Warning! Contain Spoilers for Bioshock 2 and the DLC ‘Minerva’s Den’
The City of Rapture is easily one of my favourite game settings. That art-deco undersea metropolis not only provides a unique backdrop for some fine first-person horror, but is inexorably linked to the plot through the vision of Andrew Ryan, its in-game conceptual architect. I like this setting so much that I’ve revisited Bioshock several times in the past few years, and replayed Bioshock Infinite an equal number of times to justify replaying the ‘Burial at Sea’ DLC in order to get back to the vistas of Rapture.
However, until earlier this year, I had never completed Bioshock 2. There was a failed attempt to play it a few years ago which petered out a couple of hours in and left me generally poorly disposed to this oft overlooked child in the Bioshock Trilogy. I think there were key barriers to me wanting to pick it up again. Firstly, without the original team at the helm, I wondered just how good that sequel outing under the sea would really be, and secondly, I didn’t want to play as a Big Daddy. Sure, they make a great imposing ingame element, but the lumbering sections imitating a Daddy towards the end of the first game certainly didn’t warm me to the concept. Plus there is an undoubted emphasis on melee combat, something that I tend to avoid in first person titles, which I ultimately ignored in favour of firearms. That being said, the draw of rapture is strong, and one of the biggest plus points about leaky-corridor-simulator 2 is that there is indeed more Rapture to discover here. So, I hung up my misgivings, greased myself up, and slid in to an oversized diving suit to give it another shot.
A few evenings later I was watching the end credits and, whilst I know you’re all hoping for a redemption story of a misjudged game actually being a nuanced masterpiece, I came to the dull conclusion that; yes, Bioshock 2 is the weakest of the trilogy. But that doesn’t tell the whole story because, whilst it is certainly the weakest of the three, it was still an overall positive experience marred some of my final feelings.
The nuts & bolts of the game remain largely unchanged from its predecessor; interplay between weapons and a new set of plasmids works well, maps tend to involve just about the right level of backtracking to feel like genuine locations yet not overwhelming, and character specialisation using Adam let’s the player tailor their strengths to playstyle. There are even some nice quality of life improvements such as ditching the ‘Pipe Dream’ minigame for hacking in favour of a much snappier QTE (which is a blessed relief by the time you’ve hacked a few hundred machines), improved gun-plasmid interplay with an ‘Infinite’ style control scheme, and simplification of the gene tonic upgrades which ditches the need to apply them in themed slots.
… And you’re going to need all of those improvements because this game gets tough in places. Bringing me to the first problem with Bioshock 2; the difficulty curve is all over the place. There are two stages in the first half of the game specifically that caused me problems with hub areas hosting infinitely re-spawning bullet sponge enemies. On a couple of occasions I ended up needing to claw my way out of a death/respawn cycle purely because I couldn’t scrape together enough resources to mount a decent attack once I’d gone down for the first time. My advice to new players after falling victim to this is hack, hack, and hack some more! Hack those enemy defences and get them to do the work for you. Lead your foes on a merry dance right in to the room of hacked machine guns, rocket launchers, and flying drones because that’s often the only way to win a fight.
Going hand in hand with this is a need to upgrade plasmids and abilities as quickly as possible, which means gathering ADAM by rescuing little sisters. Unfortunately this is also one of the game’s weak points. Whereas in Bioshock all you needed to do to liberate a Little Sister was to fight a Big Daddy, here there is an elaborate sequence of events. First you need to defeat the Little Sister’s guardian Big Daddy, then you need to adopt the Little Sister who will lead you to an ADAM riddle corpse, then you need to stand and fight a wave of enemies whist she takes her sweet time harvesting the ADAM… then do the same again to harvest a second body… then choose to either harvest or save the Little Sister. Oh, and there are generally three Little Sisters in each level. And if all that wasn’t enough there’s an insanely powerful, acrobatic, life regenerating Big Sister who turns up to reward you for your troubles. From a thematic point of view, ‘adopting’ a Little Sister is pretty neat, and I’m onboard with the Big Sister as a powerful enemy riffing on the classic Bioshock theme. However, forced combat and backtracking in areas with respawning enemies and limited resources gets tedious pretty fast.
It’s certainly not all bad though. The new areas of Rapture are generally interesting and, being set a decade after the events of the original, are presented in an even more dilapidated state, riddled with sea life. There’s a neat narrative structure where each level is framed around a location and as the player explores the significance of the location, people, and events that reside there is unlocked through recordings, conversations, and confrontations. It gives every level a kind of episodic feel with each having their own mini-resolution before it’s all aboard, back on the monorail, and off on the next Rapture adventure.
Unfortunately, by contrast the main plot arc didn’t really make that much of an impression on me. The villain of the piece is Dr. Lamb, a fairly by the numbers villain who’s been performing some pretty sketchy experiments under the guise of social progress or further the human race… or whatever… It makes a thin attempt to parallel the libertarian stylings of the original’s Andrew Ryan with broadly communist ideology. Something that may have had more weight if the ultimate result wasn’t just more spliced up citizens trying to rip apart our protagonist. It ultimately transpires that the subject of Lamb’s favourite subject is her own daughter, and the once-upon-a-time Little Sister, to the player’s Big Daddy, who she is trying to transform into some kind of all-knowing being. The piece finishes with Big Daddy and Little Sister, now fully kitted out as a Big Sister, taking out Lamb and escaping Rapture. It’s by the numbers and I was left wondering why any of this necessitated that the player be a Big Daddy rather than just a human, outside the neat team up between Big Daddy and Big Sister for the closing stages.
I think I would have been fairly content to finish things there, not bad but not great, had it not been for the final kick in the teeth for Bioshock 2; the Minerva’s Den DLC. Taking the form of a short three stage adventure, Minerva’s Den puts the player in the clomping boots of an entirely different Big Daddy. Dropped into Minerva’s Den, the home to Rapture Central Computing, the player needs to unravel and ultimately rescue the Rapture computing system’s a.i.: The Thinker. In short, Minerva’s Den is easily the best thing about Bioshock 2. It takes a fresh look at the world of Rapture through the technology that keeps it all running. It has a fun and original story with some (albeit fairly telegraphed) twists and turns, and didn’t rely on a plot that runs parallel to the original game. Heck, it actually manages to get a little emotional in there at one point. Minerva’s Den absolutely should’ve been the framework for the main game and in my opinion put the plot of the main game to shame. I know that I put a spoiler warning at the start, but I don’t want to say too much more. If you’re a fan of Bioshock then you should probably play this DLC if you haven’t already.
So yeah, a bad taste left in my mouth about Bioshock 2 because of how much sweeter the DLC of for the game is. Like I said, there’s nothing terrible there, and if (like me) you want more Rapture then go nuts because there is more there… it’s just part of me wishes that I’d just played the first game…. again.