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Bioshock 2's single player game could never be as fresh and novel as the first installment, but makes up for that familiarity with improved mechanics and an engaging story of its own.
The original Bioshock had one of the most praised stories of any game of the last few years, with a strong narrative journey as your character explores the sunken city of Rapture, taunted over the radio by the city's creator, Andrew Ryan. It had a memorable twist midway through, one that causes you to reinterpret your experience of the game up to that point, and alternative endings based on your treatment of the Little Sisters. The history of Rapture, of its construction and fall into anarchy, was told through scattered audio diaries and the environment itself, the evidence of dilapidation, graffiti and destruction.
It's one of my favourite games, one of the few I've played twice, partially to get both endings but also just to explore Rapture again, its lavish art deco structures, the views of undersea towers from the windows, the sounds of Garry Schyman's haunting music and the voices of mad, mumbling splicers arguing with themselves.
Bioshock 2 is a sequel (well, the single player game is; the multi player mode is a prequel, and I'll be looking at that in a separate review), set ten years after the original and revisiting Rapture with a new cast of characters. The player takes on the role of Subject Delta, a lumbering Big Daddy in search of his Little Sister, who has now grown up and is somewhere in the city, which is in a even worse state than last time. The splicers are even madder than before, and arch-collectivist Dr Lamb and her cult/organisation 'the family' are trying to stop Delta at every turn.
there's a softer, steadier story that builds throughout the game, one where your relationship with the other characters is shaped by your actions.
Initially, Bioshock 2 is very familiar in a way that I found both comforting and slightly disappointing. The bits of Rapture we see may be new, but the way we see them is very familiar, with characters sending us on endless fetch-quests to different parts of the city. The new parts of the city didn't hook me quite as much as the locations for the first game, and neither did the new characters. I could see what the developers were trying to do with Dr Lamb, setting her up as the opposite of Ryan, but Lamb's collectivism just isn't as intrinsically unpleasant a philosophy as Ryan's arch-selfism, and her villainy therefore lacks some bite.
That Delta's initial loadout of weapons and plasmids (Rapture's superpower-providing 'gene enhancements') are initially modest didn't help. In story terms, Bioshock 2 thematically picks up straight where the first game left off, but then boots the player back-to-basics with their weapon set. Delta can wield both plasmids and weapons at once, but otherwise you start out relatively puny and cautious, a bit of a comedown for the Bioshock veteran.
The game is super-slick, professional and an enjoyable shooter, but at first it didn't blow me away. However, as the game progressed, I began to get into Bioshock 2's groove, and enjoy myself a lot. It wasn't too long before I was totally hooked. Although it's in many ways a straight forward continuation of the first game, Bioshock 2 has its own character, and needs to be taken on its own terms.
For a start: there's no twist. Although there are mysteries which are steadily explained, there's no big oh-my-god moment to be had here. Instead there's a softer, steadier story that builds throughout the game, one where your relationship with the other characters is shaped by your actions. It's an engaging approach that builds to an emotionally satisfying ending.
The strongest bond is not with any of the allies and enemies who blab on at you via the radio or the voice diaries, but with the Little Sisters. In the first game, the Little Sisters and Big Daddies were slightly detached from the events around them, a separate game mechanism used for levelling up but pretty much irrelevant to the main plot. The decision to kill the Little Sisters rather than save them was a harsh move, but I doubt any gamer who took that path lost any sleep over it. It's not like you spent any time with the Sisters.
It feels natural that the second game should place them at the centre of the action, and gives the game as a whole a strong central hook.
This time around, I know I'll never get to see that 'bad' ending, because you would have to have a far harder heart than mine to not save the Little Sisters after the bond you strike up with them. Admittedly, bumping off their Big Daddies with a few grenades wasn't exactly an act of endearment, but then I got to adopt the orphaned Little Sister, carrying her around on my shoulder and protecting her from hordes of splicers as she drained Adam from corpses. Crazy and freakish they may be, but I found the trust and dependancy of the Little Sisters completely endearing. I could hardly not save them.
Making this relationship key to the game is a smart move for a sequel, building on the Big Daddies and Little Sisters as marketing icons for the franchise as a whole. It feels natural that the second game should place them at the centre of the action, and gives the game as a whole a strong central hook.
Saving the Little Sisters is not without a price. Your interventions summon the Big Sisters, spindly feminine versions of the Big Daddies who are terrifyingly agile by comparison, and can bombard you with a wide range of high speed attacks. Battles with the Big Sisters are manic fights for survival, and they're a strong and consistent addition to the fictional world of Rapture.
It's in the different kinds of combat that the environments of Rapture become key. When protecting Little Sisters, your position is dictated by the location of the body she needs to drain, and you're stuck in that position. However, while being chased by a Big Sister you tend to move fast, and with quick thinking you can draw her to a more favourable spot.
Bioshock 2 proves to be a great sequel
All kinds of traps and environmental threats can be used to your advantage, and you can choose your tactics to taste. Personally, I prefer hacking cameras and security bots to do my work for me as much as possible. Thankfully, your chosen tactics are valid throughout the game: Bioshock 2 has the confidence to focus on its core gameplay throughout, rather than throwing in new mechanics for the sake of show-off boss battles.
After a slow start, Bioshock 2 proves to be a great sequel, doing everything that a great sequel needs to do: it retains and builds on most of the things that were great about its predecessor, adding polish and depth, while also introducing enough new elements to stand as a work in its own right.
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