A Superlative Sequel
The worst you could say about BioShock 2 is that it's better than expected. The best? That it's a good thing no one at Novato, California-based game developer 2K Marin listened to those who thought the original sacrosanct and a sequel absurd.
Let's shoo the elephant out of the room: BioShock 2 isn't a BioShock knock-off. It's not a continuation of the original's plot concerns or even an extension of that conflict. None of BioShock's vanquished reappear at the behest of someone's screwball retcon. Even the clashing ideologies (capitalism, cronyism) that defined the original tend to play as background noise here.
What the game's underwater city of Rapture--haunted by the high-minded principles of flawed visionaries--lacks in novelty this time around, the designers counterbalance with a harrowing story that one-ups the original's memory-quest-with-a-twist. Instead of a generic amnesiac, you play a father-figure searching for a child lost in Rapture's labyrinthine architecture, a girl who may or may not be your daughter. And where the decisions you made in BioShock merely cued one of two perfunctory epilogues after a lame concluding battle, the choices you make in BioShock 2 actually alter the way the game unfolds during its furious denouement.
Supplement with extraordinary tactical tussles against macabre denizens re-tuned and seamlessly staged and you conjure that rarest of games, where the static, scripted elements actually dovetail with the flexible, interactive ones
PCW Score: 5 stars
Note: This review was based on a pre-release review copy of BioShock 2 for the Xbox 360 provided by 2K Games. The review covers the game's single-player story. An evaluation of BioShock 2's multiplayer mode--a prequel set during the fall of Rapture--will follow in our games blog.
Bigger Fields, Bigger Tactics
Rapture feels even deadlier this time around, partly because its fatally glamorous battlefields composed of train stations, museums, recreational parks, and restaurants no longer resemble row-houses linked by tunnels and corridors, but multilevel arenas swarming with the world's deadliest vagrants.
Plasmid-popping splicers occupy walkways and ledges slung like theatrical scaffolding over barely lit milieus, keen to headshot you if you trundle onto their turf incautiously. Once agitated, gangs of hideously mutated, masked thugs will prowl an area's foyers, antechambers, and crawlspaces to sniff you out, slyly ducking behind cover to avoid gunfire--even rolling in pools of water to put themselves out should you set them on fire.
More Fluid Combat
Putting enemies down commences with tools like the Big Daddy's rivet guns and brutalizing arm-clapped drills, both as powerful under your command as they were when they were employed against you in the original. The flipside is that Rapture's mutant hoi polloi now roam in gangs of four or five, often followed by waves of reinforcements.
Plasmid powers like Electrobolt and Telekinesis return but drop the clunky injection sequences, where you'd stop to plunge a needle into your arm to replenish the chemical that fed your supernatural abilities. These tended to interrupt the flow of combat, inviting fists and other deadly miscellany inside your personal space.
Capping BioShock 2's combat overhaul, alternating weapons and plasmids left-hand, right-hand with keyboard taps or gamepad trigger-pulls is out, wailing on enemies with both hands simultaneously is in. While the visual motif is that of a zombie with both arms slung forward, your battles options increase exponentially, something that's particularly useful when you start fiddling with the research camera. It's also a chance for the design team to prune features made redundant by the changes: Ammunition like BioShock's electric buckshot is out, for instance--unnecessary when you can simultaneously shock and shotgun adversaries with both hands.
Save or Slaughter
Instead of violating Rapture's horrifying ecology to squeeze its smallest inhabitants for precious power-granting ADAM, you're actually part of that ecology this time, initiating the very sequences you studied from a distance in the original. You'll encounter Little Sisters--waifs tailed by brutish Big Daddies--and have to wrestle them away by trouncing their guardians, either executing the girls on the spot for a quick ADAM fix or pair-bonding to partake of their ghoulish rituals. Perch a Little Sister on your shoulder and they'll lead you to ADAM-loaded corpses, where they'll drop to drain the body with a syringe, a process that takes several minutes and attracts gangs of addicts.
You can either fend these off manually, or lace an area with traps beforehand, anticipating enemy entry angles and plotting flashpoints. Once a body's been emptied of ADAM, you're offered the same choice you were in the original: Harvesting the child for a surplus amount, or "save" her in return for a considerably smaller portion.
In all, the question's posed up to four times per child--four agonizing chances to save or butcher. The cumulative payoff shames the original's arbitrary endings in which one of two cutscenes determined your fate. Each decision you make in BioShock 2 determines how the game iterates--and plays--as you approach its startling ending.
Hacking gun turrets and security cameras in BioShock was a laborious process cribbed from Pipe Dream that disrupted game flow. Instead of guiding burbling fluid through chunky tubes in BioShock 2, you're slipped a handheld tool used up close or fired dart-like from a distance, keeping you in the moment and on your toes. Stand beside a healing station, vending machine, or security camera, tap to hack, and you'll view a needle ticking like a metronome over bands of color. Tap in a 'green' zone to succeed, or gamble on random bonuses--money, special items, extra health--by tapping while it's in thinner 'blue' zones.
Early going, the needle swings slowly and a single tap does the trick. In later levels, it oscillates more rapidly, and the first tap often summons a second, third, or fourth set of narrowing color bands. All the while, you're vulnerable to enemy attacks, unlike the full-screen, time-halting hack interface in BioShock. While any pretense of fiddling with internal mechanics disappears, you're in and out in seconds, eliminating jarring pauses and enhancing the sense of peril.
