2K Marin/Irrational Games
Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Windows
Simon and Garfunkel told us that the words of the prophets were written on the subway walls. In the ruined underwater dystopia of Rapture, they're scrawled in blood on the floor. And in white paint on the walls. And on just about every surface the crazed and mutated followers of Dr. Sofia Lamb can reach.
If you played the first BioShock — and if you didn't, get your ass to a store and get going — then you're quite familiar with these freakazoids: Splicers, former beautiful people reduced to gibbering, murderous mutants by too many hits of ADAM, a sort of subterranean human growth hormone harvested from a parasite, but with some seriously brutal side effects.
As the storyline goes, when they first made their ill-fated journey 20,000 leagues under the sea, these Splicers prayed at the altar of a guy named Andrew Ryan, an Objectivist industrialist who created a world where the talented, beautiful and driven could accumulate power and wealth untouched by annoyances like government regulation, social responsibility and MSNBC. In the seriously awesome BioShock 2, the action's set 10 years after Ryan's misguided social experiment imploded in greed, mutation and murder. (Seriously, are you even surprised?) He's been supplanted by the icy ex-psychiatrist Dr. Lamb, a woman who prefers a particularly brutal version of collectivism.
There's your cage match: Ayn Rand versus George Orwell; the triumph of the ego versus the power of the collective. It's the sort of stuff you expect from a civics class, not a first-person shooter game. Your 360 and PS3, after all, are the sort of places where you expect bullets and lasers to clash, not philosophical ideals.
And yet it's this philosophical depth, coupled with a surprising emotional resonance (more on that in a minute) that sets the BioShock series so far above any other shooter you've played. Yes, BioShock 2 has you thumping around as a "Big Daddy" in a super-sized atmospheric diving suit and yes, you eventually get the sweet ability to shoot swarms of bees from your hands. These are two things no other game has allowed us to do, but at its heart, the BioShock games are shooters, just like so many others.
Except that this one packs an additional power, an emotional kick that sends things to a completely different level. It all hinges on the creepy and mysterious father-daughter bond between the Big Daddies and Rapture's Little Sisters, the creepy girls who harvest the gene-boosting ADAM from corpses. In BioShock 2, you are protagonist Subject Delta, one of the first Big Daddy models to clunk off the line and instantly identifiable to Dr. Lamb from all the other replicants.
The game hooks you on this connection instantly: The very first thing you do is grab your giggling and smiling Little Sister, who's as happy to see you as any 7-year-old girl would be to see her dad, out of her vent for another day's teamwork. The game hides your identity, and even your name, until very late in the proceedings, but you learn one thing right away: You've been separated from your Little Sister, and you have to find her … even if she also happens to be Dr. Lamb's daughter.
There isn't a parent in the gaming audience — and now that the average gamer age has sailed past age 30, there are lot more of them — who can't innately relate to the feeling of the parental bond and the wrenching agony when that bond is separated, even briefly. It goes even deeper. The fact that you can now "adopt" other Little Sisters you encounter and defend them from mutant Splicers as your glow-eyed girls happily harvest ADAM makes the inevitable, soul-scarring choice from the first game even harsher: Will you set these children free and sacrifice the ADAM they carry, or kill them and fast-track your way to a new set of powerful plasmid abilities? For most of us, there's only one possible choice, but even this feels wrenching.
The look of Rapture itself is as deadly and vibrant as it ever was, and you get to see even more of its neon, Art Deco sheen this time around. Several sequences will take your breath away almost as much as the emotional sequences do, especially the sight when looking up into the Rapture skyline of schools of fish swirling, taking a tour through Rapture's history in the underwater amusement park.
I wish I could say that all the rivets in BioBhock 2 were as tight as the emotional ones. As a Big Daddy, you ought to be nigh-unstoppable; instead, you're oddly underpowered through most of the game's first acts. The massive drill that resides where your right hand should be sure looks menacing, but it runs out of gas faster than a Hummer with a leaky tank. It's like having an oversized trashcan stuck on your arm. Even the most basic level Splicers can take you out with one or two swipes in a melee. Good thing there's a resuscitating Vita-Chamber around every corner to keep you coming back for more. This is one ride you won't want to firstname.lastname@example.org