Should I Return to Rapture?

Last week, I sat down to survey the landscape of games due to arrive in 2010 and made my selections for the ones that I would step over women, children and grandmothers to play. These are the titles worth quitting your day job and shutting out the real world and skipping bills and sustenance in order to spend just 5 more minutes enjoying. At least, that’s the fond hopes we harbor.

After all – we all make these lists early in the year and while some games match their hype, there are so many that fall woefully short.

So, for this piece, I decided to temper my expectations and pick a title that I have longed to play but have a sneaking suspicion is just royally going to disappoint me this year.

Next month, 2K Games will release the long-awaited follow-up to their smash hit, Bioshock. The original game, released in 2007 amidst a busy Fall season that also saw the release of Halo 3, Call of Duty Modern Warfare, Mass Effect and Super Mario Galaxy – ended up topping my list as my favorite game of that year.

Of all gaming archetypes, the action-adventure genre that rewards careful exploration has always grabbed by gaming dollar. By melding that with first person controls and then setting the entire adventure in a crumbling, decaying undersea dystopia – Ken Levine and his expert team of artisans at Irrational Games (then renamed 2K Boston) offered up one of the more enticing experiences I had played through in many years.

Though the game stumbled slightly with its final boss showdown, it didn’t miss a beat at any point and successfully submerged me in its warped World of Tomorrow.

Plus, it boasted one of gaming’s better “Sixth Sense” style twists which when fully revealed had you replaying everything that had come before. The innocent inquiry “Would You Kindly?” suddenly took on deeper, more sinister shading.

Bioshock was so carefully crafted and arrived at a pitch perfect ending, depending upon the key choices made near the finale, that it really didn’t require a sequel. If the studio really wanted to trade on the good will generated by Levine’s game, they could always follow Team Ico’s lead and simply design new enchantments that share a similar aesthetic – much as that developer did when chasing Ico with Shadow of the Colossus.

Of course, the corporate and creative ends of this industry serve different masters even if they are all responsible for feeding the bottom line. Bioshock sold incredibly well at retail and thus 2K flashed the green light for a sequel. When it appeared Levine would need some time to reflect on where Rapture’s continued tales should stream from, they immediately shifted gears and gave the reins to another internal development house – handing the keys to the kingdom over to 2K Marin and 2K Australia. Levine, the creator of the trend-setting PC thriller, System Shock, is going to be missed as the original game was truly his brain child.

While I’m looking forward to playing Bioshock 2, my anticipation is tempered by the cookie cutter nature of casting a sequel before the game’s story dictates there’s more tale to tell. I want a compelling reason to return to Rapture – not simply because Product and Development determined that they needed a new SKU to append “NOW WITH ONLINE MULTIPLAYER” to the back of the box.

That inclusion of multiplayer is my most worrying concern.

The original Bioshock was a well-crafted, engrossing 20-hour adventure designed to suck a single-player into its depths. The development resources were devoted 100% to bringing us along on its fantastic voyage and thus, the sights they created in that crumbling city beneath the sea were awe-inspiring. I didn’t need multiplayer. There are plenty of other titles that offer that diversion should the itch scratch.

But every publisher thinks they’re missing the boat if they don’t offer that bullet point. I think it’s a fool-hardy pursuit anyway as most core online game players tend to gravitate to one or two titles and then play the hell out of them until the next successive installment in their beloved series is released. In the console domain, Modern Warfare grabs the majority share while Halo players stick to their universe. They may dabble in a new title’s online offering but within a few short months, the servers dry up as those players retreat back to the comforts of their respective homes where they’ll play Modern Warfare 2 for another few years until the next tour of duty beckons.

Why bother splintering your development resources on a gambit that is unlikely to put a dent in the armor? Bet the house on the single player campaign and be done with it. We, the gamers, benefit greatly from that. If you absolutely must compete in the online front, then do it in the way of DLC campaigns.

Two years ago, when I saw Andrew Ryan to a watery grave, I couldn’t wait to dive back in and let Rapture wash all over me. Now, I’m filled with trepidation that my wish is about to come true.

I’ll take the plunge but from this vantage point, the waters look choppy.