Welcome back to the beautiful city of Rapture, the dystopian underworld introduced in 2007's BioShock, a failed experiment all but destroyed by its inhabitants, a world less mysterious than when you last left it.
BioShock 2 puts players in the suit of Subject Delta, a hulking Big Daddy prototype who longs to reunite with his bonded Little Sister, a girl who happens to also be the daughter of Sofia Lamb, the woman now running Rapture, the underwater city somehow still as chaotic, leaky and menacingly well-populated 10 years after the events of the original BioShock. Along the way, you'll be aided by Lamb's opponents and Eleanor herself on your search for your lost little Lamb, growing stronger with all new genetic modifications in the form of offensive Plasmids and passive, ability-granting Tonics. This time, you'll dual wield the power of Plasmids in your left hand, burning, electrocuting and freezing foes, with deadly new weapons for your right.
Does BioShock 2 live up to the high expectations set by the original, Ken Levine directed adventure? And can it possibly be... a better game?
A Lesser Story, Better Told: BioShock 2's story does not have the same revelatory power or stunning, complete vision of the original. It is not as fresh or frightening, but it does tell a more consistent tale, one less reliant on twists and turns. It is reliant on other storytelling conventions from the original, with much of the story doled out through found audiotapes and bugs in your ear from Rapture rivals Sofia Lamb and Augustus Sinclair. Many of BioShock 2's characters are more interesting than those of the original, telling the bits and pieces of Rapture post-Andrew Ryan in more digestible, more inventive ways. There's no late game devolution in storytelling in the sequel, but there are welcome surprises that are worth keeping oneself spoiler-free for.
The Moral Hangover: The original BioShock didn't run with the impact of the player's moral choices—primarily whether to save the game's Little Sisters, returning them to normal, or harvest them for the extra ADAM that grants the player more power—as expertly as its sequel does. BioShock 2 not only provides a more interesting quantitative outcome to many of the player's decisions, well beyond the extra ADAM one can gain from a Little Sister rescue, it successfully makes the player question whether he's making the right decision. Without giving too much away, the player is given the option at certain points to spare characters who may rightfully deserve or even clearly express their wish to die, with the reward or punishment for each decision smartly ambiguous. For players who have completed the first, the suspicion that your character may or may not be manipulated by the voices in your ear makes those decisions all the more conflicting. Personally, I wish I'd saved the game more often so that I could revisit my behavior.
A Better Harvest: The harvesting of ADAM from Little Sisters is giving substantial depth in BioShock 2. Upon eliminating a rival Big Daddy, players can choose to immediately harvest or adopt his ward. This is where it gets interesting. While watching over an adopted Little Sister, Delta can seek out ADAM resources for her to harvest. This brings a swarm of Splicers and makes use of brand new weapon traps—Trap Rivets, Mini-turrets and Trap Spears—for some of the most intense confrontations in the game. The process can become tedious after a while, but the pay off is worth it.
Hacking++: Gone are the painful pipe swapping puzzles of the original BioShock, with that game's hacking method replaced by something simpler, less eventually grating and ultimately more varied. Instead of suffering through more Pipe Mania, players' reflexes are tested with a rhythmic mini-game that requires precision timing. Hacking is more improved with more worthwhile genetic tonics that make the hacking game increasingly easier—just as hacking ramps up in difficulty—and the addition of remote hacking darts and auto-hacking darts.
Rapture From The Outside: There are a few moments when, taking advantage of the suit that Subject Delta wears, the game lets players go outside and briefly explore the exterior of Rapture. Players can walk the sea floor between airlocks, soaking in the brightly lit organic sights without fear of attack, a chance to unwind between Big Daddy battles. These areas feel a bit under-utilized, but it's a lovely change of scenery from the dilapidated, corpse-laden halls of Rapture.
Plasmid Sequels & Power To The People: Most of the genetic modifications from the original BioShock return, but the plasmids and tonics have been given powerful sequels as well. My standbys, the Electro Bolt and Incinerate, become much more interesting to use when upgraded to their highest level. Chain lightning makes Electro Bolt far more useful when taking on crowds of Splicers, with the exploding higher level Incinerate doing more than just adding damage to a single foe. The weapon upgrades performed at the uncommon Power to the People stations add similarly strategy changing tactics. I was pleasantly surprised to find the Rivet Gun so useful after gaining the ability to fire superheated rivets, setting enemies on fire while they were also being attacked by bees. For a game with perhaps too much offensive variety, the expanded plasmids and elemental additions to weapons make combat far more enjoyable than in the original.
Research Redone: The ability to research your enemies with a camera is refined, wonderfully, in BioShock 2. Still photographs are replaced by moving pictures, letting the player film Splicers and Big Daddies for research rewards in the form of upgrades and tonics. The new method encourages more variety in battle tactics, helping me to learn just how effective shooting a swarm of bees at Brute Splicers then pairing that with Rocket Spears can be. Better yet, BioShock 2 offers a much more clear look at their research progress.
A History Better Explained: An added chapter to a story as revered as BioShock's may feel like an unnecessary thing—except for Take-Two Interactive shareholders, of course. Whether to also shine a light on the mysterious relationship of the Big Daddies and Little Sisters is tricky. Will exploring that history in fine detail, and from first person no less, remove the allure of these monsters? Fortunately, no. While I prefer to not have every nook and cranny of fiction that I enjoy explored, BioShock 2's digging into the origins of many characters is fascinating. The nimble, screeching Big Sisters, a dangerously cheesy proposition, add a frightful new enemy to the mix.
That Familiar Feeling: The first few hours in BioShock 2 feel uncomfortably familiar. Sure, it's a sequel and where else can one go but Rapture to further explore the people, places and events of Andrew Ryan's underwater utopia? Being reintroduced to the now familiar world and its strange super powers and spliced-up populace, when the original felt so fresh, so inspired, and so enigmatic at first feels like retread. Fortunately, that feeling dissolved later in the game, but it was the initial impression of playing a follow-up to a game that felt unnecessarily sequelized that made the homecoming a little sour.
Drill Disappointment: I was surprised to find just how unappealing it was to use Delta's drill, even after the various upgrades and tonics that make the gas powered melee weapon seem so much more usable. Melee combat isn't typically the draw in first person shooters, but it was disappointing to find this aspect of playing as a Big Daddy so dull.
2K Marin and the rest of the BioShock 2 team deserves credit for delivering what seemed impossible, making a sequel that not only tells a story that's greater in parts than its predecessor but making that sequel feel necessary. BioShock 2 does enough to differentiate itself from the original to make it feel new again, but it takes some time to get there. The game atones for many of the design sins of the original, making hacking more fun, deleting the repetitive noise of the original—"Welcome to the Circus of Value!! Hahaha!" is never heard—and fixing the sometimes clunky interface of the original.
What BioShock 2 didn't really need, except to discourage trade-ins, was its sloppy multiplayer mode. I neither loved nor hated this bland addition to the game, as it feels playable at best, a semi-interesting distraction between playthroughs of the more refined single-player campaign. The expected stuff is there, including a leveling system with unlockable weapons and Plasmids not seen in the single-player portion, but it consists solely of BioShock themed variations on stock multiplayer modes.
I liked BioShock 2 more than I expected to, perhaps more so than the original thanks to its more satisfying game play. The been there, done that feeling wears off after not too long, giving players a chance to happily get lost in Rapture once again.
BioShock 2 was developed by 2K Marin, 2K Australia, 2K China and Digital Extremes and published by 2K Games for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC on February 9. Retails for $59.99 USD on consoles, $49.99 on PC. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played single-player game to completion on Xbox 360, tested multiplayer modes.
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