Sunday, February 13, 2011

BioShock 2: Minerva's Den (Xbox 360) Review

As many of you know, I've taken a very hard line against DLC over the last few years, specifically in the terms of game add-ons. My original criticisms stemmed from publishers charging extra for simple content the likes of which used to be free or would become free after several months, however the customer is always right and with the general support of such add-ons, things have now advanced so much so that it's becoming common place to find simple multiplayer map packs sold for 1200 Microsoft Points ($17.40).

1200 Microsoft Points for a few multiplayer maps! It is very sad to see consumers so blind, and truly premium DLC is the worst thing to happen during this generation of gaming. With that in mind, any DLC I do choose to partake in I wait for a sale (and at least sales are becoming more common place on the Xbox LIVE Marketplace), and even then I approach it with a grain of salt.

A few weeks back, the second Single Player DLC for BioShock 2, entitled "Minerva's Den," was discounted by 50% and after having heard good things about it, I decided to give it a go. Now that I've completed it, I'm left wishing that all DLC was of this caliber.

Taking place around the beginning of the events of the core game, BioShock 2: Minerva's Den sees players taking on the role of Subject Sigma, another Alpha Series who's on his way to Rapture's Central Computing where the city's unique and impressive system, the Thinker, resides. As Rapture continues to fall into ruins, Sigma has been recruited by both Tenenbaum and the Thinker's creator, C.M. Porter, to help remove the valuable machine and return it to the surface. The catch is Porter's former business partner, Reed Whal, is obsessed with the Thinker and insane from too much splicing. He rather objects to Sigma's presence in coming to remove the device, an objection clearly noted by his destruction of the tunnel Sigma is walking through.

BioShock 2: Minerva's Den features three new areas for players to explore, along with a new weapon, a new Plasmid, a new enemy, and if you've played through BioShock 2: Protector Trials, two new Tonics (one if you haven't).

The three areas you get to explore are quite large and take some time to properly experience, which is a big plus. The real highlight though is that the DLC really focuses on survival gameplay, truly requiring the player to make creative and strategic choices while restricting what items are available.

You begin armed only with Telekinesis and your Drill, and as you advance through the DLC's first area, which share's the DLC's name of Minerva's Den, you will be oh so slowly granted additional weapons, upgrades, and Plasmids. In fact, the franchise staples of Electro Bolt and Incinerate are not only unavailable early on, but you really need to work to acquire them and upon successful acquisition, you really feel a sense of both triumph and growing strength (Incinerate comes at its Level 2 variant, for example, a first for the franchise and a demonstration of how late in the DLC it comes).

In BioShock 2: Minerva's Den, ammo is scarce and Adam becomes more precious than ever before. If you completed BioShock 2: Protector Trials you'll be able to buy for free the Master Protector Tonic, which increases a Little Sisters Gathering time but yields additional Adam; very helpful assuming you can hold off the Splicers long enough. Even if you had a strong reserve of Adam, you simply can't buy a lot of Plasmid or Gene Tonic Slots right away as each Gatherer's Garden has a max limit, which means you might only have several Gene Tonic Slots for much of the DLC forcing you to choose what to use on the fly.

To recap, unlike the core game which features one Gatherer's Garden per area, BioShock 2: Minerva's Den features multiple Gatherer's Gardens per level, with the ones encountered later on having additional items that will not appear in the earlier machines. Keep this in mind when you're deciding what to spend your hard earned Adam on, and yes, it really will be hard earned this time around and critically spent, and you'll be making regular trips to Gene Banks for the first time in franchise history.

The whole survival element of BioShock 2: Minerva's Den is so well done it greatly contributes to the tension of the atmosphere and the immersion of the well written story. The DLC includes a new Big Daddy, the Lancer, who used the new Ion Laser which you'll also be able to get your hands on. He's very much like a Rosie Big Daddy, save that his Ion Laser produces a constant stream of damage and he can also use a Flare to temporarily blind you. While you can't use the Flare, you can get Thermal Cells (fire damage) and Burst Cells (piercing damage and can be charged up) for your Ion Laser. Frag Grenades and Proximity Mines are also out (and specialty ammo for all weapons comes later on and in shorter supply), but Heat Seeking Rockets are in and your only ammo for the Grenade Launcher.

