Version tested: Xbox 360
How do you make a sequel to the illusion of choice? However the developers of BioShock 2 chose to approach the production of their watery follow-up, they were destined to begin just as trapped within the framework of its narrative inheritance as the former citizens of Rapture are within their rusting cage at the bottom of the Atlantic. Such was the power and significance of that defining encounter with Andrew Ryan two thirds of the way through the original BioShock.
BioShock was very much about Ryan - a philosophical idealist who built a city at the bottom of the ocean to house people "for whom work is our wage", where no god or government could find or tax or spite them. BioShock 2 shifts from one extreme to another, exploring the circumstances that drew psychiatrist Sofia Lamb to the city and the role she then played in Ryan's downfall. The two ideologues don't have much in common, but they do both act as catalysts for the events that befall the rest of the cast, of whom you are one, while another is a little girl named Eleanor.
Once upon a time, as Ryan's Rapture fell apart in the hands of mere men and women, opportunists like the first game's Frank Fontaine rose to prominence in search of power. Through their endeavours the population became addicted to genetic modifiers called plasmids, developed with help from a substance called ADAM. As the people needed more ADAM to keep on splicing, so the city gave birth to Little Sisters, fever-dreaming girls escorted by lobotomised bodyguards called Big Daddies, who stalked the corridors of the city collecting the drug from those who perished under its influence.
BioShock 2 begins as you take control of one of the first Big Daddies, a prototype called Delta, who must find his way across the Rapture of 10 years later in search of Eleanor, the Little Sister to whom he was bonded. Along the way he is taunted by Lamb, who believes he is nothing less than a threat to the future of humanity, and like his predecessor in the first game the people he meets on the way help to explain his past, while your behaviour towards them has the potential to define the future.
Once again you are equipped with plasmids and standard weapons, but now you can use both at once, loosing genetic powers with one hand and regular projectiles with the other. You can cycle between alternatives in each category, or pause the action momentarily to change your loadout through quick-to-use radial menus. As a Big Daddy you have access to new weapons, too, including a drill, a magnificent spear gun that pins enemies to walls by their appendages, and a grenade launcher the size of a filing cabinet.
You can also gather gene tonics, which continue to act as status modifiers. Collecting and perfecting an appropriate selection of these becomes a compelling balancing act, where you plot to allow for sufficient offensive and defensive capabilities while also enhancing your stocks of consumables, and increasing the speed and safety with which you can hack into Rapture's security systems and vending machines.
While the first game crisscrossed the city's bathysphere network in search of impetus, the sequel follows an old train line through other areas. You tour locations occupied by splicers and other horrors, gather tools as instructed by your contacts on the radio, and use a fairly intuitive map system to make sure you are scraping every level thoroughly for consumables, novelties and tape recordings.
And, of course, for Little Sisters. You need ADAM yourself to continue splicing, which means liberating the new Little Sisters from their Big Daddy companions. The Daddies ignore you until you attack, and then they ignore everything else until you are dead. The old archetypes return, rushing and shooting and drilling you, supported by a new recruit, the Rumbler, who attacks with a rocket launcher and deploys pesky mobile turrets. Once the fight is over and a Little Sister is liberated, you can choose to harvest her for ADAM immediately, or you can adopt her instead.
Adoption allows you to seek out specific corpses within the surrounding area and then set your little friend down to gather ADAM from them with her cute little syringe gun, and while she does this you must use your wiles to defend her from splicers driven to rage by the sound of the gathering. Far from repeating the frustrating missteps of the penultimate escort mission section of the first BioShock though, these showdowns are more in line with its excellent siege sections, like the battle with Ryan's forces at the labs in Arcadia, encouraging you to lay down trip wires, cyclones and other booby traps and use your considerable arsenal to defend rather than attack.
Once your Little Sister has done her quota of gathering for a level, you can then return her to a vent, where you are once again given a choice to save or harvest. Saving her offers less ADAM, but rewards down the line may be greater. Whatever you decide, once you have helped a few Little Sisters to escape from the area then Lamb sends one of her foot-soldiers after you: a Big Sister. Fast moving, skeletal and aggressive, they announce their impending arrival with a sequence of banshee wails, giving you just enough time to locate a suitable battleground where the terrain favours you. Or not.
These new overlapping systems add greater depth to the standard gameplay loop, but initially BioShock 2's mechanics and level designs struggle to stand out. Plasmids and weapons are different but largely familiar ideas, while environments are visually more detailed than their predecessors but functionally not, and the setups they use are equally worn: new splicers spawning to startle you when you pass back through an area, or hidden caches host to random side-stories caught on tape. Even the fact that you are a Big Daddy isn't really a change: after all, you became more powerful than the Big Daddies in the first BioShock.
