BioShock 2 Xbox 360 Review
Returning to Rapture, the failed utopian underwater world of 2007's story-driven shooter BioShock, was a tricky proposition for 2K Games. Well, maybe not for the company's shareholders; following a hit with a sequel is always a no-brainer for the bean counters. But for everyone else, revisiting a property that was so perfectly self-contained posed the risk of alienating fans and tarnishing its good name. Thankfully, followers of dive suit-sporting Big Daddys, ADAM-harvesting Little Sisters, and strung-out Splicers can breath a sigh of relief, as BioShock 2 not only lives up to its predecessor, it actually improves upon it. Its story is compelling, its gameplay refined, and even its potentially gimmicky hooks—playable Big Daddy as well as the new Big Sisters—work wonderfully in a sequel that supports, rather than sullies creator Ken Levine's inspired vision.
As with the original, BioShock 2 unspools an engaging yarn that surprises more than once with the unexpected twist, turn, and "what the hell?" moment. Once again, found audio logs and one-sided radio conversations with friends and foes drive the story, laying out the critical stuff while allowing players to decide just how deep they want to dig for the less important fiction-expanding details. Admittedly, there's nothing that matches the first game's “Would you kindly?” shocking reveal, but BioShock 2's story is still several notches above the medium's narrative-starved norm. Revealing any spoilers should be punishable by a cosmetic surgery consult with Dr. Steinman, so I won't go there; just trust that it's a trip worth taking.
Just as impressive as the storytelling is the gameplay. All significant complaints concerning the original game have been addressed. The tedious pipe-puzzling hacking has been replaced with a quicker, more rewarding mini-game that has you stopping a rapidly moving needle on a color coded dial. You can even gain useful bonuses, such as free med packs at health stations, depending on how well you hack. The research mechanic has also been tweaked, replacing the still-picture camera from the original with a video recorder that allows you to film while fighting. This new set up also encourages you to take down baddies in more inventive ways to gain more research points. For example, eliminating a Spider Splicer by setting a swarm of bees on it, followed by driving the drill through its oozing midsection, will net more research points than a simple shotgun blast to the head.
Speaking of Big Daddy's buzzing blood-letter, the fuel-dependent melee weapon is a great addition to your arsenal, as is his rivet gun—especially when you upgrade to explosive white-hot rivets. In fact, plasmids and more traditional weapons (both of which can now be dual-wielded) are an absolute blast to unleash on Rapture's unhinged populace. From pinning Splicers to walls with the spear gun, to frying them with the electro-bolt plasmid, there's no shortage of creative ways to kill these ADAM-craving lunatics. Upgrading your powers and weapons, and experimenting with the various passive tonics adds even more depth and strategy to the excellent combat. My favorite trick was unleashing a handful of angry hornets on a room full of Splicers, then approaching each writhing, screaming freak individually to feed some phosphorus-infused buckshot into their contorted faces. The combat diversity alone demands multiple play-throughs, as you could potentially battle through the soggy city with an entirely different strategy on your second, and even third, run.
Making the Splicer-slaying even more appealing is the new relationship you possess with Little Sisters. You again have the option to harvest or save them, but because you're now in Big Daddy's puddle-splashing boots, you can also roam the creepy halls of Rapture and help your tiny syringe-wielding tykes gather ADAM from corpses. When you place her next to a body she begins siphoning the goods, but Splicers quickly take notice—they can smell the juice—and begin rushing your pigtailed ward from all sides. These intense encounters make for some of the game's most interesting, dynamic battles. And prepping for these pulse-spiking melees is just as much fun as protecting your ADAM-chugging little one from the seemingly endless parade of psychos. Strategically laying down traps, mines, and mini-turrets (another awesome new trick up Big D's metallic sleeve) offers a wickedly satisfying calm before the storm. BioShock 2's additions to the baddie roster will also keep your trigger-finger extra busy; the Brute Splicer is like a Big Daddy without the dive gear, so he's formidable, but nothing a fistful of fire and some grenades can't handle. The much buzzed about Big Sister, however, is much tougher; she's crazy quick and can absorb plenty of damage, so less-skilled players can plan on at least one visit to a life-giving Vita Chamber when going steel toe to steel toe with her.
As expected, the combat and storytelling are complemented by a deeply atmospheric presentation. The score is as eerie as ever, and the voice acting is top notch—the smooth southern drawl behind new character Augustus Sinclair is especially good. Of course Rapture, even ten years later according to the story, is still endlessly creepy. Blood-scrawled messages decorate the walls, corpses line the corridors, and the distant growling of Big Daddys and singing of Little Sisters still manages to shoot a chill up the spine. The ability to travel outside the city's creaking, leaking walls also offers a nice respite from the all-hell-breaking-loose atmosphere inside. These moments give you a real sense of being underwater, while providing some of the game's absolute best visual treats. Whether you're silently witnessing an interaction unfolding between a Splicer and a Big Daddy within Rapture's walls, or taking in a breathtaking view of the sprawling city outside, you'll cherish these almost calming treks beneath the surface. A new abundance of aquatic organisms also sell the sogginess; starfish stick to the glass, schools of fish swim by, and hungry sharks sniff out floating corpses.
On top of everything else, BioShock 2 adds a surprisingly good multi-player component. Sure, it's totally unnecessary, but a neat little perk system and the chance to finally wield plasmids against friends make it worth checking out. If this addition had taken anything away from the solo campaign's quality, I'd be the first one to deride it. But BioShock 2's story mode has been so expertly polished, I can forgive 2K for wanting a piece of Modern Warfare 2's pie. If I can find any fault in my return to Rapture, it'd only be that some of the magic and romance is gone. It's simply an unfortunate and inherent trait of sequels that they can't quite recapture their predecessor's sense of awe. Still, despite the familiarity, 2K Marin has done a phenomenal job making Rapture relevant again. A thrilling story, inspired new characters and environments, refined gameplay and yes, even the multi-player, make diving back into the Atlantic an easy decision.