“Keep your politics out of my games,” some people will say. There’s no place for promoting ideologies and bashing others in entertainment. Besides, videogames are about escaping reality to shake off the burdens and chaos we sift through in our everyday lives, right? It’s one thing to complain when videogames have controversy for the sake of it, lazy dogmatism, virtue signaling, or toxic writing. It’s another matter if you think politics don’t play a part in their stories and even design language in some cases because, if you do, you’re gravely mistaken.
It sounds silly, but you could say communism drives Mario Kart in minimizing skill by equalizing the playing field through powerups, whereas Burnout Revenge reflects unrestrained capitalism since players must earn their way to first place without assistance…and can personally take down the competition to win. A clearer political message can be narratively derived from Final Fantasy X’s stance against the evils of organized religion, since it can be capable of sacrificing morality at the alter of tradition. There’s a philosophical conundrum at The Last of Us’ heart spawning an agonizing conundrum that pits deontology, utilitarianism, and virtue ethics against each other. If you really force yourself to think about all the characters’ perspectives and determine who you side with, I promise you might just reframe your moral reasoning. So yeah, it’s rare to escape politics as videogames have advanced. I’d say the only substantial debate to have is how issues can be subtly and smartly woven into game design and worlds (or how to make one devoid of any kind of preconceived notions or messages).
BioShock is a paradigmatic answer of doing that right. It’s an exceptional first-person shooter that makes you feel BA as you switch between your Plasmids and weapons, combining them in effective strings by using enemies’ actions and the environment against them. The levels are a perfect balance between linearity and open world design that easily keep you on track while encouraging exploration with plenty of side paths; the game manages to feel expansive but you’ll never feel lost or overwhelmed. I could go on, but I haven’t even gotten to the relevant stuff with the story. You know how it goes. A guy named Jack is on a mission to kill Andrew Ryan and fight his way through the ruined city of Rapture. In between fighting deranged addicts, saving possessed girls from giant men in Steampunk diving suits, and shooting bees and fire from your hands, there’s a phenomenal critique of objectivism through the story’s complex characters, thoroughly developed world, and brilliant dialogue (especially with the audio diaries). You’ll be directly challenged and get thinking about ethics, religion, economics, human nature, and more alongside some great plot twists. BioShock manages to do this without insulting its audience or making them roll their eyes once. It’s also freakin’ fun.
Aren’t I supposed to be reviewing the sequel though? Well, technically, I am. BioShock 2 is a massive dose of déjà vu, and calling it BioShock 1.5 wouldn’t be unfair. While many have expressed disappointment over this, I don’t consider it a wholly bad thing. You know, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and all that. The game may admittedly rely on its predecessor without enough meaningful iteration, but nevertheless, it lives up the original’s master class level design and story with ease. BioShock 2 is more of the good, old Rapture you remember from your first visit. You’ll find your second stay just as – if not more – memorable.
It’s 1968. Eight years have passed since a man found a city under a lighthouse, and since then, Rapture continued to thrive in its own twisted way. One particular inhabitant named Sofia Lamb has taken the reigns of leadership for herself. She not only formed a religious cult of Splicers devoted to the collectivist cause of “The Family,” but also raised what Little Sisters were left in Rapture to maturity and brainwashed them to steal girls from the surface world for her own grand plans. It’s taken a decade to do all this, but that’s where you come in as Subject Delta: one of the OG Big Daddies that was bonded with a particular Little Sister named Eleanor Lamb. However, she was stolen from your care by her mother, and she took advantage of a hypnotizing Plasmid to make you commit suicide…10 years ago. You’ve come back from the dead to find Eleanor and stop whatever her mother is planning with her, Rapture, and the world.
I imagine it would’ve proved difficult to come up with this premise. Shouldn’t have Rapture just fallen apart with the deaths of Ryan and Fontaine? Apparently, not all of the big players were out of the equation, and BioShock 2 manages to weave them seamlessly into the lore and history of the classic game. The inclusion and evolution of new faces like Sofia, Eleanor, and Augustus Sinclair don’t feel forced or out of place in the slightest. In fact, they’ve been retconned so well that I can’t imagine their absence in Rapture’s history. As for other side characters, it’s incredible how they all relate to each other in a complex web of history that touches you in different ways, which goes a long way to make you feel sympathetic or vengeful toward certain individuals.
Rise from your…puddle.
