Anyone who says BioShock didn’t need a sequel is a liar. The fact the first game was such a huge success may have been a surprise, but all it really meant was that a follow-up would do just as well, if not better, at retail. Almost as soon as it was announced, BioShock 2 was unfairly tagged with a stigma that it would never live up to the original. Ken Levine stepping away from the project added fuel to the fanboy fire, and it seemed like the sequel’s chances of recreating the magic that was the original BioShock were fading. Even I was afraid this return to Rapture would be end up like the Matrix sequels, where it wouldn’t just be a let down, but it would also tarnish the original. That was, of course, before I got my hands on the actual game. After playing through the story, not only was it clear that 2K has a tremendous amount of love and respect for the franchise, but they’ve also made one hell of a game.
BioShock 2 picks up ten years after the conclusion of the first game. Rapture is still standing, but its remaining inhabitants are even more removed from humanity than they were the first time around. Luckily for you, instead of playing as a mere man with a few extra abilities, you’re in the shoes of one of the original Big Daddies, Subject Delta. As fate would have it, you are the only person who can save Rapture from its new maniacal matriarch, Sophia Lamb. During your stay, you’ll find answers to questions raised in the first game, as well as learning new secrets of the sprawling submerged metropolis that will bring even more questions to mind. As you explore the endless corridors and locales of Rapture that you missed on your first tour of the city, you’ll find that the decay of the societal structure directly correlates to the current structural state of the world Andrew Ryan set out to create. More audio recordings help present an in-depth look at the psyche of Rapture during its fall, and the new characters you interact with bring a sense of humanity to the depravity constantly in your face. It is a bit strange that Sophia Lamb is considered one of Ryan’s contemporaries during the course of this story, and the mere idea that she wasn’t even whispered about in the first game dulls the shine a bit, but it won’t be long before you’re able to overlook this tiny, nagging detail. Though it never quite reaches the same heights of awe and wonder the first game does, BioShock 2 comes awfully close, and has a strong enough story to succeed in its own right.
Many of BioShock’s gameplay elements, like plasmids and tonics, return in the sequel. The biggest difference in controls from the first game to the second is the ability to dual-wield plasmids and hand-held weapons at the same time. Trust me, you don’t realize how much of a pain it is to switch between plasmids and guns until you try going back to play BioShock after playing BioShock 2 for a few hours. Since you’re now in the role of a Big Daddy, it all starts with your extremely powerful drill arm. Don’t worry, you get your first plasmids almost immediately, but for me, this game is all about the melee. At first, the drill may not seem like a reliable weapon, which is due in large part to how quickly you run out of fuel. As you progress further into the game, you’ll find the drill is actually one of the deadliest weapons in either game, and goes a long way in proving just why Big Daddy Bouncers are such formidable foes. Unlike the extremely frustrating melee from the first game, a bit more development has gone into making hand-to-drill combat much more enjoyable. The absolutely lethal combination of Winter Blast or Electro Bolt, followed closely by your running up to the enemy to drill him to death, basically turns many of the more difficult encounters in the game into fights that last mere seconds. Drilling enemies to death may get a bit boring for some people, but lucky for them, there are still plenty of other ways to annihilate antagonists.
Standard FPS weapons like a machine gun, shotgun, and grenade launcher all make appearances, but the more unique armaments like the rivet gun and spear gun are the ones you’ll find yourself relying on most, not just for their sheer power, but because they offer the most variation from what we’re used to in a shooting game. There are few things as satisfying as lining up that perfect spear gun shot, and sticking a Splicer to a wall for an instant kill. Especially when you can then walk over to the hanging work of art, admire your marksmanship, then pull the spear out of the wall, and put in back into your inventory. Weapon upgrades return as well, and allow you to customize your favorite firearms should you be able to find the “Power to the People” stations. Each of the guns can use three ammo types, but keeping track of your munitions is never as difficult as it was in the first game. Of course, shooting from the hip is only one of the options you have in any given fight.