While the Lancer is the only new enemy in the DLC, many old enemies have been modified. In addition to the new cosmetic look for Thuggish and Leadhead Splicers, many Leadhead Splicers now have friendly Bots in tow. The Security Bots themselves come in three new varieties: Ion Laser, Grenade Launcher, and Lightning Rod. Suffice it to say, Security Command is your friend, and should you purchase Security Command 2, it'll summon Ion Laser Bots for you.

Brute Splicers have now come in the Fiery Brute Splicer variety and are immune to fire damage and inflict it themselves, while Wintry Houdini Splicers are immune to cold damage and inflict it themselves, often disabling any of your own friendly Bots to my great annoyance. Turrets and Security Cameras are also much more cleverly placed, which will have you using your Hack Tool far more strategically than ever before.

There's also no research in the DLC, which frees up that weapon slot for the Ion Laser, and Power to the People Stations are absent as well. Instead, you'll find upgraded versions of your weapons as you progress which adds the upgrade for you, and not all the upgrades from the core game are present. One unique change though is Drill Dash. Such a handy ability in the core game, you can not Drill Dash to begin with in "Minerva's Den" and it's actually a Tonic you acquire, making it the second of the DLC's new Tonics. While certainly not a new ability, it will take up one of your Gene Tonic Slots; noteworthy as it's again up to the player whether to use it or not.

The new Plasmid is Gravity Well, essentially Singularity from Mass Effect. You toss the polyp into a group of enemies and it sucks them into place, holding them and inflicting damage for a while. Gravity Well 2 can be charged up and planted like a mine, and Gravity Well 3 (which I didn't purchase) also splashes enemies with acid causing further damage.

Not only is Gravity Well a handy new Plasmid and a welcome addition (which takes the place of Summon Eleanor, absent for obvious reasons), it's also essential to bypass new security locks that can only be opened by having Gravity Well suck out the transistors powering them.

The story though, the story of BioShock 2: Minerva's Den is so well written and ultimately so touching that it once again demonstrates a uniqueness to the franchise to weave simple yet powerful family themes, a rarity for a shooter. And the twist! Not only does this DLC's twist rival that of BioShock itself, but I honestly haven't been this surprised since Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. As you progress and piece things together via Audio Logs and Whal's ramblings, you think you figure it all out and that it's so obvious, but the DLC's plot twist will leave you gaping. Well done 2K Marin, very, very well done.

Advertised at about 4 hours of additional gameplay, I really reveled in the survival elements and thoroughly explored the DLC's environments, so my play time clocked in at a whopping 10 hours. The DLC also features 8 new Achievements to earn, one of which I missed that involves a whole new mini-game I didn't even realize was there! I wish they wouldn't have labeled it a Secret Achievement, but I'll get it on my second playthrough.

I did notice that BioShock 2: Minerva's Den seemed to feature more texture pop-in than the core game, so much so that it's reminiscent of the Xbox 360 version of Mass Effect. Audio Bugs are also present as is consistent with the core game, where some sounds randomly vanish and won't occur again. For example, after a while charging up Security Command 2 or 3 to summon a friendly Bot no longer produced the sound effect, but the Vending Machine and Ammo Bandito voices missing from the core game are present both here and in BioShock 2: Protector Trials.

There's also one more Little Sister than the DLC is supposed to have. In the first area, Minerva's Den, it shows that there are only three Little Sisters but there's actually four. Once you Resolve the fourth her icon will appear on the Start screen. This is actually a very beneficial bug as it allows you to gather additional Adam, which you desperately need, and for those who love Achievements you'll unlock Adam Addict a little sooner.

Simply put, I'm shocked at the quality of BioShock 2: Minerva's Den. Admittedly I'm so used to quick publisher cash-ins that customers blindly gobble up, the fact that there's so much content here is refreshing and even humbling. With a wonderful story, excellent level design, and a refocus on survival gameplay that's still unmistakably BioShock, this DLC is very easy to recommend, even at the standard cost of 800 Microsoft Points ($11.60).

With a new weapon, Plasmid, enemy, and Tonics, as well as variants of old foes and three sizable areas to explore, the amount of content present in "Minerva's Den" is just short of a real, honest to God expansion set of old, and there's no greater compliment that I can give to a DLC add-on than this. As BioShock 2: Minerva's Den is the final content to be released for the game, 2K Marin saw it go with the highest DLC standards I have ever experienced, and I can only hope other developers and publishers will take note.

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