Platforms: PC | PS3 | Xbox 360 (reviewed)
Developers: Irrational Games
Publishers: 2K Games
Burial at Sea does a dangerous thing. In bringing the characters of Booker DeWitt and Elizabeth in a kind of thematic full circle, introducing them (and the player) to a Rapture before everything turned sour, Irrational run the risk of destroying the essential differences that made Bioshock Infinite work independently of its outstanding predecessor. Worse yet, by looking backwards instead of forwards (as the last hour or two of Infinite, and indeed the game's name, suggested was an expansive possibility), it seems almost overly sentimental and a little forced. After all, you can just pick up the original Bioshock for a quid or two these days if you really want to kill Splicers.
Once again, you're cast in the role of Booker DeWitt, only this time he's a private dick in a Rapture still in its heyday. That means crowds and music and lights and action. The story is set a little after Fontaine's initial rebellion, and the early scenes see a woman with a Songbird necklace enlisting Booker in the search for a young girl named Sally, who we surmise might have been gone missing as part of the widespread trafficking of children in order to fuel the ADAM factories that seem to be adorning whispers in dark corners. This version of Elizabeth is a little older, and far more cynical than her Infinite counterpart.
It's interesting to see how having a visible, useful companion changes your experience of Rapture. Initially, we end up doing a little tourism. Look, says Irrational, here's Rapture as you always wanted to see it! It feels a little like it's all been done to suit our purposes, rather than that of the story. It's not too long, though, before we're bearing witness to the disease that's already seeping down from Ryan to take hold of the underwater city, and once more we find ourselves sneaking through dimply-lit corridors and battling gene-mod addicts.
What was deeply unsettling in the first game is now something of a pally romp as Elizabeth and Booker maintain their back-and-forth from Infinite. But it's out of place here, breaking the tension that made the first game so effective. Rapture's nowhere near as intimidating and horrific when you've got a chatty partner.
The combat needs discussing too. For the most part, it feels just like Infinite's, though confined often to the shadowy, twisting corridors we associate more with Rapture and Bioshock 1. The trouble is that is was always a combat system designed for arena battles -- expansive areas allowing for freedom of movement and verticality. There are a few moments in Burial at Sea that see Irrational shoehorn in some of the skyrails that adorned the parent game and suddenly the combat clicks into place, even if thematically it's a little jarring. It didn't matter than the original Bioshock's gunplay wasn't enormously brilliant because so much of that game was predicated on deeply tense atmospherics and no small amount of pervasive horror. But Burial at Sea strikes an awkward middle ground that satisfies neither the original game's slower, jumpier pacing nor the epic expanse of Infinite. Neither does it help that none of the interesting enemies from either game really crop up, a frost-blasting Splicer or two aside.
There's a joy to be found from once again piecing the big narrative picture together from audio logs dotted around the place, but even that trades rather uncomfortably on nostalgia for a game that's barely six years old. There are only so many knowing nods you can give yourself having recognised a name or two from the original game. That said, the encounter with Sander Cohen is some fantastically-worked fan service; I only wish there was more of it. Much like everything else in this DLC, most of those nods feel a little undercooked.
There is, of course, a Big Moment and it comes right at the end of the episode, brilliantly smashing through the relative banality of the previous two and a half hours and setting up an incredibly intriguing second instalment. But it seems a bit of a shame to have had to trudge through some incredibly samey action that manages to evenly compromise between Bioshocks 1 and 3 without ever coming close to evoking the brilliance of either.
In the end, the first part of Burial at Sea comes across as an awkward mish-mash of ideas bundled up in a package designed to appease the curiosity of series fans and little else. Unfortunately, it's not even that good at doing that. The DLC falls some way short of the bar Irrational have set for themselves. It's as if, having given themselves a blank slate with infinite possibilities at the end of Bioshock Infinite, the developers got cold feet and ran back to the safety of nostalgia. The finale does a nice job of finally throwing all of the best bits from the two Bioshock games into the mix, but it's a little late, and only really serves to highlight how drab the rest of the experience has been up until that point.
- We're back in Rapture!
- Sander Cohen!
- Nice production values and great dialogue and voice work once again
- The ending is pretty awesome and sets up the sequel nicely...
- ...But it also demonstrates just how uninspired the rest of the DLC is
- Banal combat bereft of atmosphere
- The whole thing feels rather forced
- You can buy the (outstanding) original Bioshock five times over for the price of this 2-3 hour slab of mediocrity
The Short Version: The production values are cracking, with outstanding voice work and some great dialogue, not to mention an ending that flips the script nicely and sets up an intriguing sequel. But sadly the first part of Burial at Sea flounders in its attempts at nostalgia, mashing different parts of the Bioshock legacy together in an easy hybrid that lacks the atmosphere of the original game and completely fails to capitalise upon the expansive vision of Infinite. Half-hearted fan-service at best.