BioShock 2 (Xbox 360)

Games Reviews Bioshock
BioShock 2 (Xbox 360)

Developers: 2K Marin, Digital Extremes
Publisher: 2K Games
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC

Welcome to the second coming of Rapture

The star of 2007’s BioShock was not the faceless protagonist whose genuine identity was one of the game’s great revelations. Neither was it the power-mad Objectivist icon Andrew Ryan. It was Rapture, the failed utopia beneath the sea, as haunting as it was dreamlike. And it’s to Rapture that BioShock 2 returns, with its rotting architecture, its leaking machinery and its grand, gorgeous chaos.

The ruined city is as familiar as an old friend, immediately recognizable—although it’s startling to notice how the sea is beginning to encroach, leaving Rapture’s elegant stairways and noble statues crusted with coral forms or dripping with luminous moss. It remains merely a stage for the gruesome brawls and mad wails of its residents, the Splicers, who remain addicted to genetic mutations, and look far worse for it. There’s a new extremist adversary in socialist cult leader Sofia Lamb, but her format isn’t much different than Ryan’s—smooth-as-butter declarations against the protagonist in radio broadcasts. The game mechanics are not meaningfully different—you’ve got an arsenal of familiar Plasmids (think fire, lightning, ice) on the left hand, gun and melee weapon on the right.

In other words, little has changed. BioShock 2 takes the safe bet that the framework its predecessor established will prove compelling enough to warrant a second visit. Wisely, too, it focuses more squarely on Rapture’s most fascinating residents—poignant, frightening symbiotes Big Daddy and Little Sister. In the original game, it was arresting when one of the lamp-eyed and ghoulish little girls that gather life force, or ADAM, from Rapture’s dead would pass by, escorted by the threatening silhouette of the hulk that protects her.

BioShock 2’s twist, revealed early on, is that now you are a Big Daddy. And you will carry and protect many Little Sisters in your quest to find one very special one.

That is, unless you’d rather “harvest” the girls you find for their ADAM. BioShock’s much-discussed “save or kill” choice is still present. But with the player in the role of a Big Daddy, whom we’ve come to understand is by its very nature a Little Sister defender—that choice loses much of its impact, especially as the primary play mechanic hinges on protecting Little Sisters while they go about their grisly gathering.

There’s a new challenge fit for a Big Daddy in the form of the Big Sister, a larger, faster creature that exists for the protection of the little girls. Battles against her are often truly breathtaking, lightning-fast and taxing, demanding all of your material resources and strategic planning. The game’s other great experiences will come from those times you need to watch over a Little Sister and her giant, wicked syringe while she extracts ADAM from corpses. The Splicers will come for her in waves, and an empty ballroom, a theatre balcony, or a ruined swimming pool suddenly becomes a massive war field where creative use of traps, security devices and the environment itself is just as important as paternal brawn.

BioShock didn’t really need a sequel to begin with, and a wild overhaul could have been a disaster. It’s understandable the developers chose to focus on different elements of Rapture’s story rather than alter too much. There is a thrill that never quite wears off at the occasional realization that that bestial, globe-headed shadow on the wall is you, or when you’re hit by an enemy and evince that familiar low, whale-like moan. Largely, though, the Big Daddy-Little Sister relationship is less mysterious now that the player is participating in it, and other Big Daddies, once riveting foes, go down much more easily now that you’re the one wielding the giant drill arm. BioShock 2 is unable to bring the player closer to its world’s most fascinating elements without ruining some of their mystique, but it’s a worthy trade nonetheless.

With a well-paced, multifaceted story about father and daughter, BioShock 2 offers more real player choices, and succeeds at being thought provoking instead of simply wearing brainy trappings. It’s truly impressive that a game casting players as such a powerful character succeeds so often at making them feel helpless or humbled—like during a particularly indelible scene where part of Rapture’s bounds are overcome by rushing water and darkness. No game can be the unforgettable revelation the original BioShock was, but the sequel proves that lawless, mad-wild Rapture is more than a perfect setting for a brilliantly polished action videogame. It’s a framework for narrative and philosophical exploration that we can hopefully return to yet again in future installments.

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