Return to the Circus of Values!
Bioshock Infinite: critically acclaimed, best-selling, and AAA status. It’s a high-profile game that was hugely popular, and highly criticized too, whether in its portrayal of race (Daisy Fitzroy and her sudden derailment to extremist), its gameplay (a lack of integration between the hyperviolence and the unwillingness of Booker and Elizabeth to kill), or in its narrative itself. It’s also a game I enjoyed thoroughly, despite having frustrations.
Burial at Sea begins with something familiar. You’re still Booker Dewitt, Private Investigator; you’re still going to shoot things; you still have vigors.
Wait, why is Booker alive?
And why is Elizabeth hiring him to track someone down?
The intrigue is obvious, given Infinite‘s ending. Then, Burial at Sea does something many gamers wanted since the cameo in Infinite: it returns players to Rapture, the setting of the first two games in the series. Booker’s trying to find a young girl, Sally, that he had come to care for, trying to make sure she’s safe in the dangers of Rapture.
It’s intriguing to see a living, breathing city underwater. Where Bioshock and its sequel let players explore Rapture in its post-splicing, nightmarish state, part one of Burial at Sea drops players into the post-crisis city. We get to see Andrew Ryan’s propaganda machines at work, overhear conversations, and see couples walking hand-in-hand. At one point, I distinctly remember even seeing a gay couple holding each other while staring at the ocean outside. Graphically, Rapture has been updated, and it looks gorgeous, just as Columbia did.
Speaking of gay characters, too, Sander Cohen makes an appearance as a major figure in part one. While his sexuality is largely subtext–obvious subtext–it’s cool to see a non-straight character figure so prominently in something as small as a DLC. He’s still overzealous, and electrocutes people for not being up to his standards, but it’s a small touch. Even smaller is a poster found in the Cupid’s Arrow segment of the game–it’s a sex shop, with risque books… including “Gender-Bender”, which may or may not be at least a slight nod toward trans individuals. It’s something, albeit not a lot.
The gameplay in Burial at Sea remains largely the same as Infinite and the original Bioshock. There are less plasmids, but players still walk around shooting splicers and dealing with groups of enemies. It’s less combat-focused than before, which is nice in a series that prides itself on its narrative, although it’s strange in comparison to the fighting-heavy Infinite. The weapon wheel from the first game makes a return, too, making it easier to juggle armaments in the heat of battle, and this being Rapture, so do the obnoxious Circus of Values vending machines.
After part one’s heartbreaking and shocking conclusion, we move into part two, and switch into playing as Elizabeth. It’s something I was excited for, especially considering Irrational Games’ emphasis on stealth in place of Booker’s brute force. It’s a frustrating to me that a powerful reality-tearing woman such as Elizabeth was forced into a more meek role, but at the very least, the narrative manages to justify it, however flimsily.
Elizabeth, guided by her subconscious manifesting itself as Booker’s voice, makes her way through Rapture, trying to find and rescue Sally. She plays largely the same as Booker, albeit weaker; her health depletes quicker and isn’t as plentiful, and she doesn’t get nearly the same amount of weaponry. Irrational introduces two new mechanics alongside Elizabeth: assassinating enemies, and a new plasmid called “Peeping Tom”. Assassinating works similarly to simply hitting enemies in earlier games; provided that Elizabeth hasn’t been noticed, she can approach splicers from behind and instantly incapacitate them with a simple press of the melee button. Peeping Tom can help facilitate this; when upgraded, Elizabeth can be completely invisible while stationary, and can see enemies through walls in order to plan out her attacks.
Personally, I didn’t have a lot of problems with the system. Although I found it fun, many others didn’t, which is a problem of forcing a game built around combat to turn into a stealth game. Enemies are, for the most part, intelligent. They’ll rush to wherever they hear a sound, and after a few moments will go off of alert if they don’t find Elizabeth. Big Daddies function largely in the same way, although they’re much more powerful and will also attack splicers. It’s a workable combat system, although a little clunky.
What I liked less about Burial at Sea: Part Two was the narrative. It spends a lot of time trying to expand upon things that many players found lacking in the first game. For instance, there’s an entire segment dedicated to Suchong from the first game, and how he helped give technology from Rapture to Columbia, although this is far from the only connection between the games. Honestly, a lot of it felt unnecessary, almost as if it was Irrational going through a checklist of complaints versus truly fleshing out their world. An attempt is made at giving characters depth, but it falls flat, from the mentions of other Comstocks to Daisy Fitzroy to Songbird. It’s cool to see the developers try, and I do like the ideas they had going, but nothing resonated with me particularly well.
Furthermore, the ending made me very uncomfortable. I know it’s definitely part of its purpose, and I won’t spoil it, but it felt gratuitous and unnecessarily violent even given the series’ propensity for it. A lot of time is spent in Rapture, to the point where the series becomes all about the city again, and that is where my major complaint with Burial at Sea lies: it’s all about Rapture, and in attempting to bring things full-circle, makes the entire series about it. Having a cameo in Infinite was cool; showing that it was all part of parallel universes, that the specifics of the worlds don’t matter, that we’ll always have a Booker or a Jack or a Columbia or a Rapture was mind-bending and a great call-back to keep players satisfied while still remaining staunchly different.
But Burial at Sea backtracks, and tries to retroactively make the entire series about Andrew Ryan and his Rapture. Where Infinite seemed like an attempt to keep a series fresh and separate save for references a la Final Fantasy, Burial at Sea takes a step backward and brings everything back to Atlas and Rapture. It’s an idea that works great in theory, but feels more like an attempt to please a few angered fans than stay true to the story they had going in the first place.
Burial at Sea was definitely enjoyable, and I don’t doubt that some gamers will love it, but for me it just fell flat. Trying to pull off a checklist of common complaints without adding much depth, forcing old mechanics on a new playstyle, and forcing the game to fit within a previously-used universe make the content frustrating more than anything else.
-Intriguing to see a living Rapture
-Booker’s segment is still as fun as ever
-A return to the horror-esque style of the previous games
-Attempts to flesh out the world fall flat
-Relies on knowledge of the original Bioshock instead of standing alone
-Stealth mechanics forced onto an action-shooter
Play it if: you’re a fan of the universe, you want to see more about what happens to Elizabeth post-Infinite, or you need something quick to run through.
Bioshock Infinite: Burial at Sea was released as two separate downloadable packs. Together, both parts were completed in approximately 6 hours. It is available for Xbox 360, PC, and Playstation 3 (reviewed).