A slight disappointment -- or are expectations simply too high?
In 2007, the shooter BioShock captured game of the year honors thanks in part to its unique underwater setting, immersive and thought-provoking story, and superb gameplay. Along the way, it scored quite a few "perfect" 100 scores from a variety of game publications.
This week, 2K Games released a sequel, BioShock 2, that returns players to the submerged city of Rapture ten years after the events in the original game. Those perfect scores, however, seem to be harder to find the second time around, and the sequel -- though unquestionably a good game -- does not yet appear to be living up to the incredibly high expectations established by the original BioShock's critical reception.
How exactly does the new BioShock 2 match up to the original? Let's start by comparing scores given by critics and users (so far):
Here's how BioShock 2 compares to other releases this year (through February 9th):
|1||Mass Effect 2||Electronic Arts||Action-RPG||96||9.0|
|3||BioShock 2||2K Games||First-Person Shooter||89||7.9|
|1||BioShock 2||2K Games||First-Person Shooter||89||9.2|
|4||Dante's Inferno||Electronic Arts||Action-Adventure||76||8.0|
|1||Mass Effect 2||Electronic Arts||Action-RPG||94||8.9|
|2||BioShock 2||2k Games||First-Person Shooter||91||7.3|
|3||VVVVVV||Terry Cavanagh/ Distractionware||Platformer||83||7.0|
|4||S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Call of Pripyat||BitComposer||First-Person Shooter||80||8.8|
|5||Greed: Black Border||Meridian4||Action-RPG||61||7.6|
Let's take a closer look at what game reviewers are saying about BioShock 2, to see if we can find out why the scores are lower for the sequel.
General differences between the first and second installment
A quick word of warning before we begin: Gamespot recommends playing BioShock before diving into the sequel, since "prior knowledge is required to fully understand what is happening."
While gameplay between the two versions is similar (although the nature of your character is very different), BioShock 2 adds a competitive multiplayer mode to the title, which the first BioShock lacked. What else is different this time around? Let's check:
"Familiar" is the word that appears again and again in the reviews for BioShock 2. For example, Gamespot lamented that the sequel has lost some of the original's mystery:
Everything seems a bit too familiar, and the story that accompanies your journey is not as impressive or shocking as the original.
Other publications agreed:
It's hard to feel like you haven't done it all before. --1UP
Traipsing around Rapture is certainly still enjoyable, but it's kind of like a magic trick you've already seen -- not quite as impressive as it was the first time around. --GameSpy
While most critics who complained of overfamiliarity were doing so in the context of comparing the new title to the first game, Wired felt that, while the original title shunned gameplay conventions, the new title embraces them a bit too tightly:
BioShock is memorable for the way that it subverted and shattered videogame tropes; BioShock 2 embraces them with all the fervor of a Big Daddy clutching his Little Sister.
And other publications, like 1UP, found the new game less involving than the original:
It fails to provide the strong narrative that made the original so compelling.
Similarly, IGN missed the "captivating" characters from the original title:
Unfortunately, none of the characters introduced in BioShock 2 are quite as fascinating as Andrew Ryan
Not every critic felt that BioShock 2 was less compelling than the original game; Games Radar, for instance, actually prefers the second title:
In some fairly significant ways, including combat diversity, enemy variety, character depth and emotional attachment to the story, BioShock 2 is superior to BioShock 1. Plus, fans’ biggest criticisms of the original – the pipe hacking and the sagging third act – have been addressed and fixed for this sequel.
Indeed, BioShock 2 incorporates a number of subtle changes to gameplay mechanics, weapon upgrades, and the like that critics found welcome:
It doesn't take extreme liberties with elements that worked before; it improves them in simple but effective ways. --IGN
Every weapon in BioShock 2 is more impressive and more satisfying than its equivalent in BioShock 1 --Games Radar
Wired enjoyed the fact that "BioShock 2’s levels are much less linear than the original’s," meaning that there are more chances (and rewards) for exploration. (In fact, choice and variety seem to be a running theme throughout the new game.) That magazine, and other critics, also noted that the new game forces you to consider your actions -- which involve weighty moral decisions -- more carefully, since the choices you make determine how the game plays out.
Overall concept and story
The importance of the storyline is what separated the first BioShock from lesser first-person shooters, and that dedication to story continues in BioShock 2.
One of BioShock 2's biggest strengths is its narrative. --GameSpy
The plot in the new game, which takes about a dozen hours to unfold, picks up nearly a decade after the original. The sequel makes an important change to the protagonist, with users now playing as one of the iconic Big Daddy characters -- a switch welcomed by reviewers. BioShock 2 reveals new secrets along the way, with players also able to venture into new areas -- including outside the city (on the ocean floor).
Games Radar found the new game's storyline "unsettling," "intriguing," and "emotionally investing." But other critics were slightly disappointed, finding the story, for the most part, safe and familiar.
