Bioshock 2 was set up almost from the onset to be a colossal failure. It was to follow one of the most critically acclaimed games of all time, by a different developer, with the inclusion of a seemingly tacked on multiplayer mode to a series that had absolutely no need for one. It had every possibility to be a disaster, which makes it almost shocking that it arrived in a state that was not only comparable to the original game, but improved and expanded on it as well in ways that would be hard to go back from. It’s the sequel I never expected; maybe nobody did.
And important distinction to make before discussing Bioshock 2’s narrative, is that the first game was first and foremost the story of the city of Rapture and its fall into madness through its own attempts to create a lawless utopia. In comparison, 2 is almost entirely focused around a very small cast of key characters; their relationships to each other, conflicting ideals, and eventual goals which clash with each other and create this very personal, self-contained narrative, within which Rapture is merely a setting instead of the star.
In some ways this is a good thing. By taking the focus off of Rapture and onto a new, very small collection of characters, developer 2K Marin is able to craft a more personal narrative, spending more time developing the characters that matter and the relationships between them. In other ways, it makes the time not spent directly advancing the plot far less impactful and memorable than they may otherwise have been. Characters outside the very core plot are introduced and then discarded in ways that feel contrived and unmemorable, moving you along but never leaving much of an impact outside of your immediate encounters with them. This also contributes to Rapture being a much less interesting, tangible place to explore, feeling stale and lifeless when at one point it was remarkably well crafted and intriguing.
On the whole, the narrative is rather significantly less mentally stimulating, disregard the deeper themes of ideology, morality, and freedom that gave the original such an astounding sense of scope and inspired so much discussion about the different ideas laced within the game. Bioshock 2 tries to mimic what Irrational Games did so deftly, but it comes out as something superfluously intelligent; tossing about grand ideas in the background of a fairly simple plot that never attempts more than it can feasibly accomplish. Simplicity isn’t a bad thing by nature, as the story is still engaging and arguably easier to follow, but I rather missed the more sophisticated philosophical questions posed by the original that was so substantially more contemplative and inspired.
The change to a strictly linear world design was also rather disappointing to me, as though there are logical narrative reasons you wouldn’t be able to return to locations after you went through them, it’s yet another thing taken away from the original that causes Rapture to feel like a rather hollow environment. It’s still full of the same distinctive artwork, excellent sense of place, and fitting music, but it feels so soulless compared to what it once was that it makes returning to Rapture again almost dull at times. There are things later on which actually add interesting, fundamental aspects to the city’s lore, but by that point it’s almost too late and the moment will likely be lost or overlooked by most.
Whether the changes are improvements or make up for what was lost is debatable, though by and large the plot failed to leave the impression the original did, despite being well written and interesting in its own right. Perhaps its the issue of being in the shadow of such a monumental achievement that was Bioshock, that anything to come after that isn’t as incredibly feels significantly more of a disappointment that it otherwise would. Had 2 been released as in a vacuum I may have been more receptive to what it was attempting to do, but with the weight of its predecessor on its shoulders there was just – something – missing to draw me in quite the same way as I was to the original.
On multiplayer: Surprising though it may be, 2K has fitted a multiplayer mode within Bioshock 2, and even more unexpectedly it’s not terrible! More than that, it’s actually a rather enjoyable mode that while totally derivative of every other first-person multiplayer shooter in terms of modes, progression, and character customization, it transposes the campaigns fantastic shooting into a multiplayer mode almost entirely intact. Your weapons and abilities might be slightly neutered, but the combat is so strong at its core that I found myself spending a surprising amount of time with the mode and enjoying every moment of it. Bioshock as a shooter is almost completely unreplicated in any other game, so having that in a multiplayer mode that even in every other aspect is fairly uninteresting is rather compelling, and most certainly worth checking out despite its dubious inclusion.
Where 2 far surpasses the original though is through the numerous refinements and additions it makes to the mechanics, turning Bioshock from a brilliantly deep and satisfying shooter, into a smoother, even deeper shooter that streamlines and polishes off the few rough edges of the original. The core of the combat is largely unchanged, utilizing a mixture of firearms and plasmids (essentially superpowers) to take down a variety of different splicers (the enemies of the game), but the introduction of dual wielding, the ability to instantly switch ammo types, a collection of interesting new weapons, a significantly faster and less cumbersome hacking system, and a scaled back but even more customizable tonic (passive upgrades) system do a lot to make Bioshock 2 a much faster and enjoyable experience.
They’re small changes for the most part to be sure, but collectively add up to a much tighter shooting experience that makes it hard for me to imagine returning to the comparatively clunky original. Encounters with the most prominent new enemy, Big Sisters, is another brilliant twist on something the original began (in this instance the Big Daddy fights, which also return), as quicker, more capable and powerful enemies that present a large challenge and require you change your tactics as they are far more versatile and aggressive than their older counterparts.
These improvements make Bioshock 2 one of the most enjoyable and dynamic shooters I’ve ever played. Where it falters in its storytelling and world building, it makes up for with the sheer entertainment to be found in its combat, which only grows as the game goes on. It’s a different beast than the original, but a much more mechanically sound and interesting one, even if that comes at a cost some might find difficult to move past. In some ways it feels more akin to an update than an entire new experience, but when that update is so fun and smartly designed I can’t complain.