2007's BioShock sailed comfortably to Game of the Year status for many media outlets, despite the cries in vain by some that it had all but abandoned its System Shock roots. Stellar sales and critical acclaim solidified many of the choices Irrational Games made in streamlining the product for the masses. When it came time to consider a sequel, sister studio 2K Marin figured... why rock the boat? Fans of BioShock will find that BioShock 2 fits like a comfortable glove, while those that didn't care for the first won't find much to change their minds this time around.
Though the story is not quite as strong as the original, the twist is compelling. You play the part of an awakened Big Daddy - one of the original Delta models - ten years after the events that took place in the first game. Your Little Sister has somehow re-entered Rapture and your bond compels you to find her, leaving you upgrade "treats" (creepily enshrined with child-like drawings and endearing pleas) like a cookie-crumb trail all the way. During the previous decade, the underwater city has fallen into further disrepair and the Rayndian ideals that facilitated the original tumble into madness have been replaced by oppositing collectivist views championed by Dr. Sophia Lamb. She has a bone to pick with you and delights in making your journey difficult. Most of the remaining citizens are horribly mutated by their consumption of ADAM and have fallen in line behind Lamb, operating as a cultish group calling itself "The Family". Again, the tale unfolds as you discover and listen to audio-diaries (who does that anyway?) and a bit of character chatter transmitted right into your diving-bell helmet. You also have access to a bit of history hidden away in a menu if you care to stop and find it. However, problems arise in the form of gaping plot-holes and at least one key character that is abruptly abandoned midstream.
The underwater city of Rapture stole the show in the original and its once-cheery decaying art deco environment provided an amazingly eerie and unique backdrop over which to project its colorful cast of characters. How do you revisit such a locale and maintain the same sense of wonder and awe? Well, the truth is that you can't. BioShock 2 dishes out more of the same in the looks department. That's not an altogether bad thing, it's just an inescapable fact. Despite attempts to circumvent this by taking you to previously unseen parts of Rapture, you can't get past the feeling of deja vu. For this kind of game where the environment shares top billing with the cast, 2K Marin really needed to spice it up a bit. Even the tantalizingly named "Ryan Amusements" ultimately fails to amuse. There are definitely fewer moments where you just stop and say "wow".
The good news is that the gameplay is greatly improved and all aspects have been streamlined. Gone are the U-invent machines from BioShock (where did they all go?), which required you to find assorted junk to create upgrades and useful tools. Now weapon upgrades are handled through one-time-use "Power to the People" vending machines. As you improve your arsenal they take on different properties such as delivering shock damage and each can use three different types of ammunition. Thankfully, you now have the ability to dual wield Plasmids and standard weaponry and no longer have to switch back and forth. Your Plasmids can also be upgraded up to three times giving them a bit more punch as you progress. Provided you have an open slot to place them, Gene Tonics provide passive boosts to many different abilities such as speed, hacking and damage resistance. You can still research your enemy for ability-boosts, but instead of clicking a camera you'll record your observations via video camera. Not that any of that makes any sense, mind you, but it adds an optional gameplay element and it's certainly much easier to set your camera rolling prior to battle than it is to continually snap shots while dodging angry splicers. The auto-respawn Vita Chambers are still dotted throughout Rapture, but can be turned off in the options menu. If you're looking for a challenge, it's something you'd do well to consider and you'll probably want to crank up the difficulty as well because BioShock 2 rarely pushes you to your limits. "Circus of Values", Health and "Ammo Bandito" machines return as well to ensure you're never low on supplies. Between the machines and the plentiful loot found lying about, you'll rarely be in need of anything. Should a third installment be under consideration, those are a few issues 2K should examine more closely.
