Bioshock is an exhausting universe. By the end of the first game, I was actually disturbed the brutal ways I killed splicers. Their constant wailing and sobbing and ranting had driven me out of my mind before I was halfway through the game. I came to love listening to them scream as they burned alive, these mewling psychopaths with their self-pitying, incoherent monologues. Revulsion had hardened into hatred and and then turned into sadism, which only served to deepen my revulsion.
Then there is the decay that surrounds you: the mouldering books, the shattered edifices, and the fetid bilge that has overrun every floor. Every splicer is a disfigured parody of a human. The general oiliness of the game engine and lighting effects, combined with the lurid art deco colors, creates a cloying sense of over-ripeness.
Eventually, it all just wears me down. I start trying to avoid encounters because the splicers have gotten inside my head and I just want things to be quiet for a bit. Besides which, Bioshock never lets me feel like I’m particularly strong or well-equipped. The controls have a slipperiness to them that makes it hard to use cover effectively, and most weapons are too inaccurate to be much good at long ranges. So Bioshock, and especially its sequel, is a game of close-range slugging matches that leave me depleted of ammunition, health, and energy. This is completely antithetical to my preferred style of play in an FPS. In general, I’m a tactician. I like to control the engagement from start to finish, and be able to stand the enemy off at a distance. If there’s going to be close quarters battle, it’s going to be on my terms: room-to-room fighting, done with grenades and shotguns.
Bioshock games make me feel more like a walking dreadnought, going broadside for broadside with psychopaths who don’t have the brains to take shelter. The strain and unpredictability of those engagements means I avoid them more than I should.
In Siren Alley, avoidance graduated to full-on paralysis. I was too low on ammunition and money to fight effectively. Every battle left me teetering on the brink of death. I was rapidly approaching a point where progress would be impossible.
The problem is that I was still thinking defensively, and as out of touch with the creative cruelty that powered me through Bioshock. I’d been clinging to my machine gun because it was comforting. But now, as I took stock of my options and surroundings, I realized that I was finally ready to turn the tables.
I had two great advantages. The first was the speargun, which is the only weapon in the game that never really runs out of ammo. Spears can always be recovered and they’re a perfect sniper’s weapon. The second advantage was the Enrage plasmid, which caused splicers to start attacking everything in sight. Including Big Daddies and the musclebound brute splicers.
This is where I finally started to get into Bioshock 2. The game’s systems started interacting in interesting ways. Using an ammunition saving weapon, I was able to stalk through Siren Alley and start racking up splicer kills, which allowed me to acquire more ammo and cash from my victims. The research camera, which lets you film hostiles in action so that you can learn more about them and unlock upgrades and bonuses, went into action alongside the enrage plasmid.
I started arranging little gladiator duels and filmed the results. Then, as the victorious splicer stood over his fallen enemies, I would reward him with a spear through the neck. In the meantime, the camera was making the splicers ever easier to for me to take down.
Since I needed to get hold of the Little Sisters and their Adam, I always made sure to enrage splicers in the vicinity of Big Daddies, and watched as the Big Daddies annihilated them. After the Big Daddy had been weakened by enough combat, I would open fire with my heaviest weapons and bring him down.
Brute splicers were a huge problem for me, since they’re as powerful as a Big Daddy and just about as tough. With them, I’d get the camera rolling, shadowbox them a little bit, and then put a Big Daddy between me and them. When the Brute charged, and he always would, the Big Daddy would go berserk, and an epic brawl would commence. They would just go on on each other with fists, drills, auto-turrets, rockets, rubble… Oh, the joy of watching my two most hated enemies devastating each other!
Over the course of about an hour or so of hunting, filming, and Adam-harvesting, I completely changed Bioshock 2. By the time I finished Siren Alley, I was a superhero, even capable of getting splicers to fight alongside me when I wanted them to. I tagged Father Wales, a viciously strong spider splicer, with the hypnotize plasmid and got him to demolish his own followers in his makeshift church. Then, when he ran out of followers to kill, I executed him.
Was the game broken, its balance destroyed by my employment of all these tools? Not at all. If the first half of the game was about struggling to get my bearings and survive, the second half of the game was about revenge and salvation. After Siren Alley, I was on a mission to save a little girl, and I was going to kill everything that got between me and that child. There was to be no more hiding.