BioShock 2

When BioShock's inevitable sequel was originally teased on the PS3 version, players found themselves split over the need for a continuation of Irrational's objectivism-fueled epic. Without spoiling too much for the Rapture uninitiated, BioShock didn't exactly leave its dystopian door open for a sequel, with many of the original's characters in no fitting shape to carry on after the credits. While I was initially in the camp that believed BioShock to be a self-contained narrative that didn't need further exploration, it didn't take long for BioShock 2 to unequivocally sell me on the idea of a return-trip to Rapture. After all, there are many stories in the underwater city, and Jack Ryan's was only one of them.

BioShock 2 picks up a good 10 years after the volatile events of the original, with Andrew Ryan's Rand-gone-wrong rule having long-since ended. Psychiatrist, psychic and utilitarian Doctor Sofia Lamb has taken the reigns of Ryan's ruined utopia, uniting the ADAM-addled Splicers via the cult-like Rapture Family. Players fill the bulky shoes of Rapture's very first Big Daddy -- codename Delta -- who, after waking from an unfortunate decade-long nap, discovers his Little Sister has been abducted into Lamb's sinister care and Rapture forced even further into madness.

The original BioShock's story was a twisting and turning affair, with multiple threads -- embodied by the many audio logs and character encounters -- eventually leading the player right to the game's final confrontation. BioShock 2's narrative takes a much more straightforward approach with fewer plot-related twists, but it still offers up an incredibly strong yarn with a worthy adversary in the nefarious Dr. Lamb. The Rapture Civil War takes a back seat to Lamb's crusade against Ryan's objectivist rule, peaking in several Town Hall audio diary debates between their warring philosophies, and casting Rapture's former benefactor in a surprisingly tragic light. On the one hand, here's a man who accepted the challenge of the impossible head-on, pouring his life and soul into building his ideological paradise by way of his unshakable values; on the other is the candid, broken side of this fallen emperor, ousted from power by the prominent threat of change.
But more importantly, 2K Marin also realizes that Rapture itself is undoubtedly BioShock's strongest character, and they've masterfully threaded Delta's quest through this derelict backdrop, recapturing the ever-present feeling of dread from the 2007 original while offering up some detailed new environments to explore. Multi-story locales and novel new areas add to Rapture's already impressive scale, and the occasional underwater stroll, while not revolutionary, offers a unique new perspective and some prime opportunities to show off the city's undersea architecture. Garry Schyman, BioShock's award-winning composer also returns with another skillfully crafted score that expertly captures Rapture's distinctive aesthetic while complementing the game's stellar voice acting and ambient sound design.

One of BioShock 2's biggest strengths is how much more alive Rapture feels this time around, due in no small part to an expanded cast of both friends and foes alike. From shrewd Southern businessman Augustus Sinclair to shady ink-slinger Stanley Poole, these fresh faces offer unique insight on Rapture's eventual downfall, and the ability to actually meet some of these characters face to face for some of the game's weightier moral choices really helps solidify Rapture as more than just a combat arena.

Although the entire Rapture rogues gallery returns looking better than ever, it's the new enemies that really steal the show, from the Tank-like Brute Splicers to the newly introduced Rumbler and Alpha Series Big Daddies. Tweaked enemy A.I. offers up faster, meaner Splicers that actively learn during combat, often assaulting Delta with overwhelming group tactics and re-hacking turrets to even the playing field. Deadly as she is enigmatic, the much-publicized Big Sister is a treat as well, contributing some of the most intense and satisfying boss fights in recent memory with fierce telekinetic attacks, relentless speed, and unmatched acrobatic prowess. As soon as you hear the Sister's distinctive wail, you know it's time to run, prepare, or better yet, pray.

