress through the game has to do with hacking. When you hack circuitry, no longer does the action pause for you to complete the associated mini-game (one that, by the 50th, 60th or thousandth time, became annoyingly tedious). There's still a mini-game, albeit a simpler one: A vertical needle moves horizontally across an area divided into colored sections (picture an analog voltmeter). Pressing the A button stops the needle from moving; the goal is to stop it in the green section. The difficulty varies with needle speed, the width of the green sections and how many times you have to repeat the process. Stopping the needle in blue sections gets you a bonus.
Moreover, as mentioned, the game no longer pauses during hacking, so that turret that politely stopped and waited for you to hack it before it started firing on you again? Yeah, now it'll keep firing. To help you out, though, you can now collect hacking darts, which allow you to hack from a distance. Just shoot a dart at a turret from across the room, hack it and you're good to go.
Multiplayer: Although I was unable to stick around to experience it first-hand, here's the overview. The setting of the game's multiplayer is before the events of the first BioShock, during the civil war that led to Rapture's demise. Players assume the roles of Rapture citizens, earning experience points to create unique Rapturians with whichever weapons, plasmids or tonics they want. Environments, such as the Kashmir Restaurant or Mercury Suites, are taken from key areas of the first game, only revised so they accurately depict that time in Rapture's history.
I admit that, although I did finish the first BioShock, it had been some two years since I last visited Rapture. The good thing is that, while playing the single-player demo, I was able to ease back in fairly effortlessly. From the little of the game I played – only about 45 minutes – BioShock 2 at least has the potential to satisfy those who enjoy running and gunning as well as players who prefer to plan their strategy of attack. Then there are those instances that combine those two tactics: When you plunk down a Little Sister so she can begin her harvest. The strategists should take satisfaction from setting up an effective perimeter; the mayhem-minded will appreciate the point when the perimeter fails and chaos ensues.
Other moments were equally satisfying, from accessing a locked door by firing a hacking dart through a broken window to the door controls on the other side, to going head-to-head against a Little Sister and ending up the last one standing. There's the potential for hacking to seem too rote (and that can only be answered after hours of gameplay), but having it occur amid the action, instead of during paused interludes, is a nice touch. In fact, my main complaint isn't really one at all: I wanted to play more.