Short Version: Deeply flawed and disappointing, especially in the first third of the game.  Fortunately, things really begin to pick up in the final two acts, and the game ends with a satisfying conclusion.  Couple a much better-than-average story for an FPS with the (sometimes too) familiar game play of the first BioShock and the result is a game that is definitely worth 10-15 hours of your time.  The new “Little Sister’ mechanic is so good that I can’t help but wonder what they will do in the inevitable BioShock 3 to replace it (assuming that you won’t be playing as a Big Daddy again).

Much Longer Version: It will be difficult to discuss my thoughts of BioShock 2 without some spoilers.  It will be impossible to discuss it without spoiling the first BioShock game.  If you haven’t played the original yet, well, what are you waiting for?  It’s great, and you can get it for, like, 5 dollars.

Anyway, in the first game you played a plane crash victim that finds himself swimming in the middle of the ocean near a lighthouse on a small island.  Upon entering the lighthouse, you quickly discover an elevator that leads deep under the surface of the ocean to the underwater city of Rapture.  There you are guided through the city by the mysterious Atlas, who communicates with you via radio.  The opening sequence of the original BioShock is one of the most memorable of any game I’ve ever played.  In fact, after downloading the demo and playing through the first few minutes I immediately stopped playing, and pre-ordered the game, without even bothering to finish the demo.  It was that good.

This meant that BioShock 2 had some pretty big shoes to fill, right from the start.  It would be difficult, if not impossible, to top the first few minutes of the first BioShock and unsurprisingly, the game fails to do so.  In fact, there is a naked attempt to shock the player in the first few moments of the game that mostly fails.  People playing this game, for the most part, know what to expect.  They know what Rapture looks like.  They know what splicers are.  It’s going to be hard to whip up the same kind of excitement and fear.  So, what do you do?

Well, first, you pander.  You give the players everything they want, and more.  You throw the kitchen sink at them, starting with the ability to play one of the first game’s most difficult adversaries: The Big Daddy.

Some of the impact of this twist on the core game play is hurt by a few things.

First, those that finished the first BioShock will remember, the final act of the last game featured a lengthy sequence where the player disguised himself as a Big Daddy.  Given that fans of the series already spent some time stomping around in a Big Daddy suit, it’s hard to get excited about doing it again in the second game.

Second, the Big Daddy that you play in BioShock 2 (called “Delta” throughout most of the game) plays almost exactly like the main character from the first game.  You unleash plasmids from your left hand, and fire weapons with the right.  Sure, you get a nifty drill (which has limited utility), but most of the other weapons are standard FPS fare with a twist.  The spear gun, for example, plays just like a sniper rifle.  The rivet gun is like a powerful pistol.  Other weapons, like the grenade launcher, shotgun, and machine gun, all play like they do in every other FPS.  To make matters worse, the game eases you in through a series of tutorials that are shockingly similar to those in the first game.  These include using your lightning-bolt to flip switches and open doors, using telekinesis to fetch far away objects, and using fire to melt ice that is blocking your way.  I don’t mind reusing the powers from the first game, which makes sense, but presenting players with the same exact series of obstacles and puzzles early in the game feels tired and overdone (especially given that these mini-puzzles rarely show up later in the game).

Third, and worst, your Big Daddy is a wimp.  At the beginning of the game you have few weapons, only a little health, and a minuscule store of EVE (the resource needed to power your “plasmid” abilities).  In fact, other than the drill jutting out in the lower right corner of the screen, it doesn’t feel like you’re playing a Big Daddy at all.  In the early parts of the game small numbers of splicers present a real threat to your survival, forcing you to run, duck, and hide just like any other normal human.  Contrast this with the other Big Daddies from both games, which you often see fighting 5 or 6 splicers at a time without breaking a sweat.  Still even worse is that you are not a match in one-on-one combat with any of the other Big Daddies in the game; you will find that you need to plan your strategy, set traps, use cover, run away a lot, and pop health packs like candy in order to beat a Big Daddy, especially in the first third of the game when your health and EVE reserves are low.  From a game design perspective, I think that the Big Daddy mechanic in BioShock 2 comes off as a total gimmick; it’s not implemented very well at all.  The excitement that comes from the idea of playing a Big Daddy stems from the fact that they are so big and powerful in the first game.  Simply slapping a Big Daddy texture over the same kind of weak player really stings.

