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'BioShock 2' review: Can diving back into Rapture ever be the same?

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You could argue that 2007’s BioShock was just another zombie dystopia shoot-’em-up — but that’s kinda like saying The Matrix was just another sci-fi dystopia shoot-’em-up. The sheer ambition and scope of BioShock‘s storytelling and setting remain nothing less than a revelation. “Steeped in the objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand” are not words most people ever expected to use to describe a videogame, and the final act’s twist was a true mind-frak that caused me to question the very nature of what it means to play a videogame. Like, whoa.

Which is all by way of saying that there is just no way BioShock 2 (available now for PS3, Xbox 360, and PC) could re-create that singular rush of discovery from the first game. Thankfully, it doesn’t really try. There’s no grand introduction to the epically dank Rapture, no slow teasing out of how this vast undersea metropolis was conceived and fell to bloody ruin. Instead of an ostensible newcomer to Rapture, this time you play as a dive-suited Big Daddy — the first Big Daddy, in fact — and the game just expects you to know what that even means. No, BioShock 2 focuses most of its energy on sharpening and refining the mechanics of the game itself. You can now zap the marauding splicers with genetic “plasmids” (like Electro Bolt and Incinerate!) while at the same time blasting them with an array weapons (like a Rivet Gun, or Grenade Launcher). The old pipe-dream mini-game used to “hack” into security bots and cameras has been thankfully replaced with a swifter and simpler hand-eye coordination test that also makes loads more sense. Even the mapping system has received a welcome spit-and-polish.

The best refinement, though, is to BioShock’s famed moral choices.

In the first game, your decision whether to save or harvest (i.e. murder) the Little Sisters resulted in little more than one of two final cut scenes — save them all, and you’re a saint; kill even one, and you’re a monster. By contrast, BioShock 2 is peppered with live-or-die moral quandaries that affect the game throughout, and the entire final act hinges on what you chose to do with those helpless Little Sisters. If, like me, you harvested a few of them at the outset, and then saved the rest out of guilt, the game even provides you with one doozy of a final decision.

As for Rapture itself, you do get a peek into some intriguing new areas — like an Epcot-like ride devoted to the horrors of the surface world, designed to keep children born in Rapture from ever wanting to leave — and occasionally, you get to wander out into the (not so) open ocean. But it all comes off like a kind of BioShock appendix rather than a true expansion of Rapture’s world, and the story itself feels comparatively slight. Instead of Andrew Ryan, who founded Rapture as a temple to the individual, you battle a collectivist psychiatrist named Sofia Lamb, whose daughter Eleanor also happens to be your character’s Little Sister. The game opens with the elder Lamb forcing your character to commit suicide, and then flashes ahead ten years, and I’ll be darned if the game ever satisfactorily explains how you survived, or, for that matter, why a figure as seemingly powerful as Sofia Lamb was never once mentioned in the first game. (I understand the reasons the game gives; I just don’t buy them.)

Truth be told, though, I was far too busy beating back Rapture’s ferocious citizenry with endless combos of firepower to really notice these quibbles; I only thought of them after I’d finally let go of my controller. BioShock 2 may not be quite a masterpiece like its predecessor, but it remains one powerfully fun game to play. B+