The plasmids are all more or less the same as they were last time around, with only a few subtle changes to the way they actually level up. Powers purchased late in the game allow you to charge them up for more damage, or combine them with other plasmids for doubly devastating attacks. There’s hardly a delay at all between firing of a burst of electricity to shock an enemy, then opening fire with a .50 caliber machine gun to put him down for good. Now, you can’t have plasmids without Adam, and you can’t have Adam without having a Little Sister obtain some for you from a dead Splicer. Where in the first game your options after taking down a Big Daddy were to either rescue or harvest a Little Sister, this time around, you can actually adopt a Little Sister as your own, and have her collect that precious Adam just for you before deciding her fate. Each of the Sisters can search up to two different dead Splicers for Adam, and while she’s doing so, you’ll have to protect her from a near endless assault of Splicers trying to get their own mutated hands on that great gooey stuff. It’s entirely optional, but collecting every last drop of Adam will make the last hours of the game a great deal easier.
One of the most drastic changes to the game is the way in which you research enemies. Instead of relying on a clunky old camera, you’ve now got access to a mounted video camera. Researching Splicers and Big Daddies was a crucial portion of the first BioShock that was vital to your success. Here, the same holds true, but it’s both much easier and more interesting to do. Once you acquire the camera, you’ll likely have it at the ready to use in a moment’s notice. As soon as you start the camera rolling, the game brings up the last weapon you had raised. You are awarded points based on how engaging and action-packed your footage is, and depending on the quality of what you shoot, your rewards range from increased damage on a particular foe to new tonics. Word to the wise: research the Big Sister as much as possible. She’s a real bitch. The other drastic change is how vastly different hacking is. Instead of the puzzling pipe mazes you had to pass in order to convince a machine to work in your favor, you’ll now have to precisely place a needle in a series of safe zones before you’re able to rewire turrets, vending machines, security doors, or cameras. The game doesn’t pause during this mini-game, requiring you to focus on both the needle and potential danger at once, and adding a modicum of challenge not present in the first game. Even though there’s not a great deal of skill involved in hitting the “A” button at the right time, doing that in addition to fighting off rabid Rapture residents can prove quite the challenge.
Like so many games this generation, BioShock 2 suffers from some incredibly mediocre multiplayer. Seriously, BioShock 2’s multiplayer is the definition of “tacked on,” and adds absolutely nothing to the game or the genre. The multiplayer’s opening is actually quite misleading in this aspect. There’s a nifty little world hub in the form of your character’s apartment inside Rapture right before the fall. Your apartment is where you’ll pick your plasmid and weapon loadout, change your character or costume, and check statistics. If only the rest of the multiplayer had come close to living up to the glorified menu. Standard multiplayer modes like Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, and King of the Hill abound, with the only real intriguing aspect of the game being researching downed foes for extra damage for the rest of the match. You can earn a Big Daddy costume, and there’s even a leveling system, which unlocks new weapons, characters, costumes, and plasmids, but you’ve got to have either an extreme tolerance for subpar online shooters, or be really hungry for those achievement points, to get anything worth a damn. Unlike Uncharted 2, where the multiplayer was a fun compliment to the wonderful single-player campaign, BioShocks 2’s online component would have been better left on the cutting room floor.
Having played through the first game right before starting BioShock 2, noticing the plethora of similarities in the locales was easy. Not much has changed in Rapture, despite this game taking place ten years later. Many of the posters are identical; as are many of the items you’ll come across, storage crates, and other environmental objects. While it could be argued that nothing changed in Rapture during the decade following the conclusion of the first game, it’s a bit off-putting to see so many of the same textures and detritus repeat. Characters are much more varied this time around (the Big Sister and Brute Splicer in particular are standouts), and the actual locations you visit are vastly different from those in BioShock, but I’m still a bit disappointed so much of the sequel was cribbed from the original. All the voice work in BioShock 2 is superb, and every actor brings the haunting past of Rapture to light brilliantly. Disappointingly, the score this time around isn’t nearly as memorable, but it’s still very impressive. It’s almost unfair to have to compare the two soundtracks; especially considering BioShock’s is still one of the most chillingly beautiful scores of all time. When you get right down to it, BioShock 2 is no slouch in the presentation department, and even though it leans heavily on previously created assets, it’s one of the most well put together games this generation.
BioShock 2 had a huge mountain of unrealistic expectations to overcome the moment it was announced. Even though it’s not quite as excellent as the first game was, BioShock 2 is one of the most enjoyable games I’ve played in a long time. BioShock 2 may not be BioShock, but it doesn’t have to be. The world of Rapture is one I could revisit again and again, as long as there is some new wrinkle to the story to uncover. I’m not sure where 2K’s going to take the franchise from here, but I’ll certainly be along for the ride.