Remember when you could go to the store and buy a game without some godforsaken number slapped on the end of the title?
I don't. It seems that everything on the racks these days is a return of this, or the further adventures of that, or a requiem for some bozo you didn't enjoy the first time around. Whatever happened to the original property? Are there no unexplored characters left, no undiscovered countries, no new stories to tell? Or has an industry with more Postals than Portals somehow become so timid that the fear of creating the next Crash Bandicoot hangs about its neck like an implacable albatross?
The preponderance of sequels is even more confusing since the perception of the pre-existing franchise as a secure retreat is a red herring. Sequels have their own set of snares to avoid: stray too far in one direction, and you run the risk of retreading old material without offering anything new; wander off in the opposite direction, and you might as well have made a new property. And all through the process, the self-aware developer knows that despite his best efforts, the end product might carry the only stigma worse than a new property that doesn't make it off the ground—he may inadvertently create a franchise-killer.
Thank God they don't all suck. Take Mass Effect 2, the second in Bioware's umpteen-million-selling space opera series. I loved Mass Effect because it let me finally play out my childhood dream of being the love child of James T. Kirk and Samuel L. Jackson. It tore out the page of the Bioware playbook that says that main characters must be able to run the gamut between good and evil and instead refined the concept of PC heroism into a sliding scale between (in its own words) Paragon and Renegade.
By comparison, Mass Effect 2 is another animal altogether, one so elegantly and so seamlessly scripted that it takes a conscious effort to lose that Pulp Fiction-meets-Star Trek (or Space Jesus, or Captain Moderate of the USS Moral Relativity) mindset once it's over.
ME2 is an unprecedented marriage of code and dialogue, each leaning on the other to deliver a presentation both mind-bogglingly intricate and amazingly smooth. This thing has plot. Characterization. Intertwining storylines, both within itself and as continuations of the larger Mass Effect arc. Aliens singing Gilbert and Sullivan, and making you believe it.
Gone are the days of prioritizing goals based on a strict risk/reward ratio and achieving those goals with the generic party of heavy-hitting RPG staples. In Mass Effect 2, you'll be picking your party members based on which of their stories appeal to you the most (good luck with that, as they're all incredibly fleshed out), and going to the places that you think will appeal to them the most.
Living on the other side of the tracks is 2K Games' Bioshock 2, a game that lets players step into the shoes of one of Bioshock's Big Daddy mini-bosses and... well, that's pretty much it.
Okay, maybe I'm being unfair. It is, after all, one of the two most hotly anticipated sequels of early 2010 (and a sequel to a game which was itself a "spiritual successor" to one of the most popular PC first-person shooter series of the '90s, System Shock), and it doesn't exactly lose any of the ground gained by its predecessor.
But if you played the first Bioshock, you already know the second by heart. It's a palette-swap in every sense of the word. The nameless, unwitting protagonists of both are interchangeable, as are the settings, the arch-enemies, their minions, and the underlying criticisms against ideologies favored by both madmen who live in underwater biodomes and your average mid-20s coffee-shop patrons.
The overwhelming sense of potential unfulfilled that permeates Bioshock 2 makes it easily the worst disappointment of the gaming year thus far—not for what it does, but for what it doesn't do. It rehashes Bioshock without improving upon it, delving no further and pushing no harder.
A dual-wielding mechanic, a couple of new powers and weapons, and a few hours of gameplay within the framework of an uninspired storyline? A few years back, these would have made a moderately successful expansion pack for an established game. By today's standards, they would collectively rank up there with most mildly ambitious DLC offerings. But a full-fledged sequel? Hardly. It's Bioshock something, but not Bioshock 2.
Where Mass Effect 2 is embellished, Bioshock 2 is threadbare. Where the former tightens up its weaknesses, the latter hopes we forget them. By refusing to rest on its laurels, Mass Effect 2 validates these sequel-happy times even as it bucks the trend of underwhelming clones that Bioshock 2 embraces.