Unlike a lot of games that carry M ratings for cuss words, cartoonish violence and gratuitous gore but play out as shallow, action-movie fantasies, “BioShock 2” actually traffics in mature subject matter. Along with the usual first-person shooter mayhem, the game tackles heady, adult themes, such as how marital discord affects children, how kids process the adult world and what it means to put your own interests aside for the sake of your child. At its heart, “BioShock 2” is a love story, a divorce story and a coming-of-age tale, and even though it takes a while to get rolling, it’s one of gaming’s most fulfilling narratives.
Like its predecessor, “BioShock 2” ($60 on Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, $50 on PC) is set in Rapture, a crumbling underwater utopia where everything went bad on New Year’s Eve in 1958. Though the game takes place a decade after the fall of Rapture, the city’s art deco architecture and troublesome, genetically modified “splicers” will look familiar to anyone who’s played the first game. Creepy girls, aka “Little Sisters,” still roam the city, extracting genetic material from corpses under the watchful eyes of “Big Daddies,” massive, powerful tanks clad in deep sea diving suits.
The hero and villains from “BioShock” have either fled the scene or been killed, so in “BioShock 2,” you play as Subject Delta, a prototype Big Daddy who was the first test subject bonded to a specific Little Sister, a girl named Eleanor. The game’s primary villain, who also happens to be Eleanor’s mom, is psychologist Sofia Lamb. Her perverted, collectivist philosophy replaces the Ayn Rand objectivism of Rapture’s founder, Andrew Ryan.
At its core, “BioShock 2” revolves around Delta and Sofia’s battle for the affections of Eleanor. The game opens with Sofia murdering Delta in cold blood while a horrified Eleanor, still a Little Sister, watches. Through mechanisms that become clear as the game unfolds, you’re brought back to life 10 years later and begin to scour the ruins of Rapture for traces of Eleanor.
The story reveals itself slowly. At first, it almost feels like an add-on to the first game rather than a full-fledged sequel. But as the plot unfurls and the conflict with Sofia Lamb escalates, “BioShock 2” plays out like a tale of divorced parents, vying for their maturing daughter’s loyalty. Of course, in the 10 years you’ve been out of action, Eleanor has grown from a frightened little girl into a confident young woman with her own motivations and ideas.
Even though you’re an armor-clad Big Daddy, your character doesn’t play much differently from Jack, the first game’s hero. Despite a few new ways to dispatch your foes, your arsenal still consists of guns and plasmids, magic-like superpowers you acquire by splicing your genes. You’ll once again make your character more powerful by taking down Big Daddies and stealing away their Little Sisters, whom you can either rescue or kill to harvest Adam, the game’s genetic currency.
As in the first game, once you start upgrading your character, you’ll come to appreciate the ridiculous number of death-dealing combinations the game makes available. By the end of the game, I was lining rooms with traps, summoning flying robots to my side, hypnotizing Big Daddies to fight alongside of me and unleashing swarms of stinging insects from my left arm. When trouble came calling, the gun in my right arm was largely beside the point.
A new wrinkle allows you to escort the Little Sisters as they extract Adam from corpses. You’ll set them down and fight off waves of splicers desperate to get their hands on the Adam the girls extract. It’s a challenge, but these protection missions give the game a little emotional payoff every time you hear a sister say, “You always save me from the monsters!”
One of the “monsters” is a new class of enemy called Big Sisters. These fearsome, agile, dealers of death are the first game’s little sisters, all (or at least mostly) grown up. They operate on the game’s periphery, emerging from the shadows to take you on each time you rescue or harvest the last of a level’s Little Sisters. It makes sense that, because you’re playing as a Big Daddy now, “BioShock 2” needed an enemy that was more powerful than a Big Daddy. And the Big Sisters deliver.
The game’s other main addition is an online multiplayer component, which is set up as a prequel to the first “BioShock.” Though the majority of the game modes are altered versions of old standbys such as deathmatch, team deathmatch, capture the flag and king of the hill, the addition of plasmids, some of which are unique to multiplayer play, keep things somewhat fresh. While I didn’t spend anywhere near as much time with the multiplayer as I did with the single-player game, the twitchy, brisk pace, leveling system and myriad weapon/plasmid combinations should keep me checking in periodically.