And the problems of BioShock 2 don’t end there.  The controls are great, except for the all-important research camera.  The camera, which you get fairly early in the game, is used to record your enemies while you fight them.  Record a specific enemy enough, and you will unlock research that benefits you in some way.  Examples include new gene tonics, plasmids, learning which weapons are most effective against that enemy, or simply increasing the damage that you do.  It’s a really neat mechanic, but it’s implemented poorly.  First, in order for you to start recording, you must switch to the camera like you would any other weapon.  On the 360 this involves holding the Right Button (RB) down, which pauses the game and brings up your weapon wheel.  Now you can use the analog stick to select the camera.  While the camera is out you can use plasmids, but you can’t fire weapons.  The good news is that, once you start recording, you will automatically switch to whatever weapon you were using before you equipped the camera.  The bad news is two-fold: 1.) if you have already completely researched an enemy, you can’t start recording, and therefore you can’t auto-switch weapons, and 2.) sometimes the weapon you had equipped before was lame and ineffective against the enemy you’re facing now (e.g. the “hack tool” used to hack into computers).  It would have been far better to assign the camera to its own button (like, say, a click of the right analog stick) to allow players to start recording without futzing with weapons.

I’ve said an awful lot about what makes BioShock 2 less than stellar, but I want to take a moment to say now that I really enjoyed the game.   The first act was essentially a carbon copy of the same segment from the first game, but the story really starts to pick up steam in the second and final acts.  Despite the rumors surrounding the pre-release of the game, you discover that you were not the first Big Daddy per se.  Instead, throughout the game you discover that you were the first Big Daddy to be successfully bound to a specific Little Sister; previous attempts had failed, resulting in insanity or death in the Big Daddies.   I don’t want to spoil anything for those who are planning on playing through the game, but I will say that the story builds up to an incredibly satisfying conclusion, with a lot of really “gee whiz, that’s neat!” moments in the final act.  Like the first game, the ending of the story depends heavily on how you treat many of the other characters in the game.  Unlike the first game, and this is one of the places where the sequel really improves, the outcome of your decisions is not mostly isolated to the final cut scene.  Throughout the game you will encounter several characters that you will be given an opportunity to kill.  They are all more-or-less at your mercy, and some deserve a nasty fate more than others.  How you treat them will greatly affect  how the story plays out, not only in cut scenes and dialog, but in other aspects as well, including in some cases the appearance of the levels.  It’s definitely worth considering how you want the game world and the characters that inhabit it to reflect your choices.

Another really great improvement over the first game is the way that you interact with “Little Sisters.”  As anyone that played the first game will remember, Little Sisters are brainwashed little girls that have been genetically modified to be able to sense corpses containing “Adam,” the material that makes granting powers and abilities with plasmids possible.  In order for a person to use a plasmid that grants the ability to shoot lightning from their fingers, for example, they must combine the plasmid with Adam, which helps to rewrite their genetic code.  Little Sisters are responsible for finding dead bodies that contain Adam, and for extracting the Adam from the bodies using giant, nasty looking syringes.  Of course the splicers and various degenerates in Rapture want to get their hands on as much Adam as possible, and so they hunt down Little Sisters.  This is why the Big Daddies are needed: to defend the Little Sisters from anyone that would do them harm.

