BioShock 2 (Xbox 360)

Has Rapture fallen to rust, or is the BioShock series airtight?

In a landscape populated by bald space marines, helmeted heroes, and military mavericks, 2007's journey under the sea with a blank-slate named Jack was a refreshing shock to the system. An impressive setting, an uncanny atmosphere, and a humdinger of a dilemma with what to do with these creepy little girls put BioShock on the shortlist the year's best. Three years later, we once again return to Rapture. Has it fell to rust, or is this series airtight?
For the uninitiated, Rapture is a corrupt dystopia founded in the 40's below sea-level that turned fully psychotic with civil war and mass hysteria, mostly thanks to its citizens splicing their genes to gain unique powers called plasmids. 10 years after the first game, Rapture is still slinking towards bedlam under the watchful eye of Dr. Lamb, whose madcap ideals consist of patchwork communism with a messiah complex.
Subtle shades of political and psychological intrigue are found in various audio diaries and from the mouths of the few non-deranged souls that remain. You take on the role of Delta, the original Big Daddy. The world is complicated, but your task is not: find your long lost Little Sister and get the hell out of Rapture before Lamb's flock renders you a dead daddy. This is a game you play for atmosphere, and the emotional tethers will keep you in tow even when the back story turn brackish, with Lamb's revelations amounting to vague evils, an off-putting travel companion, and plenty of fan-pandering cameos. Regardless, the story is strong, with hard choices that affect the outcome.
Ten years of wear and tear have marred Rapture's opulent avenues, creating a perfect breeding ground for slums and scumbag splicers. BioShock 2 successfully lifts and streamlines the crown of its predecessor--its location--but insets some cubic zirconia as well. You explore and scavenge derelict environments, rescue Little Sisters, hack vending machines, and put the drill to anyone who stands in your way while completing the main objectives that unlock the next area.
What's different this time around is that you're on a forward, linear path, which kills the illusion of a cohesive city. Don't miss a little sis or a weapons upgrade booth, or it's gone for good. Since you control a death-dealing drill-dozer, combat has been elevated, with cerebral activities playing second fiddle, though a mystery room or two will have you scratching your head.
The new features in BioShock 2 don't amount to all that much. The Big Sisters are even more challenging and much more agile than their masculine counterparts, so it's a pity that their promised threat of striking at any time doesn't pan out as advertised. You'll be surprised to learn that all the Big Sister encounters are scripted and triggered. And those trumpeted underwater outings are actually just serene scuba shuffles where you gingerly wade to the next point. Don't expect to battle for higher ground as the tide rapidly rises. And being a Big Daddy has you swapping your wrench for a drill, with a limited-use charge move and the need for fuel to keep it spinning. You'll still down other daddies, but now you adopt their sisters and put them to work gathering ADAM as you beat back hordes of splicers. Hunting the Big Daddies is as invigorating as ever, but playing zone defense gets a little stale after your third sister or so.
They've also added and modernized the warfare with multiplayer in Rapture, so get ready to earn experience, gain ranks, and unlock weapons, multiplayer-specific plasmids, and challenges. Gametypes are the usual capture the flag and capture points with fancy names. Things are a little more chaotic than normal, with five-on-five teams slinging flame, ice, insects, and electricity, all the while keeping an eye out for the ultimate power-up: the Big Daddy suit. Environments are a big factor, with water encouraging electric mayhem and oil slicks at the ready to make people into burn victims. Small touches like exploding corpses and taking photos of your dead foes to get a damage bonus give the multiplayer game character. Too bad small ammo clips and large health bars can lead to prolonged shoot-outs. Overall, it's an interesting bonus to mess around with, though there's probably not enough after the novelty runs out to compel you to reach max level.
Some truly great moments that we won't give away punctuate the repetition, and the endgame really picks up steam. It's too bad it hits its stride while it's crossing the finish line, though multiple endings may encourage you to kickstart your underwater adventures anew.
Most Big Daddies spend their days getting some QT with their little ones, taking the occasional pot shot at anyone dumb enough to try a grand theft sister. Delta is a little more hands-on, shooting splicers with a variety of guns, or toying with their fragile psyches by hypnotizing them into fighting each other.
BioShock 2 is a first-person shooter with a tactical take and a slower feel. Reflexes and accuracy will serve you to a point, but managing your weapon and its various munitions is what will keep you alive. When you change weapons or plasmids, the game pauses, which allows you to assess the situation. With a ton of weapons, each with three ammo types, there's a lot of room for experimentation, which will reward you with the research camera. It allows you to film enemies as you battle them to discover clues to their weaknesses as well as other bonuses, and the process is expedited by switching up your approach.
The old splicers and Bid Daddy types return, and a few new genetic freaks join the fray, though none stand out as much as the Big Sister, and she's only just a variation on the Big Daddy. Fortunately, the teleporting and leaping slicers are still formidable and fun to fight, and maintaining your non-regenerating health adds another terse tactical layer.
The old plumbing hacking mini-game is gone, replaced with a new real-time challenge that you can even attempt while in the midst of a firefight. It's a definite improvement. Ammo, cash, and supplies are hidden everywhere, making looting a blast, though you can get by just scavenging the dead and hitting up the vending machines as well. The interplay between the combat, quick tactics, and the scavenging that feeds your guns and plasmid powers is great. Hacking a turret or security camera is no longer a chore and the extra help can make a difference when Delta goes to ambush a Big Daddy or brace for a Big Sister assault. The systems work well with a lot of variety and growth without feeling too cumbersome. BioShock 2 is a thinker's FPS and it stands out for this reason. Just be careful not to spam the medkits.
Even if the setting variations are stolid, the atmosphere remains as affecting as ever. Rapture is the dystopia of the deep. Art direction and voice acting meet the high bar of the first game, making this a place you can't help but inhabit even as you try to escape. As far characters go, the Splicers look perfectly deranged; it's the few quote-unquote normal people you run into that seem to have taken up permanent residence in the uncanny valley.
The hidden rooms show off great architecture, though there is a lot less variety to each section. The slums look similar to the red light district, and even the amusement park blends into the rest of the urban decay, very much unlike the first game with its freaky Fort Frolic and the very green Arcadia.
There's a certain straight-to-DVD feel with this sequel, which constantly evokes the original without ever eclipsing it. But perhaps it's callous to stack it up too harshly against its brilliant predecessor. BioShock 2 houses great combat, an entertaining multiplayer game, some truly standout set pieces, and a story you'll want to see through to the end. Yes, it's certainly overshadowed by the one that came before it, but it's worth experiencing on its own merits.
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