The ending of BioShock Infinite will be touched upon in this review. Do not read if you are yet to finish the main game. You have been warned.
More and more these days you have the auteur moving into the gaming arena, creating fascinating visions of perfectly formed narrative to rival anything Hollywood has output in recent years. These auteurs gain a following in fans of this particularly forceful game maker. Sure, this isn’t that new a concept - Shigeru Miyamoto can attest to that - but these are followed because of the fabulous worlds and stories they tell using games as the tools, rather than making the perfect game. Ken Levine, Director of BioShock and BioShock Infinite is one such gaming figurehead. Levine’s games come across in such a fashion as to appear stablemates of Christopher Nolan’s cinematic masterpieces. The story always involves twists and turns, tricks, smoke and mirrors. The way of telling the story is as important as the story itself. And so BioShock Infinite proved to be. It is one of the most impressive showcases for how to tell a story in videogames. So with this, Burial at Sea, the first part of a two-part episodic narrative-based DLC, the world sat up and took notice. For good reason too as it turns out, because we again have a most intriguing, mind-bending tale which leaves you wanting more just like a good series should do by the end.
At the end of BioShock Infinite we learnt that there are infinite worlds, each housing some constants - for example, Booker DeWitt, our proponent in the original game and this DLC - and some variables. Basically we have an array of alternate universes where anything is possible around an untouchable centre of things which always must be true. Elizabeth can move between worlds at will as of the end of Infinite. Burial at Sea opens in Booker’s office, with Elizabeth - an older, more sultry version of her; a femme fatale if ever there was one - walking into the office requesting his services as a private investigator. Initially unconvinced, Booker is ultimately persuaded to lend a hand because Elizabeth is trying to find a young girl named Sally, a girl who Booker knows and certainly has some connection to. Why is she trying to find her? To pay the debt, of course. Find the girl and pay the debt. Remind you of anything?
It’s an utterly entrancing opening given what we know has gone before. Why does Booker not recognise Elizabeth? Why is she older and not stuck in Columbia? Soon enough things get ever more wonderful. As we follow Elizabeth outside of our office we realise we’re in Rapture, before the fall. Rapture. The magical place we learned to love when in ruin. Imagine what we can do now? Sure enough the first thirty minutes or so of the game allow us to just bask in the wonder, exhaust the joy from all nooks and crannies of a living and breathing Andrew Ryan fantasy. Would you kindly enjoy Rapture as you’ve only before dreamed, the game asks. Hell yes. You head to the bar and a waiter stops you from entering, only so he can show you his parlour trick as he transports away using some plasmid or other. The world is filled with folk going about their business, conversing about life, the world, Ryan and more. If you allow yourself the time to take everything in it will meet and exceed those expectations you’ve had since 2007. You forget for a moment the plot of this story; you forget that you’re actually Booker DeWitt, the man who became Comstock and created the anti-Rapture in Columbia’s skyworld. As you run out of things to see and do you head towards Cohen and his theatre. Once you enter the creative den there’s no turning back, and the game proper begins.
This is a shame, really. From this point until the final scenes of this cliffhanging-episode the experience is nothing more than alright. BioShock Infinite and this add-on suffer from a first-person shooting mechanic and engine which lives in the past. It does what it needs to do - you have various guns, they shoot people and you can do funky things with your various plasmids - but it doesn’t inspire. Each room is a chance to destroy some splicers and move on. Find some more, defeat and move on. Chuck a few fetch quests in to extend the life and each time you make a significant step of progress you’ll find some more splicers where you just destroyed a bunch. It’s all very by the numbers and on normal difficulty no challenge at all. You’ll likely run out of ammo but you can pretty much melee every bad guy before they defeat you. If you do fail you have Elizabeth’s revival ability - for a few dollars, of course - available as in the main game. Step the difficulty up and it’s more akin to a challenge but the basic paucity of creativity in terms of the actual gameplay still rankles.
There are new weapons and plasmids - Old Man Winter allows you to freeze enemies, and shoot sprays of water - so you do get the chance to set new traps to ascertain what the result is, and hunt for new trophies. But you don’t need to do any of this. The traps aren’t needed and you can play through the whole thing without ever laying one. In fact you might struggle to lay too many anyway as Eve is always in such short supply. There are plenty of things lying around to collect as ever in a BioShock game, and Elizabeth helps in large regards here as she always has before. But still it gets so frustrating when you want to play about with the more enjoyable and entertaining plasmids and you can’t.
As you move through the game - past the sparkle of Rapture in full flow, with the Big Daddies helping build and fix things around the world - you edge ever further towards the Rapture we know from our time as a puppet. Little Sisters are being created in concept looking at the various propaganda; splicers are running amok in parts of the world and those parts are cut off from the rest of Rapture, accessible only via private Bathyspheres managed by people like Sander Cohen. It all begins to feel remarkably familiar, but your thoughts do start to move closer to the what, why and how related to Elizabeth and her intentions, alongside those of the plot. Like a good film noir everything is shrouded in mystery and nothing is clear. At least, not until the very end. To say anymore than the ending alone is worth the price of entry and that episode two can’t come soon enough would be obtuse.
Burial at Sea might be a challenger for the best-ever narrative-based DLC yet presented to the gaming community at large. It carries on the legacy of all Levine’s games, and Infinite’s in particular by delivering a strong story with a devastatingly stunning blow at the end. What it also does, unfortunately, is marry this up with plodding and repetitive gameplay based on year’s old mechanics and an attempt to extend the lifetime by creating tedious, simple, filler. For a title that lasts only two to three hours in the end anyway it seems strange that this needed to be resorted to. It would have been a better experience if done and dusted in half the time. But then the argument for and against the high cost would be weakened, at least from 2K’s point of view. Regardless, the old-school FPS gameplay is given second billing with the lead role handed to the story. The more things change, the more they stay the same. It’s all about those constants and those variables.