Game Review: BioShock 2
Release: February 9, 2010
Genre: First-Person Shooter, Action Adventure
Developer: 2K Marin
Available Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC
Players: 1 (single-player), 2-16 (multiplayer)
ESRB Rating: M
WARNING: LONG REVIEW – SPOILERS FOR BIOSHOCK, MINOR SPOILERS FOR BIOSHOCK 2
BioShock was perfectly fine as a stand-alone game. You know this. I know this. It had a beautiful story arc, a really engaging character in the form of Rapture and a conclusive ending. Nothing else needed to be expanded. So when reports of a sequel started to surface, Bioshock’s pristine condition seemed to be endangered. Why tamper with something that was a satisfying journey? You don’t consume perfectly seared steak and have another for dessert! Too much of a good thing can become rather tiresome. I was disappointed with 2K’s decision, to say the least, and worried that a beloved game would somehow be cheapened by a letdown of a sequel.
As Jack, the main protagonist in BioShock, you were entering Rapture for the first time. Every sensation was a new experience, holding your attention in a tightly-gripped fist. Once you’ve defeated every splicer in the room, turn the volume up and you can hear that Rapture is still very much alive. It’s even more immersive if you have a surround sound system; sounds of water dripping into a puddle, generators creating muffled clatter and security bots flitting with their mechanical noise combines to give the city a constant sense of life. Thus, I realize that while Jack’s story is complete, there is potential to work with a sequel. After all, the most engaging character in the franchise is the city itself: Rapture. There is still plenty of material to reference for continuity within the BioShock universe.
With that frame of reference, it becomes easier to be open-minded about BioShock 2. It doesn’t feel like I’m cheating on the former with its hotter, younger sister. Instead, diving back into Rapture is much like being reacquainted with an old friend. I’m familiar with it, but open to delving deeper to learn more about its rich history. BioShock hearkens back to plenty of references to keep you engaged in its dystopian reality. Ken Levine’s love for dystopic novels is clearly demonstrated with the overall theme of a failed utopia in the BioShock verse. The alias Atlas, used by Jack’s guide in BioShock, is a reference to Ayn Rand’s masterpiece, Atlas Shrugged. Rand’s influence is further realized in Andrew Ryan, who closely resembles John Galt, a pivotal character in Atlas Shrugged, even if their respective endings are different. Rapture epitomizes Rand’s philosophy: Objectivism. The city was originally upheld as the beacon of individual pursuits of self-interest and profit, uninhibited by societal constraints. Full stop! Oh dear, let me pause this literal speech. It’s hard not to discuss the cultural references found in BioShock; I haven’t even touched on Logan’s Run by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson, 1984 by George Orwell or the historical influence of the Cold War era! However, I think we all understand the point that Ken Levine levied his liberal arts degree to great effect. Therefore, let’s move on to the star of this discussion: BioShock 2.
Set a decade after its predecessor, what does this highly-anticipated sequel offer? We can safely assume that with the rapid decline of Rapture, splicers are even more rabid than before, falling deeper into their ADAM addiction and yielding greater deformities. Moreover, with the tyrannical Andrew Ryan out of the picture, there must have been a violent power vacuum with a new figurehead taking his place. There is no question that Ryan is still an indelible influence on the decrepit city, but Sofia Lamb has come to the forefront to create a cult-like following. Her philosophy is a sharp departure from her political rival, Ryan, espousing collective effort and the power of the community. Instead of a city falling into anarchy, we’re faced with one enthralled by a cult controlled by Lamb. She has effectively united the splicers, marking her as perhaps more dangerous than any of the previous leaders Rapture has had at the helm.
