The original BioShock is my second favorite game of all time. It clocks in only behind Ocarina of Time. Everything from its presentation to its narrative was perfect for me, and represented the true potential of gaming as a storytelling medium. That said, it never even crossed my mind that it may have a sequel someday.
But alas, someday has arrived, and BioShock 2 is now in my home. I'll admit that there was extreme apprehension as I closed my 360's disc tray and booted up the game. Surely 2K Marin would do Irrational Games proud and not completely destroy everything that had made BioShock such a success. I'm honored to report that BioShock 2 is anything but an unnecessary sequel; in fact not until actually playing the game did I realize how much more Andrew Ryan's world of Rapture had to offer.
The story picks up in 1968, 8 years after the original game, as you take on the role of an amnesiac Big Daddy, the monstrous protectors of Rapture's Little Sisters. As a result of the conclusions of BioShock, a new "overlord" has seized control of the underwater city going by the name of Sofia Lamb. From there, your Big Daddy, dubbed "Delta" by the other characters, is on a mission to hunt down Lamb and rescue the Little Sister she took from you so many years before.
The narrative will feel familiar to players of the original immediately, from the shocking opening scene to the usage of tape diaries to build the world around you. In fact, the one fault of the narrative is that 2K Marin makes it almost too much like the first game. All of the same archetypes are there: the main character piecing together his past, the evil overseer of Rapture, and the anonymous radio contact. What works though, is that in using these same pieces, 2K Marin creates a whole different puzzle.
The thematic content, my favorite part of the first game, is completely different. We shift from Andrew Ryan's vision of the individual to the conflicting thoughts of Lamb's socialist community-based ideals. Perhaps more importantly, playing as a Big Daddy brings into play the exploration of the Big Daddy/Little Sister relationship and on a secondary level, the relationship of parents to their children. The one storytelling aspect that BioShock 2 improves upon is the power of choice. In the first game, your only real moral dilemma comes in choosing whether to harvest or save Little Sisters. Here, you are again presented that choice, in addition to deciding the fates of various characters throughout the game, whether they deserve to live or not. Each decision you make in these situations will have an effect later in the game.
Though most of the gameplay is quite literally identical to the first game, there have been some minor adjustments here and there that make the experience a little different, if not all that revolutionary. First and foremost, as you are a Big Daddy, you are entrusted with the protection of Little Sisters throughout the game. While you can still choose to harvest or save them, there's also an option to have them lead you to one of their "angels" (dead bodies!) and harvest the ADAM from the corpse. The catch is that while they are collecting the ADAM, every Splicer in proximity is going to come after her, and fast. There's also the new Big Sister to deal with, who attacks after you harvest or save a Little Sister, and adds not only another powerful enemy to battle, but a new layer to the mystery that is Rapture.
This presents a sense of intensity, and a chance to try out different types of gadgets and ammo that you might not normally use. For example, I had a great time setting up a radius of Trap Rivets all around my Little Sister and watching various Splicers get annihilated as they came running blindly. There are some frustrating moments, as there are various points where you simply don't have enough ammunition, med kits, or EVE hypos to survive. The max amount of meds and EVE hypos you can carry has been lowered from 9 to 5, but the game seems to have attempted to compensate for this by making ADAM and upgrades much easier to come by.
In BioShock, I felt as though ADAM was truly as rare as it was made out to be by the characters, but in the sequel I found myself with more than I knew what to do with. Between being able to harvest it from corpses and/or Little Sisters and finding ADAM Slugs in the brief (and lackluster) "outdoor" stages, my plasmid and gene tonic slots filled up in no time. I feel as though 2K Marin may have felt the original game took too long to get the player fully powered up and tried to rectify that, but BioShock 2 hardly gives you a chance to struggle before splicing you up. In fact, a lot of things are this way. Vending machines are more common, and the amount of Gene Banks and Gatherer's Gardens seem to have at least doubled. There's less strategy involved in picking and choosing your plasmids/tonics, because you know it won't be too long before you can switch them out again.
Most of the plasmids are identical to that of the first game, from Incinertate to Swarm, and the new ones, like Security Command, are simply successors to the old (Security Bullseye) or completely useless (Scout). Weapons hold a similar problem. They are all essentially the same as BioShock with the occasional replacement of function (a speargun instead of a crossbow), and the upgrades come too fast and too frequently. Gone is any sense of achievement or excitement when you reach a "Power to the People" weapon upgrade station. To my surprise, only a few hours into the game I got the achievement for the first fully upgraded weapon. Players looking for the next evolution of first person shooters needn't come a-calling. That doesn't mean the game doesn't control well or isn't fun to play, it's just that the fundamentals of combat remain unchanged from its 2007 counterpart.