Ryan in particular still feels alive since his influence is still making ripples. Rather than this game’s story being a critique of his philosophy alone, it largely frames it in contrast to Lamb’s communistic ideals because she sees you as propagating them in defying her. She’ll rattle on about individualism vs. collectivism in relation to your actions and with audio logs, but it’s good stuff. I’d consider her as memorable and well written as Ryan (that goes for comparing side characters, too). You’ll also find audio logs recorded by Ryan, public debates between the two, and plenty more with other characters that deeply flesh out the social climate and carefully crafted backstories of Rapture. The story serves as a wonderful commentary not only on the cracks in Ryan’s worldview and his inconsistencies, but Lamb’s as well. In doing so, more of their views’ respective strengths are highlighted and contribute to poking a compelling middle ground of philosophical ideals that are more truthful to humanity.
One thing I do believe the sequel does better is endings. I found the first game’s conclusions reductive based on how they play out, but there are more factors in play this time around that aren’t primarily focused on what happens to you, but other characters you influence. After watching the endings in full, I found them more affecting and believable, meaning that my choices throughout the game with the Little Sisters…and more…felt impactful.
BioShock 2 gave me an even deeper appreciation for its overarching story with how it builds upon and further explains its numerous facets and details. All that’s old feels new again, and since it simply feels right alongside its predecessor, I’d hardly consider it a shoehorned sequel from a narrative standpoint. This is even more evident in how the levels are obsessively detailed in every nook and cranny with environmental storytelling, but I’ll have more to say on that later.
Don’t worry. You won’t be labeled the devil himself if you harvest one Little Sister (though you probably deserve it). Your actions toward certain characters will influence the ending. There are seven total!
I remember reading back in the day how 2K Marin wanted the player to feel like a Big Daddy because, well, you are one. That was a major talking point because it should fundamentally change the odds of victory, how enemies interact with you, and your relationship to Little Sisters. I can attest that you do feel a tad bigger and tougher as Subject Delta with a slew of heavy duty weapons which includes, of course, the iconic drill. It’s nothing special as a melee tool, but when you unlock the ability to dash with it, that’s when you truly feel like an unstoppable force as you zip around areas with brute force. Instead of Plasmids merely climbing in effectiveness when upgraded, they’ll often be accompanied with secondary functions now. For example, Electro Bolt can be charged to create chain lighting with its first upgrade. Its last form makes this automatic, making its charged ability turn into a prolonged stream of electricity (you’re basically Palpatine).
Killing other Big Daddies isn’t the end of encountering Little Sisters. You’ll be able to adopt and carry them around to harvest ADAM from dead Splicers. While she’s busy humming a cheerful melody while jabbing corpses with her giant syringe, you have to protect her from a horde of baddies. Whereas the first game made you debate whether you had enough supplies to take on Big Daddies alone, the sequel makes you worry about this and these encounters. It’s a great way to extend how you want to approach gameplay. However, it can get a little repetitive after a while and starts to feel like busywork if you want to save all the Little Sisters. Thankfully, it’s all optional, so you can approach it as much as you want.
You remember seeing the Rivet Gun in the first game? Now you can use it! Trap Rivets are my favorite ammo type to equip since you can set them up before a fight to explode at an enemy’s feet like claymores. You can also just send a volley straight at someone and watch each Rivet explode in a beautiful sequence.
Beyond these differences, the game doesn’t make you feel much different from Jack. How could it without making gameplay less interesting since most Big Daddies can’t use Plasmids? You use replicas and many shades of familiar weapons, Plasmids, and Gene Tonics (passive abilities) from the first game. You purchase or pick up health, EVE, and other assorted items and collectables around you, take on groups of varying Splicers, and so on. The moment-to-moment gameplay feels overly familiar, and again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps 2K Marin could’ve experimented with increased endurance at the expense of speed to force players to carefully make their moves? Implemented special takedowns and more ways to interact with Little Sisters? I know that more could’ve been done to make the Big Daddy experience feel larger than life while retaining difficulty with stronger enemies in greater quantity. So rather than be a true leap in innovation, BioShock 2 makes minimal improvements on a rock solid foundation.
I’d say the same for objectives, too. There’s no particular levels that stood out to me like Fort Frolic and Medical Pavillion in the first game. You go retrieve and activate a lot of stuff and work your way toward Lamb, but that’s not to say that the level design in itself is disappointing. No, it’s all varied and lengthy with Dionysus Park and Ryan Amusements being particularly good examples. I found myself wanting to explore the entirety of every level to see what surprises awaited me, and I went to the extent of turning off the objective arrow and rarely looking at the map since the environments are such great fun to find your own way through.
