Review: BioShock 2

The word “rapture” has several connotations. Its most popular usage is to describe those who are wrapped up in a state of bliss or overwhelming ecstasy. To devout Christians, it’s the second coming of Christ. To the thriving community of gamers who eagerly devoured the critically acclaimed (and smash commercial hit) BioShock, the word’s meaning is absolutely concrete. “Rapture” is synonymous with the bizarre yet profound adventure that continues to push the bounds of what gaming can accomplish; Andrew Ryan’s obliterated utopia — the fully realized dream of one man who believed in the power of the power of the self. Rapture. The name sends chills down one’s spine.

With BioShock’s release in 2007 we learned how a laissez-faire utopia could crumble to the ground. Just as swiftly as it was erected, it was torn to shreds by its so-called creme-de-la-creme inhabitants. After picking up the pieces of our shattered psyches and delivering (or damning) the souls of the fictitious underwater city, we moved on, though never able to truly shake Ryan’s influence, nor the feral glow emanating from a Little Sister’s eyes.

Now, in 2010, our patience and devotion to the thematic masterpiece has been rewarded with the chance to venture once more into the deep; a new window into the city we could never burn out of our minds: BioShock 2. As a masterful return to form from 2K Marin, this poignant yet utterly insane journey through the mind of a “father” looking to rescue his little girl is every bit worth your time to complete, and BioShock fans owe it to themselves to pick up a copy of their very own — if not to satisfy their curiosity, then to experience the story of Rapture as it comes around full circle.

Players assume the role of one Subject Delta, a sort of “prototype” Big Daddy who has lost the Little Sister he was bonded to. When bonded with a Little Sister, it’s for life. And Delta is going out of his mind to find this little one, the familiarly named Eleanor Lamb. Yes, young Eleanor happens to be the daughter of one Sofia Lamb, the present matriarch of Rapture. After the fall of Ryan, the ten years that passed weren’t exactly kind to the underwater utopia. A strong, passionate woman with ideals on the complete opposite side of the fence rose up to take control of the people, the Big Daddies, and most importantly, the Little Sisters. To this sentient Big Daddy with no recollection of his past, it soon becomes quite obvious that Lamb will be responsible for the second collapse of the unfortunate city. This journey that stemmed from the love of his precious child evolves into something much darker, and a trip that players won’t soon forget.

There are quite a few tumultuous twists and unforgettable peaks littered throughout this jaunt through the tattered city, and none of them are worth spoiling for potential players. Rest assured, however, that this sequel retains all of the delicate moral crossroads seen in the previous game, as well as fragile alliances, steadfast relationships, and the sense of uneasiness that permeates even the pressurized behemoth that is Rapture. If you’re looking to make a purchase based solely on how similar the atmosphere is, then you should feel quite secure in the knowledge that the aesthetic has not changed a bit.

It is for all intents and purposes a mirror image of the preceding game, save for the fact that players have stepped into the heady shoes of the prototype Big Daddy, Subject Delta. He’s got access to plasmids — thank Ryan, right? — and familiar weapons as well. While traversing the eerie, abandoned halls of the fallen city, some of the very same Splicers who troubled Jack Ryan before lie in wait. This return to Rapture feels just as if you’d gone on vacation for a short while and returned to find everything just the way you left it, give or take a few piles of corpses. And you can take comfort in that fact, even if you must blow off a little of the dust that’s settled on. This city feels very much like home, and players should be very appreciative of that facet of the game.

There are quite a few significant changes to be found, however. First is the ability to dual wield plasmids and a weapon of your choosing. As Subject Delta, that will likely be the infamous drill that all Big Daddies come equipped with. Though it’s tempting to rely on the drill for all of your Splicer-downing needs, it’s prudent to remember that the drill can (and will) run out of fuel. And it’s always such a letdown, just like running out of fuel for the glorious chainsaw in Left 4 Dead 2. This leaves the drill useless as anything other than a blunt force weapon until you can find a can of fuel lying around a level somewhere. While you’ve got that bad boy spinning, it’s easy to lunge forth and feel like hell on wheels, but when you’re relegating to head-bashing status using the drill as the butt of a gun, the illusion of being a “true” Big Daddy begins to fade slightly, but we’ll revisit that later.

Of course, the other weapons available for use work just as well. And you’ll need a menagerie of weapons should you opt out of the Winter Blast/drill bash method of play, which drastically reduces the game’s difficulty (the old freeze ‘em in place, then whittle away their health with your drill — works every time!). For normal exploration, you could certainly rely on that strategy in order to forge a path, but when it comes to gathering ADAM, currency for use at the Gatherer’s Garden, you’ll need to be a bit craftier.

That’s where the Little Sisters and menacing Big Sisters come into play. Before, players had limited contact with these darling little menaces. As a fellow Daddy, Delta has the ability to harvest or adopt each Sister present in the game. Of course, this all comes at a price. To gain either of these options, you’ll need to go toe-to-toe with Rosies, Bouncers, and Rumblers. These encounters are nothing like the impossible battles we faced as Jack Ryan, as we now know of the tricks up these behemoths’ sleeves. Defeating Big Daddies is now quite simple if you know how to approach them — you’re now on equal ground, after all.

