Review: BioShock 2 Remastered

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I enjoyed the original BioShock well enough, but not enough to spur me on to play the sequel when it was released. Coming to it now in the Remastered edition is a bit of a surprise, namely in how it differs from its predecessor. Despite the similar trappings the two games diverge wildly in level design, story, and combat, all defining features of the series. Honestly most of those changes are steps back, but the places where they aren’t are such dramatic steps forward it’s enough to save this one from fading away in the shadow of its precursor. Assuming the Remaster doesn’t crash like wild on you, that is.

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Ten years out from the original game, Rapture is under new management and she’s a mad goddess with a silken voice. Sofia Lamb has united the spliced-up crazies of the city as part of a psychologically-manipulative “family”, and your presence is a threat to that unity. Your presence is that of Delta, an atypical Big Daddy who had stewardship over a very special child in the olden days, but got iced by Sofia for a decade. You’re back to find your darling daughter, now a key in Sofia’s plot to rule Rapture, and so it is war across the ruins of a twice-ruined metropolis using every vicious, nasty weapon and plasmid you can get your mighty hands upon.

Right away you’re going to notice some serious faltering in this title compared to the last. Sofia Lamb is clearly meant to be the mad socialist mirror to Andrew Ryan’s mad libertarianism but is not nearly as well-defined as the pencil-stached captain of the freely-submerged market. She’s more of a serial villain, coaxing splicers to fight for her with the magic of psychology words and monologuing at you about your impending death by pre-announced trap. Similarly, your own story has very little to invest you aside from chasing your mystery MacGuffin daughter. You still get to save or devour Little Sisters on a whim despite being a Big Daddy, and Vita-chambers still work for you despite lacking the clever story connection they had to the protagonist of the first game.

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This is the core problem with the BioShock 2 experience: The developers clearly knew what they wanted you to do in it, but not why you were doing it. They wanted you to be a Big Daddy, and when we talk about combat you’ll see how grand an idea that was, but none of the implications of that track with the rest of the game. You’re essentially the same guy as in BioShock 1 but with new guns. You’re just as fast, just as fragile, you can splice up and rescue Little Sisters, hack things and listen to cassette players. It’s a bold concept crushed and shoehorned into the mold of the first game, following the same conventions of looting and fighting your way towards your nebulous goal.

And that’s the other place the game stumbles, in the places your little ill-defined odyssey will take you. The levels of BioShock 2 lack the key setpieces and distinguishing features that made the original so compelling, and just turn each hub into an extended scavenger hunt to open the next door. In BioShock 1 each area was unique, from the wharves to the gardens, and even the parts of specific maps like the dental office and funeral home in the medical pavilion. Here the levels blend together into similar train stations, hotels, and shopping arcades that miss that same sense of style and cohesion. Individual rooms are woefully sparse on decor and details, and you can forget big setpiece moments like Sander Cohen’s masterpiece or the brilliant scares in the morgue. BioShock 2 never even comes close to the horror or atmosphere of the first, and it feels like a sorely missed opportunity.

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These failings of features central to BioShock should be deal-breakers, but to my surprise the combat managed to salvage the whole experience. BioShock 2 gets one thing right and its the way it refines the passable shooting of the first game into something smooth and engaging. For starters, you can finally have a gun and a plasmid out at once, one bound to each mouse button. Why this wasn’t the case in the original we’ll never know, but my God it makes such a difference to have your tools always at the ready. Your tools are also way more fun this time, jettisoning basic pistols and tommy guns for rivet guns, .40 cal miniguns, and a harpoon launcher. These weapons feel more powerful, more varied, and more reliable, all while expanding the roles of ammo to include tripmine rivets and launchable mini-turrets.

Tangential to the combat are numerous other improvements that streamline the moment-to-moment gameplay. Gone is the obnoxious pipe puzzle hacking, replaced with a real time reflex test that can be engaged at range with hacking darts or bypassed entirely with auto-hacking darts. This allows hacking to be worked into active combat, allowing you to turn waves of security bots into your own private army without breaking the pace of the game. The old research camera has been replaced with a video camera that you start recording at the beginning of a fight and then forget about, freeing you from the annoying shuffle of shoot-snap-shoot-snap. And let us not forget the new option to adopt Little Sisters and have them extract Adam for you, triggering little wave defense battles where you keep ravenous splicers away from your little monster.

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The net result of all this was a game that impressed me far less than BioShock did, but turned out to be far more fun to actually play. It really does feel like one of those old farmed-out expansions compared to the original but what innovations it does bring to the table more than make up for the many weaknesses. Unfortunately it also suffers from the instability inherent to the Remasters, including a crash that wiped all my progress from one level and put me off the game for the time being. I fully intend to return to it eventually though, just to experience more of the power trip drilling and electro-shotgunning splicers puts me on. It’s not a better BioShock but it’s better in ways that count, so give this one a go if you feel like trading up for some mindless fun.

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