The only real significant changes in combat mechanics is the ability to dual wield your plasmid and weapon, and the addition of a melee attack for each gun, induced by hitting the B or circle button. This comes at a slight price, as the usage of med packs have been remapped to right on the D-pad, which on the 360 controller is an incredibly awkward positioning, especially in the heat of battle. More than once I found myself attempting to use a med pack but instead accidentally changing my ammo type, with disastrous results. It was a slight annoyance, but it grew more comfortable as the game progressed.
Research has taken a new, more entertaining direction. 2K Marin has included a full-on progression chart for your research, so you aren't aimlessly pointing your camera at everything that moves. The camera is a motion picture camera this time around, and as you start rolling, the way you attack your subject will effect the grade you get on your research and ultimately, the points you receive towards achieving the next researching reward.
One other major change comes in the hacking mini-game. If you read my Top 5 Moments of BioShock article, you know that I loved hacking. It was a simple pipe puzzle game (check out the Floverload iPhone game), and I hacked everything in sight just to play this stupid little amusement. That's out the window in the sequel, and though I feared the worst, I admit it was a change for the better. The new hacking system is a timing-based mini-game, where the player must stop a needle in small patches of green or blue coloring as it moves back and forth. The harder the hack, the faster the needle moves and the smaller the patches of colors get. This new hacking method allows you to still move about the world as you hack, and keeps the player engaged in the game instead of slowing down the pace as the pipe mini-game did.
The environments, from their graphics to the sound design, are new but still incredibly familiar. The ambient noise, brilliant score, art-deco stylings and Splicer ramblings don't necessarily feel recycled, but are similar enough that you'd swear you'd heard or seen some things before. I don't think that is a negative though; it makes BioShock 2 more cohesive with its predecessor and ultimately helps legitimize the story it's telling.
Most of the creepiness remains in tact, though to a degree playing the first game will give you an idea of the type of scares to expect. Still, walking into a room with a corpse speared against the wall with a message spelled out in blood or mangled bloody remains twirling from the ceiling in a noose is no less horrific. There are some pleasant subtleties as well, such as the slight film grain that takes over the screen as you begin rolling with your research camera.
One last new feature that 2K Marin has touted with the release of BioShock 2 is its multiplayer. If a sequel wasn't the last thing I expected from a game like BioShock, then it was absolutely a multiplayer mode. Taking place during the 1959 New Years insanity that brought about the final fall of Rapture, the multiplayer is essentially a tacked on mode that offers nothing particularly noteworthy. There's a smattering of playable characters, which you can introduce yourself to in a "Prologue", which pretty much just sets up your skill trees. As you rise through the ranks of the online community, more plasmids, tonics, and weapons will become available to you and you'll be able to upgrade your skill set.
All of the modes in multiplayer are typical and expected, just with a BioShock skin. Deathmatch is "Survival of the Fittest", with "Civil War" being the team version. Capture the flag is the cleverly titled "Capture the Sister", "Turf War" is a territory-capturing team based game, "ADAM Grab" is a possession-time mode, etc. Everything in BioShock 2's multiplayer, if you've played any sort of FPS online before, is old hat.
However, I did have a good time playing with a buddy. Just because the multiplayer covers a well traversed area doesn't mean it's not fun. After all, BioShock 2 is a solid game, and those mechanics are fully present in multiplayer. The modes are familiar, but the use of plasmids, hacking, and research are all fully ingrained in the game's multiplayer experience. That said, there have been some recent reports of BioShock 2's multiplayer causing some Xbox 360's to freeze up, and my experience proved no differently.
In summation, if you are looking for the next evolution of FPS mechanics or online play, BioShock 2 isn't it. There's nothing innovative to be found here in regards to gameplay. Make no mistake about it, this game remains firmly in the roots that its 2007 predecessor planted. However, if you are looking for a highly intellectual, though provoking narrative - be it a continuation of your second favorite game of all time or not - then this is the place to be. I challenge you to find an ethically deeper game from within the past year. It may not be the most technically evolutionary achievement in gaming, but BioShock 2 is another step forward towards games cementing their place as an art form.