I don't care much for video games -- well, not when I'm playing them inside another video game. I can appreciate the recursive wink and what it says about the hours we devote to entertainment as life continues around us, but in the wrong context it can dissolve a game's sense of urgency. It's classic Shenmue syndrome. If you have the time and impulse to pet a cat, get a haircut and play a computer game, then maybe your quest isn't all that important.
But I can forgive "Spitfire," the primitive top-down shooter found in BioShock 2: Minerva's Den, for a couple of reasons. It's rendered on one of Rapture's sputtering computers, which keep the city alive, regulated and breathing when they're not being repurposed by playful programmers. How could I not be charmed by the game when it's running on a quaint, inelegant device that sounds like it might shudder apart at any second? (I played the Xbox 360 version.)
That's always the charm of seeing the future depicted in history, and the journey into Rapture's computer core feels increasingly like a tour through the Sony Wonder Technology Lab, from before they updated it to be less Star Trek and more ... Star Trek (2009). You're sent to stomp in there with your Alpha-series Big Daddy boots to liberate The Thinker, Rapture's computer brain and predictive know-it-all. You have time to stop for a round of Spitfire because, at that point, your motivation is nebulous at best.
Whereas BioShock 2 immediately hooked you in as a father searching for his little girl, this standalone story (running parallel to the main plot) plays out more like Irrational's Andrew Ryan arc. You're initially guided by a very polite Charles Porter (voiced by the unmistakable Carl Lumbly), who helped create The Thinker alongside Reed Wahl -- now a spiteful rival. It's not clear why you're wading in until the end, but the emotional and thoughtful dénouement applies a retroactive motivation of sorts, even if it's at the expense of cohesion between yourself and the character you're supposed to be, Subject Sigma.
In that regard, this DLC offers a complete -- albeit compressed -- BioShock experience. It also means you have to get through a slow start with weak plasmids (Minerva's Den kicks off with an impotent combo of Security Command and Telekinesis), before you're put on the fast track to upgraded weaponry and shooting electric bees from your armpits. The new Gravity Well plasmid is useful for sucking the life out of several splicers at once, and it's a far better addition than the Ion Laser gun, which feels too much like a lemonade-spouting garden hose.
If there's one thing I got stuck on, it's the formulaic treatment of the Little Sisters. They're protected by a tough, laser-toting Big Daddy this time, and can harvest Adam from fallen Rapture citizens up to two times, while you protect them. These fights seem rebalanced and less overwhelming in Minerva's Den, but the fact remains that you probably went through this protection and retrieval process many, many times in BioShock 2. I certainly didn't want to do it another twelve times.
If you can get over that mental hump, you'll find Minerva's Den to be a very interesting and value-packed single-player expansion to BioShock 2 -- and this time, it's one that focuses on the right stuff. If we're to continue our visits to Rapture, I'd much rather support content that explores the city's most interesting and tragic figures. You know, the ones that don't have gamertags floating above their heads.
This review is based on Xbox 360 code of BioShock 2: Minerva's Den provided by 2K Games. The DLC is available now on Xbox Live Marketplace and PlayStation Network for $10. It took approximately five hours to complete. I ate a lot of creme-filled cakes.
Note: Joystiq does not provide star ratings for downloadable content reviews with the understanding that the quality of the core game's experience is unchanged from the retail release to DLC add-ons; see: BioShock 2 single-player review.