In the first game your interaction with the Little Sisters was somewhat limited.   First you needed to kill the Big Daddy defending the Little Sister.  Then you would be given the choice to either save the Little Sister (let her go) for a small amount of Adam, or harvest the Little Sister for a little bit more Adam.  These choices are what determined whether or not your character was “good” or “evil” and affected how the game ended.  In the sequel, things play out very differently.  You start the same way: killing the Big Daddy defending a Little Sister.  Then you are given the choice to immediately harvest her, or to adopt her.  Should you choose to adopt the Little Sister, she will ride around on your shoulders as you make your way through the level.  This can be fun when she makes comments as you fight your way through waves of enemies, some of which can be darkly disturbing and funny (for example, after you set someone on fire, she’ll say “Ooooh!  Marshmallows!”).    While a Little Sister is on your shoulders you can ask her to lead you to a corpse containing Adam.  She doesn’t leave your shoulders, unfortunately, but you are provided with an ethereal white trail of mist that you can follow to the body.  Once there, the fun really starts.  You can tell the Little Sister to harvest the Adam from the corpse, but once you do splicers will begin attacking from every conceivable direction.  The game pulls no punches: it will throw the biggest, baddest splicers you have seen up to that point in the game, and they will keep coming.  The goal of the splicers is to kill you, and kidnap the Little Sister, but not necessarily in that order.  Your job is to keep the splicers away from her until she’s done.  You can choose to stand over her and just attack anything that comes at you, or you can use the various weapons, gadgets, and plasmids in the game to set traps  and only pick off the stragglers that get through your defenses.  My favorite tactic was to drop a few mini turrets, lay trap rivets in arcs around the Little Sister, place a few proximity mines and a Cyclone Trap or two, and then use the Hypnotize plasmid to charm the first splicer that shows up to fight on my side.

Once you have used a Little Sister to harvest Adam twice, you will be given the choice to let her go, or a second opportunity to harvest her.  Like the first game, choosing to harvest will grant you an immediate bonus of Adam.  But also like the first game, should you choose to let Little Sisters go, you will be rewarded later (with care packages left for you filled with Adam, plasmids, money, and other goodies).  In the end, I don’t know which path gives your more Adam, though I suspect that harvesting comes out ahead.  However, saving the Little Sisters grants plasmids and gene tonics you would not be able to get otherwise, not to mention a warm and fuzzy feeling from being a swell guy.

Beyond all that, the game plays in much the same way as the first BioShock.  You are being lead around by mysterious strangers who communicate to you in various ways including radio transmissions, televisions, telepathy, and PA systems.  Most of the back story is revealed through tape-recorders that you find scattered throughout Rapture.  While I love listening to these, I find this habit of the citizens of Rapture to be hilarious.  Each of these diary entries is left on a full-sized tape recorder.  Most are not more than 30-60 seconds.  The idea that everyone in Rapture is carrying around a few dozen tape recorders so that they can capture random thoughts before leaving them on the side of a random hallway is pretty funny.  All that being said, you get tons of background and history for Rapture, the major characters from both games (including those long dead), and even some references to the events of the first game.  This is also where you get most of the back story surrounding the Big Daddy program, and your involvement therein.  Unfortunately, because many of these are hidden and/or easy to miss, if you don’t find certain, important tape recorders, you will be missing big parts of the back story.  I didn’t even find 100 out of the 138 scattered throughout Rapture, so I’m fairly certain that I missed some pieces of the puzzle.  It’s unfortunate because, unlike the first game, you can’t really backtrack to previous levels, so if you miss something, you’ve missed it forever.

In the end, I thoroughly enjoyed BioShock 2, though it took me several hours of play before I really got hooked.  A lot of this had to do with the expectations set by the game and the pre-release buzz.  Much of what the game promised was implemented poorly (i.e. playing a wimpy Big Daddy), and there were a lot of misleading rumors and speculation about the story that didn’t play out (e.g. there is only one Big Sister, you are the first Big Daddy, etc.).  Once you slog through the opening act, though, you’ll start to remember what it is about the first BioShock that you loved so much.  The core gameplay is almost completely intact, and there are some really nice additions that make BioShock 2 its own game.  Is it as good as the first?  No.  But how could it be?  Discovery and surprise were much of what made the first game great, and it would be impossible for BioShock 2 to have the same impact.  But, what you do get is a fun, if familiar, game.  And that’s what really matters.

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