|Posted on February 17, 2010 at 12:44 PM|
A single shaft of light emanated from the window overhead , the sway of water cascading across the wall and floor in a tranquil dance of quiet beauty. At the end of the hall was an open door, or more the frame of one as the door itself hung by only one hinge and a small fire flickering on the walls in the room behind it – one of many faltering things in the decomposing city that is Rapture. The metal walls groaned and creaked as the pressure of the ocean surrounding them began to wear on rivets and creases of the underwater city covered with mold and algae.
The Big Daddy, Johnny Topside, Beta, a Father to one but a protector to all, wiped the water off his gauge and checked the fuel left in his large, arm-length drill. Only half remained.
“Why don’t you love me?”
A voice, crazed and disillusioned with a sadness to its rhetoric emerged, faintly, from the room - a room that now presented shadows elongated on the wall from the flickering light like a demonic puppet show. More voices emerged, and with them more shadows all dancing hypnotically. The walls groaned once more, the sea continued to drip from the ceiling onto the flooded linoleum. The Big Daddy stood and took caution with his steps in the ankle-high water.
He prepped his drill at his side. Half remained. That should be more than enough to kill them all.
I’m someone who loves great “atmosphere.” Often my favorite movies are able to make me believe the world it creates and allows everything, from the characters on screen to myself sitting on a couch, to become immersed in it. It can be something as spectacular as Avatar, or as gritty and real as LA Confidential. The more I’m convinced, the more I like the film because it’s doing it’s job (which isn’t merely telling a story but transporting you).
The same is said for books. The words a writer uses and the smart, intelligent structure his or her presentation possesses can make a world of difference between the quality of the atmosphere and tone. One look at the wonderful world JK Rowling creates in comparison to the bland and uninspired one Stephanie Meyer slogs through, and you can see the differences and discrepancy in quality.
The one medium that lends itself better to atmosphere than any other, especially within the past ten years, is videogames. In fact, videogame atmosphere is probably it’s single most important trait because it has to take you to another place and keep you in its realm as a player rather than a passive observer. It could be a futuristic city made of glass or the loud chants of a football stadium. It could be the quietness of space as stars zoom by or the open road with your revving engine and a loose fender scraping the pavement. There might be ancient ruins as you explore and fear going down the dark hallway at the end, or a castle that has you surrounded by demons and dragons that you must slay.
Or it could be an art-deco city built at the bottom of the ocean by a madman.
That is where the city of Rapture comes in. Rapture: quite possibly the greatest atmosphere in a videogame.
As of this writing, I perhaps haven’t quite taken in all of Bioshock 2. In fact, I seem to only be able to think of a critique by comparing it to the first. This is both fair and unfair: fair in that it must, at the very least, feel different from the first yet retain it’s aura but unfair because the first was probably one of the greatest games ever made. Such is the problem of doing a sequel.
Well damned if you do damned if you don’t, it seems. 2K games decided to go the “do” route and throw out a sequel anyways. Is it as good as the first? No. The first had the benefit of newness and mystery and the inevitable twist to it all that is merely a footnote in the sequel. With Rapture’s mysteries solved, why bother going back? "Create a new mystery," of course. That mystery, though, is a pale shadow of the first. It’s long and drawn out and underwhelming, it’s characters far from as intriguing and is relatively inconsequential by comparison.
However, that’s by comparison. It’s still a damn good mystery and a damn good story centered around it all.
But this isn’t about story, it’s about atmosphere, and let’s be honest...that is the sole reason you play Bioshock to begin with. Actually, it could be the sole reason you even play videogames considering it’s importance, as I mentioned.
While the story can help bring depth and brevity to the world, “atmosphere” in this sense is entirely visually and auditory magic and art. Rapture’s classic deco style from the 1950s is beautiful yet menacing thanks to the faltering lights, rusted facades and grimy floors. It’s been lived in by splicers, people that are certifiably insane, and has become a living entity all on its own. It has a soul, a lifeforce, and you take it all in as you wander its halls, check your back constantly and actually listen to the place breathe.
From a strictly visual and audio standpoint, Bioshock 2 continues the foundations the original set. However, it has a few hiccups along the way. While there are some well-designed areas, none are quite as well-designed or have as good a character as most of the areas from the original. Many seem rather uninspired, especially when you look at places like Fort Frolic in the first and how utterly memorable every nook and cranny was of it. It also lacks certain “set pieces” which the first had in spades.
An example of this would be as follows:
You enter a flooded basement. A single bulb hangs over what looks to be a mannequin sitting in a chair, facing a corner. It looks like all the others.
At the far end of the basement, you see a gleaming First Aid Kit and some ammo. Naturally, you walk past the mannequin to pick it up.
As you approach the far wall, the bulb bursts out and you hear footsteps in the water.
You turn, the mannequin is standing over you with a knife in its hand.
The first Bioshock made a living toying with you like that. From shadows cast by unseen enemies to the lights being flicked off. It played with you, and there is this odd sense of fear combined with utterly joy and pleasure because you not only fell for the trap and was scared, but you realize how much the game is inside your head and how the developers took time to set you up.
Bioshock doesn’t quite have as many of those. You see things happen more than experience them happening; more passive than actual immersion and being a part of it all. So while, on the surface, Bioshock has the look and style of the atmosphere down to a science, it lacks the immersive nature to make the place feel so real and alive, not to mention to make you feel truly a part of it.
What’s interesting, though, is how well the gameplay has been refined. It almost makes you want to take Bioshock 2’s gameplay and put it with the immersion and atmosphere of the original (which was steady but a bit cumbersome). You can now dual-wield your magical “plasmid” powers along with your arsenal of weapons without having to decide which to compromise before entering a room. There’s also a huge focus on strategy and planning this time around, making for hacking cameras and turrets for your benefit, setting traps and knowing your bearings an absolute necessity. Most of your fighting and gaming will be in these scenarios, but there’s a good amount of exploring and looking around to balance it out.
From a technical standpoint, Bioshock 2 looks and sounds gorgeous. The water, amazingly, looks even more beautiful and convincing this go around and the lighting even more dynamic and moody, although it’s not used nearly as effectively with those sharp set-pieces being in small number. Its gameplay is addicting, the world unique and mood utterly absorbing not to mention it continues with its idelogical commentary, philosphical themes and Ayn Rand influences.
The fact is, if you liked the first one, there’s not reason you won’t enjoy its sequel and only by comparison does Bioshock 2 seem to be underwhelming. As I said, though, that is unfair for the most part because it’s worthy in all categories as a convincing reason for us to venture back to Rapture once more.