When my boss handed me my copy of BioShock 2 for review, he had a word of advice: "review the game for what it is, and don't let your love for the first game cloud your judgement of the sequel." Considering that the original game is one of my favourite gaming experiences of all time and remains the highest review score I've ever given in three years of writing for GamingExcellence, it was good (yet unnecessary) advice. While BioShock 2 keeps up the high standard of presentation and fun factor of the seminal original, it's lacking a certain spark, a raison d'etre beyond lining publisher Take-Two's fiscal statements.
Living in the shadow of a beloved gaming experience like the original is certainly daunting and it becomes impossible to ignore the original game's contributions to gaming and simply take BioShock 2 on solely its own merits, which are actually plenty. As a standalone experience, BioShock 2 is actually a great game, filled with thrilling action, a cool storyline, wonderful atmosphere, and tons of weapons and plasmids to take on your enemies with. BioShock 2 is certainly worth your time and money. Perhaps expecting a game as revolutionary and stunning as the original was simply placing my expectations too high, but it's still hard not to feel slightly let down by the experience anyway.
BioShock 2 takes place ten years after the events of the original. The underwater utopia of Rapture is continuing its 90 degree nosedive into madness. This insanity is a result of the populace getting horribly addicted to ADAM, a substance allows the user to rewrite their DNA. ADAM is harvested from corpses by creepy children called "little sisters" who are protected by hulking beasts in diving suits called Big Daddies. Rapture was designed to be a city that was a safe haven for the best and brightest in society to operate without the watchful eye of government and religion, where the genius could be truly free to exploit their gifts. Without spoiling the first game too much, the proprietor of the city, Andrew Ryan, is now dead. Rapture has been taken over by a woman named Sophia Lamb, who is more communist-lite as opposed to Ryan's anarchist point of view.
Unlike Mass Effect 2, which spoiled us by taking into account actions and decisions made in the first game, BioShock 2 for the most part ignores the events of the original, and plops you in a new pair of shoes for the sequel. This time, you play as Delta, the original Big Daddy. You have all of their strengths, but also the gift of free will. Without going too deep into the story lest I spoil anything, you've spent the last ten years in a coma. You awaken to a Rapture in ruins, with spliced out psychotics roaming the halls and the structures rapidly deteriorating after ten years of neglect at the bottom of the sea. You're tasked with rescuing your Little Sister while taking out Sophia Lamb, but who's really the bad guy here? The game shares philosophical themes and tones with the first game, hitting notes such as free will, religion, sense of duty, and what really represents a true utopia. It's too bad that the story simply isn't told as well as the original title, and the main plot line becomes a chore to follow at times amidst Sophia Lamb's constant preaching over Rapture's PA system.
Also, for a game that so questions free will and the choices we make, BioShock 2 is unnervingly linear. The first game was linear too, but you were always given the option to explore previous areas and go back for things you missed. BioShock 2 uses a straight level system that allows for no more exploration than your average Halo title. If you finish a level without finding everything, the game will even warn you that you won't be able to return to find what you missed. The levels are large and have some room for exploration, but a good 80 per cent of your time will devoted to following an arrow to the macguffin flavour of the level. Pull this switch, find this person, destroy this item, flood this chamber. It gets repetitive and you never truly feel like you have any control over your own destiny.
The other 20 per cent of your time is devoted to protecting little sisters and playing zone defence. The first time around, whenever you came across a little sister after killing her Big Daddy, you had the option of saving her life and taking only 80 points of ADAM, or pulling the entire ADAM slug out of her body for 160 points, killing her in the process. In retrospect, the decision to be evil or good in this regard had little impact on how the game played out, only resulting in a different ending. This tradition continues with the sequel, and it's much easier to see through the facade after playing so many games with an "are-you-good-or-evil" mechanic in play. If you decide to be righteous, you'll be rewarded with extra ADAM from time to time anyway. However, your interplay with the Little Sisters is far more pronounced in the sequel, as you can adopt the girls and take them with you as your explore the level. Each sister you adopt can lead you to two corpses that are filled with juicy ADAM. The catch is that it takes her a while to do it, and you have to protect her and yourself from all the enemies that come out of the woodwork when you order her to extract it. From here you can set all sorts of traps while playing zone defence. The uniqueness of each area forces you to carefully consider your strategies before you start the sequence. Unfortunately, by the 20th time you've done this, it has mostly worn out its welcome.
When you've harvested or rescued the last little sister in each level, you'll be attacked by BioShock 2's new resident badass, the Big Sister. These frightening enemies combine the heavy armour and hostility of the Big Daddies, with the nimble grace of a ninja and your own plasmid use too. The battles against the Big Sisters are always thrilling, and they're spaced out enough to remain fun. Fortunately, you also have toys of your own to take on these fearsome foes.