Big Sisters are no pushovers. They can use Plasmids against you and barrage you with quick, harsh melee attacks. I honestly wish they had appeared in some horde sequences alongside other Splicers to spice things up or were used in another capacity more often.
There’s also a new hacking tool that helps you unlock doors and gain machines’ loyalty from a distance, and since it’s all done in real time rather than time freezing, the way you strategically approach hacking has been made tougher in a positive light. Hacking itself has been replaced with a minigame where you have to land a moving needle in a meter in these green or blue zones. Otherwise, you get a shock. It gets just as mind-numbing as BioShock’s hacking minigame, which is a disappointment since multiple types could’ve been implemented for differing machines you hack into.
There are more enemy types though, particularly with Big Daddies and Big Sisters. The latter are terrifying since they move around at lightning speed and have unreasonable amounts of health. They’re a real test of endurance, but they always come at inopportune times and wind up being annoying rather than fun to fight half of the time. When you’re low on health, EVE, and ammo after fighting a Big Daddy, a Big Sister will usually wind up killing you several times over as you whittle down her health. Respawn after respawn.
While I’m aware you can disable Vita-Chambers, I can’t help but think the series’ solution as a whole to death in a situation like this makes it feel inconsequential and a mere inconvenience. Losing isn’t so much dependant on smart resource management and skill, but what the game happens to throw at you in a sequence. For example, the last few hours of the game (even on the Hard difficulty) showered me with supplies to the point where I never broke a sweat, whereas I struggled to scrap by in an earlier level at a random point because I couldn’t keep up with the demands of combat.
These guys scared me more than once. They’re even sneakier than Big Sisters, since they’ll come barreling around corners and do serious damage if they wack or headbutt you.
I’m honestly trying to point out flaws and what’s different because of BioShock 2‘s similarity to its predecessor. This isn’t like comparing Titanfall and Titanfall 2. So yes, I didn’t find its levels quite as memorable or diverse in objectives, but the overall layouts are just as varied. The combat’s easily a minor step up in terms of versatility as well, even if more could’ve been done to distinguish it with extra mechanics, twists on how you control a Big Daddy, and so forth.
You know, I’m glad I brought up the Titanfall games. If you read reviews of the first game, you’ll find that a lot of people complained about how the maps didn’t stretch out across the universe’s worlds enough. You’d see these exotic forests and dinosaur-like animals in the backdrops, but you couldn’t go to them! You just stayed in these boring, drab cities of gray. As for Titanfall 2? Goodness, it’s a wild ride through a host of alien environments that visually pop. A rightful criticism for the first entry was properly addressed because Respawn Entertainment could have done more with the first game, but didn’t. When it comes to something like BioShock 2, 2K Marin could only go so far since Rapture can’t look or feel too foreign.
You’re venturing throughout the same kind of dilapidated ballrooms, hallways, and towns from the first game in all their art deco, kinda retro-futuristic glory. Nothing feels out of place in this developer’s take on Rapture, and all of the locations are entirely new! Some like Fontaine Futuristics were only mentioned in the first game but appear here as sprawling levels. All of them are beautifully realized and ripe with tiny details and touches that often contribute to great environmental storytelling. Every body, object, and item seems to have been purposefully arranged. For example, if you visit Fontaine’s office in his titular establishment, there’s an unhealthy amount of liquor bottles. You can deduce how some Big Daddies were killed based on the detritus, blood, weapons, and whatnot strewn around them. Heck, even the way particular AI are programmed contributes to emotionally tying characters to certain settings. I remember walking into a music bar and discovering two Splicers dancing with one another, and when I killed one of them, the other knelt before him sobbing and ignored me. It gave me a whole new perception of this music bar and what it might have meant to this couple, driving me to look around more deeply.
I only saw this painting once! You really should look around and soak in the artistry of BioShock 2 or you’ll miss it.
I can understand why a lack of innovation with gameplay would disappoint fans, but there’s a ton of phenomenal art direction and meticulous love being pushed aside here if you think more of Rapture is boring from a visual standpoint. It’s not just aesthetically pleasing, but graphically impressive as well. I played on my PC and it holds up exceptionally well with beautiful water effects, high quality textures, moody lighting, and lovely first-person and NPC animation. Besides a few loading textures, crashes, and drops in the frame rate here and there, BioShock 2 performs well and stands as a testament alongside its predecessor to thorough artistic creativity that will grip you tight.
