BioShock didn't need a sequel.
I know it, you know it; heck, I'd bet if they were being totally honest, the staff of 2K Marin would tell you they knew it too. BioShock was that rare combination of a perfectly realized world, fresh yet refined action and a narrative that left me with no real burning questions. It didn't need a sequel.
But all that has very little to do with BioShock 2 because whether it needed to be made or not, it's here now. And the surprise isn't that someone other than Irrational had the chutzpah to make a BioShock sequel. The surprise is just how worthwhile it is.
As no ad for the game will fail to remind you, BioShock 2 puts you into the massive shoes of a drill-toting, Little Sister-guarding Big Daddy. You're told that you're an early model -- part of the Alpha series -- but you're faster than the newer Big Daddies and able to use plasmids. (Why are the new Big Daddies so clearly worse? It must be a budgetary thing.)
You're back in Rapture after an absence, but you're not sure exactly why at the outset. All you're told is that you're trying to find one of your former charges named Elanor, who appears to you psychically through the link that Big Daddies and Little Sisters share.
There are tons of new environments, but it's hard to shake the feeling that this is the same Rapture.
It's a neat setup but, aside from some more substantial sound effects and the aforementioned drill, playing as a Big Daddy feels almost indistinguishable from Jack, the lead in BioShock 1. Even the well-publicized ability to dual-wield plasmids and weapons doesn't add much to the formula.
That, you'll find, is the biggest recurring problem with BioShock 2. There are new plasmids and tonics, but not enough. There are new weapons (the spear gun, which can pin enemy Splicers to walls, being a notably rad example) but not enough. There are tons of new environments but (with the exception of some cool underwater bits) it's hard to shake the feeling that this is the same world and the same Rapture you've already explored. I obviously don't think a sequel needs to just be "MOAR!!1!" but I would like enough differentiation to stave off the all-too-present sense of déjà vu.
There are a few notable exceptions. Instead of still pictures of Rapture's denizens that award combat boosts, the research camera now shoots video, recording combat and adding research bonuses for unique kills. It's such an enjoyable way of approaching the research idea, you'll wonder why Irrational didn't think of it the first time. Hacking turrets and machinery has also been improved, with the pipe-swapping minigame replaced with a wavering needle that you have to stop on a certain position on the screen (lest you risk alerting sentries). It's snappier than the pipe game and never breaks the combat's flow.
Perhaps the biggest structural change is that after offing a Little Sister's Big Daddy, you'll be offered the chance to harvest her for power-building ADAM on the spot. But if you want to do the nice thing and rescue her (which provides you with less ADAM), you're going to have to let her lead you to a couple of ADAM-rich corpses and defend her as she drains them of their goo. Not only does the defense mechanic feel fresh, but it also makes the choice of rescuing the Little Sisters a bit tougher when you know how much leg work it'll involve. (Even if you didn't know that rescuing the Sisters would pay dividends eventually, you're blatantly told as much so early in BioShock 2 that the choice doesn't require much moral agonizing.)
Though most of the gameplay is on par with or better than its predecessor, a couple of BioShock 2's components are a step backwards. For starters, you'll spend a crazy amount of time pounding buttons to pick up ammo, food and health. Literally every battle is punctuated by a slow meander around the battlefield combing the area for bullets, drill fuel and other items you might have missed. It may not actually be worse than time spent picking up items in the first BioShock, but two-and-a-half years later this is one facet of the game that's just begging for a tune-up.
Also, the combat starts to feel repetitive far too quickly. This was broken up by Big Daddy battles in the first game, but they're not nearly as intimidating or fun to fight now that you're one as well. 2K Marin tries to remedy that by setting the vicious new Big Sister on you at inopportune moments, but she provides neither the enticement of a huge payoff after the battle nor a cool back story like the Big Daddy/Little Sister relationship. In the end, she feels like an afterthought.
My real worry was that the narrative I loved so much in BioShock would suffer the same fate as the gameplay. I could handle an iterative take on the combat, which I enjoyed but didn't love the first time out, but phoning in the story would have been unforgivable.
And initially, that's exactly what you might think. Sophia Lamb is standing in for Andrew Ryan as the overlord/puppet master, albeit with the opposite philosophy, emphasizing the power of the collective rather than the individual. You're even helped by a friendly guy with an accent again (the southern Sinclair rather than the Irish Atlas).
But here's the big twist: Even though it may not seem like it at first, BioShock 2 is using similar components and a similar story to say completely different things than its predecessor. Far too much of it is piled into the game's final hours, so I can't say exactly how it's told without spoiling it for you. But trust me, on the unlikely canvas of Rapture, 2K Marin has painted a story about the nature of family and the price of love, and as a counterpoint to the sterile morality of BioShock it's all the more touching.
It should come as no surprise, perhaps, that so much of BioShock 2's story centers on the idea of parents and children. Only by flying in the face of the lessons of its predecessor, by exploring the idea of tying yourself to others in a world ruled by the individual, is this sequel able to become a really worthy successor.
I went into BioShock 2 not trusting the 2K Marin team, though I was trying to. But with a compelling story hidden in the final hours and gameplay tweaks that were appreciated but too few in number, the biggest surprise for me was that I ended up wishing they trusted themselves more.
Editors' note: This review is based on the PS3 review code of the game provided by 2K Games.