Sisters are not doing it for themselves. But then, it shouldn't come as a surprise to discover the Big Sister is not the main baddy in BioShock 2 despite what we've been encouraged to think. After all, this is the series that had you take a golf club to its own illusions last time out. If even 2K Marin's press events are a festival of misdirection, surely that's another tick in the "worthy" column for the arch-nerds in the audience.
So who's in charge of Rapture, the underwater city where good ideas go bad? This time it's Dr Sophia Lamb, a clinical psychiatrist and former political rival of Andrew Ryan. 10 years after the events of the first game, she's taken over Rapture to promote her vision of a world where everyone helps one another. It's Lamb who's in charge of the Big Sister, a graceful but unstable and super-violent guardian of the BioShock ecology, whose job it is to keep the gene-enhancing ADAM flowing, and prevent people harvesting or removing the ADAM-collecting Little Sisters from the world.
You, meanwhile, play as a prototype Big Daddy, fighting a typical FPS fight across Rapture to reach the Little Sister to whom you were bonded over a decade ago, back when all this was fields (of cute children plunging syringes into corpses to extract the genetic equivalent of a magic potion). You need ADAM to power yourself up along the way or you simply won't make it, so you'll be harvesting or saving the Little Sisters as you go. Lamb isn't very happy about this which, among other reasons, is why the Big Sister gets all up in your grill. You're her enemy.
Not half as much, however, as somebody else. Andrew Ryan, Rapture's creator and visionary, may be dead, but he's still everywhere you care to look or listen, and his conflict with Lamb is the subject of plenty of the audio recordings you find scattered around the locations you visit. Hardly surprising, since Lamb's collectivist stance is just about diametrically opposed to Ryan's philosophy of rational self-interest. If he were to discover she'd taken over, you imagine he'd be spinning in his grave - providing he could do it on his own terms.
Part of the fun of BioShock has always been that you don't need to get the philosophical stuff to enjoy it, but if you really didn't understand that part of it the first time around, the first section of BioShock 2 that we get to play ought to make things clearer. Ryan Amusements is its name, and it's a series of mechanical dioramas designed to discourage the children of Rapture citizens - born to the city and curious about the world outside - that it's all a bit rubbish up top and they wouldn't like it anyway. It's literally an objectivism funfair.
The kids are all gone now though, so these days it's a stretch of space you need to cross in order to retrieve the Incinerate plasmid - one of the genetic upgrades that allow you to turn people to ice, fire electricity from your hands or, in this case, spout volleys of fire, either to toast your enemies or perform practical services, like de-icing the rails ahead of the train car you were travelling in at the start of the level.
An early highlight is the discovery that hacking is now done "without pausing the simulation", as one developer puts it. You now have a hack 'gun', which can be used directly on safes, doors and vending machines, but also fired at sentry bots and distant switches. Whether near or far, it brings up a little gizmo with green, red and blue zones on it and a needle moving back and forth across them. Press a button when the needle's in a green zone and the hack's successful; press it in blue for a bonus; press it in red to set off an alarm and come under attack, or receive a jolt.
As well as locked doors, naturally Ryan Amusements is also full of splicers, the whacked-out former inhabitants of Rapture who have been pumping themselves with genetic enhancements for over 10 years, and for whom this hasn't worked out terribly well. They also want ADAM, and they certainly don't like you, so they shoot and slash at you on sight (although, as in the first game, it's fun to evade their gaze for a little while and listen in on their tragicomic conversations). Most of the splicers here are familiar.
But there are a lot of them, so it's a good thing you're a nine-foot-tall killing machine in a reinforced fifties diving suit. As a prototype Big Daddy freed from his conditioning, you can splice yourself with plasmids, just like the hero of the first game, and one of the revelations of the sequel is the ability to swap between and utilise them with your left hand while you simultaneously fire regular weapons with your right. Most of the plasmids here are familiar too, although some have been upgraded. Security Command, for example, can now be used to set waypoints for any sentry bots you've hacked.
