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BioShock 2 Impressions: Seeing and Dreaming

"If you can hear me, wake up," says Dr. Bridgette Tenenbaum over a pitch-black screen, our first glimpse of BioShock 2. "Your time for sleeping is over."

Of course, the BioShock series hasn't been sleeping for very long. Developed over a tight timeframe, BioShock 2--announced amidst news of Ken Levine's departure from the series and an upcoming film adaptation--was a project born to a healthy amount of skepticism. Would this be the first of many cash-in sequels to a unique, self-contained game, or a worthy follow-up?

She is taking girls and turning them into creatures like her. All of this, it is my fault.
After learning more about the project, I certainly wouldn't count it out until all the chips are down. 2K has assembled a team of young, but very sharp developers to work on this game. While Levine may have moved on, his absence does present the possibility of a fresh take on the world of Rapture--something that isn't necessarily ruled out with the reprisal of the setting.

Though major plot details are still closely guarded secrets, those avoiding any details on the sequel should beware that this preview will cover several basic conceits, including discussion of the player character and the big boss.

But it all started with a Big Daddy.

Rapture Redux
The demonstration began with Tenenbaum waking the player. The first illuminated sight was of the player's own reflection in a pool of water--a reflection of an enormous Big Daddy, the helmeted hulks from the first title.

Lead environment artist Hogarth de la Plante quickly explained that the player character in BioShock 2 is the prototype Big Daddy, the first behemoth ever created. As the game progresses, players will discover more about how the prototype came to be--and what its purpose is.

Regardless of its lot in life, the first trait of the Big Player demonstrated was its devastating combat skills. Big Daddies in BioShock 2 will have all the powers of those in BioShock, and a few more for good measure. We saw the player use its massive melee drill to disgorge enemy Splicers, while simultaneously wielding plasmids--such as the flamethrower-like Incinerator--to burn them down. The Big Daddy prototype also has a lighter step, eliminating fears that players will be plodding through Rapture like a crouched Counter-Strike player.

The second thing to notice was Rapture itself. It was strange to see BioShock 2 looking so much like BioShock, yet also rather different--the result of using the same engine, and plenty of skilled level designers. This was Rapture, ten years later and seen from a new perspective.

"We didn't think BioShock would be BioShock without Rapture," explained de la Plante. "If this were BioShock 5, maybe that's when you go to the moon base.. [But] you only saw a small slice of it in the first BioShock. Rapture was a huge city with lots of things going on."

"Rapture's been pretty dead and falling apart in the intervening time," added lead designer Zak McClendon, "and something happens to kick-start that ecology up again, and sort of renews the cycle when the player first gets there."

As the player continued through a series of Rapture's corridors, he quickly came upon a large open area, the back wall of which was entirely made of glass. It was here the lithe Big Sister first revealed herself, leaping down from the ceiling to quickly cut a series of holes in the wall, until the ocean burst through and flooded the player.

An attack like that would have killed BioShock protagonist Jack, but as the Big Daddy, you simply take it in the face and hit the open ocean. Following the explosion, we got our first look at the ocean scenes, which will see the player pushing past seaweed for an exterior view of Rapture.

"The ocean excursions are a very controlled environment," said de la Plante. "There's no swimming.. Ironically, the ocean became a place where the player can sort of breath a little bit.. There's no combat out there."

A comparison to a combat-less version of Dead Space's space-walks wouldn't be far off. In any case, it was a striking scene, reminiscent of the player's first view of Rapture from the original title.

Big Sister, Small World
"This monster you chase, she's like the golem story, not understanding the things she does," said Tenenbaum over a speaker as the player moved from ocean to decompression chamber. "She is taking girls and turning them into creatures like her. All of this, it is my fault."

After the player re-entered Rapture, he was quickly met with the first appearance of a Little Sister. As in the original BioShock, players have the choice of harvesting the girls for their ADAM--but now you can also bring them along for the ride.

