"If it ain't broke, don't fix it". That was a favourite phrase of my computer studies teacher back in the early nineties, clearly displaying his complete lack of the pioneering spirit that brought us pretty much every scientific innovation between then and now. If it ain't broke, you should be very proud of yourself, and already thinking of ways to improve it.
It wouldn't be Bioshock without a certain degree of nuance. At first glance, and indeed at first play experience, players of the first game will be on very familiar ground. Vita chambers, plasmids, gene tonics, ADAM, EVE, hacking remote guns... it's all the same. Very much the same. It seems that "If it ain't broke" is the guiding principle here. And you can hardly blame them, really.
But wait! What is that I spy yonderwards? A completely new, albeit simplified, hacking mechanism, replacing the Pipemania sub-game from Bioshock 1. And from there, the small, sometimes minute, differences start to appear.
The most significant difference is in the narrative. Rapture is still the same cold, crumbling insane asylum it ever was, but the story leads us into new and unexplored territory, both conceptually and literally. There is a new cast of main characters, a good few enemies making their debuts, and a couple of new weapons. But the FPS is almost an afterthought, much as it was in the first game. It's like some visionary has had this amazing idea for a highbrow, complex tale of Objectivism versus Communism set against the backdrop of a crumbling dystopia, and the producers of the game said ‘Awesome! Make it a first-person shooter and fill it with monsters!' I can almost hear the sighs of the creative team as they dejectedly design heat-seeking rocket launchers.
When all's said and done, the similarities with Bioshock 1 far outweigh the differences. There's a workmanlike adherence to the same mechanics that made the first game a middle-of-the-road shooter. The success of said first game was almost wholly owed to the immersive story, fascinating environment and clever twists. I was really impressed with the way these elements were repackaged for the sequel.
OK, someone out there is covering their mouth in outrage and saying "Uh oh, I know he didn't just call Bioshock 1 a middle-of-the-road shooter - girlfriend!" Well I did. However, it's a wonderful game - just not a special shooter. And as the long-toothed among us will remember, one of the things that made spiritual predecessor System Shock 2 so great was the choice of ways to play. Bioshock 2 gives you a wealth of options, including hacking security bots and making them into your fight-monkeys; befriending enemies and setting them on each other, freezing foes in ice and smashing them to pieces - the only thing it doesn't give you is a particularly robust stealth mechanic (and seeing as you play a drill-wielding maniac in a deep sea diver's suit, it'd hardly seem appropriate). This wealth of options can be its own worst enemy, though - during one boss fight, I had so many minions on my side I never even saw the arch-enemy until after it was dead.
Multiplayer is a pretty standard affair (marred a little by the unwieldy Games For Windows Live), brought to life a little by the inclusion of story elements that allow the Bioshock mythology to make some kind of sense even in multiplayer mode. Props to the designers for really making this work, but I can't help but feel that it all goes straight out the window when the guy you're shooting at has "BEEG_BEEF_TACO" written above his head.
The Bioshock 2 System Requirements are greedy. Greedy! 11GB free hard disk space for one thing - It really wasn't so long ago that was bigger than a whole hard drive. It ran fine on my XP system, but reports of regular crashes to desktops on higher DirectX modes will hopefully result in a patch soon. There's been a lot said about the requirement for an internet connection to access your saved games, but I can only speak from my own experiences, and it wasn't an issue for me - although it's a little strange to see the ‘Continue' button pop up a second after the other options on the menu screen.
Some of the sound in this game is really excellent. Those of you who played the first one will be pleased to hear that the weird undersea groans of the Big Daddies return, and the new Big Sisters make a horrific screeching sound. You know that nightmare where you're in your pants and being chased by that gigantic monster with the face of your old P.E. teacher and Kitchen Devils for fingers? This is the noise you hear in that dream. A terrifying screeching sound that makes you certain that your death is imminent, and gets your heart going like nothing in a videogame has since that last set piece with the Striders in HL2 Episode 2. The Big Sisters are wonderful villains, deserving of a place in the videogame rogues' gallery (in between GlaDOS and Psycho Mantis).
Is it as good as Bioshock 1? That all depends on the value you put on the originality of the setting. It's not as groundbreaking as the first game, but it's a worthy sequel. I want gaming to grow up as much as the next person, and so I laud it for its high-concept ideals, but I can't help feel that it would be better as a movie, or a book. You can't shake the feeling, perhaps appropriately, that you're being railroaded through the plot with only minimal decision-making. And the decisions you do make generally come down to murdering unarmed civilians or not. Admittedly, there is a little more moral complexity than this, but only a little.
Personally, I feel that we're only just seeing the beginning of the Rapture story, and that this setting can easily support more games, perhaps across several genres. If the story of the first game drew you in, this'll do the same. Now, would you kindly stop reading this review, and go and buy the game?