Often, the follow-up to a successful video game is less a sequel than a software iteration—more Version 2.0 than Part 2, if you will. It's the approach of the computer programmers who founded the medium. Obvious bugs are eliminated, the combat mechanics are refined, the user interface is improved, and players experience the game almost like a new operating system: It's the same, but better. "They fixed everything that was wrong with the first game," a friend told me delightedly about Assassin's Creed 2.
A game like BioShock 2, then, faces a strangely difficult task. There was almost nothing wrong with BioShock, which was deemed a classic from almost the moment it was released in 2007. That game was an exciting and well-made shooter that had an original and gorgeous setting—the city of Rapture, an underwater libertarian dystopia, in 1960—featured a delightful soundtrack of American standards, and made an intellectual argument. Superficially, BioShock served as a rebuttal of Atlas Shrugged, but it also deconstructed the conventions of its medium and cleverly exposed the illusion of choice in games. (I will tread carefully here, as I got called out for pretentious writing by Private Eye's "Pseuds Corner" the last time I wrote about BioShock and Ayn Rand. But trust me—the game is an overt critique of objectivism!)
Perversely, BioShock's excellence has seemed to make some players less interested in trying out the new game. A cursory examination of blogs and comment forums reveals a subset of gamers who think that BioShock was so well-made that a sequel is unnecessary rather than welcome. (There is also some apprehension because Ken Levine, the game's creative director, sat out the sequel.) This is an engineer's approach to the craft of game making: What's to fix?
Well, the ending, for one thing. For all its merits, BioShock fell apart in its final act, when a promising reversal—asking the player to adopt the role of a Big Daddy, the game's principal antagonist, at least in terms of combat—devolved into a by-the-numbers fight with a final boss. An original, thrilling, and thoughtful game ended on a note that felt cribbed from another, lesser game.
In what feels like a do-over, BioShock 2 takes the conceit of the original game's ending and takes it in a new, and better, direction. This isn't just a software upgrade, a new-and-improved gloss on BioShock with more enemies and more elaborate killing styles. Instead, in the tradition of the best narrative sequels, the game engages in a dialogue with the original and sheds new light on its people and places. It examines the intersection of the family and the state, of biology and free will. While not quite in BioShock's class, it's a worthy successor to one of the finest video games ever made.
BioShock 2 does refine the game-play mechanics of its predecessor in appealing ways, but the real draw is another Rapture story. Having cast off the ideology of Andrew Ryan (the male Ayn Rand doppelganger from BioShock), Rapture's citizens now love Big Mother—a collectivist tyrant named Sofia Lamb whose philosophy mixes Marxism, Christianity, and genetic determinism. There's some fun to be had in learning about Lamb's totalitarian altruism: She has a genetic theory of tyranny: that original sin is biological. By reprogramming humanity's selfish genes, Lamb thinks she can abolish attachments created by the narrow perspectives of family and geography and replace them with a commitment to common humanity.
But the game is also a meditation—if you can call killing zombies for hours on end with an enticing array of weapons (including a swarm of bees that emerges from your genetically engineered wrist) "a meditation"—on fatherhood and the family bond. You play as Subject Delta, the subject of one of the first genetic experiments in Rapture. Your objective is to rescue your adoptive daughter of sorts, Eleanor. Much of the storytelling is indirect, coming through graffiti ("Lamb is watching" or "Please hurry daddy," scrawled in brightly colored chalk) and through audio recordings left by other characters. A certain suspension of disbelief is required for it to work—you must pretend to be in a hurry when the game says you're in a hurry, and you must regard it as something less than laughable that a teenage girl would leave her father a grenade launcher in a child's wagon wrapped in a bow, next to butterflies in a glass jar and beneath a crayon sun. But if you're willing to follow BioShock 2 where it wants to take you, it is by turns intense, frightening, and touching.
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.