There are even occasions in the first few hours of the game when you worry the absence of new ideas may be terminal, as the developers seem to rattle through almost exactly the same beats. There's the city rising out of the gloom for the first time in profile, there's zapping a pair of splicers in a pool of water with your first dose of electro-bolt, there's getting trapped in a room by the enemy, left to be disposed of by machinegun-wielding splicers only to escape more by luck than judgement.
But the pressure of repetition soon eases, and the new, modified rhythm beds down well as you scratch around for the means to take down the next Big Daddy, then to fight through the next gathering, then to tackle the next Big Sister. The key is the distinct combat situation each component of the cycle represents: the meeting of two lumbering giants decided by brawn and evasion; the careful planning and execution of a territorial defence; and the frantic scrabbling for sure footing and exclusive vantage points.
These clearly defined sequences complement the ongoing battle against splicers - who are themselves supported by new breeds, including the extremely tough brutes - and the variety of circumstances carefully staves off boredom and encourages you to experiment within your richer arsenal. This is something the new video research camera also does, by allowing you to unlock new skills and increase capacities by rolling the film and then performing different takedowns without repetition.
As you prowl through the streets of the excellent Siren Alley, or pore over the storied halls of Fontaine Futuristics, you also realise that what's happening to you and to Rapture is more than a footnote to these subtle but measured improvements in combat and exploration. On the contrary, your violent encounters and treasure-hunting are the foundations into which an excellent story is being laid: Lamb's altruism may be an obvious counterpoint to Ryan's rational self-determination, but as one character points out in dialogue, Lamb's vision for the city is more startling and abhorrent. It takes you to far darker places.
Her senior lieutenants are often as interesting and haunting as Ryan's, to the extent that telling you who fulfils certain roles would do the game a disservice. Those hoping for encounters to rival Sander Cohen's residence at Fort Frolic, and calling cards to match "the Iceman f***ing cometh", may return to the surface slightly disappointed, but not much. And despite a few nods to the first game that fans will appreciate, all this has been done without recourse to pointless nostalgia either.
Where the developers take us back to the first game more directly is in the discrete multiplayer component, set prior to the fall of Rapture, where you and other splicer test subjects pick loadouts of weapons, plasmids and tonics, many of which must be unlocked by ranking up in public matches, and fight it out in arenas built from familiar locations like the Farmer's Market and Kashmir Restaurant.
Modes include standard deathmatch and team games with BioShock embellishments: hackable turrets allow you to master your surroundings, while researching corpses confers attack bonuses against that adversary, Big Daddy suits give you a temporary run as a slower but more brutal enemy, and in Capture the Sister there are Little Sisters to fight over instead of flags.
As well as a ranking system that provides bonuses when you cross certain experience thresholds, the game also sets you various targets such as achieving a certain number of melee kills, which give you things to think about in between and more impetus to experiment with different loadouts as tools become available.
There is a narrative element to the multiplayer component, too, but it would be an exaggeration to call it story-driven, especially as the single-player game's revelations leave the minutiae of Rapture's downfall to gather dust in relative peace. It's better to think of BioShock 2 multiplayer as a fast-paced, solid adaptation of the core combat system into a multiplayer setting - BioShock flavoured, though no more immediately memorable than other recent unexpected multiplayer components like Uncharted 2's.
The single-player campaign is still the main event. It will and should be damned for its long, slow start, during which the game struggles to make its intentions clear, but once past that the developers find a new tempo that wrings just enough extra quality out of the existing framework to justify your patience, even if the game still feels flat in the context of more daring and elaborate sequels like Mass Effect 2 and last year's Assassin's Creed follow-up. To its credit, once it does hook you in it propels you forward with the same urgency as its predecessor, and with just as much obsessive compulsion to cover every last coral-encrusted inch of rotting wood and drowning marble on the way.
Moreover, BioShock 2 arguably does escape the shadow of that moment in Andrew Ryan's office two and a half years ago. Your passage through Rapture may not be a matter of free will - a challenge someone surely ought to take up with this series - but BioShock 2 argues even within the strictures of fate that mercy and compassion or bitterness and revenge ring loud enough to echo through the lives of those who follow. The result is a less openly provocative game than its predecessor, and one that will capture less attention, but while it may be damned for subtlety it is every bit as deceptive, and perhaps that's the greater of the series' illusions regardless of what else a BioShock sequel might have become.
8 / 10