I’ve always loved the BioShock series’ music, and Garry Schyman returned for the sequel with his wonderfully dissonant, classical style. Small orchestral ensembles make each individual instrument stand out more with a dancing or shrilling violin, deep cello, and the like. It’s really driven by strings, but Schyman inserts some piano here and there to highlight the former beauty and elegance of Rapture in a melancholy manner, such as with “How She Sees The World.” The voice acting is top notch all around (except for some annoying repeated lines by Slicers and the weird voice actor that’s used for all Brutes) and the sound effects are crisp, clear, and original. I’d wager a lot of them are copied over from the first game, but 2K Marin proves its worth with how powerful it makes your weapons sound in contrast to Jack’s arsenal.
The imagery contributes so much weight to the narrative and how certain characters are perceived by Splicers and even important side characters.
I didn’t touch the multiplayer for BioShock 2 (I’m pretty sure it’s dead). What matters is the campaign, and it sits at a comfortable length of around 13-16 hours. Just like the first game, it went on for several more hours than I thought it would, but it doesn’t feel padded out and moves along at a good pace. However, if you want 4-5 more hours out of BioShock 2, I highly suggest you don’t miss out on Minerva’s Den. It’s a self-contained story where you play as another reactivated Big Daddy named Subject Sigma. There are some familiar voices like Tenenbaum (who jarringly falls off the narrative early on in the main game), but this story is about a guy named Charles Porter: a brilliant mathematician and programmer who creates a computing system for Rapture that’s comparable (but superior!) to Alan Turing’s inventions. Porter wants you to reach his creation on behalf of Tenenbaum since it’s capable of calculating a cure for Splicers, but his former partner, Reed Wahl, controls Minerva’s Den and won’t let you reach “his” precious machine that’s capable of by predicating the future with uncanny accuracy. With a possible way to save what’s left of Rapture, you fight your way toward “The Thinker” machine in search of answers.
Minerva’s Den quickly reacquaints you with familiar weapons and Plasmids, but you’ll have to work your way toward earning many of them back by saving Little Sisters and killing Splicers all over again. However, there are a few minor additions like the Ion Cannon and Gravity Well. The former casts an energy beam that can be switched out with one that sets foes aflame and another that can be charged to devastating effect. As for the latter, it’s a new Plasmid that sucks enemies into a temporary vortex that’s capped off with a lovely explosion that sends trapped enemies flying. The environments are a bit more cramped and narrow, but are packed with as many elements as you remember from the main game. I honestly like the level design here most because combat feels more claustrophobic while providing you with more cover and corners to weave between.
The DLC shows a brand new side of Rapture with tons of clunky analog technology that play an essential, burgeoning role in Rapture’s facilities and market. Yes, and you can expect more great audio diaries and environmental storytelling throughout one of BioShock 2‘s highest points. While there’s a ton of cool connections with Ryan, Fontaine, Lamb, and more to be discovered, the rivalry and mystery behind Porter and Wahl’s tales take center stage. You’ll come to especially feel for the former with his tragic backstory and reel in astonishment at a plot twist you won’t see coming. Overall, Minerva’s Den is a microcosm of the main game’s strengths put to exceptional use.
I remember a friend telling me a few years ago that BioShock 2 is the best game in the series. My eyes went wide since I had heard that people prefer the original without question. Now that I’ve played the sequel for myself, I’m not quite sure where I’d definitively rank it, but I can say that claims of the story and gameplay being disappointing are highly exaggerated. This title isn’t a shoddy, slapdash version of BioShock. It’s as if the game’s brilliance segues into the sequel with equally great level design and visuals that echo Irrational Games’ attention to detail. The story also expands on and nestles into Rapture’s past with grace, boasting a complex antagonist and authentic side characters. There’s a case to be made for what the game could’ve done better to separate itself more boldly, but in standing on its own, the gameplay has minor additions and improvements across the board that make combat even more of a blast.
That’s why I’d tell people to play BioShock, Infinite, and then BioShock 2. By the time you get through Columbia, you’ll be yearning to return to Rapture one last time, and you’ll appreciate 2K Marin’s work all the more since you won’t get “Raptured out,” if you will. The game’s an enrapturing follow-up that largely matches the quality of the first-person shooter that changed everything 10 years ago. If that doesn’t imply how great it is, then I don’t know what will.