Thoroughly enjoyable, but the magic of the original is gone.
There was once a game which set itself in an Art-Deco city, located deep beneath the . The game was spooky, immersive and deeply entertaining; partly because the characters and plotline were so interesting, but also because the setting was incredibly unique. However, the founder of that city eventually realised that his creation was a disappointment that he had built upon a set of broken ideals. And in his finest hour, he reminded us all that “A man chooses. A slave obeys.” If anything can encapsulate my feelings about BioShock 2 in the form of an analogy, it is this. It’s a sequel that never really needed to exist, but was created with reasonably high ascetic ideals and ultimately manifested itself as a lengthy footnote to the original game without a clear defining narrative of its own. This is not to say in anyway that the game is in any way bad: The combat is fluid and varied, the locations large and dramatic, and the orchestral soundtrack is as haunting as ever. But what is missing from BioShock 2 is most telling: Its sense of presence and purpose. And because this magic and wonderment has gone, the game sadly loses much of its charm. Nonetheless, as Rapture’s swansong, this game still deserves to be played.
BioShock 2 is set eight years after the original game in 1968, once again within the cavernous, failed underwater metropolis of Rapture. The game throws you back to 1958 during the introductory cutscene to show Subject Delta, one of the original series of Big Daddies, being forced to shoot himself in the head by Dr. Sofia Lamb; a highly regarded psychiatrist. Lamb takes away his Little Sister, who is actually Lamb’s own daughter, Eleanor. Jump forward ten years, and Delta awakes in the Adonis Luxury Resort, apparently having been revived at a Vita-Chamber. What happened to Delta’s body during those intervening years remains an absolute mystery. He is quickly contacted by Brigid Tenenbaum, who featured heavily in the original game, and told that during his time incapacitated, Rapture has fallen and Sofia Lamb has risen to power, and has attempted to reconstruct society using her own warped ideas of Utilitarianism. This collectivist thinking is the polar opposite philosophical persuasion to Andrew Ryan, who founded Rapture upon the principles of Randian Objectivism. Whilst Ryan triumphed the ideas of individual above all else, Lamb believes that the destruction of the self will allow for humanity to strive for the collective greater good. Tenenbaum tells Delta that he must reunite with Eleanor or else he will die, and along the way he can help to save a new generation of Little Sisters who have been kidnapped from the surface in order to harvest Adam for the remainder of the spliced denizens.
Although initial plot setup is marred by only a few holes, there are several giant stumbling blocks which cut through the remainder of the storyline like a bloodied axe. Tenenbaum is established as a major character and heard from frequently during the earlier levels, but then disappears and is absent entirely in the latter two thirds of the game; so much so that in the end what happens to her is unknown (although it is later established in the Minerva’s Den DLC). We are led to believe the Delta will die if he isn’t in close proximity to Eleanor Lamb, but it is never explained how he was able to rise from the dead after ten years, or why he couldn’t do so again (which you will in-fact do many times during the game at the conveniently placed Vita-Chambers). Then there are the small, niggling irregularities, such as how Subject Delta can consume all the food and drink around Rapture when he always has on his huge diving helmet. Dr. Lamb is certainly an interesting character, but unlike Andrew Ryan in the original game, she never has redemption and is almost pointedly a zenith of evil, constantly doing unspeakably terrible things which she always justifies as for the greater good. If Ryan was insane, Lamb is totally off her rocker. However, for the most part it can be safely said that the story plods along nicely and will normally keep you entertained, although you will be forced to suspend more disbelief than necessary. The finale however is just as lacklustre as the original game, and unlike the predecessor, there is no dramatic plot twist to fuel your interest into the home stretch.
It is unfortunate that many secondary characters usually are very minimally explored. The audio diaries, which were the backbone of forming the deep immersion into the original game’s universe, are not as interesting to listen to this time around, despite the effort of several call-backs. Those characters which you will interact with along the way, such as Augustus Sinclair and Gil Alexander, are never particularly fleshed out enough for you to care about them. This is a great shame, since Gil Alexander could have been as memorable a character as Sander Cohen was in the original game. The voice acting itself is still very good however, with the cold, authoritative voice of Dr. Lamb often echoing off the walls, issuing commands and messages to her splicer minions. From a philosophical point of view Lamb’s crusade of Utilitarianism and the creation of her cult of personality is interesting, although these themes fall into the background whilst playing the game itself.