Turn the page to continue reading. _PAGE_BREAK_
"We call this Little Sister adoption," explained de la Plante. "He and the Little Sister are linked as a team in the environment."

If we just sort of ride on the coattails of, 'Yeah, it's Objectivism again,' it's not going to be very interesting for a lot of people that have played BioShock.
"The Little Sister will point you to ADAM. She can gather it for you, but while she's gathering, you'll have to protect her," he continued. "She exposes angels to you. Angels are corpses that have ADAM in them."

At this point, the game will enter what the team called a "dynamic siege," where Splicers and, potentially, the Big Sister will attack the Little Sister while she tries to gather the ADAM.

"Mr. B, Mr. B--Big Sister doesn't want you playing with me," sang the sing-songy Little Sister on screen, as several Splicers began their assault. The player set several vortex traps around the Little Sister, then set them on fire with the Incinerator--a potent combination of plasmid powers that will now be possible in certain cases.

Soon the Big Sister appeared, however, and made short work of the scene--jumping down from the wall to land on the player and fade the screen to black.

Later on, I asked McClendon whether the Big Sister will largely be scripted, as seen in the demo, or if she will stalk the player through Rapture based on more subtle mechanics. His reply signaled a bit of both:

There are obviously are some scripted encounters with her because she's very important to the story, but we are as much as possible trying to make her feel like a living part of the ecology. The idea is that she's paying very close attention to how you behave, and she wants to keep the status quo in Rapture. When you come in and start disrupting that, by either harvesting Little Sisters or saving them, she eventually will take notice and come after you. We are definitely trying to have that feel very much like the bogeyman in levels, that she can come after you wherever you are. It's a reversal to your own relationship to the Big Daddies, where you can just follow the chump around for a while and wait to take them out. She'll be hunting you down.

McClendon also noted that environmental cues will warn the player when the Big Sister approacheth, allowing for some time to prepare for the impending siege.

"I'm really pleased and excited to see how [the Big Sister mechanic] turns out in the end," said lead level designer JP LeBreton, "because the Big Sister is a story character. So you're hearing in logs and trying to figure out how what her background is and stuff like that--but she's also a system character who shows up and fights you in response to what you do. That's just a really good stroke for game storytelling to me."

Fade to Black
With the world and mechanics sounding and looking quite polished, I was mainly left wanting for narrative detail. The promise of another spin through a fresh section of Rapture may be enough to sell a few million copies, but the rich subtext of the first game was something that would not be easy to replicate.

I asked the designers whether they would continue the careful layering of the first game's story, and how they would do so given the repeat of the setting.

"Rapture is definitely a place that crystallized out of Andrew Ryan's ethos, but even just Fontaine's purely self-interested, con-man type game--there are other ideologies in the mix, and that's going to be part of the world that you're seeing in BioShock 2," said McClendon.

Added de la Plante: "It's also interesting to see, with a mostly-different creative team, the things that we think are interesting. JP and I worked on the first one, but Zak didn't, and there are certain things in the world of Rapture that probably Zak finds really fascinating, that maybe people on the other team didn't really pay attention to."

Replied McClendon: "It's definitely something that is in sort of our core set of things that we absolutely know we have to do with BioShock, which is explore those kind of weighty issues and subtext. If we just sort of ride on the coattails of, 'Yeah, it's Objectivism again,' it's not going to be very interesting for a lot of people that have played BioShock."

And so I was left wanting for more detail, as is the case with most teaser events that see the majority of developer replies relegated to the words "not yet." As such, it's too early to judge BioShock 2 yet. Many elements of what made the first game special couldn't be gleaned from a preview build, and the same will likely hold true here.

But I didn't leave the room feeling disheartened by a lack of respect for the franchise, and I didn't get the sense that the team at 2K Marin wasn't capable of creating a story and a world that lived up to, or even surpassed, the original game. That may say more for the project than anything else at this stage.

BioShock 2 is set for release this fall on PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.