Making a sequel to a game as beloved as BioShock can be one of the toughest gigs in the industry. Too many changes to the gameplay and what worked about the original will be lost. Too few and you risk leaving players with the feeling that they needn’t have bothered to come back for a second helping. Worse, creating a second chapter in the story of BioShock, one of the most critically-lauded game narratives ever created, would seem to be an almost impossible task all by itself.

First there’s Rapture, the wonderful, submerged city created by the seemingly-mad Objectivist philosopher king, Andrew Ryan. A large part of the joy to be had from BioShock was derived from exploring the city itself and uncovering the mysteries of its rise and fall. How do you relight that candle? Can one discover something twice? Making the problem even more complex, the best and brightest himself, Ryan, is dead by the end of the original game and you, the protagonist, have been artfully written out of the story after essentially destroying what was left of Rapture.

Considering all of these challenges, one has to wonder if 2k Marin weren’t slightly mad themselves when they gave this sequel the green light. Which makes it all the more surprising – and delightful – to discover that BioShock 2 is as perfect a sequel as one could have imagined.

Fans of the original game will remember the end levels, where you don the suit of the badass boss monster, Big Daddy. If you enjoyed those levels, then the sequel will utterly rock your boat. You play as one of the original model Big Daddies, “Subject Delta,” who had been deactivated for some reason prior to the events of the original game and is now, many years later, awake.

The set-up for the single-player campaign of BioShock 2 is played out in a series of cutscenes, which, although entertaining, highlights one of the very few criticisms I have of the game: It’s less well-written and acted than the original. Not punishingly so (although some of the accents will make your ears bleed), but it’s just enough off the mark from the original to be noticeable. Many story elements are clumsily borrowed from the first installment, leaving very little in the way of mystery. Then, that’s to be expected when all that’s new, here, is essentially old.

What’s truly remarkable, though, from a narrative standpoint, is how little any of this truly matters. Whether a result of the strength of the original narrative or of the triumph of 2k Marin’s god-like design skills, BioShock 2 feels at once familiar and brand new. You will find yourself being sucked right back in to the curious and alluring world of Rapture, even though you will probably already know where the story is headed.

On the gameplay front, 2k Marin knew exactly where to draw the line between old and new, shaving off just a little and adding only what was required by the new twist in the story. Since some of the most powerful weapons in the original game were those embedded into the Big Daddy suit, allowing for progressive difficulty increases and doling out new and better weapons in the sequel, in which you’re in the suit from minute one, necessitated some original thinking. This is where the majority of the changes have been made.

You’ll wield the Big Daddy’s drill, Rosie’s rivet gun, a very large machine gun, a double-barreled shotgun and more, each of which have alternate ammo or other options, and each of which can be upgraded using the “Power to the People” machines from BioShock. The El Ammo Bandito, Circus of Values, Gatherer’s Garden and other vending machines also make a comeback – albeit far more quietly – but what is notably absent is the U-Invent machine and the various gewgaws and doodads you collected in BioShock to transform into devices and ammunition. For my part I don’t miss it, but some may.

As a Big Daddy, you not only get new weapons, but new abilities. Mainly the ability to “adopt” Little Sisters after you’ve slain their guardian Big Daddies. Never mind how these creatures still exist, considering you killed most of the Big Daddies and either rescued or slaughtered the Little Sisters in the original game. All will be explained, but that they do is great, because they were some of the best and most inspired parts of BioShock.

Your “adopted” Little Sister will ride on your shoulder and take you to sources of Adam, the mysterious substance that grants citizens of Rapture the power to shoot fire, lighting and other forces from their fingertips. You will then be offered the choice to either wait alongside her as she harvests the Adam or harvest her on the spot, killing her and reaping a larger reward of Adam. The good/bad morality choice feels even more forced than in the original owing to BioShock 2‘s unique narrative twist, but there’s no harm in it, and escorting the Little Sisters creates more of the truly fun “area defense” challenges that were such a unique thrill in the original.

In fact, it’s the very fact that it remains so true to the original game that could be BioShock 2‘s biggest weakness. Luckily there are worse games to borrow from, but considering how many games have liberally borrowed from the original BioShock in the years since its release (and that game’s own long list of borrowed items from the ghosts of gaming’s past) it’s hard not to feel a little blasé about BioShock 2, as if it’s all been done before. Which it has, though rarely better.

Compared to the heart-breakingly perfect narrative design of the original game, the new enemies, story and characters of BioShock 2 feel a little weak, but the first time you’re walking around outside of Rapture in your deep sea diving-inspired Big Daddy suit, you won’t be able to help but feel a swelling of awe at the spectacle. The game gives players exactly what they’ve been wanting: more BioShock, with a forgivable amount of lost luster and with a few tweaks that mostly sit exactly right.

One of the most intriguing changes, worth noting here, is the option to turn off the “Vita-Chamber,” the device that instantly reincarnates your character after death which was the source of some considerable ire from hardcore players of the original game. How many players will ultimately take advantage of this option will probably be a small number, but I do encourage players to turn off the “helmet view” option, which will remove the default oval-shaped overlay that’s supposed to give you the feeling of looking out of a diving bell helmet. It achieves the desired effect a little too well, making the game claustrophobic to play until it’s turned off. Besides, with scenery as inspiring to behold as the city of Rapture, you would have to be as mad as a splicer to willingly miss even an inch of it.

Bottom Line: BioShock 2 is more of what made the original such an awe-inspiring and influential game, with just the right amount of changes.

Recommendation: If you like BioShock, innovative shooters, interesting multiplayer or games with creative and original narratives, you could do worse than buying BioShock 2.

Score: [rating=4] – A solid example of the genre lacking the innovation and luster of the original.

Russ Pitts enjoys any game that will allow him to call himself “Big Daddy” and remain politically correct.

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