BioShock felt like an introduction not just to an underwater city, but to a maniacal philosophy and alternate history. BioShock 2 feels like a solid but plain knock-off of that world. ... You're not getting the same caliber of twisted, engaging story this time around. It's a standard, straightforward tale, with a few too many holes to be called truly "great." --1UP
Despite not liking it as much as in the first game, the story in BioShock 2 is nonetheless compelling. --Team Xbox
The developer’s stubbornness to not veer off of the beaten path clashes with the game’s premise. ... For the majority of this experience, these developers seem to be spinning their creative wheels, and the tiny bits of new content feel tacked on. --Game Informer
While Wired found that "the moments in the middle of BioShock 2 tended to be more intriguing than the big reveal at the end, which wasn’t so big after all," BioShock's concluding few hours were lauded by almost every other publication as the best part of the story.
There is no twist in this game on the same scale as the first one’s, but you will still be shocked at the game’s climax, and the ensuing couple of levels will be of great interest to you if you’re invested in the world of Rapture. In fact, the last hour or two of this game are among the most exciting and compelling game finishes I’ve played in a while. --Team Xbox
It takes 10 hours to get there, but the final two acts (lasting approximately three hours) are brilliant. --Game Informer
GameDaily enjoyed the action and weapons choices that come with playing as a Big Daddy:
You'll thoroughly enjoy experimenting with different plasmids, gene tonics and weapons. In addition, there's something empowering about snatching these Little Sisters and defending them from harm.
That publication, however, did find the new game less than challenging:
Depending on the difficulty, BioShock 2 may also be one of the easiest games you've played. As expected, it comes with multiple difficulties that ratchet up the artificial intelligence, but on Medium, it's kind of a pushover.
Wired called the game "a blazing-fast, run-and-gun first-person shooter," but found BioShock 2's structure a bit too similar to other games:
The things you do throughout the game determine what your character becomes and how the finale plays out. The only real problem with this is that dozens of lesser games, from Infamous to The Force Unleashed, have been built around this same idea. The fact that BioShock 2 does it significantly better doesn’t entirely excuse the fact that it is stamping on well-trod ground.
Wired also faulted the sheer number and frequency of upgrades, which made getting new powers and weapons too commonplace to be exciting.
Most critics, however, liked the small gameplay improvements (the original already played very well, remember), which resulted in, among other things, "considerably less clumsy" combat and "more tactical variety," according to GameSpy.
The controls are just as tight as they are in the first game, and the explosive plasmid play once again makes brutality against splicer nation an undeniable blast. --Game Informer
The developers have done a good job distinguishing – and separating – the online multiplayer from the offline campaign.
But most critics either didn't see the point of the multiplayer mode, or weren't completely thrilled with it.
It's just not as smooth an experience as the single player campaign. --GameDaily
While BioShock 2's multiplayer has all the modern trappings of an addictive online shooter ... I can't see people buying it for this reason, or trying it for more than a few games before heading back to their multiplayer shooter of choice. --GameSpy
The weapon functionally doesn’t feel right. --Game Informer
The fantastically detailed underwater city Rapture was one of the highlights of the original BioShock, and while critics enjoyed the graphics in the sequel quite a bit, they were maybe a touch below those of the first game.
Rapture's halls aren't quite the visual spectacle they were when we saw them back in 2007, but the subaquatic city is still a terrifically detailed and engrossing setting. --IGN
An artistic masterpiece, if not always technical one. --Team Xbox
Once again, 2K did phenomenal work bringing this twisted 1950s era city to life and populating it with all sorts of horrifying monsters and images. --GameDaily
Critics had few, if any, complaints about effects, vocal talent, or music, which all were well received in the new title.
Strong voice acting lends believability to characters you interact with mostly through audio logs, an excellent score underscores the mood, and a diverse range of distinct audio effects like the alarm triggers and high pitched whistle of security bots all feel right at home in this decaying dystopia. --IGN
Excellent art direction, a great soundtrack, and a fantastic voice cast all team up with a powerful story to create an atmosphere so thick and intense that it is at times downright chilling. --Gamespot
Out of the various sound subcategories, it was the ambient background effects -- the creaking and groaning of the city itself -- that were most appreciated by critics.
It's a rare thing for games built with this kind of big budget to take seriously a thematic cohesion between setting, story, and gameplay, yet that's exactly what we get here. --IGN
Gorgeous, gripping and enjoyable, it's without question a game of the year candidate. --GameDaily
360 vs. PS3 vs. PC
There are no major differences between the three different versions of BioShock 2, one of the reasons that the Metascores for the games are running about the same so far for each platform.
What do you think of BioShock 2? How does it compare to the first BioShock? If you haven't done so already, feel free to cast your official vote for the PS3, Xbox 360, or PC versions of the game, and read the user reviews already posted on those pages. Or continue the discussion in the comments section below.