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Count me as an early skeptic of BioShock 2‘s “Rapture Civil War” multiplayer mode. When 2K announced it at E3 last year, I made little attempt to contain my cynicism at the prospect of a bunch of over-caffeinated pre-teens flooding the halls of Fort Frolic and turning its studied theatricality into a hormone-fueled mess. “I can’t help but feel BioShock 2‘s multiplayer might end up diluting the fictional world from which it draws inspiration,” I wrote in my E3 preview of the game, “all for the sake of appealing to an audience that never belonged in Rapture in the first place.”

I was far from alone; many other gamers and game journos expressed variations of the same sentiment. BioShock was the quintessential single-player experience: an open-world environment so packed with subtle details that each successive play-through was a kind of revelation. It was the rare game that gave players both something meaningful to ponder (the potentially corrosive effects of extreme self-interest) and the space to ponder it. Those sorts of lingering details are nigh impossible to communicate in a setting where you’re constantly at risk of being beaten to death with a rolling pin by a spliced-up ’50s housewife.

So I’m happy to report my initial worries about BioShock 2‘s multiplayer mode were pretty much unfounded, and a bit elitist to boot. I can’t speak toward the rest of the game – see our review for an assessment of the single-player campaign’s merits – but after spending roughly half a dozen hours freezing, electrifying and incinerating my fellow splicers, I’ve come to the conclusion that this isn’t just a mechanically solid online FPS – it’s a worthy addition to the BioShock universe.

No, you likely won’t be pausing to admire the 1930s décor while fleeing from the Big Daddy that spawned 20 feet away from you. In fact, like most online shooters, the scenery is a distraction more than anything else – success in this arena means tuning out every single piece of information that doesn’t help you put a bullet between your opponents’ eyes. But it doesn’t take long to realize that anyplace the developers could find to flesh out the setting without inhibiting the gameplay, they have. And while players strictly in it for the satisfaction of gunning down human opponents can safely ignore most of these additions, it wouldn’t really be BioShock without them.

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Take your apartment staging ground, for instance. After you enter your first match, you never need to return to your swank underwater pad again – you can easily customize your appearance and equipment loadouts from a menu between matches. But if you do decide to head home to relax, you’re rewarded with little details that contribute to your understanding not just of the Rapture Civil War, but the game world as a whole. First, there’s the messages from the Civil War’s “corporate sponsor,” Sinclair Solutions, who, like any good anarcho-capitalist, saw in the conflict between Fontaine’s revolutionaries and Ryan’s loyalists an opportunity for profit. They’re dripping with inoffensive 1950s adspeak, referring to its line of machine guns and grenade launchers as “home defense” products rather than the instruments of chaos they are.

Even more enlightening, however, are the audio diaries that become available as you reach higher ranks in Sinclair Solution’s “rewards program.” Killing enemies and winning matches nets you ADAM, and the more ADAM you earn, the more weapons and plasmids Sinclair Solutions sends your way. But by listening to the unlockable audio diaries in your apartment, you get a sense of the hidden cost of that advancement. Each character starts out as a well-meaning individualist that gradually descends into madness the more spliced up he or she becomes. It’s a fascinating way to portray the gradual decay that the thirst for ADAM inflicted upon the city of Rapture.

But as much as I appreciated these embellishments, I was most struck by how well the story of Rapture’s civil war fit within the framework of an online shooter. In BioShock 2‘s multiplayer – as with Modern Warfare 2‘s – the goal isn’t so much to win as it is to become more powerful by accumulating XP (or, in this case, ADAM). Winning nets you a solid bonus, but it’s all too easy for your team’s ultimate objective (capture and hold a Little Sister, control a map’s zoned-off territories, etc.) to be obscured by your own lust for more ADAM. It’s a problem as old as multiplayer shooters themselves, but BioShock 2 has finally offered a convenient explanation. Teamwork falls apart for the same reason Rapture itself does: Online FPS players, like the caricatures of Objectivist philosophy that populate this world, are a bunch of selfish dicks.

That’s something to remember the next time you go for the easy kill when you could be helping to rescue a Little Sister from the opposing team, or rush for a vial of ADAM laying in the corner while one of your teammates gets gunned down: You’re just playing the part of the greedy, insane, spliced-out denizen of Rapture. Thankfully, it’s a pretty easy role for online gamers to fill.

Jordan Deam appreciates that there’s finally an online shooter that realizes cooperation is for spineless commie parasites.

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