(Review archived from January 7, 2015)
If popular opinion is to be believed, Bioshock 2 is a game that suffers under the shadow of the remarkable first game in the series, which is mostly regarded as being the better of the two journeys into the depths of Rapture (that is, if one can actually classify separate journeys into the depths of madness and depravity as being somehow being “better” than one another). Some of this opinion is warranted, but in other crucial ways this game actually manages to outshine its older sibling.
Let’s talk a bit about story and setting, as I feel that these two elements define the heart of the Bioshock experience. Much like its antagonist, the first game was responsible for creating Rapture, the ugly, decrepit, and rusted out undersea dystopia. In Bioshock 2 well you’ll sure see more … of the same. The trouble with a setting like Rapture really is that it’s a bit self-contained, both literally and figuratively. It’s wonderfully detailed, and there are hundreds of stories to be told (as evidenced by the many audio diaries that reappear in this game), but it’s still a microcosm. So Bioshock 2 returns you to the same old Rapture you’ve seen before, to visit the same old menagerie of drug addled psychos you’ve set on fire before. In a lesser setting this might prove to be an issue, but that’s just it; the world of Rapture has enough texture and atmosphere that it can still stand strong even if you do have some sense of déjà vu upon your return. The weight of dread, hopelessness, and despair bears down on you every bit as much as the weight of the ocean around you, which in turn allows you to once again soak in the experience of Rapture.
In terms of story, your reaction may depend on how you feel about canon and its role in a larger story arc. Indeed there are some potential issues here in terms of overall canon. It takes some firm suspension of disbelief to swallow the premise that the Rapture we saw in the first game survived another 10 minutes after our first departure, much less another 8 years. The character of Sofia Lamb is bolted on to the canon in such a way that it begs the question, if Lamb was such a prominent figure in Rapture, why did we not hear of her in the first game? How are there still splicers down here, being that they seem to be a pretty nonfunctional self-destructive lot, and I can’t imagine that they’d be capable of reproduction (nor would I want to … ewww). So yes, there may be some issues with Bioshock 2 in terms of the overall canon of the series, but here’s the clincher, and a statement which may net me some detractors. If you can look past the minor issues above, the story in Bioshock 2 is actually better than the first game. Sorry Ken Levine, but the boys at 2K Marin may have managed to top the amazing story set forth in the original Bioshock. In the first Bioshock, one of the major premises of the game revolves around the question of, “Why am I doing this?” (And I’m hoping at least someone answered, “A man chooses, a slave obeys”). The original Bioshock is brilliant science fiction populated by a colorful rotating sideshow of psychotic freaks. But it missed a bit of the human element. In Bioshock2 you know immediately who you are (in a basic sense), what you must do, and crucially why you must do it. This opens up the opportunity for a more humanist approach to Rapture, being that the resolution of this tension allows for huge opportunities in characterization. And Bioshock 2 seizes upon that opportunity in spades. In the first game I was purely vested in the mystery itself which was great, but in this game I was actually attached to the characters as well. This manages to add some emotional heft to the story which I felt was missing a bit in the first game. (In truth this is probably helped by the fact that I myself am a parent, and the central themes of Bioshock 2 revolve heavily around what it means to be a parent … err … Daddy)
So how’s the gameplay? Well a lot like the first game, the difficulty curve here is a bit frontloaded. As you gain plasmids, tonics, and weapons upgrades the game becomes significantly easier. In some ways this is a bit unfortunate at least insofar as it would have been nice to feel that rush of badassery immediately upon stepping into the brass boots of a Big Daddy. As it is you start off a bit weak and underpowered, slowly growing into your role as a walking fortress. And that’s fine really. It wouldn’t be super-fun or challenging if you started out as the biggest badass in Rapture. Just as in the first game, Bioshock 2 really finds its groove when you start gaining power-ups to assist you in your endeavor, and it’s at this point that the gameplay absolutely shines. It’s still an absolute blast to figure out interesting and advantageous combinations of plasmids, tonics, and weapon upgrades in order to rain death upon the doomed denizens of Rapture.
There was one element of the first game that I did miss in Bioshock 2 which was the open world component. In the original Bioshock you felt the massiveness of Rapture in that you could travel from one end of the city to the other if you were so inclined. In Bioshock 2 your experience is firmly divided into a level-based structure. There are plot devices in place to help make some sense out of this particular element, but it warrants a mention. To say that the game plays on rails is an understatement, being that your conveyance between levels for half the game is in fact a train. It’s a minor thing, but I certainly would have loved to have the ability to return to previous levels for more in-depth exploration. Oddly I also found some issue with repetitive tasks in the game, which I feel is also partly related to its strictly structured levels. The way in which you’re tasked with the repetitive task(s) of rescuing a Little Sister, gathering Adam, dealing with the Little Sister, fighting Big Sister, wash, rinse, repeat … starts to feel a bit grind-y by the end of it. It also impacts the pacing of the story a bit. I think an open world setting might have relieved this issue somewhat in that it would have been nice to set my own agenda for handling the Little/Big sisters rather than being forced to handle everything in a level before moving onto the next without hope for return. Once again this is a small issue in the grand scheme of things, but one that definitely became noticeable to me. Luckily the combat allows for so much creativity and improvisation that this cycle rarely becomes a dreaded chore (despite my comments on grinding).
So there you have it. I must say that after two games of being trapped at the bottom of the ocean with the worst sort of abominations imaginable, I’m looking forward to taking my Bioshock experience to the sky in Bioshock Infinite, drifting through the clouds … with the worst sort of abominations imaginable.
At any rate I found Bioshock 2 to be an excellent game particularly suited for fans of dark science fiction and horror, as well as anyone that enjoys story driven first person shooters.