It has become too easy to forget what BioShock is, and too tempting to discuss it purely in terms of the more high-minded ideas behind its narrative, not the practicalities of what happens when we press buttons on the gamepad. It is a game in which you will spend much of your time messily ramming a drill-arm into the face of a screaming, swearing mutant in a party dress. While it’s lovely that the voiceovers have a literate backdrop, this is not a game in which you will actively engage in consideration of utilitarianism and objectivism. It’s a first-person shooter, first and foremost.
BioShock 2 does this very well – significantly better than the first game did. Its fights were always a little stilted and small, while by comparison BS2 is chaotic and huge. Most obviously, more enemies attack at once, for longer, and there are more types of them, but why the combat feels so much better and beefier is more complicated than that. It’s a much more tactically interesting game, rarely penning you into corridors from whose ends murderous Splicers charge. Instead, your progress through a level tends to involve inhabiting a sprawling zone filled with choke-points and wide-open arenas, in which enemies constantly and invisibly respawn, for a good half hour or hour. BioShock 1 was about plodding forward motion, but this is about turning large spaces into sustained battlegrounds. Fortunately, it gives you the toolbox you need to deal with it.
If dual-wielding a weapon and a plasmid sounded gimmicky, rest assured it’s necessary to manage the onslaught. It’s rare that you’ll suffer anything as straightforward as a couple of guys with guns popping up from behind a crate. At the very least, you’ll be henpecked by two or three Splicers throwing bullets or bombs from different directions. At the most you’ll be fighting one of the lightning-fast Big Sisters even as a hulking Brute Splicer and a couple of his standard-size mates emerge from an adjacent corridor, and then a hitherto placid Big Daddy strays into your line of fire and ohgodohgodohgodohgod…. It can be brutal at times. If you’re one of those who loathed the punishment-free respawns of the Vita Chambers in the first game, rest assured they now feel essential to survival, rather than just a cop-out to avoid loading screens. Though you can turn them off if you reckon you’re Big Dave Hardcore.
As the game goes on, and a carefully-selected few of your weapons and plasmids are upgraded to the nines, those odds tip fascinatingly in your favour. There’ll be moments when half the room’s exploding in ice and fire, the other half’s covered in a swarm of plasmid-summoned wasps and angry robots, a hypnotised Brute Splicer is laying skull-crushing waste to his mates and you’re just coolly stood in the middle of all this screaming and blood. Supreme master of all you survey, far closer to the superman Rapture’s erstwhile overlord Andrew Ryan dreamed of than the first game’s pullover-clad protagonist ever was. You’ll always be left with the thrilling knowledge that there are major upgrade paths you’re yet to try, too.