Is the Minerva’s Den DLC a worthy follow-up to Bioshock 2?

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NOTE: The Minerva’s Den DLC for Bioshock 2 is finally available for the PC version of the game. Following is a reprint of the review I wrote for the Xbox 360 version.

Bioshock 2 is a tough act to follow. I don’t envy anyone who has to come up with the storyline for a ten-dollar downloadable add-on to one of the best written videogames you will ever play. That’s like having to make a short film to screen after Citizen Kane.

Oh, hello, Minerva’s Den, the single-player DLC for Bioshock 2. So. What have you got for us?

Read the review after the jump.

It’s touch and go for a while. Minerva’s Den starts off promisingly enough, introducing the concept of Rapture’s computer brain. I bet you didn’t know Rapture even had that. But it makes sense. As the refuge for the best and brightest in the aftermath of World War II, this underwater city is going to get its own Silicon Valley long before California. So Minerva’s Den gets points for thinking up something that feels right.

But as you play, expecting cool new computer brain areas, you’ll slowly realize you’re not going to get that. What should feel like Rapture’s inner sanctum turns out to be just another set of halls with token attempts at retro computeryness. You know, a punch card here, a vacuum tube there, maybe a few more buttons and screens than usual. It’s a matter of “assets”, as game developers call the stuff they use to build levels. You can’t very well make a whole new place when you’re just building a ten-dollar add-on. Instead, you mostly re-use familiar stuff as best as you can. So Minerva’s Den doesn’t have anything quite so memorable as Siren Alley, the Fishbowl Diner, Persophone, or Fort Frolic. It just has hallways with signs that say things like “Computer Core” and “Programming”.

The gameplay is also familiar, but with a couple of tweaks worth discovering. The new gun isn’t quite as silly as it sounds when I tell you it’s a laser gun. In addition to a new plasmid, there are further upgrades to familiar plasmids. Some of the splicers have new tricks up their sleeves. The Big Sister/Little Sister stuff feels like it’s in there just because, you know, that’s how Bioshock works when you’re a Big Daddy. I wish they’d dispensed with it entirely, because it hurts the pacing.

Bioshock has always been a good shooter, but mostly a great story, and Minerva’s Den fits this category. Your “handler” this time is Porter, voiced by the expressive and mellifluous Carl Lumbly, who you might remember from M.A.N.T.I.S. back in the 90s, assuming you even know what M.A.N.T.I.S. is. Like many of the characters in the Bioshock games, Porter is neatly situated in world history. He even provides a tantalizing glimpse at racial issues in Rapture. Although Minerva’s Den is mainly about Porter, it’s also Brigit Tenenbaum’s story. This pivotal character from the original game showed up briefly in Bioshock 2. She then ducked out of the action, and it turns out this is where she went. It’s a crucial and gratifying part of her overall story arc. You can’t really talk about Tenenbaum anymore without having played through Minerva’s Den.

The weak point is the villain, whose cartoon accent and taunts are like something out of a Ratchet & Clank game. This guy is a scientific genius? Although Gil Alexander and Sander Coen were mad, they weren’t total goofballs like this guy, who sounds like he should be recording lines for an Ammo Bandido machine. It’s hard to imagine he invented Rapture’s brain, much less that he earned the trust of Andrew Ryan for a pivotal plot point.

You might have an idea where the story is going. You might even be right. Or you might get blindsided by the resolution, like I was, played like a cheap fiddle and all the more tickled that I only knew what the game wanted me to know when it wanted me to know it. Even if you guess what’s going on, the payoff makes Minerva’s Den well worth the ten bucks and the sometime filler gameplay. Because above and beyond its qualifications as DLC, it’s worth the Bioshock 2 name.