Take a moment to consider how bizarre this game world really is. It's set in an underwater sprawl of surface-style skyscrapers, a city called Rapture. Filling the pressurized space is a society founded by an industrialist named Andrew Ryan with the notion that there'd be no limits on what the individual could accomplish. It was all a spectacular failure as the civilization that developed on the ocean floor turned to genetic modification. Gradually their sanity was devoured by their unrestricted experimentation as they ripped each other to shreds and withdrew into private pockets of insanity. It was a city so rotten and morally oblivious it spawned Little Sisters, girls who roamed Rapture's leaky halls performing the repulsive task of plunging needles into the dead and extracting and ingesting genetic material. Between all the twists of plot was woven an entertaining style of gameplay in the first BioShock, making for a mix of powerful play mechanics, mood, and joy of exploration rarely seen, and one that wound up resonating with the public, making the game a critical and commercial success.
To those who've been playing games for years now, it wasn't exactly surprising that Irrational Games made a great title. The studio had been doing just that since System Shock 2. The bigger unknown was how the folks at 2K Marin, founded with members who worked on the original, would handle the sequel. As it turns out, they did a damn fine job. It's a rare thing for games built with this kind of big budget to take seriously a thematic cohesion between setting, story, and gameplay, yet that's exactly what we get here.
BioShock 2, unlike its predecessor, is split into single-player story and multiplayer competitive modes, so in that sense it's a bigger title. The gameplay, at its core, is largely the same. You use a combination of weapons and special powers called plasmids to battle your way through freakish enemies on a quest that leads you deep within Rapture's recesses, uncovering all manner of ghoulish secrets on the way. The progression structure remains intact as well, so you'll move through a number of discrete stages where you'll be assigned tasks unique to that area before getting back on the path to the story climax. While it'll feel initially very familiar, it won't be long before you start to run into some of the changes 2K Marin has made, all of which are welcome and help refine the gameplay formula to make for a better play experience.
What a weird world.
The story picks up 10 years after the events of BioShock. Jack, the unfortunate soul from the first game, is out. This time you play as a totally different character, a Big Daddy that's searching for a specific Little Sister. It's a tale that lacks some of the bite-your-tongue chaos and panic of the first and, because Rapture is a familiar place now, some of the mystery. But it makes up for that by being more tightly wound and digestible. While Rapture's still packed with lunatics, a lot of what you encounter, from the audio logs stuffed under soaked refuse to the hastily scrawled messages on the walls, for the most part directly refer back to the main events of the game. For the sequel, where there are fewer questions about what a splicer is and why the city failed and more about who you are and what you're doing, it turns out this kind of approach works well, driving the action with a more coherent momentum.
That's not to imply Rapture's lost its endearing madness in transition -- far from it. Dedicated players who are willing to wander and pick up all the audio tapes will find plenty of details to absorb, which I won't spoil. Throughout the experience you'll find a more clear-eyed approach to bringing the player to moral crossroads in several ways, one of the more obvious examples of which has to do with the Little Sisters. Big Daddies, in case you aren't familiar with BioShock's fiction, were created to protect the girls. Since you actually play as one of these giant armored monsters in BioShock 2, the connection is strengthened. You're no longer an outsider looking in at an inexplicably strange relationship dynamic; you're the overprotective parent of the pair. In that sense, it makes harvesting the sisters for their Adam (killing them so you can upgrade yourself), even more reprehensible, again reinforcing a sturdier system of moral choice.
The weapons of BioShock 2.
If you don't want to harvest, you can choose to adopt one of the Little Sisters instead. This leads into defense sequences where you'll perform the role of other wandering Big Daddies seen in Rapture, standing guard while the girl pulls Adam out of the dead and blasting away all the splicers that invariably try to interrupt the process. With a nice array of defensive options in your arsenal, from hacked security bots to trap bolts and rivets and mini-turrets, in addition to all your regular offensive options, these sequences can be a lot of fun. Alongside the Big Daddy battles and more challenging Big Sister encounters, they serve as yet another opportunity to dig into your deep arsenal of plasmid powers and multiple ammunition types. If the thought of a defense sequence makes you slightly nauseous, it should be reassuring to hear you can skip them entirely, the cost being that you just missed out on a bunch of Adam.
The more you dig into BioShock 2, the more you'll find to like. While BioShock was a statement game and served as evidence that creativity doesn't come at the cost of commercial success, BioShock 2 follows along a familiar path for sequels. It doesn't take extreme liberties with elements that worked before; it improves them in simple but effective ways. No longer do you have to switch between active plasmids and weapons; they're just both up at once so you can shoot and shock without an irritating swap. No longer does the research camera require you to dance around avoiding enemy fire while snapping pictures. Instead, it works like a video recorder, and lets you fight as you normally would while it records your actions. Gone is the pipe hacking mini-game, replaced by a real-time variation that keeps the action going as you take over flying robots, turrets, and security cameras. All these changes contribute to a less fragmented flow and, along with the smoother narrative, a more unified experience.
The way weapons and plasmids are upgraded has also been given some attention, as you now upgrade things like your double-barreled shotgun and launcher in more significant ways. The first two upgrade tiers make the weapon more effective in combat, and the next unlocks a special function, such as fire damage from your rivet gun and cluster explosives with your launcher. It's not a huge change, but it adds an extra carrot to chase after on your way through the entertaining story. For controlling the action, the default setup puts all your plasmids on the function keys and weapons on the number keys. Weapons can then be scrolled through with the mouse wheel and plasmids cycled with Q and Z, and naturally you can rearrange the individual bindings if you'd like to. Since both weapons and plasmids are active at the same time, you just use left mouse button to fire and right mouse to blast out your special abilities. The effect of this compared to the console versions is that it's a little more hectic when going into a fight, as you won't be pausing the action and picking weapons and plasmids from a radial menu, but doing it all in real time.
