It's hard not to start playing BioShock 2 without thinking about it as one of the most unnecessary sequels in gaming. It is easy, however, once playing has begun to recognize it as a very promising game.
Lop the boss battle off of the original BioShock and the 2007 game would seem to be just about perfect. It was a novel dive into a failed Objectivist utopia called Rapture. It was a philosophical exploration of free will played as a first-person shooter designed to accommodate a player's tactical ingenuity. It introduced one of the great and weird new relationships in video games, the life-force/Adam-draining Little Sisters and their monstrously powerful protectors, the Big Daddys.
And aside from that final boss battle, BioShock ended well enough that nothing could improve it, not the addition of a 2 at the end of the title, not the tacking on of multiplayer and certainly not the opening title screen that credits twice as many studios for the sequel (four, none of which are the series' founding studio, 2K Boston).
I have, however, returned to Rapture, with the help of 2K Marin, 2K Australia, 2K China and Digital Extremes. I have played BioShock 2's single player campaign through its prologue and first full level, and I am both impressed and pleased. Dare I write this, but the new game has improved elements of the first.
BioShock 2, in its preview form, does not start with the elegance and magic of the first game. There is no scene-setting plane crash, swim through sinking, blazing wreckage nor an elevator ride down to an Art Deco paradise gone wrong on the sea floor. There is instead an abrupt awakening, a look into a reflecting pool that confirms, that, yes, I will be playing this game as a Big Daddy. And then, swiftly, there's combat. It is less artful, and it continued my worry, though that worry would soon end.
Jarring though the beginning of BioShock 2 may be, it is more with the gradual awakened clearing of the eyes that Rapture is revealed as a better-looking place this time. Outside the windows, the sea is now blue instead of green, its waters more clear and the sea-life around it more abundant and vivid. Graphical improvements are, I remembered as I began playing, a reasonable expectation even in the successor to something that was so good.
I'll stay light on story spoilers, and instead reveal the mood. Rapture is still a wreck, still one with wrecked lives in it. The city feels changed. Sofia Lamb, a psychiatrist brought in by BioShock's Andrew Ryan, is now a worshipped leader and apparently our nemesis within radio contact. On the attack, she sends splicers and the well-publicized Big Sister, a stalking seemingly invincible foe that leaps and springs through levels, only to be beaten back temporarily as was so many times the dark Samus in the sequel to Metroid Prime. There are friends within radio contact, but most of the character that emerges in the new game appears to do so in the same successful manner as it did in the first: From, literally, the writing on the walls of Rapture, from discarded radio logs, from the posture of corpses that reveal failed dreams and failed struggles.
Rapture as a place of wonder and as a trigger of player curiosity is back, successfully.
In the early going, being a Big Daddy feels different only in armament. On our right arm is a drill, a better melee weapon than a wrench. Soon, we earn well-animated guns, like a rivet gun and a 50-cal. Machine gun. On the left hand we earn plasmids, some of the same early ones as in the first game: Electric shocks and fire. New is the ability to dual-wield, which leads to the discovery of the shock/stun-and-shoot left-right combo. Even more useful is a hacking tool which can even, with the help of a rare type of dart, hack from afar. I played many fights from a distance, shooting a hacking needle into a turret and then hacking it so it would kill the enemies for me. Hacking, by the way, is no longer a puzzle game of pipes but a reflex test of well-timed button presses, like a gaming golf swing.
What's so winning in BioShock 2 is that, as it refrains early on from re-writing the rules of the first game, it instead amplifies that original's best aspects. It doesn't just look better or explore more of Rapture's interesting world, but it recognizes what played best in the first and does more of it.
There were two things that had played so well in the first BioShock.
The first, was the original game's linear sequences, passageways through Rapture's sights and sounds that allowed the player to absorb the history of the place and its people. This is best executed early in the sequel in an area called Ryan's Amusements, which is a theme park and museum that reintroduces and elaborates on Rapture's history, Ryan's philosophy and, as much of the place is defaced, on the views of those who rebelled against Ryan shortly before the first game began. Walking through this place makes evident the genius and madness of Rapture.
The second gameplay achievement in the first game was the dynamism of its combat, the offering to the player of numerous direct and indirect ways to fight. This was a key element, utilized when attempting to take down a Big Daddy. Players could fill a room with explosive traps, plan to electrify water when a Big Daddy might rush through it, and then begin shooting. The new game makes these tactics all the more available, thanks to the ability to hack from afar and with projectile-based trap ammo. The game requires this kind of play when a player prepares to take down a Big Daddy. It also requires it of them when the alert sounds that Big Sister is coming in for an attack. And, in a twist, it forces this kind of planned combat when a player has taken their own Little Sister to a corpse full of Adam energy. Placing her next to the body is prelude to setting the room up to defend against Splicer attack. Give her the signal to begin and they swarm. You have to keep her safe until she drains the energy. Then you can decide whether she is rescued or harvested. These types of planned offensive and defensive combat work so well, the designers of the new game clearly relishing the opportunity to let the player strategize and orchestrate organized chaos.
Earlier demos and hype for BioShock 2 showed off the ability to walk outside on the sea floor, and much has been made of the game's placement 10 years later in the timeline from the first. I did indeed walk on the sea floor in the new game, and while it was a beautiful sight, the sequence lasted too briefly for me to recognize any significant gameplay change it introduces. The plot is mostly still a mystery to me now, as it is intentionally unclear just why and how the player's Big Daddy, one of the original line, has been revived nor how some of the supporting characters who appear really relate to each other.
I started playing BioShock 2 worried that the inspired execution of the first BioShock would consign a sequel to being a pale imitation. It seems, though, that I had underestimated the room for technical improvement and gameplay refinement. I see little sign of re-invention and a lot of signs of love and polish. That love could smother, that fealty to the past could still render this game as superfluous. But in the early going, I am happily immersed in Rapture again, joyfully mystified as to what its inhabitants are up to, pleased with the way it plays and wanting to play more.