Snapping photos of hostiles to glean research bonuses was BioShock's other gameplay sin, making frenetic battles into choppy and frequently fatal National Geographic shoots. Why not a free-flowing, hands-free video recorder instead? That's BioShock 2's solution: Tap a button and you'll view the action through a sepia-tinted glaze, edged with reel notches, that runs for dozens of seconds automatically. Into the breach without pauses, in other words.
It gets better. Instead of hunting for vaguely outlined "action" angles, you're encouraged to film yourself dispatching enemies in unique ways. Combining weapons and plasmids delivers the big bonuses, not subjective cinematographic variables like close-ups or long shots. Barring ambushes and plot-triggered enemy tag-teaming, you're thus able to prowl, survey, mark your targets, then drop the hammer on the recorder and wail away without interruption.
Best of all? Instead of guessing where your research levels stand, BioShock 2 adds a screen that tells you, including a full list of level rewards--minor ability upticks like "increased wallet cap" or "free health restoration after gathering ADAM."
Beware the Brutes
Creatures like Spider Slicers and Big Daddies are back from the first game to harass you, but BioShock 2 adds a handful of fresh adversarial faces. The Brute, a kind of elephantine splicer capable of hurling objects or bum-rushing, offers an alternative to the hulking Big Daddy. It's a more agile kind of monster with a bigger bag of attacks and the fortitude of a bull.
Where enemies like Big Daddies are still easy prey for 'electrocute-fire-electrocute' patterns, taking down a Brute requires a smarter, less direct approach, since a Brute can grab anything--barrels, furniture, huge chunks of rubble--and wing it at you like a professional pitcher.
Big Sister is Watching
At the top of the food chain, BioShock 2's lithe and nimble Big Sister rates 'most frightening creature to inhabit Rapture' (or any other shooter). Her raison d'etre lies at the core of BioShock 2's mysteries, and you'll have to deal with her each time you clear an area of Little Sisters. Her attacks are so deadly the game warns you moments in advance of her approach, encouraging you to replenish any depleted supplies, reshuffle weapons or abilities, then hunker down somewhere safe.
Except nowhere is (safe, that is) since Big Sister can instantly traverse the breadth of an area by leaping and jumping from any height while simultaneously flinging plasmid attacks. Those skills make her one of Rapture's deadliest--and least predictable--denizens.
The best bits in BioShock 2 still involve rummaging through water-soaked or fire-blackened rubble for scraps of food or to locate those familiar, warbling audio logs that chronicle everything from Rapture's demise to the new regime's agenda to the plaintive musings of a missing child. As before, the design mandate seems to be 'show, don't tell', epitomized during a sequence early on in which you traverse a kind of amusement park ride exploring the 'depravity' of the world above. The ride is narrated by Rapture's founder himself, and conveys its ideological message using creepy Disney-like animatronics. It's an environment-as-story approach BioShock flirted with, but which BioShock 2 actually expands and improves.
Buying New Abilities
Like BioShock, money collected from trash cans and cash registers purchases ammo and first aid kits from vending machines, while ability-granting 'tonics' and plasmids are still purchased with ADAM (collected from dead bodies by Little Sisters) and peddled from special appliances called Gatherer's Gardens. Instead of four slightly confusing and arguably superfluous ability paths, BioShock 2 boils things down to two: One for plasmids (active powers), as before, and one for tonics (passive abilities that improve your battle or research skills). You're still limited in terms of which ones you can actively equip--eight slots for plasmids, up to 18 for tonics--but reshuffling these at Gene Banks scattered about each level feels faster, since it's less confusing.
Plasmids now follow an upgrade path that complements the new research system and adds satisfying wrinkles to combat. Instead of amping up existing abilities, upgrades actually unlock new effects. Where an ability like Insect Swarm at base level peppers adversaries with clouds of bugs, a higher tier now instructs the cloud to patrol an area for victims. Touch off your Incinerate ability and you'll douse someone in flames, but hold down the trigger and you'll create a devastating fireball. Activate Electro Shock and you'll stun a single enemy, or hold the trigger and you'll actually spool up chain lightning, immobilizing multiple foes at once.
At the rare points you locate a weapons upgrade station, you can update a weapon's combat effectiveness in various ways, say to hold more ammunition, or fire faster--more or less the same as before, with one significant wrinkle: The special bits and bobs, like an electricity-spitting Tesla generator for your shotgun, aren't available until you've upgraded to a weapon's final tier. Placing those special abilities--some of them critical to specific tactical play styles--at the top of the ladder helps to clarify and incentivize weapons advancement, a process that sometimes seemed haphazard in the original.
Return to a Schizophrenic Metropolis
The original BioShock coupled visionary art design to gameplay cribbed largely from Looking Glass's System Shock. In hindsight, it's easy to spot BioShock's flaws, especially the trite endgame showdown--less Atlas Shrugged than 'Atlas Slugged'--and a timid fallback to the simplistic security of the frenetic end-levels in archetypal arcade games like Contra or Metal Slug. BioShock's ending felt tacked on, arbitrary, almost lazy after all you'd witnessed and accomplished and endured.
BioShock 2 rejects those compromises. Its concerns are more intimate and less ostentatious. Instead of the titanic hellishness of BioShock's Hephaestus power core level, the haunting tranquility of BioShock 2's Dionysus Park. Instead of the over the top pageantry of BioShock's Fort Frolic, the schizoid horrors in BioShock 2's Fontaine Futuristics. Instead of a battle-royale between mercenary tycoons, a harrowing quest by a horribly abused creature to locate a--or is it his?--missing child.
It's the immediacy of the latter that resonates long after the fire racing across your gloved hands has cooled, and you've laid down your weapons.