NB: Single-player review (online multiplayer review forthcoming)
The faint trickling of water. Blue neon flickers in the shadows. To your right, a garden of large coral glows crimson, overwhelming a decaying stairway. To your left, a silhouette standing tall with chest out, arms aloft, and judging all caught in its stony gaze. Above you, the decorative bronze that once flaunted freedom with pride is now overrun with a scrawling of Revelation 18:2 that shrieks out: “Fallen. Fallen is Babylon.” In the darkness of a vent, a pair of small yellow eyes shine out, watching every one of your slow, uneasy steps into the horrors beyond. Welcome back to Rapture, son.
It is a very welcome return indeed to the gold-tinted luminescence of this Atlantis. For all of its intoxicating powers and sinister subversion, BioShock was always about Rapture. Its crumbling art deco, its tinny bubbliness, all set against composer Garry Schyman’s wistful strings and the ubiquitous ocean blue. While not quite the same, as replicating Rapture’s astoundment is an impossibility, BioShock 2 gets close enough. The sequel’s mystery is inherent to the ten year gap since the first game’s events, as each new corner, bloodied defacement, and terror-filled audio tape delves further into Rapture’s dark secrets. While animation niggles sadly resurface, Rapture retains its eerie beauty without palpable graphical touch-ups.
Speaking of audio tapes, the voice acting is once again dead-on. Replicating Armin Shimerman’s excellent performance as ruthless visionary Andrew Ryan is a tough task, but Fenella Woolgar’s cold, dominant portrayal of altruist Sofia Lamb is a strong replacement. The Southern drawl of new radio support Augustus Sinclair (Doug Boyd), mixed with his explicitly selfish motives, plays craftily on memories of the previous game’s betrayal.
Not your character’s memories, of course, as BioShock 2 follows a brand new avatar. The 2K team attempted something different this time around by slotting you inside the Big Daddy’s shell, but there’s no elaborate statement on convention here. While the goal of your quest is to escape once again, the city’s constant loathing for and moral discrediting of you and your actions asks absorbing questions of your motivation. In one scene, you intrude on a couple quietly dancing. As you soon raid their corpses for loot, your claim of self-defense feels somewhat debatable.
BioShock 2’s plot starts off rather sluggishly, although it is interspersed with a few dramatic moments. The new mutiny in Rapture leisurely surfaces between the evil Lamb and her extraordinary daughter Eleanor, with you caught unwittingly in the middle of their family dispute. This tussle evolves rather slowly and predictably, although things pick up towards the end when Lamb makes her cataclysmic final move. Thankfully, the pacing near the end is far improved from the protracted original’s final hours. As said before, do not expect lightning to strike twice with the same rod, but do expect some creative, captivating scenes throughout the campaign. Also to its credit, BioShock 2 treats you as if you’ve played the original, something not enough sequels are brave enough to do.
Surprisingly, the subplots of BioShock 2 offer the best scripting, with the Gil Alexander story acting as a fascinating diversion in particular. Alexander, a man with a premonition of his upcoming psychosis, lays out an itinerary for you to follow in order to defeat his now insane self. This leads to a host of bizarre scenarios, as well as some riotous ones – be prepared when you enter stage left. Having said that, one significant criticism of the plot is that it’s hard to believe in the emergence of prominent sequel characters–like Lamb, Sinclair and Alexander–when they simply weren’t there the first time around. At least the game doesn’t complicate matters by getting too wrapped up in explanations.
But that’s the issue that BioShock 2 has dealt with since it was announced: does the sequel belong in that universe, acting as a continuation of such a stand-alone masterpiece, or does it feel a little out of place? Fear not, because the answer is yes, as the 2K teams have worked hard to ensure that BioShock 2 belongs. To do so, however, they had to play things safe, both in the game’s sluggish, slightly detached story and in a few other areas.
Take the combat, for instance. While BioShock 2’s 1-2 plasmid and weapon combos remain unique, the scarceness of new plasmids disappoints. The only true new arrival is called Scout, which grants you invisibility and allows you to scope out the trials that await without being detected. It proves to be fun and useful, but there should be more like it. While upgrade extensions of popular plasmids like Incinerate and Winter Blast are exciting–upgrading your Electro Bolt to create huge electrical storms is a blast–the plasmid side of the combat ultimately feels too familiar. Since the plasmids were always the best aspect of BioShock’s combat, this is a disheartening revelation. Incorporating existing plasmids with several new ones is tricky given quick selection mechanics, but more variety is needed. Maybe other shooters can get away with familiar weapon line-ups in their iterations, but most sequels also change up their surroundings. That being said, do look out for a cameo from a special new plasmid towards the end, one that’s well worth the wait.
The physical weapons offer a bit more variety, including access to the Big Daddy’s signiture rivet gun and drill. His devastating drill rush attack is also an absolute delight, as he launches himself into enemies at ferocious speed. Other weapons return in slightly different guises–like the substitution of a speargun for the original game’s crossbow–but it’s the increased focus on the trap ammunition that keeps things interesting.
While the ADAM-loving Little Sisters do return, you can now do more than just harvest or rescue them. Choosing to adopt a Little Sister allows them to gather ADAM from corpses for you, but doing so invites an assault from vitriolic splicers that’ll keep attacking until she finishes her job. To deal with this, you can lay out elaborate defenses with weapons that include proximity mines, mini turrets, and electrical lines. While this may not be wholly original, it’s still plenty of fun, though it does get cyclical by the sixteenth attack.
While the Little Sisters haven’t changed much, the new lass in town–the Big Sister–is an entirely different threat. Perhaps BioShock 2’s female take on the Big Daddy sums up the game best. She is undoubtedly powerful and striking, her ninja array of attacks and effortless strength making her a tough cookie. But you’re prepared for her now, and you know the drill – pun shamefully intended. Maybe it’s the familiarity of the setting or your new stronger shell, but its hard to find her as awe-inspiring as the lumbering Big Daddy was in the original game, coming at you like a cannon fired from hell. Perhaps the fear factor is the biggest casualty of a return to Rapture, as the same old hit-run-and-loot gameplay within the familiar luminous blue does make BioShock 2 feel like Rapture circa 1960, for better or for worse.
Yet, while entirely valid, all of these comparisons to the previous game are harsh, as the sequel is still a fantastic title that is a must-play for BioShock fans. It’s not the disaster that it could have been, far from it in fact, and the original’s wow factor was never replaceable. Ultimately, the enthusiasm remains to explore every nook and cranny of the grand, broken metropolis dry, and that’s what makes BioShock 2 a stirring success. It’s time to book your return trip – don’t keep Big Daddy waiting.