The joys of genetic modification.
Plasmids have been given an overhaul, as they now alter in function as you purchase additional tiers. For instance, your Insect Swarm plasmid will initially daze and injure enemies. Upgrade it all the way and anyone killed by the bugs will turn into a kind of living bomb, spewing out more stingers at any enemies that pass by the corpse. These added wrinkles to the upgrade system, in addition to the wide array of tonics you can find and equip for passive bonuses, give you a better sense of progression and achievement as you move forward. They may even be enough to get you to play through again while following different upgrade tracks.
Like many sequels, what you get with BioShock 2 is a number of tweaks and improvements to gameplay. When it comes to story, unfortunately, none of the characters introduced in BioShock 2 are quite as fascinating as Andrew Ryan, though you will still hear from him quite a bit through audio tapes. A new lord has taken over Rapture named Sofia Lamb. She's obsessed with bringing into existence a utopian society in which compassion is the keystone, where the sense of self is entirely snuffed out and where everyone instinctually strives to act in accordance to what's beneficial to the whole. In practice this meant the development of a cult following in Rapture diametrically opposed to Andrew Ryan's belief in progress through the ambition and determination of the individual. It's a simple but effective foil for the game, and if you're picking up the audio recordings you'll hear more detail of how Ryan worked to silence Lamb and the ways in which your story is wrapped up in the power struggle and your origins.
BioShock 2 has an online multiplayer mode?
While the new personalities in the game aren't as captivating and the setting doesn't possess the kind of mystique that was established so powerfully in the original, the way in which your actions affect the world is handled more effectively. Lamb tracks your progress through Rapture, and due to her influence she's managed to whip up the splicers into a religious froth. No longer do they seem as broken and pathetic as they once did. Instead they're linked by a purpose loosely associated with a warped take on traditional family values, which again ties into your role as you relate to the Little Sisters. There are more moments in BioShock 2 where you'll be forced to ask yourself a question not too often considered when playing a AAA first-person shooter. Are you a single-minded killer, or are you capable of empathy? Do pause to consider how your actions might affect those around you, or do you obliterate everything in sight?
You'll see a lot of familiar enemies here as splicers surge at you with guns and melee weapons while shrieking and giggling, but you'll also find a few new opponents. Bulky brute splicers take far more damage to bring down and you'll see new types of Big Daddies as your struggle with Lamb progresses towards its climax. Then there are the Big Sisters. These skinny diving suits fight with ferocity unmatched in Rapture, and in addition to charging directly at you, they'll also resort to plasmid use to try to put you out of commission. Overall this means you'll be squaring off against a wide variety of foes with a nice mix of offensive behaviors, something those who played the first game with its more limited range of enemy types are sure to appreciate. Should the combat prove too challenging, death in BioShock 2 works similarly to BioShock, as there are Vita-Chambers that serve as respawn points throughout the game. If those bother you, however, there is the option to turn them off at any time and rely more on reloading your save files. I'd also recommend veteran gamers bump the difficulty up to hard, which can be done at any time during play.
Rapture's halls aren't quite the visual spectacle they were when we saw them back in 2007, but the subaquatic city is still a terrifically detailed and engrossing setting. Water ripples down walls and pours from ceilings, blurring your vision, a reinforcement of your precarious position and foggy understanding of events within a city that, from the looks of things, should have imploded long ago. It's a reminder of the fragility of the human condition and how philosophical ideals, no matter how well-intentioned, will crack and seep into nothingness when put up against the eternal advance of the forces of nature. If you've got hardware that's powerful enough, it also shouldn't be too surprising to hear that this version of the game is noticeably sharper than on consoles and loads levels more quickly. I was running the game on a rig with a Core i7 960 3.2 GHz CPU, 2 GeForce GTX 260s in SLI, and 6 GB of RAM with Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit (obviously quite a bit of power) and the game was running smoothly with maxed out graphical settings at 1920 x 1200 resolution.
The sound meshes well with the rest, as the creaking and groaning of the city mixed with muted shrieks makes for a backdrop that establishes the idea that there's much more going on in Rapture than what you can see. Your existence as a Big Daddy is also effectively conveyed by the heaviness of your footsteps and the clangs of bullets as they plink into your armor. Strong voice acting lends believability to characters you interact with mostly through audio logs, an excellent score underscores the mood, and a diverse range of distinct audio effects like the alarm triggers and high pitched whistle of security bots all feel right at home in this decaying dystopia.
Did you miss out of the first BioShock? Here's a quick recap.
And let's not forget about the multiplayer, which is actually set before the events of the first BioShock while a civil war was raging in Rapture. There are story bits built into this as well, and people familiar with the fiction will be pleased to see how the Modern Warfare-style leveling and unlock structure is bookended by cinematics. As you dive into battle against others, you'll be able to rank up and unlock a variety of weapons, plasmids and tonics to customize your character loadout during a match. Depending on whether you're doing free –for-all deathmatch or playing defense in a team-based mode, the styles of loadouts you bring with you can be swapped around to play most effectively. A number of new weapons and plasmids have been added here as well, and the simple interplay between shocking, igniting, and shooting is actually a lot of fun, even if it isn't the primary draw of the product. Whether or not it'll have much staying power remains to be seen, but if you buy the game for the single-player, Digital Extremes' well designed online suite should easily provide hours of entertainment beyond the core single-player story. The multiplayer suite isn't as robust as what PC gamers are going to be used to, but it's still a fun addition to a stellar single-player mode. I should also point out the PC version of BioShock 2 uses Games for Windows – Live, so you'll need to log into an account if you want to save or participate in the multiplayer.
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