The game's combat sees plenty of worthwhile improvements, as well -- chief among them, the ability to brandish both plasmids and weapons simultaneously. This dual-wielding aspect greatly increases the urgency of BioShock 2's many skirmishes, and met with the addition of eight upgradable plasmids, 30 readily-swappable gene tonic slots, and a reserve of modifiable weapons, Delta makes a noticeable transformation throughout the course of the game. When I first went toe-to-toe with the Big Sister, I found myself narrowly escaping a trip to the dreaded Vita Chamber; but well into the third act I was easily able to defend against two of them concurrently.

Delta is also given the recurring moral choice of either adopting or harvesting Rapture's vastly increased Little Sister population. While harvesting Little Sisters will still yield more ADAM than simply rescuing them, the new adoption mechanic allows Delta to take the Sisters under his wing and ask them to sniff out recently deceased Splicers rich with Rapture's gooey currency. Be warned, though: siccing your Little Sister on an ADAM-fueled corpse sends out an open invitation for Splicers of all shapes and sizes, requiring players to tactically plan to dismantle the masked madmen far in advance, making lesser-used plasmids such as Cyclone Trap or newer abilities like Scout invaluable assets.

BioShock 2 as a whole has taken a much bigger focus on tactical thinking, regularly asking players to seek out opportune vantage points for ADAM gathering, create elaborate traps for oncoming enemies, and mix-and-match various gene tonic/plasmid combinations against different foes. Delta's arsenal is also nicely balanced, and thankfully does away with the often-abused "wrench-plus-lighting" combination from the original. The Research Camera also gets a nice bump, trading in static photos in favor of film reels for a much more fluid examination experience and offering up some priceless perks and damage bonuses along the way. The act of hacking has received a massive overhaul as well, featuring a new needle-based mini-game that allows Delta to override security cameras, bots, vending machines, and turrets on the fly, never taking players out of the frenetic Plasmid-slinging action for more than a quick second. Delta can also blast Rapture's more remote devices with a Hack Dart for long-distance decryption, creating excellent opportunities for sneak attacks and a few inventive puzzles.

I was also thoroughly impressed by BioShock 2's expansive multiplayer modes (Capture the Little Sister stands out as an easy favorite) and in-depth character customization opportunities, granting players access to three unique plasmid, weapon, and tonic load-outs, each entirely customizable down to the specific weapon upgrades players will carry into battle. The more matches won, ADAM collected, and Achievement-esque Trials completed, the more Gene Tonics, Plasmids, and weapon upgrades your characters are allowed access to, allowing players to finely tune their avatar to match their play style. Combined with some detailed and nicely varied maps, BioShock 2's multiplayer is undoubtedly something that shouldn't work, but inexplicably does -- and pretty damn well, at that.

While BioShock 2 has made some stellar improvements over its predecessor, there's no doubt that some players will still find a few issues with its overall structure -- after all, even with its streamlined combat, improved AI, and exceptional presentation, BioShock 2 is still very much BioShock at its core. The game's mission objectives remain largely unchanged, regularly asking players to backtrack through previously explored areas in hopes of finding a key, pushing a button, or meeting a designated objective -- one level even going so far as to ask Delta to rescue or harvest every Little Sister on the stage before continuing with the plot.

2K has also put quite a bit of care into crafting a satisfactory ending following the criticism of the original BioShock's lackluster finale, but BioShock 2's final moments might not fully address the issue; I won't say more at the risk of spoiling anything. The much-criticized Vita Chambers also make a return, but players averse to the idea of plot-convenient resurrections can disable them from the get-go. I also experienced a small bit of texture popping, as well as a slight amount of audio skipping during my initial playthrough -- technical hiccups that I hope will be ironed out for the game's retail release, but hiccups nonetheless.

Still, BioShock 2 not only re-captures the dystopian aesthetic, gripping narrative, and deep gameplay of Irrational's original, but it actually greatly improves on the BioShock experience as a whole, fine-tuning what made Jack's voyage to Rapture such a memorable experience two years ago. 2K Marin has breathed incredible life into nearly every aspect of Ryan's undersea society, not only justifying the need for a sequel, but leaving me incredibly eager to re- explore its dilapidated halls.


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