First, a confession. We thought BioShock 2 was a mistake.
As much as we worshipped the original, we worried about the possibility of a sequel. Though we longed to experience another game with that level of mature, masterful storytelling and with that number of unique, unusual ideas, we seriously doubted such brilliance could be captured again. While we desperately wished to revisit the haunting underwater dystopia of Rapture, we suspected that doing so would ruin, or at least diminish, the thematic significance of the initial trip. To us, BioShock was one-of-a-kind, not one-of-a-franchise.
Well, you know what? We were wrong. Somehow, with less than three years of development time and without the direct involvement of creator Ken Levine, the BioShock team has pulled off another masterpiece. One that expands the mythology, but doesn’t lose any of the mystery. One that introduces fascinating new settings and characters, but doesn’t forget or neglect those previously established. One that gives the player devastating new power, but balances that with devastating new fear. One that takes chances and makes changes, but almost always for the better.
Being Big Daddy
He’s the undisputed star of the series. He features on both boxes, appears on countless magazine covers, inspires costumes, sells toys and has already cemented himself as a gaming icon as recognizable as Lara Croft and Master Chief. And in BioShock 2, you don’t just fight him. You are him.
Casting the protagonist as a Big Daddy is not just a gimmick, either – the game fully immerses you in the role of the towering, stomping, clobbering monster. Each footstep produces a crunching echo. Each turn of the head sways edges of your diving helmet into view. Each painful hit from an enemy unleashes a wailing, otherworldly moan from deep within your unseen body. Water blurs your visor and steam leaves a lasting fog upon the glass. Occasionally, you’ll catch a glimpse of your own shadow and think, “Whoa, is that thing me?” You may not see your actual reflection very often, yet you’re constantly reminded of your size, your strength and your strangeness.
Tools of terror
Then, of course, there’s the drill… and perhaps the greatest melee starting weapon of all time. You’ll no longer need to sneak up on unsuspecting Splicers, praying they don’t notice as you bop them on the back of the head with a rusty wrench. Low on ammo or caught by surprise? Just rev up the spinning spiral of death attached to your arm, point in their general direction and enjoy the resulting, screaming bloodbath. Enemy peppering you with gunfire from far away? Unlock the “drill dash” ability and you can launch instant murder from across the screen with the speed of a locomotive.
And the drill is only the beginning. Every weapon in BioShock 2 is more impressive and more satisfying than its equivalent in BioShock 1. The shotgun is now a double-barreled shotgun. The basic pistol has been replaced by a lethal rivet gun that treats Splicer flesh as scrapyard metal. The machine gun has been upgraded to a turret-sized Gatling gun that couldn’t fit in human hands, let alone be carried by them. Our favorite is the spear gun, which has the accuracy and retrievable ammo of the crossbow, but the added benefit of instantly pinning enemies to walls, floors and ceilings like a gruesome collection of butterflies.
Gatherer’s Garden 2.0
Plasmids are better, too. Although you’re given nearly the exact same selection of genetic superpowers as in the first game, you can level them up until they act entirely differently. “Hypnotize” convinces enemies to fight each other; “Hypnotize 2” convinces them to fight as your army. “Incinerate” sets a single target on fire; “Incinerate 3” transforms your hand into a temporary flamethrower, spewing red-hot flame in whatever direction you face. “Telekinesis” picks up forgotten debris; “Telekinesis 3” can lift still living enemies into the air, then throw them violently at their awed and frightened neighbors.
In fact, the closer you are to finishing BioShock 2, the stronger your desire for an immediate second or even third playthrough. The combat offers so many possibilities and permutations, you can’t help but wonder how the game would go if you had chosen to maximize a different plasmid, upgrade a different weapon or – most maddening – purchase a different set of gene tonics. Should you move faster, or walk quieter? Choose the electrifying shotgun or the bullet-reflecting drill? Set ambushes with proximity mines, motion-sensitive rivets or refrigerated cyclones? Learn to heal security bots, research boss weaknesses or teach Little Sisters to harvest more Adam in less time?
The first BioShock offered plenty of variety, but nothing like this. The magnitude of choice is a bit giddying and, at times, a bit overwhelming.
With great power… great vulnerability
At this point, we know what you’re thinking. If the Big Daddy is so much bigger, and his weapons, plasmids, traps and tonics are so much better, what could possibly still be scary about BioShock 2?
