Hands-on: BioShock 2

Having already taken a brief tour of Rapture through the eyes of a Big Daddy a few months back, we were okay with the fact that BioShock 2 looked and seemed to play very much like the original game -- only this time encased in a huge pressurized diving suit. Now that we've played through a full area of the game, our initial assessment more or less holds up, but that's not to say there aren't several noteworthy -- and even surprising -- changes and additions to expect when the game arrives next spring.

Warning: We've done our best to keep what you're about to read as spoiler-free as possible, but the extremely sensitive should tread cautiously beyond this point.

Ah, so you're still with us. Good. Well then, let's get the biggest surprise out of the way first: There is no Big Sister. There are Big Sisters -- plural. That's right, they got us. All early signs pointed toward the Big Sister being a sole menacing entity that would stalk players throughout the sequel. No: Rapture is lousy with them, but encountering one is still genuinely frightening.

There is no Big Sister. There are Big Sisters -- plural.

You'll also encounter multiple Big Daddy iterations within the sprawling undersea complex, but they won't attack unless provoked. You can walk right past them and they won't even bat an eyelash -- er, blink a headlamp. Mess with their Little Sister and it's another story. Take down the Big Daddy and his Little Sister clings to you for protection. (More on that in a bit.)

We met another formidable foe while playing: a Splicer "brute" -- big, angry and very strong. Picture Left 4 Dead's Tank "zombie" and you'll have a pretty good idea of what to expect from this enemy type. (Pro Tip: If you're faced with a Big Sister and a brute at the same time, don't run. Use the Hypnotize Plasmid on the brute, and he'll take out his aggression on the sister instead.)

The area of the game we played in wasn't custom-built for this demo, as our previous encounter had been. No, "Ryan Amusements" is a fully fleshed-out theme park, the star attraction of which is a sort of "journey to the surface!" experience, where the children of Rapture had once been exposed to snippets of life above the waves by means of animatronic scenes presented through Rapture creator Andrew Ryan's anti-government, anti-religion, anti-surface filter.

The scenes reminded us of similar designs we'd seen used in Fallout 3 and really went a long way to show the creativity going into the all-important melding of BioShock 2's environment and story. This "attraction," along with the still-present, pre-recorded announcements from Ryan played over the city's public address system, suggested that we'll get even more acquainted with the man's philosophy this time around.

We were taking all of this in playing as the very first, prototype Big Daddy, known as "Subject Delta" (we're already placing bets on the likelihood of subjects Alpha, Beta and Gamma appearing as bosses). 2K is still keeping the main character's backstory a closely guarded secret, but would say that you're searching for your own missing Little Sister; with the over-the-radio help of this game's "Atlas," an olde-timey, accent-sporting gent named Sinclair.

When you've taken down another Big Daddy and "adopted" his Little Sister, a button press will send a glowing wisp off as a guide to the nearest ADAM-rich body. Once you put her to work harvesting ADAM, a "siege" of Splicers out to kill the little girl begins, so examining the immediate surroundings for doors and choke points, planting traps and hacking turrets to work for you is essential before doing anything. We encountered two such scenarios while playing: One took place in a larger, lobby area with multiple staircases, while the second was very close-quarters. Both were challenging, even with strategies in place.

Like the first game, each area of the sequel has a set number of Little Sisters. When you've "spent" one, there's the choice to harvest them for every last drop of ADAM or return them to untainted human form and deliver them safely to a vent for escape. We're told that, as in the original, whether you choose to be a savior or killer of the Little Sisters will affect some element of the story's outcome.

While all this was going on, we were making our way through areas of Rapture not seen in the first title -- but the art direction and atmosphere was so faithful we'd be hard-pressed to say it "looked better" or really very different, save for a few new special effects. Our trek along the corridors of Ryan Amusements also provided opportunities to try out some new play mechanics and weapons. Our favorite was the remote hacking dart. As its name suggests, this gizmo can be fired at any hackable electronics (turrets, door controls, etc.) from a distance. (We encountered at least one situation where we had to remotely hack a door to progress.) When the dart hits, the new hacking minigame begins. Unlike the original game's "pipe puzzle," this one's a more simple timing-based challenge where you must stop a fast-moving arrow on the green portion of a meter. The harder the hack, the smaller the green area.

At one point, we rounded a corner and noticed two Splicers arguing next to a security turret. We were able to remotely hack it, with them none the wiser, and watch as they realized the turret had been activated -- and programmed to kill them.

Before moving on to multiplayer, we played around with one of the new weapons -- a spear gun which, as one of its ammo types, has a "rocket spear" that sticks into Splicers and sends them knocking around the room before exploding. We also defeated a Big Sister. We'd already picked up the Winter Blast Plasmid, so freezing her and then blasting her with explosive rounds (or using the Big Daddy's trademark arm drill, which consumes fuel -- a new pick-up) worked a treat. We got 100 ADAM as a victory bonus and then got set for multiplayer.

The game's multiplayer mode, developed by Digital Extremes (Unreal Tournament), puts a few twists on well-worn competitive and cooperative game modes. After picking and customizing a character from several presets (they can wear masks, brandish trophies, and more) we spent some time customizing different "loadouts" for them à la Call of Duty 4. In the case of BioShock 2's multiplayer, you're allowed to slot in two plasmids, two weapons and multiple genetic enhancements. One combination that proved very effective for us was Winter Blast paired with a plasmid that made our character move extremely fast. If timed correctly, we could freeze an opponent and shatter them by dashing forward. EVE, the fuel for plasmid abilities, is limited but stashes can be found hidden in the multiplayer maps.

It's really going to need a strong narrative to rise above.

We took part in a spin on Capture the Flag called, appropriately, Capture the Sister. In this instace, the score point was a Little Sister vent and one player on the opposing team got to be a Big Daddy. We also played some rounds of straight-up deathmatch ("Survival of the Fittest"), made interesting via the use of plasmids, hackable security turrets and a randomly appearing Big Daddy suit to hop into.

Many have been wondering what the camera seen in the debut multiplayer trailer is used for. Just as in BioShock, its used to research things -- in this case downed opponents, which gives you an advantage against them (increased damage) until you're killed.

Overall, the multiplayer did have a certain degree of "we had to get this in" feeling to it, as opposed to the likes of Uncharted 2's more solid competitive component. That's not to say it wasn't devoid of fun or uniqueness; BioShock's multiplayer scored on both counts.

From what we played, BioShock 2 as a whole didn't bowl us over with a sense of, "Wow, this is a whole new level to the experience found in the first game," but it's certainly up to the quality of its predecessor across the board; from art to music to dialog and gameplay. It's just become more obvious to us that, as a game that feels so similar to the original, it's really going to need a strong narrative to rise above.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.