BioShock 2 is like a BioShock tribute band. It hits the same notes, it’s steeped in the same lore, and it often delivers the same pangs of delight as the original. But don’t expect to hear anything new. Once again, you’re fighting your way through the underwater city Rapture in the midst of societal collapse. With the Objectivist vision of ex-kingpin Andrew Ryan in tatters, the new megalomaniac in town is psychologist Dr. Sofia Lamb, who’s genetically engineering an extreme socialist cult. Spoiler alert: That doesn’t work out so well, either.
Set a decade after BioShock, the story places players in the role of a Big Daddy—one of BioShock’s lumbering golems in old-time diving suits. You move more slowly now, and you have a (mostly useless) drill arm, but the difference is superficial. The combat in BioShock 2 has the same engrossing rhythm as before, punctuating your exploration with ferocious boss battles and ambushes by the local gene-splicing freaks. The new Big Sisters are the most fearsome combatants, although they always appear at the same point in every level, which kills their potential for suspense. The rest of the world—the Art Deco setting, the genetic superpowers, the constant scrounging—is a faithful continuation of the first game. (One welcome exception: The machine-hacking mini-game is much less tedious.)
BioShock 2 is so slavish to the 2007 original game that it has almost nothing new to say. (The bland multiplayer mode doesn’t count.) BioShock memorably upended the idea that players have free will, but instead of pursuing issues of choice and self-determination, BioShock 2 ignores them. The audio diaries strewn about Rapture claim that your character now possesses free will, but nothing supports that claim. You still follow orders from strangers over the radio, and decision-making is still limited to “rescue or kill.”
The trouble is that BioShock was already a complete work; even its last hour or two felt like overkill. So the sequel is a fine shooter, but not a thought-provoking one. The world of Rapture deserves a sequel along the lines of Fallout 3—one that deepens an established series by exploring it in a new form. By striving to be nothing more than its predecessor, BioShock 2 achieves something less.