Recently released sequels Assassin's Creed 2 and Mass Effect 2 have been received as much-improved middle portions of promised trilogies, widely acclaimed for building upon their narrative foundations while refining core gameplay elements and creating new player experiences. However, the praise lavished upon 2007's BioShock was more focused on its unforgettable impact as a self-contained singular event that neither needed nor suggested a sequel. Therefore the measure of BioShock 2's success is likely to pivot on whether a return to the submerged city of Rapture, a failed Utopian vision hidden deep beneath the Atlantic, stands on its own merits or is merely a diluted re-enactment of past glories.
The game opens in 1958 and shows the enforced suicide of Subject Delta, an original Alpha series Big Daddy prototype, which results in his accompanying Little Sister left distraught and in the clutches Dr. Sofia Lamb, Rapture's twisted psychologist and the game's central villain. Wind the clock forward 10 years and mysteries begin to multiply when the player assumes the role of said Big Daddy, resurrected with a blinkered aim to locate and rescue a now teenage Eleanor, his lost Little Sister. However, when BioShock's returning Brigid Tenenbaum appears with a view to investigating a series of mainland kidnappings involving small girls, it quickly becomes evident there are far more Little Sisters to find while striving to prevent Dr. Lamb from completing her despicable plans for Eleanor.
As any good sequel to a critically acclaimed game should, BioShock 2 is happy to apply polish where established plus points are concerned, while revising and re-imagining those elements in need of obvious improvement. In BioShock 2's case, the central aspect of quality remains Rapture itself, which, while lacking the kind of eye-popping aesthetic impact carried in 2007, still marries grandiose and opulent architecture with an ingrained sense of tragedy and a dangerous drug-addled population. Other well-deserved nods of appreciation go to the game's stomping orchestrations, its clever use of personal audio recordings to convey back story, and the host of melancholic 1950's love songs playing on gramophones around the city. All in all, BioShock 2 looks, feels and sounds exactly like its predecessor. No bad thing.
However, while the sequel's artistic framework is clearly in place, it's the game's morality system, narrative choices and FPS gameplay that emerge as notable improvements upon BioShock's past achievements. For example, while Adam remains the addictive lifeblood of both Rapture and the player's Plasmid evolution, the fairly binary 'rescue or harvest' morality dilemma placed before players after capturing a Little Sister has now been given an intriguing twist. Although the player can gain a quick hit of Adam by instantly rescuing or harvesting a Little Sister, they can also choose to extend the haul by adopting their charge and helping them gather more Adam. Once a set amount of gathers have been completed, the Little Sisters can then be escorted to the safety of a wall vent, where the game promptly rams home the temptation to be evil by offering yet another option to either rescue or harvest. But be warned, choices connected to the Little Sisters and also a few other pivotal in-game moments (no spoilers here) do carry consequences during the story's climax.
Developer 2K has also removed the cumbersome same-hand interchanging of weaponry and genetic Plasmid powers by introducing a duel-wield mechanic that takes advantage of the Big Daddy's physical strength to map Plasmids to one hand and weaponry to the other. The in-game action has also been much improved by the inclusion of exciting and tactical stand-offs between Subject Delta and Rapture's insane community of Splicers. Separate from the standard first-person shooter gameplay, these frantic battles become available whenever Subject Delta adopts a Little Sister, with his vulnerable charge able to lead him to glowing corpses ripe with harvest-ready Adam. If the player chooses to have the Little Sister retrieve said Adam (which speeds Plasmid and Gene Tonic evolution), he must set her down and protect her from harm as hordes of Splicers, no-doubt drawn by the tantalising smell, rush from Rapture's shadows.
The real beauty of the optional Adam-harvesting clashes exists through allowing the player to freely scout the surrounding environment and set deadly traps to slow down incoming attacks. Doing this actively encourages elemental Plasmid experimentation, such as augmenting swirling whirlwinds with electricity. It also pushes the strategic use of specific ammunition types such as proximity mines, explosive trap rivets, and charged trip wires. Whichever way the player opts to prepare, dropping a Little Sister by a glowing corpse instantly triggers a concentrated pocket of thrilling action that only ends when the Little Sister has finished gathering Adam. The trade off between risk and reward is significant, and while cautious players may prefer to hold on to their ammo and evolve their abilities slowly, those willing to brave the breathless onslaughts will receive far quicker access to the game's more potent Plasmids.
Another somewhat throwaway but no less thrilling addition are the sporadic brushes with Sofia Lamb's collection of marauding Big Sisters, which are quicker, more agile and - to be frank - more bad-ass upgraded versions of the Big Daddies. Usually rearing up after the player has either rescued or harvested a Little Sister, an onrushing Big Sister cannot be evaded and will keep coming until defeated. While considerably harder to deal with at the beginning of the game due to a lack of available Plasmid powers and projectile weaponry, the Big Sister clashes are likely to be remembered for the blood-curdling siren wail that announces their imminent arrival. Wonderfully brief and always exciting, frantically selecting the right blend of armaments to fight off a Big Sister will provide players with plenty of heart-pounding and sweaty-palmed memories - and dishing out the pain when suitably evolved is endlessly satisfying.
Playing as one of Rapture's hardy protectors also grants the use of some extremely powerful upgrade-friendly weaponry, which ranges from a flesh-tearing drill arm, through to an industrial ratchet rifle, a hefty Gatling gun, and a savage grenade launcher. Much like the original BioShock, Plasmid powers and attribute-boosting Gene Tonics are in plentiful supply and mean specific player focus on certain powers and weapon upgrades helps create a convincingly deep pseudo-RPG. Furthermore, access to such offensive and defensive variety - tied with the impact of morality choices - means the game holds repeat play value and is capable of delivering a radically different experience every time.
With the single-player adventure ably avoiding being labelled as a blatant and unnecessary cash-in, BioShock's new Splicer-based multiplayer facet offers a rank-based story experience that also sidesteps frowns of exasperation and performs perfectly well on its own merits. Outsourced by 2K for development at renowned studio Digital Extremes (Unreal Tournament) the multiplayer action offers a selection of fun FPS modes, but the standout is a BioShock-slanted take on Capture the Flag, which sees teams of players charged with either protecting or attempting to steal a helpless Little Sister. All in all, while multiplayer does feel somewhat ill-fitting at the outset, it still adds an extra dimension of longevity and value to an already impressive package.
Much like the heavyweight sequels surrounding it, BioShock 2 more than deserves your time. It may lack the narrative impact of its predecessor - BioShock's jaw-loosening plot twist is one of gaming's finest - and the art deco wonder of Rapture may have lost some of its artistic wow factor, but there's still plenty to applaud here. Instilled with the same graphical beauty, eerie atmosphere and depth of character that made the first visit to Rapture such a discomforting yet immersive pleasure, it's the fluid dual-wielding gameplay, tense tactical set-piece battles, and the truly terrifying shriek of the Big Sisters that convincingly propel BioShock 2 towards greatness.