Fortunately, playing as a Big Daddy is fun, though your Delta status and the newfound strength of the familiar splicers make you far from the near-invincible behemoths they seemed to be in the previous game. Still, once you begin upgrading your weapons and Plasmids you'll be busting heads with plenty of authority. The Drill attack is downright brutal and you'll even learn how to combine it with a dash. To keep you in-check, BioShock 2 introduces Big Sisters - Little Sisters that have grown up and donned armor of their own. They're fast and lithe and can positively kick your ass if you don't prepare when you hear them coming. Interacting with Little Sisters, it would seem, causes them distress. The storyline doesn't attempt to explain why there are plenty of other Big Daddies and Little Sisters bounding about without drawing their wrath. As a Big Daddy you have the capability of picking up any Little Sisters you've orphaned to harvest them for ADAM or for adoption. If you choose the latter they'll lead you to dead splicers to whom they refer as "angels" where you can set them down and allow them to tend to the grisly task of extracting ADAM from the corpse. Naturally, any splicers within ear-shot are going to want to the vital substance for themselves and will attempt to take it with extreme prejudice. It is this defensive standoff and role-reversal that provides the biggest gameplay twist from BioShock.
Voice acting is strong which makes up for the somewhat less-interesting cast. The music is reminiscent of that found in BioShock and is period-appropriate. There's something intrinsically creepy - and enjoyable - about brutalizing mutants while someone is crooning in the background. Splicers can often be overheard in scripted everyday conversations and occasionally you'll even run across a few engrossed in more romantic activities and these touches help bring the environments to life.
The Multiplayer component, designed by Digital Extremes, is a really nice attempt at bringing infinite online fun to a strongly singleplayer game. It's good to see that it's not simply a tacked-on free-for-all, but instead uses the new characters to tell a little bit more of the Rapture story. Several modes are available, including a version of Capture the Flag and a Deathmatch variant that allows one player to become a Big Daddy. Sadly, it's all powered by Games for Windows' LIVE and matchmaking can be a little bit frustrating. The wait can be excessive at times and one player will act as host - yep, no dedicated servers. Not that it really had a chance at competing with the more popular multiplayer-oriented games, but with better middleware and dedicated servers, BioShock 2 might have succeeded at drawing a niche multiplayer audience. Still, it's a great attempt.
Already downloadable content has appeared that adds a few cosmetic items, a level boost, and a few new weapon upgrades. Should you decide not to cough up a few extra bucks you're going to find yourself missing out and at somewhat of a disadvantage. RTS games and other genres have been doing it for years, so seeing it creep into the first person shooter genre should be no surprise. Still, whether you like it or despise it, it's something to consider when mulling over a purchase decision.
As I said in the beginning of the review, fans of BioShock will likely find a return visit to be welcome and it's done well enough that it doesn't come across as a cheap knockoff. There's plenty of content, though the familiar ground you are treading makes it feel as though you might be playing BioShock 1.5 rather than a full-blown sequel. It didn't seem as though it would be easy to revisit Rapture, given that by the end of the first game you felt as though you'd seen and done about all there was to do, but 2K has made it worthwhile. If you didn't like BioShock, then BioShock 2 will likely give you any reason to make the plunge once more. If you were annoyed about the "over-"simplification that the SystemShock series took with BioShock then you'll positively loathe the further streamlining they've done. Still it's a quality game with good production values and a unique enough adventure to warrant a purchase if you can overlook the few flaws. 82/100
SECOND OPINION: Bioshock 2 returns you to the underwater world of Rapture created by Andrew Ryan. Ten years after the events of the first game, even more crazy stuff is going on, and you again have to play the hero that saves helpless little girls escape bondage. The game, from beginning to end, feels like more of the same from Bioshock, which is both good and bad for the game. It's easy to get bored using the same tactics that were useful int he first game.
You also play a Big Daddy, but you feel weak most of the game. Fortunately, the plasmids and guns can keep you entertained, though the memorable moments in this game are few and far between compared to the first game. There is also a multiplayer component that is not a complete waste, but using Games for Windows Live, you'll wish you had a little more control and a little less babying. Thankfully, the multiplayer game modes are solid and can be enjoyed giving you a bit more value for your dollar on this above average sequel. 8/10