The gameplay nicely dovetails with the fiction, as you spend much of the game as a protector, defending characters known as Little Sisters from an advancing horde of "splicers," the genetically modified residents of Rapture. Unlike the first BioShock, it's genuinely tempting to be evil. That's in part because the good path (protecting the Little Sisters rather than killing them for their genetic material) turns out to be a little bit tedious as the game wears on. But the temptation also stems from the way that BioShock 2 masterfully sells its fiction. In one level, the game lays out the villainy of a character and practically begs you to murder him in cold blood—to take the easy wrong over the hard right. In a surprisingly involved moment, the character cowered and sniveled as the desire for vengeance coursed through me. I have meted out a lot of death in video games, and never have I wanted to kill someone so badly. Instead I walked away. Even now, I kind of regret it.
BioShock 2, like the original, drips with smarts and with evocative touches. An animatronic Andrew Ryan guides Subject Delta through a children's museum/theme park, a setting created to indoctrinate the youth of Rapture into his philosophy. Lamb and her followers speak with religious overtones, invoking the language of the Trinity—and of sin and redemption, martyrdom and resurrection—and using religious iconography to celebrate Eleanor as their savior. The songs are delightfully chosen: "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition" at one nicely timed moment, a fierce combat sequence to the tune of "Daddy's Little Girl" at another.
Not everything works so well. The procession of fetch missions—when the game asks you, on arriving at a new level, to go gather a bunch of stuff before you can move forward—are wearying. And the game opens with a cut scene, rather than an interactive sequence. BioShock had a startling opening, as the protagonist found himself in the middle of the ocean after a plane crash, only to stumble on Rapture, with a propaganda banner over its entrance that read, "No gods or kings. Only Man." BioShock 2 can't recapture that sense of wonder and discovery, and it doesn't really try to.
As with all games, there are certain ludicrous game-y things that must be overlooked. For instance, you once again acquire items and ammunition by purchasing them from vending machines dotted throughout Rapture. And after you kill people, you rifle their corpses for loot: bullets, first aid kits, cash (you know, for the vending machines). But BioShock 2's game-play, from the combat to the exploration to the looting and the weapon-upgrading (a spear gun!), scratches a host of gaming itches. Few things are more pleasing to gaming nerds than the opportunity to be graded on the creativity of your kills, under the guise of "research."
Perhaps what's most remarkable about the game, especially after BioShock's disappointing final act, is the ending. This game's final hours are not a grind through a repetitive and familiar structure but a series of surprises that I don't want to ruin by describing. The first BioShock made me think that moral choice in games was a grail that could never be found. BioShock 2 made me doubt that conclusion, as it made me feel both responsible and rewarded for my choices. It would be nice if BioShock 2 took its philosophical layer more seriously than it does—celebrating the family unit above the ties of the nation and the church is a more provocative argument than this game lets on. But perhaps that's too much to ask, even from the latest edition of the thinking-man's shooter. BioShock 2's accomplishment is not intellectual but visceral: I'm not a father (yet), but it made me feel like one.