Saturday, May 16, 2009

Bioshock 2 Developer Demo Impressions

I have to admit that I was extremely skeptical of Bioshock 2, as I felt the first one was a fully self-contained game. Furthermore, I felt that it was a game that had worn out its welcome in the final quarter. So when Bioshock 2 was announced, it sounded a bit like a heartless cash-in. This was confounded by the first look we saw of the concept art for the Big Sister model, which I thought missed the point spectacularly. The Big Daddies were iconic. Bulky, lumbering men in turn of the century diving suits. An icon we’ve all seen before. The Big Sister model just didn’t make much sense. It’s a bulky lumbering diving suit that’s also trying to be curvy and voluptuous? Looked more like a cyborg ninja to me, and at odds with the more understated, realistic tones of the first game. Thankfully, after seeing the above nine minute developer demo, I have been completely turned around on this sequel and am very excited indeed.

The first thing I noticed was that since you play as a Big Daddy this time around, enemies don’t pose as much of a threat. In terms of conventional game design, this should be a bad thing. We’ve been trained to think of combat in games as something difficult that one must overcome, but that is not the case here. In Bioshock 2, you play as the ultimate badass and the game knows it. Rather than just launch a horde of cannon fodder at you as you tear them to shreds, the enemies react realistically to your presence and will gang up on you in groups before fleeing when the going gets tough. My favorite moment in the trailer was after the player murdered a group of splicers, then queued up his drill at the sole survivor ran away in horror. I’ve seen enemies fall back behind cover before, but to see one who wants to retreat from the fight entirely--and in response to your drill revving--was a sight to behold and gives the player a sense of empowerment that I’m not sure I’ve seen in a game before. This may diminish the sense of challenge from the game’s combat, but I don’t believe that challenge was ever the focal point of the first Bioshock or the direction that the series should take.

Since Bioshock was such an immersive cinematic experience that already had no loss condition due to its vita-chambers, it makes me wonder what you could do with a game that features easy combat that only exists to add drama to the proceedings. As an action game, this wouldn’t work, but for a game that focuses on exploration, choices, puzzles, and narrative, I’m surprised that this hasn’t been done before. I’m not saying Bioshock 2 will be that game--as there will still be challenges in the form of the Big Sister--but this looks like a nice first step towards an interesting new direction for combat in gaming.

Read the rest of my impressions at TGR.
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