That’s easy – everything. See, you’re not the only resident of Rapture who’s evolved in the eight years since BioShock 1 ended. Splicers, the submerged city’s drug-dependent, self-mutilating citizenry, have had plenty of time to gather supplies and further tinker with their genetic makeup. They’re now more likely to carry guns, throw grenades, teleport and team up to take you down, especially if you’re attempting to gather Adam with an adopted Little Sister. And those are just the normal ones. You’ll also encounter Brutes, supersized Splicers that hurl gigantic chunks of debris and charge like angry, frothing gorillas.
The other Big Daddies have new tricks as well, but the foe you’ll soon learn to fear – far above anyone else – is Big Sister.
Her hype is justified. She’s a terrifying nemesis, swift and agile enough to dodge your ammo, disappearing from the screen and popping up behind you before you can reload. She’s powerful enough to absorb your plasmids and return your elemental attacks with triple the force. And she’s resourceful, pulling in Splicers (breathing or not) and using her nauseating needle arm to suck their bodies dry for regenerated health.
You will dread encountering the Big Sisters (yes, plural) and the designers know it. Look out a window and you’ll often find her watching you – stalking you – through the dark water. Rescue or harvest a Little Sister and you enter yourself in a dangerous lottery. Sometimes, nothing will happen. Other times, randomly, an ear-piercing shriek that blurs your vision and shatters nearby glass will warn you that a Big Sister is coming – you’ll have several seconds to panic and prepare, but they’re rarely enough. These are some of the craziest, cruelest “oh shit” moments in the history of gaming.
Deep, dark and damaged
We’ve now discussed the “what” and “how” of BioShock 2, but as anyone familiar with the first game can attest, it’s the “who” and “why” and “where” that are truly important to the series. This isn’t a Halo or a Modern Warfare, after all… while you may adore the action, the real reason you’re playing is for the deep story, the dark setting and the damaged characters.
You won’t be disappointed, and believe us, we were ready to be disappointed. The secret of the original BioShock’s protagonist was such a mind-blowing revelation, for instance, that we didn’t think a new hero could possibly compare. We were wrong. Subject Delta, the Big Daddy prototype you control, is equally compelling. And because his identity and motivation are presented as a mystery from the start – rather than a “gotcha!” moment halfway through the game – you’ll find yourself much more intrigued and far more hungry for clues.
What’s especially unsettling is that every character you meet seems to have these clues. You’re a confused amnesiac with no memory of your former life, but many of Rapture’s residents – major, minor, poor, rich, dead, alive, sympathetic, sinister – remember you clearly, and hold very strong opinions about you. Augustus Sinclair, a smooth-talking entrepreneur who guides you through the game, claims he wants to fix you. Gil Alexander, an increasingly deranged scientist, was clearly involved in your creation. Grace Holloway, a bitter jazz singer, blames you for a tragedy in her past and desires nothing more than your slow and painful demise.
No one, however, hates you as much as Sofia Lamb. No one is as intent on hunting you down and putting a permanent end to your mission. And yet, ironically, no one spends more time talking to you, reasoning with you or attempting to gain your sympathy. We doubted the writers behind BioShock 2 could create an opposing force as destructive as the first game’s Frank Fontaine, or a philosophical figure as tragically, fascinatingly flawed as Rapture mastermind Andrew Ryan. Again, we were wrong. In new villain Sofia Lamb, they’ve done both.
She’s no copy, though. Lamb is complex in her own way. She’s a woman of science, but also a woman of faith. She’s a social psychiatrist who believes in helping people, but also a cult leader willing to sacrifice followers for the greater good. She’s the present ruler of Rapture, but with complex ties to the previously mentioned tyrants of the past. Above all else, she’s a mother… and therein lies the almost Shakespearean drama of BioShock 2. Her daughter Eleanor is your original Little Sister.
In the first BioShock, your goal was vague and detached – save some stranger’s unseen family. In the sequel, you have a much more personal purpose. You need Eleanor to survive, both physically and emotionally. She is the only thing that gives you meaning in Rapture. Unfortunately, that mission is in direct conflict with Sofia Lamb’s master plan, and perhaps even Eleanor’s wishes. The resulting conflict spans the entire game and tackles themes of love, free will and family dysfunction. It’s epic and, in many ways, more engaging than the story of BioShock 1.
The rest of Rapture
Finally, we assumed that we’d already explored the coolest, creepiest areas of Rapture, and that the new locations unlocked by BioShock 2 would come across as leftovers. We were wrong… and right.
