In his books Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Lila, author Robert Pirsig presents what he calls “the metaphysics of quality.” According to Pirsig, there’s dynamic quality—hard to define but easily recognizable by that certain something about a work of art or entertainment that grabs you, knocks you out, and won’t let go—and static quality, which is all about craftsmanship and polish but lacking that final, indefinable piece of the puzzle. To use one of Pirsig's examples, it’s the difference between the first time you heard your favorite song, and it stopped you cold because of its beauty or emotional truth; and the second or third time you heard it, when it was still great…just not as great. It had changed from having dynamic quality to static quality.
I was thinking a lot about Pirsig and his metaphysics as I started playing BioShock 2, 2K Marin’s sequel to Irrational’s 2007 hit. BioShock was a great example of Pirsig’s idea of dynamic quality: an engaging story set in a fantastic, newly imagined world, with beautiful art design and graphics. But the original BioShock was more than the sum of its excellent parts. It somehow pushed what games could be to a whole new level. Ken Levine and his team at Irrational culled ideas from sources as diverse as the cinema of Kubrick, the novels of Stephen King, the ideas of Ayn Rand, and photo essays on derelict buildings to create something entirely fresh.
BioShock 2, on the other hand, feels a little like a favorite song after that first blush of beauty has faded. It’s an excellent game, but for all its polish, faithfulness to the original, and improvements to some elements, it fails to ignite the senses and engage the emotions as the first title did. In other words, “static quality,” to use Pirsig’s term.
BioShock 2 is once again set in Rapture, Andrew Ryan’s crumbling undersea metropolis and failed social experiment. Set ten years after the events of the first game, you now play one of the prototype Big Daddies and this time around, your goal is finding and rescuing the Little Sister that is bound to you. Once again the story unfolds obliquely, through recorded diaries, pieces of evidence found along the way, and the sometimes disingenuous characters that you encounter. And, once again, the story starts to get much more interesting as it rolls towards the conclusion.
While the path through Rapture and the story are linear, the environments themselves reward careful and protracted exploration. Ammo, plasmids, and tonics are hidden everywhere and it is worth taking the time to appreciate the detail and decoration that are packed into every frame. While the Art Deco style and overall design are obviously consistent with the first game, there are many new areas to explore, from decayed amusement parks (“Life on the Surface!”) to undersea grottoes. There are more vertical spaces, too—second floors and elevated hidden walkways, for example.
BioShock 2 might be a “thinking person’s” shooter, but it’s still an FPS, and happily, still a great one. In this second installment you can “dual wield” a weapon and an ADAM-powered plasmid, so the tactical possibilities become much more interesting. There are far too many plasmids too choose from, however, so each player will most likely pick a few and upgrade them throughout the game. Ditto the weapons, which have a much more visceral impact this time around and are generally improvements over the first game, save for the drill which doesn't feel as effective as the wrench did in the first game.
Splicers—those ADAM-crazed dementedly violent citizens of Rapture—return in more varied forms, though it feels like they have less personality in this second installment and their descent into madness is less poignant or specific. New to the roster of baddies are Big Sisters, mini-bosses who appear whenever you harvest or save a Little Sister. And of course there are the formidable Big Daddies, boasting a few new tricks of their own. As before, some careful planning is required to successfully dispatch these guys. Although the story arc has you in search of a specific Little Sister you are welcome to temporarily adopt (or harvest) others along the way, which is the only reliable way of obtaining additional ADAM. The Little Sisters are as simultaneously creepy and adorable as in the original game.
Though BioShock was a heady, if sometimes muddled and inconsistent, mixture of Ayn Rand objectivism and exploration of player agency, the sequel has far tamer philosophical aspirations. That's not to say there aren't some ethical choices to make and some significant ideas floating around the icy cold waters of Rapture.
Technically, BioShock 2 is a standout product. The visuals—in particular some of the figure models—look a bit dated and flat, but meticulous art, lighting and level design save the day. There are still some impressive sights and vistas in and around Rapture. The music is again a mixture of authentic oldies and composed cues by Garry Schyman, but while the vintage tunes are used for ironic, comic, or generally chilling effect, I found Schyman's score at least occasionally grating and heavy-handed. Sometimes the dissonant string chords that warn of an impending enemy encounter, for example, would play out for minutes at a time, moving the feel beyond tension-inducing to just plain irritating. Voice work and overall sound design, however, are excellent and it is amazing how remembered sounds from the first game (such as the ping of the turrets) still trigger a response.
No one really expected the multiplayer component of BioShock 2 to work, but it does, and surprisingly well. While it probably won't pull the hardcore shooter fan from Modern Warfare, the BioShock world and gameplay mechanics (plasmids and mods, research, upgrades, etc) have been successfully integrated into the multiplayer modes, which include deathmatch and team deathmatch, a “Capture the Little Sister” variant, and an ADAM-grab mode. Most shooters are now expected to include some sort of leveling and perk system a la CoD, and BioShock 2 multiplayer doesn't disappoint. While the single player story is still the reason to play the game, the multiplayer aspect of BioShock 2 is worth a bit time and doesn't feel simply tacked on. Or, if it is, at least it was done well.
Ultimately, BioShock 2 is a very good game but the question still remains: does it enhance or dilute the singular, dynamic quality experience that was the original BioShock? Despite the improved combat mechanics and gameplay fixes, it would be hard to recommend the sequel to anyone who isn't familiar with the first game, as the context and story would be nearly incomprehensible, or at least far less engaging. And yet, it is the rabid fans of BioShock who might be the most let down by the return to Rapture. It's hard to quantify where the disappointment lies. Objectively speaking, BioShock 2's graphics, sound, and gameplay are all first-rate, and how can one complain about a perfectly competent product?. What BioShock 2 lacks—not surprisingly—is that feeling of richness, imagination, originality and wonder that so infused BioShock. In the end, BioShock 2 is a product more corporate than passionate.
What say you: static or dynamic quality? How have you found the return to Rapture? Avoid the Splicers and hit us up on Twitter @Gamers_Hell