BioShock 2 was inevitable, I suppose. Even though the game's story had a fitting beginning, middle, and end, Andrew Ryan's city of Rapture was one of those game worlds that simply captured the imagination, a world so big, beautiful, and filled with a colorful history that a second visit could not be avoided. Rapture is Hyrule, it's Liberty City, it's River City, it's the Mushroom Kingdom.
Unfortunately for 2K Games, while Irrational Games was willing to continue the BioShock brand, Ken Levine and company weren't interested in doing a sequel to Bioshock, so the game's sequel was left in the capable hands of a whopping four developers: 2K Marin, 2K Austrailia, Digital Extremes, and 2K China, with Marin doing most of the work. BioShock 2 is a hard game to review- I'm continually judging it against the original, which is one fo the best games ever made (in my opinion), so am I being fair when I'm disappointed with it? BioShock 2 has some great moments, some things that almost make it worthy of its predecessor. But the imagination and willingness to take risks that was in the original game just isn't on display here, and 2K decided to play it safe, with a decent sequel that doesn't rock the boat, and delivers a solid gameplay experience, but doesn't really advance the mythology or story of Rapture in an interesting way.
It's 1968, eight years after the events of the first game, and ten years after Subject Delta's death. Subject Delta was the fourth prototype Big Daddy, the Suchong-created cyborg guardians of the Little Sisters (it's vague as to whether he's the one who killed Suchong, and the game answers one of the original's plot holes by introducing the doctor who took over for him). He formed a bond with the Little Sister Elanor (Sydney Unseth, later Sarah Bolger), who was the daughter of Dr. Sophia Lamb (Fenella Woolgar), a psychiatrist and socialist who had somehow found her way into Rapture. Lamb, who had plans for Elanor and her Adam, used mental suggestion to get Delta to kill himself.
After Fontaine and Ryan (Armin Shimmerman) were both killed in 1960, Lamb, who had eked out an existence in the lower levels of Rapture, became the de facto ruler of what was left, using what little power she had to install a quasi-socialist regime with all the undesirables Ryan exiled from Rapture after the city's fall, and kidnapping girls from the surface to turn into new vessels for Adam. She plans to use Elanor and her powers for what she calls "An end to the self." When Delta mysteriously awakens in a Vita Chamber in 1968, Brigid Tenenbaum (Anne Bobby) has returned to the city, investigating the kidnappings. After a brief meeting with Tenenbaum, Delta discovers that if he is separated from Elanor for too long, he will lapse into an irreversible coma. Delta is compelled to find Elanor and save her from her mother, and discover the truth about his origins.
When it was announced that you would play an actual Big Daddy, it seemed like the developers were on the right track of making the game different from what had come before. But actually playing a Big Daddy turns out to be not that different than playing as the protagonist in the first game. The drill arm is cool, but runs out of fuel far too quickly to be an effective weapon, no matter how many plasmids you equip to max out your fuel. When it runs out of fuel, you can use it as a blunt object, like... a wrench. Given that Subject Delta is a prototype, it's a given that he'll be weaker than the game's Big Daddies, but it's kind of a joke how little being a Big Daddy apparently matters against the forces of Rapture. While overall it's about on the same level of challenge as the first game, there are plenty of frustrating bits in the sequel that just weren't there in the original, where you get outspammed by slicers and big daddies and the annoying Nemesis like sub-boss called the Big Sister (which the game doesn't bother to explain, despite copious recordings and backstories for every other aspect of the plot).
Overall, the developers of the game decided not to fix what wasn't broken- you can use plasmids pretty much the same way as you did in the first game.You have an assortment of weapons like guns and turrets. You can hack turrets, only now you can do it remotely and the hacking has been converted to a simpler color coded needle system, as opposed to the overly tense Evil Pipe Dreams bits from the first game. Unless you're colorblind, then you're completely fucked.
The game even lets you make the binary choice of harvesting or freeing Little sisters. This is where one of the sequel's biggest mistakes come in, however. If you haven't played the first game, an know nothing about the Little Sisters and their true nature, then harvesting them or letting them live will be fresh to you. If you've played the origianl back to front like I have, you know there's no choice at all. Unlike the original game, there's no Atlas and Tenenbaums on your shoulders giving you advice. Delta's main accompainment (after Tenenbaum mysteriously runs from a flood and is unaccounted for) is businessman and con artist Augustus Sinclair (Doug Boyd), a minor character in the first game and a rather agreeable chap who lets you decide what to do with the Sisters. What I'm getting at is, the game doesn't give you a compelling or interesting reason to harvest or spare the Little Sisters like the last game did, so a lot of the impact of it is drained. You want the "Good" ending, you don't harvest them. You want the "bad" ending, you do. It's unfortunately as simple as it was in the first game.