Meanwhile, your weapons are hardly regular - they're Big Daddy specials. The drill, first of all, is wonderfully savage. Coupled with a lunge move, it grinds splicers to pieces with staggering brutality and fountains of gore, so much so that it's hard to look beyond it for a couple of minutes - until you realise it leaves you exposed over distance, so it's better to do some ranged attacks first. With the rivet gun, for example, which is a kind of nailgun for people who can bench-press whales. Or the spear gun, which pins people to walls from across the room. Or a massive minigun.
As with BioShock 1, there are alternative ammo types for each gun, and these deliberately mess with each weapon's functionality. Explosive spears, for example, burrow through splicer flesh and see the poor dears running around in terror before they disintegrate, along with any of their nearby friends. Trap bolts can be laid on the ground and fire upwards rather ferociously when crossed. Power to the People machines, which provide weapon upgrades, now also come with a third upgrade level, which is designed to modify the utility of a weapon further. The drill, for example, can deflect bullets once fully spruced.
Some of the best bits in the first BioShock were encounters you had a bit of time to plan, laying out traps and taking advantage of water features and other useful bits of the scenery, and the sequel's developers are evidently wise to this, because there are many more opportunities to do so in BioShock 2.
As a Big Daddy, you can adopt Little Sisters, and thanks to a cloudy on-screen pheromone trail they can lead you to bodies ripe to be harvested for ADAM (it's nothing like the escort mission at the end of the first game, incidentally). In Ryan Amusements, the ideal candidate for ADAM extraction happens to be next to a big door and in-between two staircases. Once you instruct the Little Sister to start harvesting ADAM, a harvest meter appears, and splicers lay siege to the area until it's full, so you have to plan your defences and keep your wits (and rivets and spears and drill-bits) about you.
You don't meet Little Sisters by accident, of course, and they are not alone when you do. BioShock 2 welcomes back a couple of Big Daddy archetypes as their guardians, but there's a new one as well: the Rumbler. He's all about controlling his territory, laying down miniature turrets and firing a rocket launcher at you from distance (after which you can pillage these weapons from his corpse, naturally).
Once he's out of the way, you get the usual choice to harvest the Little Sister or adopt her. Adoption is the wrong term though, because it's far from permanent. As well as the responsibility you assume during her forays into ADAM-collection, you eventually reach a point with each Little Sister where you have to decide whether to let her escape through a familiar grandfather-clock shaped vent or to harvest her anyway. If you ask me, harvesting her, having saved her the first time, is more wicked than ever. Hopefully there's a really nasty end sequence for you.
Whichever option you choose, though, you will enrage Sophia Lamb, and she will send the Big Sister after you. By this stage in the Ryan Amusements demo, you've acquired Incinerate and are on the verge of heading back to the train car and finishing the level, and the Big Sister confrontation is not staged around a particular location, so where and when you face her is as much down to you as the game. When you do, it is, as promised, the biggest rumble you've had in the whole of Rapture. And despite the developer's insinuations earlier in the year, there's more than one Big Sister to worry about before the end of the game.
Despite all this action, you still get plenty of time to take in Ryan Amusements. As with the first game, there are secret stashes of weapons, ammo and money tucked in around the margins of every room, along with audio recordings that shed light on the park's role in the events of New Year's Eve 1959. All the while you work, you're contacted by members of the sequel's cast, too, including Lamb's current adversary, and the closest thing the game seems to have to a Frank Fontaine - Augustus Sinclair.
Judging by audio recordings and the fiction that underpins the multiplayer, Sinclair is an opportunist who not only rolled deep in the field of plasmid research but did a lot of Andrew Ryan's dirty work. The logs hint at his role in suppressing Lamb during the period prior to the first game, so it's no surprise to discover, at the end of the demo, that he is the kind of man to - in the words of the game's creative director Jordan Thomas - "play absolutely any side against the middle".
