My second entry into the world of Rapture is greeted rather mutedly. The box is black, with numerous white handprints forming the silhouette of a butterfly or moth. I've always been a sucker for minimalist design, so I crack open the box to delve into all of the extras that make the collector's edition 40 dollars more. I immediately notice a vinyl sleeve with the words "I Am Rapture, Rapture Is Me" on the cover. It blocks my vision to the other treats inside, but this is the whole reason I bought the collector's edition. A vinyl game soundtrack is almost unheard of, with the Machinarium soundtrack and now BioShock's soundtrack being notable exceptions.
The very first thing noticed upon starting the game is that you are a Big Daddy. While this seems obvious, the game forces this into your conscious at every possible moment with reflections, the constriction of your helmet, and your ever-present drill, which happens to replace the wrench from the first game. It's pleasant to see Rapture before the fall in this initial cutscene, with the ball referenced in the first game finally being shown on screen (albeit briefly). The end of it, though, has a rather significant emotional impact, especially given the attachment you feel to the Big Daddies if you have ever played BioShock. Cue time warp, and you awake 10 years after the events of the first game and Ryan's downfall. This is where you actually get to control the big lug, and the game begins proper.
Rapture is a place of beauty, and even though ten years have passed since the first game, the city still evokes a nostalgic dystopian feel. As I wander through the wrecked hallways and look at all the blood splatter and wreckage, I somehow feel at home. This is what BioShock was best at, and what BioShock 2 continues: evoking an atmosphere. I was also allowed to take my exploration outside to the seabed, witnessing the beauty of sea life as I wandered around both natural and unnatural environments. Suddenly, my framerate chugged and I was pulled out of the immersive experience. Despite the first game running well, and most (if not all) Unreal Engine 3 games running excellently on my set-up, BioShock 2 stuttered quite often. Pulling me out of the environment in such a jarring way definitely hurt the game, but thanks to the strength of the setting, I plowed right back into the thick of it. It also helped that BioShock 2 has a soundtrack composed by Garry Schyman, who also composed the music for the first BioShock. This soundtrack, which came with the collector's edition, is just as suitable to the game's style as the first, evoking dreadful moods and the spirit of the 1950s.
The story of the game is fascinating, as it moves between being stronger than the first to being significantly weaker. There are a few extremely memorable characters, while most others languish in the background. I remember Grace Halloway, but other characters such as the insane priest didn't really strike a chord unless I really focused on remembering them. The thematic combination of communism and rebirth stand in a stark contradiction to the deterioration and objectivism of the first game, which makes BioShock 2 feel like a direct opposite to BioShock. Both, however, approach their particular themes with satire and intelligence. I noticed similarities between the two main antagonists (Ryan and Lamb) and despite their drastically different views, they were essentially the same. Idealists caught in reality.
A very notable improvement is the far-reaching effects of your moral decisions. In the first game, rescuing or harvesting had no moral consequence until the very end of the game. It acted more as a system of delayed rewards than a morality system, which is why the end of BioShock felt so forced and strange. In comparison, the last third of BioShock 2 changes considerably depending on your behavior towards Little Sisters and other characters. The "morality" gimmick felt so often in videogames is more grounded here than it is in other games. I had direct control over the natural progression of the plot and character development through the choices I made, and this felt good. Way better than the hackneyed endings of the first game.