This is... familiar.
Early on in the game, you’re going to find a video recorder. Your friend, Sinclair, explains just what you do with it and how it works, eventually explaining how, “Usin’ that camera’s a bit like tellin’ a joke. Each time ya tell it the same way, it gets a little more stale – so you gotta change it up to keep it fresh.”
It’s almost painful just how accurately Sinclair sums up BioShock 2. It’s largely the same game, some parts of it better, some parts of it worse and the rest of it so completely unchanged, modified or new that it’s not a welcoming sense of familiarity. It never truly comes into its own until the last hours and the journey to those final levels is one that retreads the same material that BioShock did a little over two years ago.
BioShock 2 certainly makes a strong impression, though. You’ve woken up from a 10-year coma after an incredibly dramatic event prior. You’re a Big Daddy, and the first to successfully be pair-bonded with a Little Sister. In this case, she has a name – Eleanor Lamb. She’s been taken away from you and the entire game revolves around you going after her. Whether it was due to some strange part of my subconscious that retains all my parental instincts or not, that’s a damned good motivation to go back into Rapture. I have a daughter that needs saving.
It’s definitely a quieter, more personal story. With Andrew Ryan dead and the game’s primary antagonist, Sophia Lamb, is still very much alive, very much Eleanor’s mother and very much holding your “daughter” captive. She’s an excellent character, written and voice-acted with such precision and restraint that while her extreme communist ideals are totally insane, she comes off as entirely reasonable and easy to respect.
Though, it’s her ideals that hit on a familiar note. Sophia Lamb’s views have the support of the impoverished and poor, which after 8 years after BioShock, that leaves only splicers and a few of the sane locales still remaining, just like how Atlas gained the support of the, well, the impoverished and poor. Granted, it’s done with much more elegance and much more subtlety than in BioShock, but we’ve traveled this road already and it’s the kind of thing that plagues BioShock 2.
As much as the overarching goal is to save Eleanor, that mostly fades out for a great many hours as you deal with all the issues that exist in all the areas you visit. You’ll learn just a bit more about Sophia, just a bit more about the state of Rapture and just a bit more about the people inhabiting it through those convenient audio logs – again. There are expansions of the BioShock’s fiction here and there, but you’ve definitely heard all of this before – literally. BioShock 2 doesn’t feel integrated into the world of Rapture all that well; it’s stitched onto the sides. On the flipside, with a better antagonist, a better plot and better characters, it’s a better yarn. On the downside, almost none of it is original, revisiting the same themes with the same execution and same utopian downfall the audio logs portrayed in BioShock. It’s a mixed bag, to the say the least.
The same can be said for the combat. Mechanically, it’s definitely better. The guns are louder and much more satisfying to shoot with and not having to swap between your plasmid and your weapon of choice keeps things moving in a way that feels natural and exciting. And what better way to highlight the improved combat by overloading the game with it. As a Big Daddy, you’ll come across plenty of Little Sisters and you have the option to let them do their job by taking them to corpses that have yet to be extracted for ADAM, the genetic currency that lets you buy all the plasmid and tonic upgrades.
The idea of actually fulfilling a Big Daddy’s role as a protector is definitely an intriguing idea, but the way the developers went about makes the entire ordeal tedious and artificial. Every single time, without fail, letting a Little Sister harvest a corpse triggers waves upon waves of Splicers. They keep coming until your Little Sister is done with her job and after the first two or three times of playing defense, it wears and the game never explains why only your Little Sister attracts Splicer spawns or where they even come from. And with so many Splicers coming at you at once, the entire ordeal is mindless, losing a lot of the methodical flow when AI and environment manipulation was a more viable solution when facing a handful of Splicers. Yes, you can definitely skip these portions altogether and face the black and white dilemma of whether or not you’ll save or harvest a Little Sister, but that means losing out on a large amount of ADAM. It’s becomes a job – you do it for the pay. It goes a long way to get in the way of all the exploration, which is still plenty fun and occasionally poignant, and defending Little Sisters detracts from the game rather than it being a welcomed addition.
A couple of new enemy types are introduced and they’re all great additions. The Rumbler, a rocket-launching Big Daddy, Brute Splicers offer up some nice spikes to the combat and the Big Sisters, despite how they’re utilized – they’re triggered, scripted encounters – are a whole lot of fun to fight against. They’re usually one-on-one affairs, letting you adjust and think in a way that a mob of Splicers don’t. They’re all used sparingly enough that they’re uncommon and refreshing to fight against.
Hacking and scanning have also been overhauled, and all for the better. Hacking is real-time, as you stop a moving a pin at the right time to reap the rewards. Scanning is now done with the video recorder. Simply snap a shot of what you want to scan and then fire away with everything you’ve got. A points system grades just how well you did and how much research you gained. These do a lot to keep the game moving, instead of occasionally pausing to adjust pipes or see if the photo you snapped pushed forward your research on a subject. Going to just completely shift into another subject, there are a few underwater portions. They're so inconsequential and add so little to the game that I just completely forgot about them, so here: The game has you walk around underwater sometimes.
Then there’s the multiplayer. In some grand, twisted irony, it integrates itself into the fiction in a much better way than the singleplayer does. Set during the civil war period of Rapture’s downfall, it fits very nicely into the framework of Rapture’s collapse. There’s a surprising amount of story in the multiplayer, with audio logs for all the playable characters and a legitimate story reason to jump into all of the game’s modes. The modes are pretty basic stuff, deathmatch, team deathmatch, capture the flag, but the inclusion of plasmids and the utilization of some familiar BioShock-esque trappings gives it some uniqueness. Researching dead players gives you a damage bonus over them and turrets and vending machines can be hacked. It’s enough to make the multiplayer not feel like it’s been tacked on and not feel like a waste of resources, but it probably won’t overthrow whatever multiplayer commitments you have with other games. Though, after its most recent patch, lag seems to be plaguing every single game and the tommy gun seems to be stuck on semi-auto. Probably issues that will be fixed shortly, but as of writing, the multiplayer is not at a playable standard.
All these ups and downs of the game also apply to BioShock 2’s sights. The grimier, dirtier look of Rapture detracts from the sinking beauty that BioShock was. It still has that trademark, identifiable art style, but it’s all a touch more brown and grey. The biggest issue is how the levels themselves lack distinct visual identities. Pauper’s Drop looks like they simply borrowed assets from the Apollo Square district of Olympus Heights. Dionysus Park looks like Fort Frolic with coral. There’s rarely ever that standout moment, like stepping into the lush, foliage-rich Arcadia for the first time. Characters models definitely look better, but the characters that speak directly to you in the same physical space, still look awkward. It’s hard to tell where the developers were going with them. They do look stylized to the point that it looks like it was an artistic choice, but they have such a crudeness to them that it’s hard to not look at them without feeling bothered. The sounds of Rapture have been left untouched. Outside of a few characters obviously sharing the same voice actor and with the rare sound glitch where music cuts in and out or just doesn’t stop playing, it’s another standout audio experience.
Once you reach the final hours of this 10-12 hour game, the developers really find their own unique voice for BioShock 2. Instead of feeling like it’s aping everything its predecessor did, it steps in, and presents its own ideas and its own ambitions. It’s just, by that point, all the previous hours were filled with tedium and with such an overwhelming sense of familiarity, that it started to become a game I simply played because it was a sequel to BioShock. BioShock 2’s final hours proved there’s some life left in Rapture, but whether or not the developers can channel that kind of energy for BioShock 3 is up in the air, but they have to. The series is already at a point of diminishing returns and its coming dangerously close to total creative stagnation.