Instead of playing a survivor, gamers have the opportunity to explore Rapture from Subject Delta’s perspective, a prototype of the Big Daddies. Unlike Big Daddies we’ve seen in the past, Subject Delta possesses free will, superior intelligence and increased speed. In that Big Daddy suit, the extra protection allows players to finally explore beyond the city walls and wade through the ocean. However, despite the character difference, game play mechanics are essentially the same: left hand for plasmids and right hand for weapons. The one big perk is the ability to dual-wield a plasmid and a weapon, so it’s easier to stop splicers, Big Daddies and Big Sisters in their tracks. Adding a wicked drill to the mix makes quick work of most splicers. If you recall the first game, there was the option to use a camera for research purposes. In BioShock 2, you get to use a film recorder to sniff out weaknesses and gain new abilities; it’s a surprisingly effective and engaging way to take down enemies. There is still a morality system in place, leaving gamers the option to either adopt or harvest Little Sisters for ADAM. Essentially, the mechanics will feel familiar with minimal changes.
This familiarity is not necessarily bad. As I had mentioned earlier, it’s like greeting an old friend. While it’s hard not to compare BioShock 2 to its predecessor without favorable results, I think it’s important to realize that had it been a stand-alone, with a few tweaks to the setting and premise, it would certainly stand out as a gem. The characters and the plot are some of the best you’ll find amongst the current pile of video games; it’s a thoughtful exercise in storytelling. Moreover, the game play mechanics are solid, with some features besting BioShock. Despite being a Big Daddy, you are by no means the strongest character in the game and you are constantly evolving. As you progress deeper into the story, you pick up perks and abilities that will help you take down enemies, making you become a formidable opponent. This is especially important since Big Sister is a dreadful beast to beat. Every time I brought down one, I wanted to scream, “Who’s your Daddy, now?” If there was a button for “pelvic thrust,” you can bet that I’d be pressing it after every successful win.
2K Marin has definitely factored in limitations to improve the sequel, while retaining classic aspects that made the first so successful. The ability to dual-wield both plasmids and weapons makes for a more fluid combat system. Instead of a camera, the film recorder creates a more interactive experience; research bonuses give you added abilities as well. While I found hacking in BioShock to be a tedious exercise in plumbing, BioShock 2 offers a different approach. You can either directly hack or use a hack dart from afar for sneaky decryption; the hacking needle mini-game doesn’t take you out of the action. All of these improvements simply add to the overall experience. Composer Garry Schyman returns to create a score that continues the BioShock aesthetic. With all games nowadays, a fantastic story can’t get far without a great cast. The voice acting is absolutely stellar, from Fenella Woolgar voicing the calculating Sofia Lamb to Doug Boyd as the engaging Augustus Sinclair. They really breathe life into the characters to create a very immersive experience.
Unfortunately, some stalwarts of BioShock may not find their second trip down Rapture to be nearly as special the first time around. The moral system is still cut and dry. You have the option to harvest or adopt and eventually save a Little Sister. You’re also given a choice to either enact vengeance or be merciful. However, in the end, there is no real moral ambiguity – you are either evil or good. While there was emphasis on the ability to explore previously unavailable parts of Rapture, it isn’t something entirely new. As a Big Daddy, you have the ability to wade across the sea floor. However, it’s a linear path that’s simply taking you from one section of the map to another. Unlike the first game, BioShock 2 does not allow players to go back to explore previous levels. Once you enter the underground train to the next station, the previous map is closed off to you. While I don’t find this to be a particular hindrance, for some completionists, this limitation may actually be a nuisance.
Alas, BioShock 2 suffers from great expectations and a high standard set by its predecessor. Mind you, if it weren’t for the looming shadow of BioShock, this game would definitely stand out and garner more acclaim. Solid game play, excellent narrative and engaging characters combine to create a fantastic experience. Instead of considering this a direct sequel, consider it to be a continuation of the BioShock aesthetic.
Jinkwell’s final say: While I didn’t feel the same magical pull I did the first time around, I still enjoyed exploring Rapture. BioShock stalwarts passing up the title due to preconceived notions are doing themselves a disservice. BioShock 2 offers some of the best narratives in gaming today.