It was a foregone conclusion that Bioshock was going to garner a sequel. The first title’s release proved what gamers had been trying to tell the industry executives for years; high sales figures could still come from a title with an intellectual storyline and themes. Bioshock was one of those rare gems that challenge and captivate players in every aspect of its presentation, with the storyline becoming even more compelling than the gameplay itself and certainly way beyond any other tale being told by the gaming industry at the time. Even Hollywood noticed the potential of the title by immediately jumping into pre-production on a film version of the rise and fall of Rapture, the fictional city at the bottom of the Atlantic that serves as the centerpiece for the Bioshock games. Although that project languishes in development hell, the fine developers at 2K have forged on ahead, bringing players what they have wished for since late 2007… a return to Rapture! Both the founder of Rapture, Andrew Ryan, and the brains behind the original game, Ken Levine, chose the impossible… to build perfection in an imperfect world. Bioshock 2 is an effort to expand on that perfection, but does so without either of Rapture’s aforementioned “leaders.” Will it succeed like the original or become a glowing “angel” for the parasites? Only those brave enough to submit themselves to “Project Delta” will find out.
Let’s get all of the negative stuff out of the way first, shall we? There is absolutely no way Bioshock 2 can deliver the same experience your first trip to the city at the bottom of the Atlantic provided. Like any sequel, the initial romantic “getting to know you” phase one would normally have with the characters is forfeited for the “so good to see you” comfort that a sequel provides. This was never so true than with Bioshock 2, as its most loveable and compelling character is the city of Rapture itself. It has been said if you make a sequel to a horror film, then, by default, you are no longer making a horror film… you’re making an adventure; the rules are already known to the audience but they follow you down the rabbit hole anyway. Bioshock 2 reunites us with Rapture, and although some of its aspects are no longer “horrific” or “shocking,” they still deliver the adventure and comfort that would drive you to purchase a copy in the first place. It’s decidedly less “Kubrick” than the first game (which even shared several pieces of music with some of Kubrick’s more famous work) and the characters involved are less compelling than “Atlas” and Andrew Ryan himself (who appears in this sequel as a bizarre, DisneyWorld attraction set piece… oh, the “9-irony!”). Yet the sum of its parts does indeed deliver an outstanding whole, one that delivers a different but almost equally enjoyable experience. Besides, who wouldn’t want to search through previously unseen areas of that beautifully dystopian city? Let us have at least a few more sequels.
Things have changed a lot in Rapture over the last decade. A newer and prettier face named Sofia Lamb has managed to convince all the “citizens” of Rapture to follow her as she fills the leadership void created by Ryan’s death. Brigid Tenenbaum’s “Little Sister” program has been reinstated, with newer and stranger “Big Sisters” being spotted topside all over the world, kidnapping little girls. Players assume the role of “Project Delta,” one of the original Big Daddies whose career was ended before it really got started. Again we are faced with the moral choices of what to do with these Little Sisters, but the developers seem to have felt comfortable leaving the morality lections to the first game’s Andrew Ryan; this one rests more on a “stop them before it gets out of hand again” pedestal. As one would expect, all is not what it seems and the twist at the end of the story is quite fascinating… well, not quite “would you kindly” fascinating, but compelling enough nonetheless.
The visuals seem to have taken a slight hit this time around, and the city of Rapture’s textures appear to be about a notch flatter than its predecessor. Certain scenery outside the pressurized windows of the city look like cardboard cutouts, and the general overall look (the wood, the brass and even the steel) lacks the sheen and glow the original game displayed with such pride. That is not to say that Bioshock 2 is graphically poor (far from it), but it does seem that perhaps certain engine advancements or gameplay tweaks forced a step back in the “pretty” department.
But, ahh, the sound design. If there is a “Little Sister” to Rapture’s “Big Daddy” visuals, it’s the sound design. Both the music and the sound effects are the best to be found anywhere, with the creepy 1940s-era tunes to be found on all record players and jukeboxes littered throughout the city. The subwoofer-pushing thud of steel boots on wooden floors sends chills up your spine, and the psychotic ramblings of the city’s inhabitants are strangely gripping. It was mentioned before that this sequel was less “Kubrick” than the original title, but the weird, sadistic thrill of taking on a horde of drugged up splicers while “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?” drones on in the background is as “Kubrickian” as it gets. Bravo to the audio team… you all deserve an award.
The general gameplay style will be familiar and easy to master for those who have played the original, and anyone who hasn’t will be able to pick it up quite easily if they have ever played any shooter in which you can dual-wield. Plasmids and weapons can now be used at the same time, and all of them have been given major upgrades. Higher level plasmids can even be “charged” by holding down the trigger for a short while, and deliver a massive (sometimes multiple-enemy) wallop once released. The most formidable enemy in the game is the Big Sisters themselves, who appear randomly with the sole intent of wiping the floor with your big metal ass. Although she feels a bit “thrown in for good measure,” the Big Sister encounters deliver the panic-laden jollies you seek from the series.
Was the return to Rapture worth it? Absolutely. Although the odds seemed stacked against the developers, having to do without both Ryan and Levine, they have delivered a rich, awesome trip through one the most fantastic video game environments ever built. You should be able to find a copy easily in a local Circus Of Values machine... and you can hack it for a discounted price.