The Deja Vu continues with the story. Once again, you're a lonely soul clomping through rapture killing everything in your path, a path that of course is linear but blocked at every turn, so you and the guy over the radio have to find alternate ways to get at the ruler of Rapture. Along the way you find stray recordings that help piece together how Sophia Lamb could be such an important part of Rapture, despite no evidence of her existence in the first game. These recordings offer more and more of the history or Rapture, expanding into most of the areas of the city you missed in the first go round. All of this plays great- it's exactly as refined as the first game, and the multiple developers are in sync with Irrational Games' masterpiece on that score.
Yet, once you get to the nuts and bolts of the story, the familiarity begins to breed contempt. Lamb just isn't as compelling an antagonist as Frank Fontaine and Andrew Ryan were. Part of the problem is, despite the many excuses the game makes for her being in Rapture- Ryan was willing to put up with her politics because he wanted a psychologist on staff, he exiled her as soon as she started acting up- I just couldn't buy that someone as red as Sophia Lamb would even be allowed in the bathysphere. Lamb is a straight up totalitarian idelogue who has nothing but contempt for the individual, Ryan's polar opposite in every way. Woolgar strips her voice of all humanity and feeling, but there's no sense of a decent human being that might have been there once, as there was, inexplicably, in Ryan. Lamb cares for nothing but "The collective", and after a while I grew really bored with her speechifying and attempts by the game's writers to create a "balanced" view. See, the last game went after conservatives, and this game goes after liberals! Viva moderation! Yeah, I get that, but gee, can you be a little less on the nose? Lamb is such a jerk I found it hard to believe Ryan, Fontaine or anyone else could put up with her for long or how she would have been able to organize and take advantage of Atlas' revolt (She hates Fontaine, too, so isn't it logical he would have had her killed?). The writers made the mistake, I think, of casting her as a pure socialist from the start. If she was a liberal leaning person whose experience with the libertarian ideals of Ryan had turned her into a hardended totalitarian, and seized power that way, it might have made more sense and had more impact. I'm not a sheep; I realize that moderation is key here and Lamb's version of utopia is just as bad and unworkable as Ryan's. But I can't believe Sofia Lamb would ever exist as she did in the Rapture of the first game. As such, it's a plot hole the herculean efforts of the game can't quite get over, and I couldn't quite get over.
That doens't mean the game's story is totally without merit. It takes a while, but the game's third act has some genuinely compelling moments and neat gameplay twists (although it's biggest gameplay twist is clearly stolen from Kingdom Hearts), and thanks to the excellent cut scenes and voice acting, the game was able to get an emotional rise out of me like the last game did. That's in main thanks to Bolger as the elder Elanor- even when the game gets tired, her performance as Elanor kept me going to the rather excellent ending, which actually makes some genuine changes to Rapture that I didn't expect for a sequel that for the most part creakily tries to drag out the elements of the franchise without or giving us anything new.
Digital Extremes handled the multiplayer component. While yes, I know that the first game was a story driven narrative that didn't really need or deserve a multiplayer, that didn't mean I didn't miss it a little. Because let's face it, playing with plasmids is fun. Unlike, oh, seemingly every other video game critic in this great nation of ours (including the ones at this site) I got a huge kick out of the multiplayer. There's nothing much in the way of innovation, just standard deathmatch, team deathmatch, and Little Sister enabled capture the flag. There's plenty of neat skins based on characters that squared off during the fall of Rapture back in 1959. So it's mostly running around just shooting and plasmiding the other guy, as your experience levels go up. There's a big, big flaw, though: it's unbalanced as hell, and the addition of a random Big Daddy suit thrown into random matches just unbalances it further. Still, I had a really good time with the multiplayer despite this.
When Irrational Games revealed BioShock Infinite recently, I was kind of surprised they decided to use the Bioshock name. The game, so far, looks to have no connection to its namesake storywise, but then I realized, it's their creation, after all, and while it's all new and risky, it's still very much worthy of being called BioShock. BioShock 2 is a decent game, but I wish the developers had done what Irrational Games did; they struck out with their own ideas and concepts instead of going safe and trying not to upset the apple cart. It plays good, but the song of BioShock 2 remains the same far too much. I still believe that this doesn't have to be the end of Rapture, but I hope next time, whoever gets the opportunity to tell it does some outside the bathysphere thinking.