Memorable stories in first-person shooters are increasingly uncommon. That's one of the many reasons the BioShock franchise shines so brightly--and the biggest motivation for playing Minerva's Den, an emotionally touching downloadable add-on for BioShock 2. At a reasonable 800 Microsoft points ($10), Minerva's Den is a must-play for those who have lost themselves in the carefully crafted underwater dystopia known as Rapture. The deliberate ebb and flow of BioShock 2 is encapsulated wonderfully in this moody excursion into previously unexplored areas, all of which provide a tense backdrop to the exciting conflicts that occur. While BioShock 2: Minerva's Den starts off at a sluggish and familiar pace, it eventually builds to an exceptional, tender payoff that stays with you long after you've emerged from the depths of the Atlantic Ocean.
When you first start Minerva's Den, it strikes a familiar chord. You're a Big Daddy, known as Subject Sigma; the voice of an unseen supporter serves as your guide through Rapture. That voice belongs to Charles Porter, who struggles with his nemesis, Reed Wahl, for control of Rapture's overseeing AI, known as the Thinker. It's a setup you've seen in the series before: Porter's disembodied voice leads you from one objective to the next, helping you discover story-centric plasmids, guiding you through new areas, and eventually leading you to your final destination. The narrative's appeal lies not with its structure, but with its personal nature. Reed is not a very compelling villain, but Porter is a personable, even-tempered escort, and the audio recordings featuring his musings are the best of the lot. He ponders subjects such as racism and the relationship between man and machine, and diaries featuring his beloved wife are heavy with emotion. The ending is an eye-opener, surprising from a plot perspective and thematically consistent with prior BioShock revelations. The poignant coda that follows provides a thoughtful end to a story arc that starts predictably, only to blossom into something truly special.
These events occur during those of BioShock 2, so you encounter many of the same enemies, weapons, and plasmids seen in the main game. There are additions, however, such as the ever-so-helpful ion laser, which streams energy continuously into your victim. The pacing is great, and even more intense than you might remember--a condensing of BioShock 2's alternating segments of atmospheric exploration and high-adrenaline battles versus Big Daddies and Little Sisters. ADAM-harboring corpses are placed in smart locations that are tight enough to make protecting your Little Sister a rush, yet surrounded by enough doorways and choke points to reward you for carefully setting up rivet traps and mini turrets. Coming face-to-face with a Big Sister is still terrifying, due in part to the screeching sound effects and shrieking music that accompany their appearance. Even standard enemies are fun to fight, however. New foes include brutes that glow with fire and throw debris at you; splicers covered with a layer of frost; and ominous new Big Daddies that can blind you with the cannons they wield. And should one of those teleporting Houdini splicers dog you, use the new gravity well plasmid and watch it twist in the air, limbs flailing like a scarecrow caught in a cyclone.
There's a certain been-there, done-that vibe to your progression, but the excellent atmosphere helps fend off the overfamiliarity. When you enter an industrial zone, the wafting smoke and deep red lighting make you feel the heat. In another area, you get a chill when you encounter frozen bodies and falling ice crystals. A brief journey into the oceanic depths provides quiet respite that is then broken up by the fun battle that follows. The atmosphere, story, and intensity of battle culminate with a hectic confrontation that has multiple strong foes coming at you from multiple angles, and gives you a chance to use the plasmids you collect and the weapons you upgrade. Here you see BioShock 2's level design at its best: claustrophobic, yet with just enough room to maneuver around your plodding foes. This keeps tension levels high, without ever causing frustration because there isn't enough space to move or flank.
Minerva's Den plays host to a few of BioShock 2's infrequent irritations. You commonly have a buzzing security drone or two at your side, but annoyingly, they still tend to flit out of range when you try to repair them. The typical BioShock texture pop-in might occasionally distract you as well, considering how much time you spend looking closely at various objects and environmental details. But these quirks are forgivable in this heartfelt epilogue to a creepy and philosophical underwater saga. The BioShock franchise has explored sociopolitical themes few games dare to consider. BioShock 2: Minerva's Den infuses these themes with warmth and humanity, making you share in Porter's nostalgia for a vision of Rapture that never was.