PixelJunk Shooter 2 review: If it ain't broke, add multiplayer

Sequel design 101: Make your game bigger. Given one of the only complaints fans had with the original PixelJunk Shooter was its length, the explosion of content in the sequel makes sense. Over a year in the making, Shooter 2 has bigger bosses, bigger levels and a bigger feature set. But, bigger doesn't always equal better; while Shooter 2 will keep fans busy, it's one of the few "disappointments" from the studio's otherwise impeccable portfolio.

The most significant addition to the Shooter formula is the new competitive multiplayer feature. I was skeptical at first, doubtful that PvP would be able to retain the game's unique charm. I was proven wrong with my first online battle. The subtle changes to the core mechanics make for an interesting game of cat-and-mouse. Just like in the main game, you must rescue survivors. But, in versus mode, there's someone else hellbent on rescuing more of them than you.

Each of the maps offer different strategic options, taking advantage of the unique liquidity of the game's levels. Risk maneuvering through an active volcano to avoid enemy fire, for example. Or, try having a shootout in the water, to avoid heating up. Flashier players may even try to steal survivors from an enemy base.%Gallery-118677% As in other online shooters, you'll be able to use your experience points to purchase new items that can become devastatingly powerful. An early weapon shoots a slow homing missile; a more expensive one launches a tidal wave across the entire screen; and another one turns all water into lava.

What's not nearly as powerful is the matchmaking system. The game has a league system in place that, in theory, levels the playing field so that players of similar experience will play against each other. However, it rarely plays out that way. Perhaps players are simply not trying the multiplayer: There were multiple occasions throughout the week that I couldn't connect to anyone at all; and then there were a few sessions in which I was matched up against someone grossly overpowered. I had one default weapon. My opponent had three high-powered ones.

It's a testament only to how enjoyable the core of the multiplayer is that I kept coming back for more, and making my way through the leagues. In some cases, I was able to beat players with a better loadout -- your core abilities are more than "good enough" to get by. Still, the mode is definitely not for everyone, and, as players gradually graduate away from the lowest levels (some players had already reached the highest rank within a week!), the mode will become increasingly inaccessible to newcomers.

A large part of my subdued response to the second game's adventure mode comes from the new liquids and suits, which don't compare well to the first Shooter's. The first chapter, in particular, falls flat. One suit enables you to dig through dirt à la Dig-Dug, and while it's a cute homage, it doesn't lend to particularly fun gameplay. A new foam lets you spin around like in PixelJunk Eden, but the obscured visibility and loose controls make it far less fun than its inspiration.

The game's second and third acts are far more successful. I loved the new shmup-inspired enemies, which force you to dodge a barrage of bullets. One of the game's bosses, in fact, feels ripped out of a classic Japanese arcade shooter. The game's final act is the cleverest of the bunch, playing with light and dark in unique ways.

Shooter 2 definitely ramps up the difficulty, too, but largely from "gotcha" moments, where enemies and fluids will spawn without warning. I've had an enemy literally spawn on me twice -- a frustrating fate, especially when forced to redo a section of a level.

Shooter 2 is not as consistent of an experience as its predecessor. Given Q's record of creating terrific "Encore" expansions for previous PixelJunk games, it's a bit disappointing that the franchise's first real sequel falls a little short. Still, I imagine it'd be a welcome addition to anyone's PSN library.

This review is based on review code of PixelJunk Shooter 2 provided by Q-Games. It is now available on the PlayStation Store for $10.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.