In terms of loading, not much has changed between BioShock and its sequel. Assets appear to be streamed during the level, but as you transition from one stage to the next there's a very lengthy pause while the new map is loaded. PlayStation 3 kicks off with a 10-minute mandatory installation, occupying around 4.5GB of space on the HDD - again, very similar to the first game.
Unfortunately this does not translate into any real gain in terms of those mammoth loading times when put up against the Xbox 360 version running from DVD. In four loading tests, the two versions each emerged with a brace of victories each but in all cases there wasn't much in it at all. It seems that the 4.5GB installation on PS3 merely serves to bring about some semblance of platform parity in terms of both streaming and between-level loading.
|Level||Xbox 360||PlayStation 3|
|The Atlantic Express||55.2 seconds||54.7 seconds|
|Ryan Amusements||67.2 seconds||73.6 seconds|
|Pauper's Drop||67 seconds||65.8 seconds|
|Siren Alley||76 seconds||74.4 seconds|
It's fair to say that when you're looking at loading times around a minute in length, the odd second difference here and there isn't really much of an issue. Thankfully, just as in the first BioShock, the amount of game you get for that extended loading time is very significant, so think of it as a necessary, but not so intrusive evil.
The focus thus far has mostly been on the console builds of BioShock 2, but it's worth noting that I spent some quality time with the PC version, running with ASUS/NVIDIA hardware on a Core i7 system. The game gave console-beating performance on all of our test boards. It ran very smoothly at 720p and 1280x1024 on all of the test GPUs from the relatively lowly GTS250 through to the GTX260, GTX275 and the behemoth GTX295. All of these cards can run BioShock 2 well at 1080p/1920x1200 too on max settings, though frame-rates will vary depending on the budget.
In terms of how the game looks stacked up against the console builds, here's a re-run of the initial Face-Off movie, with the PC version up against the Xbox 360 game. If you'd prefer to watch the video with the PS3 version as the point of the comparison, the appropriate version is on Eurogamer TV.
In terms of differences and improvements, there's not a huge amount to distinguish BioShock 2 from the Xbox 360 version. Running everything at maximum we see a game that has the occasional improvement in terms of texture quality, but on the whole the PC game is extremely similar.
The slight blur seen on the console builds in lieu of anti-aliasing has gone, and the lighting scheme is subtly different. There is the suggestion that the PC build runs with a higher-precision framebuffer as reflections on water surfaces are brighter and bloom effects are not so hazy with less colour bleed.
In short, the PC version is as good as we would expect from a title powered by Unreal Engine. The tech works fine on a dual-core CPU, offering console-beating performance with any kind of enthusiast-level graphics card. Even a venerable 8800GT will blitz the console versions with ease, and while there's little here to make ultra-high-end PC enthusiasts feel as though they're getting Crysis-style value from their very expensive GPUs, it's still a great-looking game that looks beautiful at higher resolutions. If you can get your graphics card's control panel to wangle hardware anti-aliasing, so much the better.
In terms of purchasing decisions for those who own both HD consoles, it's fairly self-evident that the Xbox 360 version of BioShock 2 is the one to have: graphics are undoubtedly superior with four times the resolution on transparencies, the frame-rate is undoubtedly smoother, there's no HDD-sapping mandatory installation and control varies from slightly crisper to considerably more responsive, depending on the status of the PS3's frame-rate at any given point.
This is not to say that the PS3 version of the game shouldn't be considered if you don't own an Xbox 360. The quality of the conversion is measurably better than the original BioShock, and while frame-rate drops can be irritating - coming when you really need the visual and controller feedback the most - it's still eminently playable and enjoyable.
The low-quality, quarter-resolution transparencies are the biggest issue here, since water and neon-bloom are so integral to the visual make-up of Rapture. In that respect, the impact to visual quality in what is such a beautifully designed world is somewhat disappointing, but won't detract too much from the overall gameplay experience.
Check out our BioShock 2 review to find out why it's worth heading back to Rapture.