To be honest, none of the sequel’s levels are as brilliantly conceived and perfectly executed as the best in BioShock 1. The entertainment district of the first game, Fort Frolic, is still a seedier, more bizarrely sinful place than Siren Alley, the red-light district of BioShock 2. The beauty and wonder of Arcadia’s indoor forests can’t be matched by the follow-up’s similar resort style in Dionysus Park. And even when you visit autopsy rooms and pacification chambers this time around, they’re nowhere near as bloody or macabre as Dr. Steinman’s Medical Pavilion from the original’s free demo.
On the other hand, this Rapture feels more real and more complete. Rather than jump from haunted house to haunted house, you’re taken on a tour of the whole society and shown aspects of the citizens’ lives that were, until now, glossed over. You’ll attend Ryan Amusements, a demented take on Disneyland in which monstrous animatronics – including some of Andrew himself – teach the city’s children about the dangers of the surface. You’ll be trapped in Pauper’s Drop, the impoverished slums that weren’t constructed on the wrong side of the tracks, but underneath them. You’ll enter Fontaine Futuristics and discover what happens to Little Sisters after they grow up. Before, you battled with the titans of Rapture. In the sequel, you also experience what life is like for all of their sad, desperate and downtrodden pawns.
Plus, you get to walk underwater and, through means we can’t spoil for you, view Rapture as it must have been before the downfall. Neither represent huge portions of the game… but both are surprisingly beautiful.
On the subject of twists
Yeah, you’re expecting them. Yeah, you’ll be looking for them. After the number and impact of shocking revelations in the original, how could you not? Our advice, however, is to relax. Don’t overanalyze to the point that your enjoyment of this game is entirely dependent on a single major twist. BioShock 2 is full of sudden jolts and unexpected turns, but the story this time is emotionally investing enough that it doesn’t depend on one groundbreaking, genre-subverting surprise in order to work.
That said, you should still be careful. BioShock 2 is definitely not a game you want spoiled before playing. And did we mention the four different endings? We shall say no more…
Oh yeah. And multiplayer
To us, BioShock is not a series that needs multiplayer and, at first, the very idea sounded sacrilegious. Why cheapen such a carefully constructed universe by making it competitive? Why diminish the lonely, ghostly atmosphere of Rapture by dividing it into maps with 10-16 players racing back and forth? Why transform a tragic figure like the Little Sister into the object of Capture the Flag?
After playing these modes, though, we must admit that the developers have done a good job distinguishing – and separating – the online multiplayer from the offline campaign. The matches star meaningless Splicer characters instead of story icons and, more importantly, the context is altogether different. You fight during Rapture’s Civil War, a year before BioShock 1 and nine years before BioShock 2, when dozens of mutated freaks would be running all over the place, competing for weapons and plasmids. That setting not only makes sense, it reveals a brand new chapter of canon history.
Still, we doubt we’ll stick with BioShock 2’s multiplayer for more than a few weeks after release. While having a gazillion combat and strategic options during the campaign is liberating, imagine signing onto a dark and cramped map where nearly a dozen people have the same crazy amount of options. Gunfire is constant, plasmids are flying in all directions, Big Daddy suits are spawning randomly, Little Sisters are being stolen and you’re trying desperately to keep track of your health and your Eve. We found the results too chaotic. Too confusing. Others will no doubt find the madness exhilarating and addictive.
Watch the sample footage above to decide which side you think you’ll fall on, but know that the score you see below is based entirely on the single player campaign. Multiplayer is just a bonus – take it or leave it.
Is it better than…
Here is the part of the review in which we normally compare a game to three of its closest clones or competitors. With a series as unique as BioShock, however, that seems kind of silly. And with a sequel like BioShock 2, we realize only one comparison really matters. So, is it better than…
BioShock? We never, ever imagined we’d be writing this, but… yes. In some fairly significant ways, including combat diversity, enemy variety, character depth and emotional attachment to the story, BioShock 2 is superior to BioShock 1. Plus, fans’ biggest criticisms of the original – the pipe hacking and the sagging third act – have been addressed and fixed for this sequel.
But in many ways, the first BioShock can never be surpassed. Everything – the world, the philosophies, the surreal oddity – was new then, and unlike anything we’d experienced before. BioShock 2 can only hope to match that genius. Fortunately for us, it succeeds.
Just for you, Metacritic!
The weapons are better. The plasmids are better. The enemies are better. At some points, even the storytelling is better. What’s most amazing and surprising about BioShock 2, however, is that by diving deeper into Rapture’s tortured history and exploring more of Rapture’s haunted world, it actually manages to make the original BioShock better, too.