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Bioshock 2 is an excellent game, but it doesn't quite reach the admittedly lofty heights of its sire.

It can be hard to live up to expectations. Heck, just imagine being little Suri Cruise, you're expected to be both good looking and certifiably insane. Rough. Video game sequels, however, are quite often superior to their predecessors. Developers are able to improve upon what came before, with better controls, more intricate level designs, or higher production values; they also get the opportunity to flatten major faults like a Yankee fan at a Red Sox convention. The problem facing Bioshock 2 is that they are trying to create the follow-up to one of the most beloved games in the last decade. In a lot of ways it's like trying to follow up Star Warsor The Matrix – how do you please the ravenous, bloodthirsty fans while at the same time eliciting the praise of the critics? To further complicate matters, the team behind Bioshock wasn't even involved in the creation of its sequel, so many fans approached Bioshock 2 with quite low expectations. Would we end up with a stink bomb like The Matrix Revolutions, or a work of art like The Empire Strikes Back? The answer is neither. Bioshock 2 is an excellent game, but it doesn't quite reach the admittedly lofty heights of its sire.

The first thing you'll notice upon entering the world of Rapture is that it is, well, still Rapture. Bioshock 2 takes place in a different section of the underwater city, but it has all the charm of the first game. The game world is rendered in the same art-deco, 50's era style. The major details of the environment are the same right down to the security systems and vending machines. (Am I the only one who finds it odd that Andrew Ryan, in creating his "utopia", thought it was a good idea to put ammo vending machines everywhere? He had to know that would be BAD.) In terms of level design, it gets off to a slow start, but by the mid-game some great set pieces start to pop up, like a ruined amusement park and a giant water tank with a nefarious inhabitant. Overall the look of the game is great and just as detailed as the first, yet I didn't find the world nearly as haunting this time around. It's most likely just a case of "been there, done that." I've seen the spider slicers, the Big Daddies, and the creepy Little Sisters – at this point I'm largely desensitized to the denizens of Rapture.

A hallmark of the entire "shock" series (and there are more, try to find yourself a copy of System Shock 2 sometime if you can) is fantastic sound design. Bioshock 2 is no slouch in this area, featuring the same spooky sounds from the Big Daddies, Little Sisters, and more. They also utilize the same retro music style, that some love and some hate (I am in the former camp). The voice work here is also very well done, and the story is propelled again by various audio diaries scattered throughout the levels.

In terms of game play, Bioshock 2 features some genuine improvements. The idea of using both superpower-like plasmids and classic weaponry has always been great, but its implementation in the first game came up a little short. In theory, using the two together could make for some great combo attacks, but the limited way you could only use a plasmid OR a gun, and the janky way you switched between them made pulling off fancy combos difficult. In Bioshock 2, you can thankfully wield a gun in one hand and a plasmid in the other. It works very, very well, and makes Bioshock 2 a far superior pure shooter than the first game. At one point, I set a splicer aflame and immediately nailed his still-burning body to the wall with the spear gun. It was one of the coolest combos I ever pulled off in a video game, and it made me giggle like a Catholic school girl. I almost wish they could do some super special edition of the first Bioshock with the combat engine from Bioshock 2.

Aside from dual wielding, the way hacking works has also been vastly improved. The fluid and pipes mingame from the first Bioshock is gone, replaced by a simpler and more efficient system. The new hacking system consists of a meter with a moving needle, and in order to hack a machine you need to stop the needle in a special green or blue area. It's a much more streamlined implementation, but just as challenging. Besides the actual act of hacking, Bioshock 2 also includes the ability to hack machines from afar with the remote hack tool. You no longer need to constantly zap machines long enough to hack them, but can now do it from a safe distance, which is particularly beneficial with the nasty turrets.

The selection of plasmids and weaponry is tweaked in mostly minor ways. The available plasmids are mostly the same, with some minor changes, but as you buy the more powerful versions, they have more significant effects. The third level of telekinesis, for instance, will let you pick up and throw smaller, live enemies. The weapons list has been tweaked as well. Gone is the wrench, replaced by the drill – it can be used as a simple melee weapon or spun (if you have the fuel) for extra gory damage. I enjoyed the addition of the rivet gun, which is a very accurate, fast firing weapon, and the spear, which can do a LOT of damage if you can hit with it. One of the biggest improvements in the area of weaponry is the dedicated melee button. You no longer have to switch to your melee weapon to bash enemies over the head in the absence of ammo.

Another change in Bioshock 2 is the way you collect Adam. In Bioshock you simply needed to kill a big daddy, harvest or save his little sister, and profit. Well, those salad days of easy Adam are gone. In Bioshock 2, you also need to carry the little sister around with you and gather the Adam from corpses. Well, you know what happens when little sisters are gathering Adam, the junkies come out of the woodwork to try to take her. Your job, of course, is to keep them at bay. This proves to be quite difficult early on, as your arsenal is fairly limited, and the splicers come from every angle; but it gets easier as you collect more powerful weapons and plasmids, along with nifty toys like the mini turret. These gathering events are white-knuckle exciting, and a great addition to the game play.

The difficulty of Bioshock 2 is a bit on the erratic side. I played through the game on normal, and found it just shy of frustratingly difficult in some of the earlier sections, most notably during the gathering missions. By the game's midpoint, though, the difficulty subsided dramatically; this change is most likely due to an increase in weapon and ammo selection as well as ever more powerful plasmids. I found myself feeling nigh unstoppable in the game's climactic final battles, and approached each new area with reckless abandon.

Now, you can't talk about Bioshock without discussing the story. I won't spoil anything here, but the fact is that the story is excellent, but not on the same level as the story of the original. It doesn't have the same crazy dramatic turn to make your jaw drop, but twists like the one from the first Bioshock are few and far between. Heck, M. Night Shyamalan has been trying to recreate the mega-twist from The Sixth Sense for over a decade with little success. The story still provides plenty of twists and turns, and provides a good deal of insight into just HOW things went wrong with Rapture. The problem with the story in Bioshock 2 is that it has so much to live up to; if it were to be taken on its own merits, it would garner much higher praise.

One surprise with Bioshock 2 is the inclusion of a multiplayer mode. I had doubts about it, but I found myself pleasantly surprised by its quality. It isn't a hackneyed, at the last minute addition, but a full-featured multiplayer experience. It has ranks, loadouts, unlockable weapons, plasmids and boosts, and a multitude of maps and modes. It's obviously not as complete as Modern Warfare, for instance, but it certainly holds its own. It also manages to fit the multiplayer into the greater context of the Rapture universe in a believable way.

I came into Bioshock 2 with fairly low expectations. The first Bioshock is one of the greatest gaming experiences I've ever had, and I had my doubts that a different studio could continue the story in a worthwhile way. While not on the same level as its predecessor, Bioshock 2 is a brilliant game in its own right. The uniquely beautiful, broken world of Rapture is a place I could visit again and again. The developers may not have gone in any original directions with the story or the world, but they got the most important elements just right. The environments are well-laid out and detailed, the audio is top notch, and the improved game play elements make for potent and enjoyable gaming experience The addition of a solid multiplayer mode only enhances the overall value. So while I don't believe Bioshock 2 is a GOTY candidate, I enjoyed every moment I spent under the sea, and look forward to going back again soon.

Originally posted at http://invisibleeyeball.com.

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