The hardest part about creating a successful sequel, in any media, is making the source material feel fresh, even if it obviously isn't.
We can look to Hollywood for two potential solutions: You can either re-create the entire experience through a rehashing of the plot, or you can reboot the entire franchise and start over while maintaining the feel of the original. Tentpole release Gears of War: Judgment (March 19) takes the former road, while long-awaited sequel Bioshock Infinite (March 26) is more the latter.
The difference here is, Irrational's take on Bioshock works, ahem, infinitely better than Epic's retread of Gears.
There's been so much written about the "games as art" argument that it doesn't even apply here. Both are stellar in their presentations, but the story lines are of inverse importance to their respective titles. Gears is an action franchise, and always has been. The current release is no different, and that is its unfortunate, and perhaps irretrievable, failing. Not that I'm advocating Gears become thought-provoking and introspective, but there is little there to warrant much of a visit, save blowing another few days on multiplayer.
There's an attempt to sell a story about Damon Baird's past (notable because of his lack of backstory in Gears of War 3), and there's a nifty tie-in to the end of that trilogy. What isn't present is any evolution of the franchise. There's talk of Sera's war-torn past, a few new weapons and a harrowing campaign experience, but the whole title feels thin. It certainly isn't progressive enough to warrant an entire AAA release. The entire experience screams DLC gone wild.
Irrational, meanwhile, decided that two trips to the underwater city of Rapture was enough, and that has made all the difference. While the gameplay of the latest Bioshock — the firefights, the conflicted protagonist, the replacement of plasmids with vigors — remains mostly the same, the setting and the story are largely new.
This time around, instead of exploring the themes of Objectivism and free will, Bioshock's story line plumbs the depths of religious fervor, racism and American exceptionalism, appropriately lofty goals for a game now set among the clouds. Features like the skylines and Elizabeth's dimensional tears add enough to dispel the old System Shock vs. Bioshock comparisons that cropped up previously.
This seems to be the only way longstanding franchises can last. Last time I raved about the rebooted Tomb Raider, which was infinitely more appealing than Lara Croft's past installments precisely because it expanded the character's story (something Judgment did) while altering the mechanics (which Judgment didn't). Somehow Irrational has made the formula feel new by altering the characters and story and only giving the gameplay a facelift. It's peculiar that dichotomy can exist, yet be successful in either case.
This is a potential solution for a series like Halo, which has scored with both sidestories and direct sequels, but began to show its age in the latest release in November. Bioshock proves you can completely strip away what would seem an essential element of a sequel, yet make it feel like part of the family.
— Joshua Gillin writes about video games and entertainment news for tbt*. Feel free to challenge his opinions at firstname.lastname@example.org.