The collapse of one of those big boys nets players a Little Sister to either harvest for copious amounts of ADAM and a demerit on their track record as a do-gooder, or the choice to adopt the children to harvest ADAM the “correct” way. The adorable affect of these munchkins is too much to bear, with each “This way, Daddy!” or “I’m telling all the girls that my Daddy is the best Daddy!” tugging at my heartstrings. As a callous gamer who normally takes delight in obliterating enemies and damning little tots, I could not bring myself to harvest these girls. Perhaps it was the notion of bucking the title of “monster” bestowed upon me by the citizens of Rapture or Lamb herself. Perhaps it was the way they pleaded with me, looking up at me with such somber expressions. I opted to adopt the rugrats, which allows players to hunt for corpses rife with ADAM.

When a Sister’s wispy spirit-like guide (via face button) leads you to a dead Splicer, tower defense-like scenes are triggered where every Splicer in the vicinity comes running to try and score a little of the precious commodity for themselves. With some cleverly placed traps via Trap Rivets in the Rivet Gun, security bots, and some fancy shootin’, you can protect the little girls as they gather ADAM just for you.

But beware — during any one of these outings, a shrill, piercing cry is only moments away from bursting your eardrums — the cry of a Big Sister. The more svelte, feminine equivalent to a Big Daddy is not to be taken lightly. There are plenty at Lamb’s disposal to send out and “protect” the Little Sisters whenever it’s suspected you’re using them for your own, selfish gain. These spindly terrors do unfortunately become just a bit routine after the first few scripted encounters, but do serve as a welcome challenge later in the game should you exhaust yourself mowing down Houdini splicers or simple Leadheads.

At the end of each scenario, it’s your choice once again to harvest them or adopt them. Each Sister is good for up to two or three gathers, and your brief stint with the child is ended upon reaching the vents that the tots lovingly refer to as the “hidey-holes.” You’re again faced with the same choice as before, and making the “good” choice returns the Little Sister to normal. It’s true you receive ADAM at a much slower rate (albeit a steadier one) than you would if you harvested the children, but I found the notion of sacrificing these children for the sake of a tonic or plasmid absolutely sickening. Perhaps it was just me, but they were so much more personable this time around. Much more like real little girls. It got to the point where I would have just as soon as turned the game off rather than see my current adopted Sister bawling, waiting for me by the nearest Vita Chamber.

It’s this sense of realism that grabs players and holds them in its icy grip throughout the entirety of the game. Coupled with the appearances of familiar enemies, believable personalities (Brigid Tenenbaum finally has her own character model), and gorgeous scenery, a cohesive narrative plays out before your very eyes in ways that we could not have imagined. The choices laid out before the player aren’t so black and white that you can absolutely guess the outcome of the paths you take. For instance, would you take a man’s life if he begged for it to be so? Why? Would you slaughter a woman simply because you’ve been lead to believe she is responsible for all of your suffering? These are questions you can only answer after having been faced with the choices.

However, for all the high points in BioShock 2, there are still some lower points that prevent me from awarding it the prestigious perfect score.

Hacking has been simplified, perhaps at the request of players who didn’t quite see the merits of solving a puzzle to deactivate each security bot or to simply receive a discount at the Circus of Values, whose tagline has gone curiously missing in this sequel. As a result, vending machines and bots are now ridiculously simple to control. What once was an ominous setup to be wary of is now a pitiable attempt by Rapture to keep you out. Coupled with Remote Hack Darts and Auto Hack Darts, having the ability to hack almost seems useless. I appreciated the streamlining of this mechanic, but what made the original BioShock’s cameras so frustrating and menacing was the fact that it was harder to hack them then to downright destroy them, making them formidable annoyances.

Perhaps that’s a commentary on the power of the Big Daddy, which is arguably much similar to being a regular Joe (or Jack in the case of the previous game.) While the weight of Subject Delta’s suit, obviously much smaller than that of a Bouncer or a Rosie is accurately represented when jumping and moving around, few gameplay alterations are made to accurately showcase this. If it weren’t the HUD and the drill, I would have forgotten that I was indeed one of the souls bonded to a Little Sister. For one of the title’s big “bullet points” — Big Daddy-dom, it fails to impress. That isn’t to say the sentiment is lost entirely. You feel like a father, and in a very striking, poignant way. The gravity of your new role just never seems to completely set in in a physical manner.

My final complaint is the lack of skill required to complete the game. As mentioned previously, when obtaining the Winter Blast plasmid, you gain the ability to freeze enemies in place just as in the previous game. Since this works on all enemies, even Big Daddies and Little Sisters, the game can become a curt mockery of itself. If you play your cards right, you can complete the game using a combination of the plasmid and a drill sans fuel. You can use a combination of other plasmids as well, but I found this to be the most effective, which does in turn make the game feel so much less epic than it could, knowing your ice is effective even against the “greatest” enemies the game has to offer. I found this rather strange. Effective, nonetheless, but just a tad unbalanced.

Still, even with its rather minor faults, BioShock 2 is a magnificent journey into the mind of a soul who knows only the primal instinct of protecting “his” young now against all odds. Against society. Against himself. With an explosive ending you’ll never see coming, a delightfully bizarre cast of characters, and the macabre charm of the Cult of Rapture combined, I can safely say that this is one of the greatest adventures you will have had so far this year. Whether you choose love or hatred, you will reap what you sow in the briny deep. Will you become a slave once more, or will you be a man for young Eleanor? The choice is yours.

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