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Bioshock 2's PC multiplayer leverages the tragic events of the fall of Rapture as a straightforward, chaotic online shooter. It's a combination that probably shouldn't work, but does.
Previously on Story Gamer - last time, I reviewed the single-player part of Bioshock 2, in which you play as a Big Daddy, ten years after the events of the first game.
Bioshock's multiplayer component, developed by a separate studio, shares a control scheme but otherwise takes a totally opposite approach to the main game. It sets the action before the events of the first game, on that fatal New Year's Eve when Rapture collapsed into spliced up violence. You play as a citizen of Rapture, 'product testing' weapons and plasmids in some of the first game's locations. In other words, you're one of those freakish, psychotic splicers.
Prequels have a fairly bad reputation. In filling in the background to an existing story, they are at best predictable, and at worst strip enchantment from events that originally sounded fun. The developers here are taking on events that were evocatively portrayed through audio-diaries and devastated locations in the first game, and letting players engage with them directly.
The game play reminded me more of Time Splitters 2 than anything else, a hectic, minimal-intelligence battle against tons of bonkers mutated enemies.
Bioshock 2 takes a further risk in re-framing those events as incredibly hectic free-for-all firefights tonally different to anything in the main game. Gone are the quiet, atmospheric moments and careful preparations of the single player game, replaced by frantic running and gunning, where the next ignominious death and rapid re-spawn is only a few seconds away. There's certain thoughtful elements built in, with gun emplacements that can be hacked and environmental traps that can be set, but in-game these are tactics performed under very high pressure, with a high chance of being gunned down before you can set your trap.
The game play reminded me more of Time Splitters 2 than anything else, a hectic, minimal-intelligence battle against tons of bonkers mutated enemies. It's a leap away from the careful use of cover and strategic teamwork of most contemporary multiplayer shooters, never mind the more considered shooting of the Bioshock franchise as a whole, but it works surprisingly well. The splicers have always been twitchy, deranged creatures, so this level of demented action is fitting. It's also shamelessly fun, albeit frustrating when you get capped a dozen times in less than ten minutes.
And I was capped, a lot. The cliche about multiplayer online shooters is that you enter the game only to be sniped by a 15 year old five seconds later, and that's certainly the case here. In the free-for-all competitive modes, I never finished more than mid-table on the end results for each round. In some ways, this is frustrating, but Bioshock 2 has a built in narrative workaround that makes even a loss worthwhile: progression.
As a 'product tester' for Sinclair Solutions, my character earns experience points (XP) for pretty much everything I do in the game, points which level up my character and unlock further options. Of course, more kills means more points, but hacking and research earn points to, as does match participation, and completing certain 'trials' (essentially in-game achievements/trophies).
It adds subtly to the story, and is fun to play.
Even if you lose, and lose badly, you can still progress through the levels slowly. You win just by taking part, it's just that you win less than the person who got ten head shots in five minutes. You win when you lose, which is a novel way of levelling the playing field between the hardcore natural snipers and those of us who are mere mortals. Incentives to progress include extra weapons, plasmids, costume items and audio messages, all of which can be viewed in your own lavish apartment, from which you can access the levels proper by Bathosphere.
This embedding of the customisation and rewards in the environment is superbly executed: not only can you go to your wardrobe to change costumes, and a Gene Bank to change loadouts, but a newspaper dispenser links to a Leaderboard of how you rank against your friends. Very nicely done, and a real reward for the hardcore fans who just like hanging around in Rapture.
So, it adds subtly to the story, and is fun to play, but will the multiplayer do what the publishers clearly want it to do, i.e. encourage compulsive game-traders to hold on to their copy of Bioshock 2 rather than selling it? The logic of these multiplayer modes is that a single-player campaign may be over and done with in a week, but a strong multiplayer component will be replayed for years.
It's a welcome, lightweight chance to revisit bits of Rapture from the first game.
While the multiplayer is fun, I'm not sure it has those kinds of legs: its combination of finite advancement, fan-boy in-jokes and straightforward game play don't feel durable enough to inspire the long-term commitment that gamers make to a Modern Warfare or Halo 3. There are multiple game modes, but these are fairly straightforward, standard options: a variation on capture the flag, a variation on capturing bases, and team-based options.
Aside from the Bioshock aesthetic, there's nothing desperately new here. I could be wrong, but there are plenty of games with multiplayer modes that are lively in the weeks after launch but which, eighteen months later, have sad, empty lobbies. This feels like one of those.
Bioshock 2 multiplayer is a lot of fun, and with the character progression there's an underlying compulsion to keep playing, even when you're getting massacred. It's a welcome, lightweight chance to revisit bits of Rapture from the first game. As a game in it's own right, it would be distinctly trivial, but as a bonus included with the excellent single-player campaign. it's a welcome slice of extra content. Definitely a prequel that adds something to the original.
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