NEWS - Thursday, July 2, 2009

Bioshock 2: Multiplayer Musings

  Does Bioshock 2 need multiplayer? Is it handled with a delicate touch? Or is Fall of Rapture, the multiplayer prequel to the stellar RPG shooter, a travesty that needs to be shipped out to sea? There’s a warranted level of cynicism here, given the staunchly single-player original game was so tightly constructed.

Now that we’ve seen the game, more questions have been raised than answered, but we think the framework is there for a really compelling multiplayer experience – even if it’s still bringing gung-ho machismo into what was a solitary and evocative experience in essence.

With this in mind, we’ve broken the experience down into core components that make up the whole. Think of this as a summary of what the developer, Digital Extremes, has done to ensure that the experience is as authentic (and, critically, inoffensive) as possible.

                                  Originality and Reverence

There’s a very unique structure that ties Fall of Rapture to the core Bioshock setting. For starters, the multiplayer mode is given its own sub-heading, which is curious in itself. Clearly, this is mean to be a separate experience taken on its own merits. That said, Fall of Rapture’s prequel setting has been lifted from the original games – however, each stage has been restored to its pre-’civil war’ glory.

This includes your fantastic art deco apartment; a wonder of velvet, marble and leather, with paintings adorning the walls. This is your hub before entering a Bathysphere and thereby kick-starting a multiplayer match.

It’s a pretty cool idea – each player’s apartment acts as their home base, allowing you to customise your Splicer character and their load-outs (weapons, powers and so on). Beyond this, though, we weren’t clear if the apartment serves any other function other than something like a 3D menu; we’d love to be able to collect some trophies of our victories and achievements, almost like PlayStation Home, and store them there, for instance.

A Sense of Story

It’s also within your apartment that the story framework becomes apparent. For those wishing to jump straight into the fray, you can totally ignore all the side-story stuff on offer – but for all others (and those who want to know how all of this fits into the body of the game), you can hear pre-recorded messages that essentially catch you up on what’s happening in the city of Rapture. Each time you level up (by collecting Adam from killing, assisting, hacking, becoming or killing the Big Daddy), you’re treated to the next chapter.

Apparently – although we didn’t see this ourselves – the items in your apartment also serve to further the story. The idea is that each character that you face off against also has his or her own backstory too; the quips and battle cries that they yelp out are there to suggest something about their history, their profession and current state of mind (which, generally speaking, is ’insane and angry’).

Your Character and Motivation

In Fall of Rapture, you start off as a normal human resident of Rapture – an employee of Sinclair Solutions who has volunteered to take part in the ’home defence’ project, injecting yourself with highly unstable and experimental drugs to give yourself incredible powers to test them in the field and compete for Bronze Club benefits and… uh, well, the background basically justifies the chaos, to be honest. We can’t imagine the elite residents of this underwater paradise really wanting to go out of their way to upset their perfect existence by doing battle with each other just for the hell of it.

Given the benefit of the doubt, you can assume that Splicers became batty after one too many genetic enhancements, and when two crazy people end up meeting, they will inevitably do battle. Good enough.

In terms of actual character customisation, Digital Extremes is still mostly allusive at best. We don’t know, for instance, exactly how much control you’ll have to create your own genetic reject. Instead, the dev team member we chatted with suggested taking a look at the kinds of costumes and creatures from the original Bioshock to get a better idea of what to expect in Fall of Rapture.

Bioshock Redux

The key to remember, though, is that this is a multiplayer mode now. The levels have actually been redone in terms of layout to hold true to the ’feel’ of each area, rather than strictly adhering to the level design. As such, maps are more symmetrical and hemmed in, with more tiers and corridors from what we could see. Each also retains some key trademark symbolism – towering statues, the classic logos and texture work, as well as the evocative colouration and effects work.

The role of Big Daddies has also been switched up. Instead of being able to commandeer one through hypnosis or simply opt to be one, class-style, Big Daddy suits are hidden in maps and used as a power-up – a bit like permanent Quad Damage for the Quake III fans out there. As the Big Daddy, you lose your native speed and flexibility, but you’re a walking tank and you deal damage like one. Naturally, every player on the map is going to want to take you down, too – so having the suit instantly paints a target on your arse that most players will happily wipe off with a dose of Incinerate.



Plasmids Redux

To better suit the multiplayer nature of Fall of Rapture, plasmids have been given a thorough retooling. First off, there are tons of new ones coming – though these are tied to the single player game and are still off-limits to the public eye. The one multiplayer-only plasmid we have seen was ’Aero Dash’, which acts much the way it sounds – allowing you to do a speedy long-jump from one end of a room to the other, or over massive chasms and gun fire.

Second, plasmids can now be charged up by simply holding down the trigger and building up its strength and effectiveness; the effects also last longer and you won’t be penalised for holding it down for any period of time. You can also now dual-wield plasmids and weapons to save you time switching between the two. This will allow for some great one-two punches; start with a dash of Winter Blast and then finish the job with a shotgun to the face.

You can also customise three load-outs at one time, meaning that if you’re having trouble in one round, the ability to change tactics and introduce new combinations of plasmids and weapons between spawns is an important tactical option. These roll-outs allow you to store a maximum of two weapons and two plasmids each – just enough for decent variety or even ’themed’ roll-outs.

Perhaps most tantalisingly, however, is the hint of plasmids that now act with each other; so called ’hidden combos’ for players to discover. You’ve no doubt heard about the ability, for instance, to activate a tornado, then Incinerate the flurry to set enemies within its radius on fire. With all kinds of new plasmids on the way, we can’t even begin to imagine the kind of potential for experimentation. In fact, it’s ideas like this that actually redeem the whole multiplayer argument for a franchise like Bioshock; tactics make the shooter, and the single-player Bioshock experience was all about tactics, so why not make it work in multiplayer?

A Few Questions We Have

While we’re pretty satisfied that Fall of Rapture is doing right by the fundamentals of the franchise, we still have a few concerns we want addressed – purely based on what we’ve seen so far.

For starters, the balancing still seems a little off between some of the plasmids in multiplayer. In the build we saw, Winter Blast seemed to be the plasmid to have, since one shot with this actually freezes your opposition in place, and all it takes is a single shot with a weapon to shatter them for an instant kill. Yikes. That seems overpowered to us – though we’ve heard word that this is being retooled.

The Big Daddy suit is a neat addition, but we’re still not clear on how much damage the suit can take or whether the developer’s had much trouble in balancing it. We can envision conniving players simply dominating every match by donning the suit early, getting well-armed and then cranking everyone they come across. After all – it’s very hard to get anyone to cooperate to bring down a target in a free-for-all match.

Digital Extremes is using ’popularity reports’ to determine how often people are using each weapon and plasmid – and therefore whether there are balance issues. Hopefully there will be enough data to really fine-tune this stuff before launch.

On the other, more technical side of the coin, matchmaking is purely automatic and based on skill at this stage. There was no mention of how hosting would work or to what extent players would be able to customise their matches.

Finally, given that Fall of Rapture really does intend to tell the backstory of Rapture’s mighty demise, we’d like to see some bells and whistles in your apartment that really make you feel like there’s more to the experience than a pre-recorded message every level-up. A few cutscenes or even a daily newspaper delivery with some fresh headlines might flesh out the experience even further – perhaps foreshadowing some of the story events in Bioshock 2.

Regardless, we’re definitely excited to get some actual hands-on time with both Fall of Rapture and Bioshock 2, but wary gamers can rest happily in the knowledge that this is far from a strange genetic aberration, spliced into something we all cherish.


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