Thursday, April 21, 2011

Why BioShock 2 is better, part 1: It's all in the pacing

If I’m anything, it’s a bit of a cheapskate, so it’s no surprise that I jumped on the recent Steam sale for BioShock 2.  I’d heard a lot of fairly negative things about the game – that it was soulless, lacking in originality, didn’t have the great cast of story and characters the first game had, and so on.  While I was one of “those people” who felt that BioShock was really just a dumbed-down version of System Shock 2 made to appeal to the Drooling Masses, I still enjoyed it for what it is, despite its glaring weaknesses in its second half.  As such, I had shied away from the sequel, assuming it was a cheap knock-off of the real thing made by a less-talented development studio.

Of course, for $5 I’d have to be totally made of stone not to at least try out the follow-up to one of the better games of the last five years, so I bought it.  Over the course of the three or four days it took me to finish, though, I was left not with an impression of mediocrity and the feeling I had wasted my money.  Indeed, I ended up enjoying BioShock 2 significantly more than the original game.

Mulling over this strange revelation, I decided to take a deeper look at what made BioShock 2 significantly more enjoyable for me.  In this article, I go into detail about BioShock 2’s pacing, and articulate why it ends up being far, far more effective than its predecessor.  Although I had initially planned to put all my observations in a single article, I found that things ended up being a bit too long that way.  Instead, I’ve decided to break my thoughts up into multiple pieces for easier reading.  Without further ado, let’s… dive in?  Urg.

If there was one issue with the first BioShock, it was pacing, especially when looking at the game as a whole.  Although the game had a tremendous opening with some of the most memorable scenes in gaming history (in my opinion, etc.), by the time the third act rolled around and the climax of the story had concluded, the game completely lost steam and transitioned into boring, corridor-crawling action which dragged on for far, far too long, concluding in a lengthy fetch quest and escort mission while a moustache-twirling villain fed the same few insults to you via radio again and again.

BioShock 2’s greatest success, then, is that it completely eliminates the pacing problems that BioShock had on the macro level.  While it actually starts out rather slow, in a manner similar to the original game, it doesn’t have the same impact that the descent down into Rapture gave the first title.  As a result, it feels a little slow… not terrible, but for any experienced player of the first, learning that Electro Bolt lets you disable machines and open doors with damaged control panels is a little on the boring side.

However, while BioShock 2 starts out slow, it speeds up quickly… and keeps going, and going, and going, and never, ever lets up.  While it’s hard to talk about why this is without going into spoiler territory, suffice is to say that the plot keeps rolling, the game continues to provide compelling reminders for why you’re doing what you’re doing, and a succession of new enemies, powers, set-pieces etc. keep you going forward until the end, where the drama and tension are upped significantly by one of the best end-game sections I’ve seen in years.  It’s nothing the original BioShock didn’t aspire to, but this time it actually does it right.

The pacing on the high level is the easier thing to point out, but it’s only accountable for some of the momentum that BioShock 2 has over its predecessor.  When examining levels on a micro level, it’s very clear that the designers looked at things a little bit more intelligently.  Like BioShock, the game is broken up into a series of levels connected by a transportation service – this time a decommissioned rail line.  Where it really differs is in the narrative that forms in each individual level.  There is a certain flow to events that was completely lacking in the first BioShock.

To compare: in BioShock, the process for playing through a level was as follows:
  1. Player arrives in the level and receives a radio order of where to go/what to do
  2. Player reaches goal only to find that there is an obstacle in the way of it
  3. Player must explore the remainder of the level to collect various MacGuffins, usually involving lots of backtracking
  4. Once all are collected, player must return to goal and move on
  5. At this point, usually Big Daddies/Little Sisters appear in earnest and if the player wants to find them all, it’s yet more backtracking
  6. Player reaches exit and may or may not be met with another problem that halts progress, and requires yet more backtracking
The problem with this formula was, while it allowed for players to explore the environment at their leisure, it also created a lot of retracing the same old steps through the same hallways and level hubs, a lot of exploration of pointless side-passages which held nothing but more useless loot, and generally made the player’s supposedly rushed and time-critical journey feel more like a casual stroll through Rapture.  Then, in most cases, when the player had collected the MacGuffins and completed the objective, he or she would, rather than be rewarded, instead see a plot-critical character get killed off, or his or her efforts thwarted by Andrew Ryan.  Rather than accomplishment, moving forward in BioShock seemed more dependent on various NPCs getting bored with screwing the player up, and less dependent on the player’s actual exploits.

