I am not in love with BioShock 2, but this comes as no real surprise. I didn't think I would be. My relationship with the first BioShock was so deep and profound that the best BioShock 2 could hope to achieve was for me to not hate it. No matter how good it is - and it is quite good - it's always just going to be a pale comparison to its predecessor, a BioShock rerun. But if BioShock 2 is just BioShock all over again, why would I rather replay the first than experience the newness of the second?
I'm usually not big on replaying games at all. With the obvious exception of arcade or puzzle games, for the most part once I'm done with a gaming experience, I'm done with it. I look at the games on my shelf and I'm very happy to have spent the time with them that I did, but I really have no desire to pop them in the console again. I don't even finish games all that often, because they don't hold my interest long enough. But I've not only finished BioShock, I've replayed it three times now, and I wouldn't have to think twice about picking it up and starting a fourth go-through. I would hesitate to call BioShock my favorite game of all time, but it's certainly close.
BioShock 2 looks, feels, and plays remarkably like its predecessor. You're a Big Daddy now, as opposed to just some poor brainwashed shmuck, and Rapture's even more broken down than the last time we visited, but other than that, it's all very much second verse same as the first. You still hurl plasmids and sling guns, wrestle with whether to harvest or save Little Sisters, find audio diaries, dodge splicers, and find yourself at odds with someone's particular vision of how Rapture should be. It is, for all intents and purposes, just more BioShock and that is by no means a bad thing. In fact, I'd even suggest that given how quickly BioShock's third act went downhill, the sequel is far better than large chunks of the original. And yet it sits on my kitchen table, ignored, while I watch the Olympics and browse the new selections in Amazon's Kindle section.
It's not really all that tough to figure out why a game that's admittedly excellent is leaving me so indifferent, though. I don't hold BioShock in such high esteem because it's a sterling example of first person shooter gameplay, but because of its emotional impact. BioShock has a sense of the dramatic that few other games have come close to achieving. More than anything, BioShock is a collection of masterfully crafted moments that remain etched in your mind long after you've returned to the surface: Dr. Steinman. Your first fight with a Big Daddy. Almost anything to do with Sander Cohen. Your final encounter with Andrew Ryan. And, of course, the game's now-legendary opening. Any decent artist can whip up a convincing copy, but only a genuine master can create a Starry Night or Sistene Chapel. BioShock 2 is an excellent copy, but it simply doesn't have the spark of genius that its predecessor possessed.
If this sounds like I'm bashing BioShock 2, I'm not. It's very well done, and I'm quite certain that I will enjoy it and play it through to completion. Even the multiplayer, whose existence I was never exactly stoked about, is surprisingly entertaining. (Be sure to check out Jordan Deam's thoughts about it.) But BioShock 2 has yet to resonate with me, and while I recognize it's unfair to make assumptions about a game I've yet to finish, I kind of doubt it ever will. It's not really the game's fault, though. There's nothing BioShock 2 can do about the fact that BioShock came first.
None of this will likely matter to you if you were one of those people who ignored BioShock's story and simply had a whale of a time running around hurling plasmids at splicer. BioShock 2 gives the opportunity to do more of the same, and does it very well, so you should be very happy, indeed. But my enjoyment of BioShock came from exploring this strange new underwater world, and from the drama of meeting its citizens. I'll never have the same brand-new experience that I did the first time I played BioShock, but I can at least replay it and remember what that felt like. BioShock 2 is certainly in the neighborhood, but it's just slightly too far away to evoke those same emotions.
Not that I ever really thought it could.
Susan Arendt wonders if there's an audio diary as heartbreaking as "Saw Masha Today" in BioShock 2.