08/02/2010 18:28 | By Simon Munk, Tech & Gadgets

Review: BioShock 2

Although BioShock 2's combat thrills exceed those of the first game, the deep, brilliant plot has been sacrificed.

Review: BioShock 2 (© 2K Games)

What is it?
Sequel to the cult first-person shooter original, set in the same atmospheric underwater Art Deco city.

What we like
A greater combat focus with more tactical firefights, spread across larger areas, forming the backbone of the game. A multiplayer mode that fits with the setting.

What we don't like
The eerie atmosphere and philosophical underpinnings of the original have largely been sacrificed.

An eerie and largely excellent first-person shooter, BioShock 2 stands up better if you haven't played the original. But though the combat thrills exceed those of the first game, the brilliant plotting has gone.

Talk about a tough act to follow. The original BioShock won more than 50 Game of the Year awards for its mix of unusual first-person combat play and utterly unique setting. That setting, for those unfamiliar with the first game, was the drowned and dilapidated once-utopian city of Rapture, its once-brilliant residents turned into addled psychotics thanks to their experiments with genetic manipulation.

BioShock combined role-playing-style character upgrades with a tactical take on first-person shooting. Its characters, dialogue and plot were based on and inspired by the work of philosopher-novelist Ayn Rand. It was eerie, tense and came with a deep, intelligent and adult storyline. BioShock 2 would have to be flawless to avoid a rough ride from fans of the original.

BioShock 2 multiplayer screenshot (© 2K Games)

BioShock 2 is far from flawless but it innovates in enough ways to offer a very different game from the original - in some ways, even, a better one. The stunning Art Deco underwater city of Rapture has been retained, as has the twisted family of Big Daddies, hulking diver-suited semi-robots and Little Sisters, once innocent little girls, now vampiric DNA-gobbling monsters. But, from there, the changes begin.

Twisted sisters
In the original, you played a plane crash survivor trying to escape Rapture. In the sequel, you play a prototype Big Daddy, woken from a coma and trying to find your daughter, taken prisoner by the new boss of Rapture. With a drill for an arm, the clanking of your metal boots and your visor view on the world, you barely feel human.

While trying to rescue the original Little Sister, you also face off against a new branch of the family: Big Sisters. These are more lithe, more agile and faster than their male siblings, though you do get advanced warning of their arrival.

BioShock 2 single-player screenshot (© 2K Games)

This is the key change between BioShock 2 and its predecessor. What was before an optional addition to the first-person combat - the ability to use traps and hacked security robots, guns and cameras to your advantage - now becomes a central part of play.

Firefights now mostly take place in wide open arenas, overlooked by balconies, dotted with cover points and fringed by alleys. You face waves of psychotic Splicers, lone Big Sisters and other hulking Big Daddies. Often with advanced warning, sometimes all at the same time.

Tactical combat
In BioShock 2 it is a necessity to plan combats and use traps, weapons and other environmental features to maximum effect. This makes for tactical but fast-paced and brutal shoot-outs. This is where the sequel massively outshines the original; it just plays much better.

The improved gameplay carries across to multiplayer. The original didn't have any online multiplayer, whereas BioShock 2 has laboratory guinea pigs testing out new genetic tonics and weaponry on each other in a time before the city turned truly nasty.

BioShock 2 multiplayer screenshot (© 2K Games)

The multiplayer characters and settings are recognisably drawn from the BioShock universe. The varied modes intelligently play on the game series' key points: you can protect Little Sisters, become Big Daddies and so on, all while earning points to unlock more weapons and better plasmid gene enhancements.

In pure gameplay terms BioShock 2 is an outstanding success. It improves on the original, offering more, bigger and better action, both in single and multi-player. But the original BioShock was about much more than gameplay, and this is where the sequel falls down.

Shallow sequel
Threaded through the original game's story was a deep and artistic approach to its philosophical themes. The game genuinely made you ponder the lunacy of searching for perfection, elitism and on what humanity means. That depth also applied to pacing, with long eerie sections interspersed with sudden and shocking bouts of violence. It was hair-raisingly scary and thematically smart.

BioShock 2 single-player screenshot (© 2K Games)

BioShock 2, in comparison, is muddled and leaves the impression its creators simply tried to stick some cod philosophical mumblings into the game because the original did some of that and the fans would expect it. The script is far weaker, the moral choices you make far more limited and the shocks less genuinely shocking.

Of course, familiarity (with the setting) does breed contempt. But fans of the original should beware, something has been lost in translation. Ultimately, BioShock 2 plays more like a game and feels less like a work of art.

BioShock 2's combat is tighter and its repetitive reliance on new boss battles, new weapon upgrades, new arenas means it should appeal more to the kind of gamer who loved Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. This is great for gunning, but it's sad to see a slight lobotomy was required to get to that point.

Four out of five stars

BioShock 2 is out from 9 February for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360

[Microsoft is the owner of Xbox and the owner and publisher of MSN.]