It’s not widely known, but Bioshock was heavily influenced by the philosophical novel Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. It’s no coincidence that there is a character named Atlas. Nor is it chance that there is a character named Andrew Ryan, which sounds a lot like Ayn Rand. And the fact that it’s in the 50’s is an homage to the industrial revolution setting in which Atlas Shrugged takes place. I’d read and loved Atlas Shrugged, so when Bioshock was announced I was intrigued. I wondered how it would handle some of the tougher subject matter of the book. It was predictably much more shallow than the themes of the book, but that is to be expected. Bioshock was, at its core, still a game. So instead of lecturing the player for hours at a time on the philosophy of Objectivism, it was meant to be fun with an interesting backdrop. And it succeeded.
The first Bioshock was possibly the biggest advancement in first-person gaming narrative since Half-Life. With its moral choices and gameplay consequences, its philosophical underpinnings, and its perfect use of the environment to create an atmosphere and consequently tell a story, it was a gem among the first person genre, which had grown stale with grizzled space marines. It was a mature take on the first person genre, showing it was possible for a shooter to be more than mindless shooting. People were thinking while they played. It was loved by critics and audiences alike.
Its story was pretty self-contained, so no one expected a sequel. And then one was announced. How would they justify a sequel after the first wrapped up so nicely?
And that is the one fatal flaw with Bioshock 2. The gameplay is still fantastic; it’s still the brilliant mix of FPS and RPG, shooting things and searching desks for loot. The combat is still varied and interesting; mixing plasmids and ammo types, hacking computers and bots, and using the environment to out-think the enemies is still all as fun as it was in the first, with a few added goodies. And it’s even great to continue to explore Rapture, the underwater city in which Andrew Ryan attempted to create his utopia free from the meddling hands of government regulation or religious judgment. But at the end of it all, you can’t help but feel like the story was tacked on. It has its moments, and it manages to be it’s own story, not just borrowing momentum from the first, but it also feels like it doesn’t know where it’s going. By the time the story ended I’d already forgotten most of it.
Bioshock 2 is a AAA game with fantastic gameplay and combat, and exploring more of Rapture is itself reason enough to play it. But it never manages to escape the shadow of the original Bioshock, and doesn’t manage to do a single thing significantly better. In the end, it’s really just more of the same. But when that “same” is one of the best first person shooters of the decade, that still makes for a great game, just not a revolutionary one.