It has to be said that this is the one area where BioShock 2 really comes out ahead; the shooting and several parts of the gameplay are more satisfying and fluid than they were in the original. This time around you can dual-wield a weapon and a plasmid at the same time, meaning that you don’t have to switch between one and the other constantly. The shooting itself is proficient, and combat scenarios have been overhauled. Now after defeating a Big Daddy you can adopt the Little Sister, and carry her around as though she was your own. This will set you up for many pitched battles where you must fight off the incoming splicer hordes and protect your Sister, whilst she harvests Adam from a corpse. Although this was a frustration in the penultimate level of the original game, in part due to the fact that the Little Sister had a limited life-bar, here it is much more satisfying. The little sister remains invincible but will stop harvesting if she is attacked, meaning that it your duty to see that she complete her task unimpeded. If you correctly set up traps and use a combination of weapons and the environment to your advantage, then these encounters can be great fun. After gathering Adam from the corpses you will then be given the same black and white moral choice as in the original: To harvest the girl, and get lots of Adam, or to save her and receive a smaller amount. Once again these choices will impact on the game’s ending, although the changes are superficial at best and will never particularly come into play.
There is a good variety of both weapons and plasmids available scattered around Rapture and for purchase in the vending machines, which will be needed in order to defeat some of the game’s greater opponents. Mid-way through Brute Splicers are introduced, who are hulking monstrosities that charge at you, and later on you even come across some psychotic former Big Daddies. However the toughest opponents in the game are the Big Sisters, who will hunt you down after you save or harvest a certain number of Little Sisters in each level. The Big Sisters are the closest equivalent to a boss battle that BioShock 2 gets, and will require practically everything in your arsenal to defeat successfully. The purpose of the Big Sisters is never fully explained, although it can be guessed that they are the Little Sisters who have grown up, and have developed superhuman powers because of all the Adam they collected. Due to the good variety of enemies, and the fact that you are facing a lot more of them (often a dozen or so at one time) the combat of the game is fast-paced and hectic, always wondering where the next splicer may be hiding, and the next encounter might come. Furthermore, in terms of sound BioShock 2 is still a triumph. The orchestral score by Gary Schyman is just as hypnotic as ever, and the authentic 1940’s and 50’s music once again sets a good tone for the action to play out against.
It can be said that in terms of character design, the situation is markedly improved. Non-spliced characters now look a lot more human, and those who are spliced have been given a more realistic overhaul, so that their skin sags and their malformed limbs appear appropriately grotesque. Indeed, when it comes to setting, Rapture is still as beautiful and decayed as ever. There are occasionally blurred textures hear and there, mainly from when assets have been imported from the original game, but for the most part BioShock 2 is still gorgeous to behold. There is a good variety of levels which are spacious and nicely designed, representing a cross-section of Rapture’s society: Everything from the beneath the tracks slums of Pauper’s Drop to the once lavish but now ravaged interior of Dionysus Park. There is even one or two showcase underwater segments, which although stagnant of genuine gameplay are nonetheless interesting. The main issue with the levels is that the heavy atmosphere which was ever-present throughout the first game is pretty thinly spread here, and the blame cannot really be attributed to a single facet. It's kind of like you’re walking through a theme-park version of Rapture, which has been designed to mimic the real thing, but you can always see the cracks in the underlying paintwork. You are used to the Art Deco art-style, the Big Daddies, the crazed splicers. The mystery and the intrigue are gone, and what you are left with is familiar and usually predictable.
However, I suppose what really disappoints me about BioShock 2 beyond the game itself, is the support (or should I say, lack of it) which has been given to users of the PC version. In spite of the fact that for myself, the game crashes to desktop every forty-five minutes, certain sounds don't work and several other technical faults, 2K Games have delayed issuing a proper patch correcting such issues, despite the fact that it had previously been promised for eight months. Furthermore, the DLC of Minerva's Den and the Protector Trials has been previously cancelled, then suddenly un-cancelled for PC users. Whilst I am relieved at the turnaround in this regard, I still believe that the general standard of support for this game should have been higher, and that 2K Games offered little explanation as to why the delays have been so long. Of course, I only say this because deep down, I still like BioShock 2 very much, and am glad that I had a chance to visit Rapture again, and I wish that I will play Minerva’s Den for myself one day. My disappointment is mainly manifested because I yearn for what could have been if it had been done right, and I am saddened that those who were tasked with safeguarding it occasionally do not seem to be acting in our best interests.
So there we have BioShock 2, a game which for me invokes deeply mixed opinions. I suppose that since the original game is one of my all-time favourites, I knew full well that any developers were going to have to work extremely hard to keep me impressed. Sadly, although BioShock 2 may indeed be a better gameplay experience than BioShock original, almost all of the rich atmosphere and strong plot which kept you on your toes before is absent in this sequel. This certainly does not mean that BioShock 2 is a bad game by any means: As a shooter, it is actually more proficient and has a lot more actual shooting to be getting on with, easily enough to recommend it to anyone fond of a good fight. But alas, most of the suspense is gone from Rapture, to the extent that the plot just feels like it is persuading you to move from point A to B. All of it combines to make BioShock 2 a perfectly playable game, but not a particularly memorable one. I only remind you that as Andrew Ryan said; “We all have choices, but in the end our choices make us.” As far as buying BioShock 2 goes, the choice is, as always, up to you.