For years, the video gaming industry and a legion of basement-bound gamers accepted that a shooter was a shooter. The formula was simple: Fill a digital world with wild-eyed, sharp-toothed targets and set a well-armed protagonist loose with plenty of flesh-ripping ammo. Based on that template, publishers cranked out cookie cutter first- and third-person shooters by the bushel basket.
But just recently that mindset started to change.
Players began moving their gear into the family room—and as they did so, started noticing that every game they bought was just a little more of the same. And gamemakers began asking, Why not inject a bit of story creativity and visual éclat? Maybe that'd set our bullet-flinging masterpiece apart from the pack.
In 2007, critics were in general consensus that 2K Games' BioShock, with its perverse genetics-juggling power struggles and incredible crumbling ocean-floor cityscape, was one of the few titles to meet that emerging standard. So, a handful of awards and some 3 million game sales later, an eagerly awaited sequel has raised its diver helmet-clad head for another bout of underwater blasting and creepy plot twisting.
This go-round is set approximately 10 years after the first tale. In the interim, the deep-sea city's swanky glamour has continued to tarnish. The 1940s hit parade has continued to play over public speakers. And the barely human residents of this leaky dystopia have continued to battle and savage one other.
Through the use of a genetic-enhancing substance called ADAM and an intravenous drug called EVE, special fire-, ice-, telekinetic-, insect- and electric pulse-shooting plasmid superpowers abound. And the drug-addicted victims slowly lose their sanity as they transmogrify into hideous, misshapen brutes and ceiling-crawling freaks called splicers.
Not a lot has changed in the city of Rapture.
But something has to change in a sequel designed to one-up the original. And here that difference revolves around who gamers play. In the first BioShock, you're a human castaway who stumbles on the soggy city—Lost-style. Here, you're a Big Daddy called Subject Delta. Daddies are high-powered, lumbering protectors of a gaggle of Little Sisters—eerie, glowing-eyed 8-year-old girls who use 10-inch needles to extract ADAM from the dead bodies that are always lying about. Delta is a special Daddy prototype who can move quicker, use ADAM upgrades from Little Sisters and hold a machine gun in one hand while shooting killer plasmid zaps from the other. He's also imbued with a unique connection to a specific Little Sister, and he spends the game on a mission to find and save her.
Standing between Delta and this rescue is Sofia Lamb, a utopia-obsessed former psychiatrist who has built up a cult-like religious following. She sends her hordes of splicer worshippers after Delta in wave after wave of resistance. And if that wasn't enough of a roadblock, another new obstacle is a nimble, armored Big Sister who jumps around like an overly caffeinated gymnast and will beat Delta down if you give her half a chance.
Without question, there is a certain imaginative aspect to this game that oozes appeal. The atmosphere is intriguing. The story is involving. And the play offers a variety of moral choices that inject gravity into the game's final resolution. (There are four possible endings.) If players refuse to harm the innocent and instead aid those who need saving, for instance, it impacts the game's conclusion and even motivates Delta's young "daughter" to exhibit mercy to her own tormentor.
The fact that making an opposite choice results in execution-style killings or crushing the life out of waif-like children, though, tends to make things far less playful and appealing—not to mention instructive.
In truth, for all of the BioShock 2's panache and new story challenges, it's still weighed down by the same problematic, barnacled anchors forged in the first title. As Bing Crosby croons, players activate an arsenal of drills, machine guns, red-hot rivets, shotguns and missile launchers to tear open bodies, scramble brains and paint walls with blood and gore.
Add in a constant stream of f-words and abuses of God's name; a severe spiritualism; and a new multiplayer, all-out bloodbath battle that you can "share" with friends; and all you're left with is an iniquitous underwater wasteland.
Or, to put it in Rapture vernacular, "All ya gotta do is cast an eyeball and you'll see that this hard-boiled joint is all wet. Ya got me, chum?"