"When you think about multiplayer, the narrative a lot of times comes from the experience that you create yourself in the match," says BioShock 2 producer Melissa Miller. And while the game's not out until 30th October, Miller's already got a few stories of her own. "I was playing one match and I had a little area I was holding down, I had very distinct entries that I was guarding, and I would see people go by and I'd tag them with incinerate! If they were low on health I'd get the kill."
"And if not, you'd get an assist," lead multiplayer designer Mathieu Bérube chimes in. "Turrets are another f***ing great example of this," says Miller, warming to her theme. "I remember we were testing the game one weekend and I kept just going to one turret. As soon as I got in, I'd hack that turret and that became my little battle zone... At one point I got a four-kill streak between the turret and myself, and everyone was like, 'what the hell?' After that, every game, everyone went straight for that turret to try and destroy it before I got it. There are just so many different options and ways you can express yourself."
Of all the many things that worked in BioShock 1, the toolset and the variety of things you could do with it was, for many, the most pronounced. Taking that online could be worth the price of admission alone. But BioShock 2 multiplayer has something else to offer too. Set before the fall of Rapture, it tells the story of the civil war between the followers of Frank Fontaine and Andrew Ryan, and in doing so, could be just as interesting and expository as the ambitious single-player campaign.
So how does that work? In keeping with BioShock's knack for complex themes in simple wrapping, it's tied to the experience system. Playing as a product tester for plasmid and tonic manufacturer (and war market profiteer) Sinclair Solutions, you go to battle in deathmatch, team deathmatch and another unannounced game mode and accumulate ADAM rewards via kills, assists and other achievements. This helps you to march through 20 ranks, divided into categories like "Bronze Club" and "Silver Society", announced with the triumphal faux-naivety common to BioShock's vending voice-overs. When you rank up, you can return to your apartment and receive messages from Sinclair representatives, which help fill in the narrative blanks, rather like the first game's audio logs. "You are going in and you are becoming part of that history and contributing to Rapture's destruction," says Miller.
As with the audio logs, however, if you don't care, you needn't - and the 10-minute deathmatch I get to observe reinforces the separation. It's frantic: players dressed as housewives and welders sprint around an expanded re-envisioning of the first game's Kashmir restaurant hurling electro bolts, fireballs and ice shards, blasting one another with electro-shotguns, and frantically hacking turrets (now a progress bar rather than a game-halting bout of Pipe Mania).
Although there is obvious overlap with both BioShock single-player games, multiplayer developer Digital Extremes has thrown in a few new tricks. The dash plasmid, for example, which allows you to fly forward in a straight line - leaping from balcony to balcony, charging someone or beating a hasty retreat. Then there's the geyser trap, which serves dual functions. On the one hand, it throws opponents into the air, where they bang their heads on the ceiling and take damage (or you shoot them). On the other, it's your own personal bounce pad for reaching higher ground.
Plasmids need EVE, of course, so there are syringes dotted around, spawning in random spots to avoid camping, and you can take advantage of free top-ups at the Circus of Value vending machines - probably giving your position away in the process, and certainly running the risk of being booby-trapped by someone who's taken the time to hack in. The clown's not the only old friend you bump into either. "We wanted to bring Big Daddies into multiplayer, obviously - they're iconic," says Bérube. "We treat them as a power-up, so you get to be a Big Daddy for as long as you can survive." It's Rosie, in case you're wondering. She acquits herself well, although the rocket turret on the stage in the Kashmir's ballroom does her in. (And, perhaps hinting at the third, unnamed mode, Bérube points out that there's a Little Sister in there elsewhere. "We're not prepared to say exactly why.")
Although customisation began and ended with battle tactics and morality in the first BioShock, Digital Extremes has been careful to expand that in multiplayer while keeping the series' core values - and understated humour - in place. Your hub apartment has a wardrobe where you can change your appearance (Counter-Strike quibblers please note: bounding boxes will be consistent across body shapes), and emotes, which the team calls 'barks'. "The housewife's idiosyncrasies come across in her barks," senior DE producer Leslie Milner notes. "She thinks the Big Daddy is the family dog, so she'll yell at him and tell him to get out of the flowers."
Plus of course you can customise your three loadouts, and switch them between death and respawning. Each loadout has two weapon, two plasmid and three tonic slots, and each weapon has room for one upgrade. "When you start to really calculate everything, there's a lot of possible loadouts," says Bérube. Most of the plasmids also inherit the main game's charging action, allowing you to build up a stronger electro zap or fire blast. Some have been modified for multiplayer, too, like the ice blast, which can't very well freeze everyone it hits stone cold. Instead it slows their movement, and if you kill them while they're under its spell, they shatter.
Visually it would be easy to conclude that not much has changed, but closer inspection reveals a lot of the improvements made by the host game, and far from complaining about having to rebuild places like Kashmir from scratch, Miller and Bérube embraced it as an opportunity. "If there's anything brought over from BioShock 1, it's been rebuilt from scratch for multiplayer," says Miller. "We understand: there is a difference between multiplayer and single-player expectation and that is something we have been extremely conscious of... And the same thing - hey, I hear our guns were not the best thing ever for a first-person shooter in BioShock 1, so making sure that we were addressing that and they were even better for a multiplayer audience."
Another level, Point Prometheus, even gave Miller and company the chance to rewrite history. "In BioShock 1 it's the gauntlet level and it's more of a natural history museum, and why would there be a natural history museum in Rapture? There should be a museum, but people should be trying to make money off it, and so it became this more PT Barnum sensationalised trying-to-make-a-buck place." You fight on a statue of an octopus, among other things.
For all this reinvention though, BioShock 2's multiplayer - like the single-player - hangs precariously by its origins, especially now we have Take-Two's declaration of multiplayer-for-all ringing in our ears. But just as we got over the idea of being a Big Daddy when 2K Marin put it into context, so the idea of 'just another box ticked' dissolves within the multiplayer developers' bubbly enthusiasm.
"A thing a lot of people don't realise is that in BioShock 1 the splicers that you battled were actually supposed to have plasmid powers, and that fell by the wayside," says Miller. "One of the things we were really excited about exploring in a multiplayer component was this idea of... we're giving you all this cool s*** to do, what happens when everyone else around you can do the same cool s***?"
What's more, far from clunking together awkwardly with the fast-paced gameplay, the narrative snippets for which we'll be dinging our hearts out represent something else, perhaps even a unifying force. "I suck at first-person shooters," says Miller, "but I love playing BioShock because there are so many different options." And when I think about it, I love playing BioShock because I want to know everything about Rapture. For everyone else, there's killing each other. That's a lot of ways in. Accessibility in a multiplayer first-person shooter? That would be a story.
Check out the Editor's blog for the full interview transcript. BioShock 2 is due out for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 and has a "tentative" release date of 30th October for Europe.