-Moral choices that actually carry weight
-Fantastic exploration and atmosphere
-Fun and varied combat
-Big Sister battles
-Over-emphasis on combat in certain sequences
-Loss of novelty/mystery from first game
-Loss of Andrew Ryan. Sophia Lamb just doesn’t measure up.
BioShock took the world by storm upon its release back in 2007. With its brilliantly told story, masterful atmosphere, and varied first-person gameplay, few other games to this date offer such a complete experience. Two years later, 2K Marin’s return to Rapture in the form of BioShock 2 most certainly suffers from a case of “been there, done that,” and comes replete with a few new issues of its own. But make no mistake; BioShock 2 went above and beyond my expectations in many ways, and proves that there’s life left in Rapture yet.
The story in BioShock 2 gets the job done. Set eight years after the original game, BioShock 2 puts you in the shoes of a Big Daddy who’s been separated from his Little Sister companion. It just so happens she’s being held by a woman named Sophia Lamb, who has all but assumed control of Rapture – or what’s left of it.
Like the original game, you’re presented with certain moral choices – and this is one area in which BioShock 2 improves upon its predecessor. In the first game, you were simply given the choice to harvest or save the numerous Little Sisters you came across. Very black-and-white to say the least, and frankly, the game never gave a legitimate reason to care about the creepy little things. (Which is why I harvested them all.) Because of the new Adoption system (which allows you to “adopt” little sisters, carry them around, and have them gather ADAM) the choice between harvesting and saving the sisters carries much more weight. Listening to their childish prattling while you tote them around is undeniably endearing, and as you protect them from the many dangers of Rapture, you’ll likely develop a sense of responsibility towards them. The Sisters will act differently towards you depending on how many you’ve harvested or saved – and it’s hard not to feel awful when a Little Sister cowers and asks, “Daddy… you’re never gonna hurt me, right?”
Little Sisters aside, BioShock 2 also gives you the choice to let certain people live or die at several points during the game. The decisions aren’t easy either – just to illustrate, there was a time that I spent several minutes looking straight at a man who was begging for his life, unable to decide. Finally I decided to let him live and walked off – only to change my mind, run back, and fry him with my Incinerate plasmid. BioShock 2 isn’t “all about choices” in the sense that, say, Mass Effect is. But the choices you make carry stunning emotional weight.
But in spite of this, the storyline in BioShock 2 simply can’t stand up against that of its predecessor. The mystery behind the ruined utopia of Rapture has long been solved, Andrew Ryan is gone, and as a result, the game loses a lot in the way of narrative punch. Sophia Lamb, unfortunately, simply can’t match the charisma and sophistication that made Andrew Ryan such a likable “villain” in the first game. Her motivations are clear as mud, her philosophies aren’t particularly interesting, and by the time the game is over, you’ll probably have grown a bit tired of her pseudo-Marxist collectivist ranting. Ironically enough, she’s most interesting when Andrew Ryan talks about her in the few audio diaries he has in the game. His reactions to her ideals are more interesting than her actual beliefs are. To be sure, BioShock 2 is still an extremely well-written game. But the novelty is gone, Ryan is gone, and both are sorely missed.
BioShock 2 plays more or less like the original did, with some subtle improvements – such as dual-wielding and more practical plasmid upgrades. For example, upgrading your Lightning plasmid allows you to charge it and subsequently unleash Chain Lightning, which can hit multiple targets. Like the original game, the variety in which you can approach combat situations is fantastic. See a Splicer chilling in a pool of water? Zap the water with lightning for an instant kill. Is there a puddle of oil on the floor? Ignite it with your incinerate plasmid to toast anyone standing near it. Is a Big Sister on her way? Think smart, and run to a hacked security camera or turret to gain the advantage. Combat can be a blast in BioShock 2, especially when facing off against such frightening and unique foes as the Big Sisters or Big Daddies.
However, someone at 2K Marin seems to have misjudged just how important combat is to the BioShock experience. That is to say: despite how fun it is, it’s far from the main appeal of the franchise, and at times, BioShock 2 seems to think that it is. Certain segments place too much emphasis on shooting down Splicers and Big Daddies when they should be allowing the player to simply explore and enjoy the atmosphere of Rapture. The endgame, in particular, is frustrating because it’s nothing but battle after large-scale battle and you’ll likely be begging for the end long before it’s over. BioShock 2 still places a healthy emphasis on exploration and atmosphere, but for BioShock 3, 2K would do well to scale back the combat to a more acceptable level. (i.e., the level it was at in the original BioShock.)
Entirely new to BioShock 2 is the online multiplayer mode. At first glance, the mode seems entirely superfluous – BioShock doesn’t exactly seem like an experience that lends itself to deathmatches. But, believe it or not, the limited amount of time I spent with it was actually pretty enjoyable. There are a variety of mode to choose from, including team deathmatches, free-for-alls, “Capture the Sister,” et cet. Like Modern Warfare 2, there’s a rank system – the higher your rank, the more goodies you unlock, including additional plasmids and gene tonics. The battles themselves are complete with BioShock conventions such as turret hacking and taking photos to earn damage bonuses. It’s a lot of fun, and it’s interesting to see BioShock’s unique combat carried over to an online arena. But, at the same time, it’s difficult to imagine why you’d choose to play BioShock 2 over the bevy of online shooters out there.
BioShock 2 looks identical to its predecessor. In fact, it’ll likely look a bit worse, if only because so many prettier games have been released since 2007. The game continues to use an older version of the Unreal engine, and it definitely shows. But even so, like its predecessor, BioShock 2 manages to be one of the more visually appealing experiences in recent memory. The art style is fantastic, and you’ll be stopping to take in the sites more than once. The underwater sequences, which are new to BioShock 2, stand out in particular. During these segments, nothing attacks you, and you’re allowed to simply take in the aquatic sites.
The sound design in BioShock 2 is impressive on many levels, and acts as an essential part of the game’s atmosphere. Rapture wouldn’t be the same without the inane babble of the resident Splicers in the background, accompanied by the whale-like groans of the lumbering Big Daddies. The chilling, velociraptor-like screech of the Big Sisters is fantastic as well. Finally, a shout-out must be given to the game’s dark but whimsical musical score. The original compositions are fairly subdued, but always very good. And like the original, the use of 1950’s art-deco era music is a very nice touch.
BioShock 2 does fall on its face on a few occasions – mostly with its over-focus on combat and weaker storyline – but to be honest, its biggest fault isn’t really a “fault” at all. BioShock 2 simply isn’t BioShock 1. In the original BioShock, the novelty and mystery of the experience was a huge part of what made it so engaging. When I first crash-landed into Rapture, I had absolutely no idea what to expect – I was confused, a little frightened, and determined to discover what, exactly, had happened to destroy the paradise Andrew Ryan had attempted to build beneath the sea. But in BioShock 2, you go in already knowing what makes Rapture “tick,” per se. You know what the city is, why the city is, and what to expect from it. Again: the novelty is simply gone.
But while this is disappointing, it can hardly be called a “fault” on part of the game. And even though we’ve been there before, Rapture is still a fantastically immersive place to explore. BioShock 2 is still an extremely well-executed, atmospheric experience, and if you enjoyed the first game, it’s difficult to imagine that you couldn’t enjoy its sequel. Despite all my prior misgivings, I had a blast with BioShock 2 – and I’m genuinely interested in seeing where the franchise goes from here.