For my review of the first Bioshock, click here.
Our culture has always had a fascination with the fall of empires. It permeates our literature, our poetry, and our visual entertainment. The poem Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley comes to mind; its theme is that all empires, and all leaders, will inevitably decline until forgotten. Our endless stories of Atlantis, our continual interest in how the Roman empire fell into ruin, our recurring fear that the United States of America will be replaced and diminished in time... It is indicative of our own fear of death and of being a mere footnote within history.
The Ruin of Dreams
The Bioshock series capitalizes on our interest in fallen societies by giving us the grand dystopia of Rapture. This underwater city was founded under the radical notion that capitalism and intellectual freedom could be given limitless reign, allowing scientists, artists, and geniuses to coexist and flourish without the distraction of laws, religion, and government. Theoretically enthralling, in practice it was doomed to failure, and this is reflected in your exploration of the place. In the first Bioshock, we enter Rapture for the first time and are blown away by the anarchy within. Andrew Ryan, its founder, has essentially become king of a dying city populated by genetically mutated shells of humanity. As he is deposed by the end of the game, we are able to see in detail how the society fell apart and how the grand idea behind Rapture was warped by the nature inherent in all humans.
In Bioshock 2, we return to Rapture, but not as a human. Instead, we are the original “Big Daddy”, prototype of the machines designed to protect the “Little Sisters” that populate Rapture. A Big Daddy is essentially a construct, once human, mutated by genetic manipulation to serve as golem guardians. Little Sisters are little girls warped and engineered to harvest the blood of dead people, which serves as valuable energy (known as ADAM). I could go into the why and how this duo was created, but I both don't want to ruin it for those who have yet to play the Bioshock games, and I also don't want to make this review too heavy on the details.
Your mission in Bioshock 2 is to reunite yourself with your own special Little Sister. To do this, you will tromp through the dark halls of the fallen city of Rapture, fighting to stay alive as the twisted denizens of this netherworld seek to claim your life. Set years after the events of the first Bioshock, the ruined nature of Rapture is even more evident now than it was then. The place is falling apart as the ocean seeks to reclaim its territory. Lights flicker and then fall silent. Windows crack and burst, letting the wrath of the water outside come flowing in. It is creepy, horrible, and yet compelling. The place is a mere shadow of its former self, yet you can't help but wonder what Rapture was like in its golden age, before everything fell apart. To this point, the city and the ocean seem to become characters of their own, and you can't help but feel for them.
Father and Daughter
As if the exploration of one man's ruined vision is not enough, the story of Bioshock 2 is perhaps even more intriguing. Though you are a Big Daddy, an automaton without the ability to think or speak beyond your need to find your Little Sister, you can't help but be drawn into the intensity of your objective. Not any Little Sister will do; your goal is to reunite with your own special Little Sister. Her name is Eleanor and, as the story progresses, you learn of her background and your own. As time passed, I found myself becoming incredibly protective of this girl and all the others. In a city as anarchic and dangerous as Rapture, it becomes clear that you are one of the only things standing between these children and a gruesome, painful death. I can still remember the first time I had to defend one of the Little Sisters from an onslaught of creatures; the moment she screamed as one of the enemies hit her, I went into berserk mode. Where previously I had been carefully conserving ammo and monitoring where the enemies were coming from, I snapped. I stood over the girl and sprayed ammo in all directions, never minding conservation or caution. I lost track of how many enemies were coming or where they were coming from. Never mind preparation. It was just me between the Little Sister and a circle of foes.
It speaks to the power of this game that it can create such a relationship between you and these twisted little creatures that aren't even real. And I'm just speaking of one of the Little Sisters, whom you defend and then never see again. As for your Little Sister, Eleanor, you will literally feel like her father by the end of the game. God help anything that gets between you and her. It is one of the more intense character arcs that I've seen in video games, which is quite impressive considering you never even speak. It is also worth noting that, as far as I can recall, this is the only video game I've ever played that explores the relationship behind fathers, mothers, and their children. It is deep, varied, and effective. And it is what makes Bioshock 2 one high quality game.
As for the gameplay, it is a polished refinement of the first game's. You still have dozens of weapon and plasmid variations to choose from. You can still set up areas to ambush enemies. You can still turn foes against one another and then clean up the aftermath. In a fashion, this is Bioshock 2's failing; the game itself has not changed much outside of the characters, story, and the further ruination of Rapture. But to call it a failing would imply that the gameplay had a problem to begin with, which it does not. I still had an enormous amount of fun playing it. But I do wish, a little bit, that the game designers had been more ambitious in making some more interesting changes to how the gameplay pans out. However, this feels like a really small issue considering how much I enjoyed the result.
One last thing I almost forgot to mention is the political message behind Bioshock 2. The first Bioshock is a critique of Ayn Rand's Objectivist philosophy and the concept of hypercapitalism. The upcoming Bioshock: Infinite looks like it will be a criticism and analysis of American exceptionalism and hard right-wing politics. Bioshock 2 focuses on socialism and its negative extremes. It is interesting to note this trend among Bioshock games. And, being the politics and history nerd that I am, I can't help but be engrossed by these games as a result.
All in all, I would highly recommend this game to anyone who has played the first, loved the gameplay, and has an interest in complex themes in your entertainment. This game has definitely guaranteed that I will play every Bioshock to come, and I'm still enthralled with the parental themes behind this game. If any of this review piqued your interest, then you should definitely check it out too. It isn't one to miss.