8th Feb 2010 | 16:36
Following up the truly brilliant BioShock was always going to be an uphill battle for 2K Marin (and friends), and the results here are much what we expected; a structurally excellent sequel which never really reaches the heights of the original.
The sequel's biggest dilemma - and attraction - is Rapture. The underwater city is undoubtedly one of the most distinct video game environments ever created, and we'd already explored it, been shocked and surprised by it, and heard much of the tales it has to tell long before Bioshock 2 existed. Revisiting the wrecked dystopia, then, was never going to carry the same impact as it did the first time around - but 2K Marin does a good job trying.
With Andrew Ryan dead and the city left to rot for a decade on the seabed, the late pioneer has had control of Rapture seized by his biggest political rival, ex-psychiatrist Sophia Lamb.
Lamb is basically the anti-Ryan; where he sought to build a society of objectivism and individual reward, the new boss believes in the greater good of a united society, sacrificing the self in name of the larger cause. Like most desperate societies, Rapture's mutilated citizens have turned to a religion of sorts - which goes under the moniker of 'The Family'.
You take control of another special member of the Rapture population, Delta - a prototype Big Daddy with plasmid abilities. As a very special Daddy, Delta was paired with a very special Little Sister before Rapture's ugly downfall - the daughter of Lamb herself.
When the big man wakes in a puddle after a ten year slumber, his sole motivation is to be reunited with his Little Sister - and he'll disrupt Rapture's precious Adam-splicing ecosystem as much as he has to so he can achieve his goal.
The sequel's premise is pretty simple, then - and admittedly doesn't carry the same sense of mystery as Jack's discovery of Rapture. But 2K Marin has done a wonderful job of weaving a deep and thoughtful narrative through the follow-up that, plot twists aside, stands tall alongside the original game.
Banter is again presented through radio messages, and this time you make contact with dozens more sane (and insane) survivors - and they're all highlights of the story.
Your main guiding light is Dr. Tenenbaum, who's still alive and safeguarding Little Sisters in the wrecked metropolis. Eventually, you talk with other colourful characters including Plasmid-manufacturer Augustus Sinclair, who helps you on your journey to being reunited with your little friend.
The majority of BioShock 2's characters are fantastically voiced (though there are some dodgy performances) and audio diaries are of excellent quality. 2K Marin offers willing players an even meatier selection of side stories, from Andrew Ryan's decade-old anecdotes to the records of a surface investigator who manages to reach the ruins of Rapture.
Because of this the BioShock universe feels more complete than ever, and level-for-level the sequel has more to offer than the original game. From a derelict train station to a 1950s-esque diner BioShock 2's rock-solid pacing never drops, and each Rapture environment introduces its own unique and interesting encounter with a Sander Cohen-style mentalist.
2K Marin's taken lots of pointers from BioShock 1's best level, and it shows. The game constantly rewards your work with chunks of narrative, whether through another burst of chatter from a mental Vicar, or an audio diary revealing the true intentions of the characters around you.
The tidying up of the original game's few flaws is consistent throughout the solo experience, from splicers' urgency to run off and heal themselves when you die, to the removal of the useless inventing system.
BIG DADDY'S HOUSE
As a Big Daddy, Rapture's social system carries more depth and is more defined than during Jack's trip to town. Just like in the original game, Delta will spot Big Daddies and their escorted Little Sisters roaming the damp hallways, and if you want their sweet, sweet Adam you're going to have to defeat the even stronger guardians - which now come in rocket-hurling Rumbler varieties - in battle.
Combat, overall, is one of the sequel's strengths. Rapture, with its desperate and mutated inhabitants, feels like a more dangerous place, and multi-aggressor battles hinder our suited protagonist at every corner.
Increased toughness, bigger guns and ability to dual-wield plasmids and weapons means it's effortless for our big man to tear through gangs of baddies in tough encounters.
And with weapons like the ever-so-satisfying drill and Gatling gun - plus upgrades that make the original look simple - offloading bullets is simply a more gratifying experience than in the first game.
No better is this demonstrated than in harvesting skirmishes. Unlike before, recovered Little Sisters don't simply hand over their body-modding Adam; you have to fight to earn it. With the girl chucked safely onto your back, a quick hold of the X button forms a breadcrumb trail to the nearest, Adam-filled corpse, which kick-starts a combat sequence as you fight to protect your friend from waves of incoming bio-burglars.
You can inject tons of strategy into your harvest by laying traps and hacking nearby machinery, but it's usually far less effort (and fun) to meet every splicer visitor with the business end of your drill and a friendly ice bolt.
Gatherers' Gardens and Power to the People weapon stations offer greater rewards in the new Rapture, with maxed-out Shotguns utilising Tesla shock powers and Level Three Incinerate and Electro Bolt offering the option to charge up your shot.
Unfortunately, there's little to no variety on top of the Plasmids seen in the original game, but they're all-round less useless - even when shooting swarms of bees.
But coming back to Rapture's spruced-up ecosystem, there's a third link in the chain. Disturb the city's Little Sisters too often and one of Rapture's new monsters will come knocking at your doorstep; the powerful and ever-present Big Sisters.
Big Sisters are Little Sisters all grown up. Armed with lightning-fast reflexes and an arsenal of devastating Plasmid powers, these screeching assassins are the police officers of Rapture. Screeching, hurling flames and chinning you with a giant needle, battles with the slinky aggressors are frantic and visceral.
But strangely, even though finally defeating them is an epic struggle, overcoming the Big Sisters doesn't feel as satisfying as it should. It's obvious that at one stage the Big Sister was perhaps (or should have been) a single entity with a bigger role in BioShock 2's plot.
But as multiple, faceless aggressors, laying the killer blow on a Big Sister feels without consequence - which is totally in contrast to the depth Marin has introduced to other areas on the game.
One thing BioShock 2 does brilliantly where the original game floundered is in creating a feeling of progression and consequence to your actions. BioShock 2 constantly chucks moral decisions at you (and not just whether you should off the Little Sisters or not) and through character dialogue and the odd painful flashback it's clear what kind of path your character is treading; good, bad or somewhere in the middle, ultimately culminating in one of many different endings.
This result is a single-player game that, on paper at least, is superior to its 2007 predecessor - in level design, pacing and combat. The one thing it doesn't do though - just as we expected - is recreate those 'wow' moments from our first title's trip underwater.
BioShock's opening bathysphere ride and that scene with Ryan isn't matched in the second game. That's not to say it doesn't go far enough in the impressive set piece department (there are some awesome scenes in the sequel) but it lacks the punch the original so powerfully delivered in 2007 and in the process is a lot more predictable.
On its own, then, BioShock 2 is a brilliant, if not-particularly-brave shooter story. But as a complement to the exciting and iconic original, it's a predictable but technically excellent second chapter to an unmissable FPS pairing.