BioShock 2, by contrast, does a much better job of not only making the player feeling like he or she has accomplished something during gameplay, but creates a real mini-narrative within every level, which goes a long way towards keeping the action flowing well.  Consider the process as modified in BioShock 2:
  1. Player arrives in the level via train and receives a radio order of where to go/what to do
  2. Player explores the level, usually with fewer enemies present and gets a feel for what it looks like/how it’s laid out
  3. Player is drawn to all corners of the level by the different goals
  4. During stage 3, the player has a chance to rescue/harvest Little Sisters, resulting in many panicked fights which require more strategy and planning than usual
  5. Once player is done harvesting, a Big Sister boss fight occur
  6. Player returns to train station once goals are complete (usually provided with a new shortcut back),  boards the train and moves to the next level
The most noticeable difference here is that BioShock 2 features significantly less backtracking: once you’ve explored one section of a level, it’s time to move on.  It’s not fun to feel led around by the nose, and BioShock did plenty of that in spite of its slightly more open level design.  As a result, BioShock 2 allows for much more economical use of its levels: while there are the occasional hidden places to explore (Siren’s Alley is the closest thing to Fort Frolic), almost every room in every level has a purpose related to the player’s goals.  The player is rarely or never interrupted by characters throwing new (and largely ineffectual) obstacles in the way, and rarely has that feeling of “where do I go next?  Why am I here?” that plagued a lot of BioShock, even its best parts.

Consider, as well, the difference between the Big Daddy and Big Sister.  While BioShock tread somewhat new ground by introducing boss characters which could be tackled at the player’s leisure (or not at all), BioShock 2 reduces the Big Daddy to a slightly more common foe, but makes the Big Sister far more dangerous and threatening.  While there’s something to be said for letting the player choose when to fight the boss, the Big Sister poses a serious challenge to the player and usually comes right after a very difficult fight, so the player may be caught off-guard, low on ammo, and in otherwise a less ideal situation.  The tension in these fights is incredible, and the Big Sister really feels like a serious foe, unlike the Big Daddy, whose weaknesses could be easily exploited in the first game.

All of this leads to a very natural ebb and flow to BioShock 2’s levels; the each one starts off quietly so the player can become acclimated, a few enemies and challenges are added to spice things up along the way, and it all comes culminating in a difficult and thrilling boss encounter at the end.  Then, the player goes back to the same train station he or she came in on, and leaves to the next level.  There’s a real feeling of satisfaction in the end, that the player has accomplished something and made progress.  The game moves forward on a macro level, but there is a resolution within each individual level which also goes a long way towards keeping things moving.

To be fair, I don’t want to misrepresent the original BioShock as having bad pacing – it’s still generally quite good in this respect, especially given its slightly more open format.  Still, I feel  the changes made in BioShock 2 are for the better, by far.  Is it more linear in the end?  Absolutely, but for a game which bills itself as a shooter instead of an adventure/RPG, it works out a lot better that way.
In the next article, I’ll discuss some of the major improvements BioShock 2 puts forward in its level design.  Thanks for reading!


  1. Overall I would have to agree, although BioShock 2 still resorted to the tactic of showing the exit early on and then quickly blocking it off. From the start, Subject Delta's goal is to head to Fontaine Futuristics, but every rail station he passes features some form of obstacle (be that a wall of ice, a disgruntled character or even a torpedo). BioShock 2 does do a better job of making these detours feature less, as you say, backtracking.

    I thoroughly enjoyed BioShock 2. BioShock presented a significant wow-factor, but its sequel nevertheless feels like a solid and considered game. Also, you might enjoy this:

  2. There's no denying that BioShock 2 exists because 2K wanted to turn BioShock into the Next Big Thing (as evidenced by their inclusion of multiplayer, probably the last thing anyone wanted from the first game), and I definitely agree with the sentiment that BioShock 2 feels a bit "unnecessary" in light of the first one. Still, considering it was done by a different dev team who had to live up to one of the most praised games in years, I think they did a very good job with what they had. I'll actually get to just that later on in the series.