As usual I am late with most games. We are already waiting for the next Bioshock, but I just played the second one. The original Bioshock was the first first person shooter I played on my PlayStation 3. The game was highly streamlined System Shock 2 in good and bad. Bioshock 2 is a somewhat streamlined sequel. The game is more linear and the plot was not as good as the first one's. However, design of the game mechanics has improved in several ways. In this sense it's a rather typical sequel: less interesting story-wise but more fun to play.
Plasmids are highly streamlined magic. Using them is no different from using guns from the user interface point of view. Bioshock uses the controller's shoulder buttons as most shooters do. The left side is for plasmids, the right side for guns. The trigger shoots the plasmid/gun and the top button either changes to the next or opens a plasmid/weapon selector if held. The game pauses during selection, which I think is a solid compromise. Overall, switching and using plasmids and guns is really effortless. Bioshock 2 allows simultaneous use of both since the character can hold any gun in just the right hand.
Plasmid mechanics are quite simple but their effects are, all things considered, fairly varying. There's your basic lightning bolt, fire and ice stuff, but also more clever stuff like decoys, security beacons and a lot of stuff I didn't even try out. This is actually a bit of a problem in the game: combat is pretty straightforward and often some of the finer tricks are not much more than a waste of time. This was especially true in the first Bioshock with its ridiculously low number of different enemies but it's not much better in Bioshock 2. Maybe on a harder than normal difficulty there might be more need to use some of the plasmids.
2. Hacking, trapping and gathering
An important part of the System Shock legacy is the ability to hack any and all machines encountered be they security turrets, vending machines or electric locks. This way it's possible to turn Rapture's security against the enemies. In the first Bioshock this was not that useful though. More often than not, the enemies in an area are quite dead by the time the player can get into position to hack the security systems. The hacking minigame, while not bad, was also a bit fiddly. Bioshock 2 improves hacking by two important changes. First of all, the hacking minigame has been toned down into a rather simple reaction test which now happens in real time on the normal game screen. Second, they've added a gun that shoots remote hack darts, allowing hacking attempts from a distance.
Instead of focusing on the hacking mechanics themselves, the design clearly puts more emphasis on purpose of the hacking. These changes succeed in making hacking more purposeful at the expense of making it less complex. It's a solid trade-off and the game's better for it. The new mechanic still forces the player to focus on their hacking attempts for a few seconds and that is all that's really needed from it. If they blundered anything, then it has to be the alarms for failed hacking. Hacking the same device again after raising an alarm ends the alarm right there if the operation is successful this time. Makes it a bit too easy to get out of trouble I think.
The game also features different ways to build traps. Trap plasmids and trap ammunition for weapons. Let's just say that like hacking security, these did not have much utility outside special occasions. Most notable occasions in the first game were fights with big daddies who were the toughest opponents in the game and didn't become aggressive until attacked. This gave the player actually some time to plan how to build their traps. Against normal enemies, it's always the player who takes the initiative. Using traps against them was not really worth the effort.
Bioshock 2 added a new scenario that makes hacked security and traps more useful. The player can now adopt little sisters after defeating their big daddies, and have them gather adam (a resource for buying gene upgrades) from corpses. This gathering operation has the unpleasant side-effect of drawing in a whole bunch of adam addicts, effectively starting an ad-hoc defense mission. These are in fact pretty tough because there's going to be a lot of enemies, way more than even the biggest enemy groups in the game. Finding a good position, laying traps and placing miniature defense turrets to complement hacked security are highly necessary to stay in good shape. Fortunately the little sister herself is immune to damage and is instead interrupted for a while if attacked.
At first these gathering operations were in fact a bit frustrating because they were a huge drain on resources. Later in the game when better equipment becomes available they get quite enjoyable. The switching of roles from attacker to defender gives utility to weapons and powers that otherwise might not see much action.
3. Yet another reverse difficulty curve
Granted, I often explore in hope of powerups, but nevertheless, almost all games get easier towards the end. Bioshock 2 is far more being an exception. The game is clearly at its most difficult in the beginning when the player is armed with only rather weak weapons or weapons with some other deficiency which makes them harder to use. Running out of ammunition and/or health packs is a real risk. The breaking point is somewhere around obtaining the shotgun which makes short work of basic enemies. Towards the end of the game it turns from a decent challenge into an all-out power trip where enemies don't stand half a chance.
In Bioshock 2 particularly, it seems resources just get more and more abundant as the game progresses but enemies do not really become that much more powerful. Money is an especially powerful resource in the game as it allows purchase of relatively scarce ammunition and first aid kits. The end result is that with better equipment the player can at the same time save more resources, but also the availability of resources becomes greater. The loss of several first aid kits in a single fight can be shrugged off later, but is really aggravating in the beginning.
I know it's tricky to balance a game because players are different and most of the time, designers can't really demand everyone to bring their A game. But I'm not particularly good at first person shooters, and I didn't do any massive scale optimization during my play and still the difficulty curve went down like nothing else. I do not think anything would have changed on a higher difficulty except I would have been more frustrated in the beginning.
Although the situation has improved from the first game, the biggest problem with Bioshock remains the lack of enemy types. There's more now, but they are still more or less killed the same way: point and shoot. The game doesn't really require the player to use any creativity with their plasmids or other tools. The game could use more situations that actually demand different approaches. Other than that, Bioshock 2 is pretty well designed. It has great gameplay for a console shooter, decent weapon design, streamlined yet interesting superpowers in the form of plasmids and it even improves beyond its predecessor.