But the star of the demo is the Ryan Amusements exhibits themselves. We get a selective history of how Rapture was actually built, and we get a lot of Ryan's beliefs brought to life by thunder-cracks and automatons. As you walk past a farmhouse scene, with a happy family tending the soil, a spotlight falls and Ryan's voice growls over the top. On the surface, he says, farmers sow and harvest their crops, but do they get to keep the proceeds? A giant hand reaches from the sky and pulls the very roof from over the family's heads. "Noooo," booms the voice from the original game's peerless introduction. Wonderful.
It's a strong first showing, or would have been, except it's actually the second level we get to see. The first, which we don't get to play, is called "Big Sister is Watching", and delves deeper into the prototype Big Daddy's background. Set in a place called Siren Alley, "around halfway through the game", it puts you on the path to a pumping station, where you hope to find the means to drain a nearby section of Rapture so you can cross it. This being Rapture, of course, the pumping station is now a collectivist church run by one of Lamb's lieutenants, Father Simon Wales.
Surrounded by his flock of splicers, he's not happy to see you, and a fierce battle ensues. Perhaps the eeriest thing about this demo, however, is a woman's image on the wall. Her name is Eleanor. The game makes it clear that, 10 years ago, she was your Little Sister. Why she is being deified by Wales and his followers is not explained. "Somehow, she's become involved in all of these events," says Jordan Thomas, "and finding out how is one of the mysteries of BioShock 2."
Perhaps the best thing about this demo, meanwhile, is what happens when you dispatch Wales. Lamb comes on the blower, none too pleased as ever. She's sending a Big Sister after you. Again, it's a movable fight, and it happens to hit in Siren Alley's version of Main Street - a claustrophobic huddle of gaudy wooden saloons and motels - but this time showcases your range of options against these ironclad ladies of the deep. Siren Alley also introduces a new enemy, the Brute splicer, who has been pumping up for 10 years, and thanks to the Hypnotise plasmid you can set him to work at your behest. He can go toe to toe with Big Daddies, mauling you with a series of gorilla-like lunges, and he holds up the Big Sister for a while. Then you finish her off.
Lamb's no idiot though, so just to be on the safe side she's also flooding Siren Alley.
Superficially, BioShock 2 is merely a prettier version of BioShock 1 - no bad thing, since the first game was as artistically lovely as it was technically stunning - but the ensuing flood is a new benchmark for 2K's use of Unreal Engine 3. It's not quite up there with the equivalent scenario in Naughty Dog's recent Uncharted 2, but, to be fair, Drake and company's downpour of technology stops at your knees, whereas these waters advance to the ceiling. As they fill the scene, silence falls. Good thing you're in a diving suit. Bodies hang, lifeless in the water; a shark swims benignly overhead. "Look Delta," says Lamb, referring to you by your prototype designation, "it is the world for which you strive - you, alone among the dead."
After all this, we also get to go hands-on with the multiplayer component. Much of what we said prior to E3 is still valid, but now we know there are more modes than expected, one of which is Capture the Sister - a fast-paced rumble between two teams, one of whom is trying to pick up a Little Sister and bring her to a vent on the other side of the map. The two teams swap roles at the end of each round, and the winner is the team who can capture the most Sisters in their rounds on the offensive.
The customisable loadouts should provide decent depth, and the decision to have one player on the defensive team spawn as a Big Daddy rather than a splicer is a nice touch, which means the defensive team is actually stronger to begin with. 2K Marin and Digital Extremes - the team handling the multiplayer - see this element of the game as much more than an afterthought, or a means of warding off second-hand sales, and while we're still more interested in the single-player, BioShock 2 multiplayer shows a lot of promise.
Yet, for all the things we now know about the game overall, we still know very little. What's happened to Eleanor? Where's Tenenbaum? What does Sinclair want? What does Lamb want? What do the other new plasmids do? And what does a Big Daddy, searching for a girl he's predisposed to care about, and who he hasn't seen for 10 years, do when he finds her?
Based on everything we've seen and played so far, though, the thing that's most exciting about BioShock 2 is the suspicion that these aren't even the right questions - and that we may not even know what they are until we've finished the game next February.
BioShock 2 is due out for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 on 9th February 2010.