BioShock is a hard act to follow, but this sequel is definitely a worthy successor to what is regarded as one of the decade's best, smartest games. In a lot of ways it's even better than its predecessor. It's a more competent shooter, with vastly improved AI and a more varied palette of weapons and Plasmids. The story is tighter and more focused, offering a number of challenging moral junction points, and the options for tactical play are much broader.
In Rapture, everything has a place and a purpose. It's a thriving, functioning ecosystem, with its own food chain and set of clearly defined rules. And as Subject Delta, a prototype Big Daddy, it's your goal to learn these systems, exploit them and ultimately become the dominant species in Andrew Ryan's unique, tainted underwater paradise.
Beyond the sea
The year is 1968. On the surface the world is alive with social revolution and the rise of the counter-culture, but Rapture is still frozen in time - a decaying, decadent monument to Andrew Ryan's ideology of the self. A decade of disrepair has left the city rusted and mutated, and it's a much more foreboding space to explore. Most areas have been plunged into darkness, and freezing seawater bleeds from every cracked surface.
But there's also beauty to the decay. ADAM has leaked into the ocean around the city, giving birth to bizarre new species of plants. Glowing coral and other shimmering, otherworldly flora have sprung up on the seabed, adding colour to the sections where Delta plods along the ocean floor, moving between levels.
New areas include Ryan Amusements, a twisted propaganda theme park; Pauper's Drop, a makeshift shanty town built by Rapture's downtrodden working classes; Persephone, a detention centre built to house dangerous troublemakers and 'parasites'; and Fontaine Futuristics, a Plasmid development laboratory.
And hidden in each level there's a crazed Rapture resident pulling the strings, who must be confronted before you can continue onwards.
The game is structurally almost identical to the first; a linear ghost train with a 'boss' waiting at the end of each level. In Fontaine Futuristics, your foil is Gilbert Alexander, original designer of the Big Daddies. He's taken control of the area's security systems and buzzes around you in a customised bot, taunting you, with a single, wild eye flickering on a video screen.
What makes him an interesting foe is that, as he toys with you, audio diaries he recorded before ADAM turned him insane give you instructions on how to shut down the security and defeat him. It's an interesting dynamic, and an example of BioShock 2's sophisticated storytelling. And when you finally reach him... well, we won't spoil it, but it's one of the game's best reveals. Which is another thing this sequel has more of; genuine shocks.
Element of surprise
Subject Delta may seem like little more than a sentient diving suit at first, but you grow more sympathetic towards him as you learn about his tortured past. But, more importantly, he's a pleasure to control. The smallest change is also the most significant - you can now dual-wield Plasmids and weapons. Unloading electrified buckshot into a Splicer with a fully upgraded shotgun - as you simultaneously spew fire from your palm with the level 3 'Incinerate!' Plasmid - gives you an incredible feeling of power.
Upgrade any weapon to level 3 and it earns a new ability. The drill lets you deflect bullets, shotgun blasts are electrified and the rivet gun randomly sets Splicers on fire. Combined with the Plasmids, this makes battles with bigger enemies hilariously anarchic - you freeze them, shock them and set them alight; all the while peppering them with bullets. And there are dozens of elemental combinations, all depending on how you've chosen to customise Delta's load out and skills.