ADAM is the oil that greases the engine of BioShock's gameplay. By spending ADAM at special vending machines, you can equip yourself with all sorts of cool effects. ADAM can be used to increase your health and mana (called EVE here), equip new buffs with a plethora of useful permanent effects, and use a variety of really cool special abilities called plasmids. Plasmids let you do things such as fire ice, lightning, swarms of insects from your fingertips, and set cyclonic traps amongst many other cool abilities.
Combat is actually improved over the original. Players can now control plasmids with their left hand, and hold their physical weapon in their right. This dual wielding system works wonderfully and allows you to combine your weapons and plasmids for literally hundreds of possible combinations of death. Each weapon supports three different ammo types as well. Everything can be switched in either a paused menu or on the fly, making BioShock 2 a truly strategic, thinking gamer's shooter. It's worth mentioning that the combat is far more frenetic and visceral than the original game, which improves the pacing, albeit at the expense of some story and ponderousness.
Hacking items in the game world has been overhauled for this sequel for the better as well. In the original, you could turn turrets and security systems against your enemies, get discounts at vending machines, and making healing stations blow up in your enemies' faces. The game would pause while you played a minigame that had you connecting pipes in a set time limit. This time, the hacking takes place in real time, having you stop a constantly moving needle in a safe zone. Succeed and you'll hack the machine, possibly with a bonus for great timing. Fail and you'll lose some life and possibly activate an alarm. Having the hacking take place while you can get attacked is a definite improvement, and is a welcome tweak for the sequel.
New to the fray is multiplayer, which is a fun, but ultimately inconsequential addition. You have a smattering of typical modes which are given a BioShock twist of lime, such as deathmatch, team deathmatch, and capture the little sister. The multiplayer ties into the storyline by taking place during the civil war that erupted throughout rapture 2 years before the original game. Usually you'll play as a splicer, but if you're lucky you'll find a Big Daddy suit, which makes you extremely powerful at the expense of painting a huge target on your back. All the BioShock staples like plasmids, hacking, and great atmosphere play a role in the multiplayer, albeit sped up and tweaked for a multiplayer environment. Taking a page from Call of Duty, more kills will grant you additional ranks, which will unlock new goodies and audio logs to further flesh out the story. Ultimately, you'll likely have some fun with multiplayer, but it won't hold your attention long enough to reach the highest rankings.
Despite the story not being as interesting or well told this time around, every other aspect of BioShock 2's presentation is utterly top notch. The atmosphere of Rapture is as totally suffocating as it was the first time around, perhaps even more so. The graphics of the game are outstanding. The developers seem to have almost completely eliminated the weird texture pop in that plagues nearly every Unreal Engine game, and textures are detailed and well defined. Rapture's colourful art deco design remains striking amongst the scenes of carnage that litter its halls. The level design is not quite as varied as the first game, but it's hard to mind when you're walking on the bottom of the ocean, admiring the local plant and wildlife. The water effects and physics and particular really wow the senses as well, especially when you're in a chamber that quickly floods with the pressure of a million litres of water. If there's one weak link in the graphics, it's that the enemies seem to have a strange shininess to them that seems out of place in the dark and serious atmosphere of the rest of the game. The game also jitters and has a few clipping errors to speak of. It's nothing game breaking of course, but enough to suck you out of the moment. Fortunately, the game always runs at a smooth frame rate on the consoles no matter how intense the action gets, which happens often.
Audio is just as well produced as the visuals. The story may not hold as much weight, but that's certainly no fault of the voice actors, who are uniformly top notch. Surround channels are filled with sounds of terror and violence that are constantly erupting from Rapture's every corridor. Plasmids and weapons all sound powerful and satisfying. Believe me when I tell you that the shotgun will give your subwoofer a huge workout. The addition of classic jazz and swing tunes from the 40's and 50's really puts a bow on the gift of the audio presentation and atmosphere. The only complaint I have is that the splicer's and little sister's comments tend to get repetitive throughout the game, but never to the point of outright annoyance.
BioShock was so ahead of its time when it first came out, that its sequel can be forgiven for simply following in the same path and hitting the same notes. Is it a revelation that will change the face of gaming forever? No. Is it game of the year material? Sadly, it's not that either. BioShock 2 is however, is a great gaming experience that still feels fresh and unique enough to make you glad you purchased and played it all the way through. Rapture lives on, and it's easy to recommend that you dive right into this underwater dystopia once again.