It's tricky business reviewing a title like Bioshock 2, a sequel to arguably one of the best games of this generation and one of the most atmospheric and narratively compelling games of all time. The punchline which has spread like wildfire across review sites is that, plain and simple, "Bioshock didn't need a sequel". Of course, it's true — the first installment was so curiously intimate that tacking on a '2' and extending a story which appeared to wrap itself up quite nicely seems almost greedy on behalf of 2K.
But despite arguments over necessity, Bioshock 2 is a great game. And while the general consensus is accurate that Bioshock 2 borrows an awful lot from its predecessor, the fact that a handful of development teams working together have managed to craft a compelling sequel is grounds for praise enough. That they did so and also managed to expose flaws in the first Bioshock that nobody realized existed in the first place is the sign of a quality title. Bioshock 2 won't be remembered as being groundbreaking, but it's a sequel that perfects the gameplay of the first and does a decent job of weaving another tale of Rapture in the process. Who can argue against that?
Bioshock 2 picks up the story of Rapture eight years after the original. While eight years seems like a long time, Rapture hasn't changed all that much outside of the new antagonist, Sofia Lamb. You awake as a Big Daddy, more or less unaware of why you are alive (let alone capable of conscious thought) outside of some cryptic messages from the girl whom you were enslaved to protect some ten years ago. The theme of utopia is still what keeps the Rapture machine ticking, but this time family and the greater good are the means to such an ideal. It's an interesting theme and provides some great contrast to the "No Gods or Kings" message of the first, but overall it feels less powerful. The presentation, however, is top notch and especially toward the end the narrative lives up to the franchise name. Thankfully, this time the game is tied up with one of an assortment of excellent endings – no lame duck psuedo-ending a la Bioshock.
Gameplay progression of Bioshock 2 will, admittedly, feel extremely similar to those who have been through Rapture before. You acquire Plasmids in more or less the same order and splicers are introduced exactly as they were before, right down to the dramatic entrance of the Houdini splicer. You can buy ammo and health from quirky vending machines with money (although the absence of charmingly awful sound bits every time you visit one is disappointing), or you can find any of the above by rummaging in file cabinets, desks, and the recently deceased. Weapons and plasmids can be upgraded, you can research enemies to gain bonuses, and gene tonics will give you added abilities. You have seen and done this all before, even if this time you're manning a Big Daddy suit.
So why bother with a second tour? Those who thoroughly enjoyed the first Bioshock will notice all the subtle differences that 2K has finessed into the single player, each one a little bit improved from before. Dual wielding plasmids and your gun at the same time feels natural, even if the controls can be cumbersome at times since there is so much on your plate. Regardless, finding effective combos between plasmids and your weapon selection is as satisfying as ever. The "pipe dream" mini-game for hacking security devices has been replaced by a more fluid, intuitive "stop the needle here" game which doesn't remove the player from the game.
And then there are the larger, more significant changes. Gathering ADAM this time around is not as easy as simply saving or harvesting little sisters. Since you are a Big Daddy, little sisters will task you with the optional chance of harvesting corpses. Doing so brings the wrath of the splicers, resulting in a more strategic, defensive approach to handling enemies. Moral decisions are also introduced in the actual story this time around, gifting the fate of several key characters of the plot into the hands of the player. How you go about these decisions has an effect on the ending, and each ending are fairly satisfying.
Of course, if the first Bioshock did little to impress you, these changes probably won't seem that significant and this sequel isn't going to change your mind on anything. But for those who very understandably were left wanting more, Bioshock 2 is a satisfying and entertaining endeavor. Rapture might not have the same awe-inspiring appeal the second time around and your quest for identity won't be quite as compelling. No, Bioshock may not have needed a sequel — but if 2K can produce this kind of quality a second time around, that doesn't mean we shouldn't want one.