The following article contains some spoilers for the end of Bioshock Infinite.
Bioshock Infinite was unquestionably one of my favourite games of 2013 and remains every bit as excellent. It ought to be a mark of its excellence that I actually played the game through twice despite its linear path and story, simply because I enjoyed playing it so much. Indeed it was only in the past few weeks that I completed my second playthrough on 1999 mode (and got all those collectible achievements along the way, I might add) and decided that I just had not yet had quite my fill of Bioshock. This prompted me to buy the season pass for the game and work through the various DLCs on offer.
First things first, before I actually review the season pass I should mention a couple of things. First of all, one of the three pieces of major DLC content, Clash in the Clouds, is simply a horde mode add-on with a points system for online leaderboards, which clearly is something no game can do without. While this is, probably, good fun thanks to the excellent combat of Bioshock Infinite, it is not worth my time to review it or your time reading the review. Horde mode is horde mode.
The other thing is that the season pass costs 1600 Microsoft Points (£15.99) while both Episode 1 and 2 of Burial at Sea cost £12 a piece. Considering that I reckon that CitC is a nothing DLC and that Burial at Sea is the only reason worth getting the season pass, it seems odd that they don’t make them both cost something like £8 so you could get away with buying them both separately… With that in mind as well it makes reviewing each episode separately pointless, as the only really logical choice is to buy them all at the same time. But whatever, onto the actual review!
So at the end of Infinite it is explained that the lighthouses which have become so iconic of Bioshock games are in fact doors into different universes/dimensions or whatever and that there exists travel between these dimensions and that there are apparently universal constants which come into play. This is, most likely, going to be the central theme of any future Bioshock games, as they will be able to have use the lighthouse system to lead the protagonist to wherever they please.
In Burial at Sea, you play again as Booker DeWitt, except now for some mysterious reason he is once again a private detective in 1958 Rapture, before it fell in the civil war between Andrew Ryan and Frank Fontaine. Somehow in a completely different Universe and even 40 years after the events of Infinite. At the very start you are introduced to a more worldly and femme-fetale version of Elizabeth who hires Booker to find a lost girl named Sally.
The first thing which has to be said about the DLC is that because Irrational Games rebuilt Rapture from scratch with their new engine, it looks absolutely fabulous. Personally, I think Rapture is one of the greatest video game settings of all time and seeing it in its heyday was greatly exciting.
The gameplay is a little different from the base game as well. Bioshock Infinite was a swashbuckling adventure filled with running-gunning, rooty-tooty-point-and-shooty action. Burial at Sea on the other hand was a little more restrained, in a sense. While a good few of the vigors remain in the game, along with the addition of the rather excellent Old Man Winter, freeze vigor (or rather plasmid, as it is set in Rapture), along with a number of the standard weapons, the game still feels a little different.
There are two main reasons for this. Primarily is the fact that supplies, specifically including ammo and salts/Eve, are far less common in the DLC. This means you have to be careful to conserve what little you have and pick your shots, as opposed to the more extravagant pace of the core game. It demands a more careful and thought-out approach. The other main reason, following directly on the heels of the first, is that the enemies of Burial at Sea (and here we can give a hearty welcome to the return of the splicers) are far more tanky than the Colombians. They can take more damage and dish it out in greater quantities too. Where using melee in the core game was an absolute staple, now one has to be far more careful about closing the distance to engage the splicers as they hit a lot harder than you do (or at least this is the case in the harder difficulties).
Taken together, these things made the combat harder and slower, which was likely done deliberately. Add in to the mix the dark, dystopian setting of Rapture, which Colombia never really matched up to, and the game feels tenser as well. It feels a little more life and death and thus you feel a little more on edge throughout the playthrough. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a horror game (even back in the day I don’t think Bioshock was actually scary) but it certainly felt a little more suspenseful than the core game.
That said though, all is not completely well with Burial at Sea. While the game may feel darker, more oppressive and overall tenser, it also felt less exciting and less punchy. Without the fast-paced combat which had become so standard, the game just didn’t feel quite the same. It was also surprisingly short and over just a little too quickly. It provided other benefits, to be certain, but never quite enough that they made up for the lack of what the original game had.
The story of BaS is reasonably straight forward and perfectly good. It’s also actually the first time in the whole game where I felt they did a good job with the whole time/dimension-travel stuff. While I liked it in the core game, it never really lost that slight edge of being a little too complex and pretentious for its own good (although I ought to mention that this feeling diminishes following subsequent playthroughs of the man game as you now understand what is going on). They did this by only just mentioning it and not delving too deeply into the core mechanics behind it, leaving it with an air of mystery which suits something so enigmatic and magical as Elizabeth’s abilities. It was also very cool to start to learn about the connections between Rapture and Colombia via the voice-messages left scattered around. Combine that with a rather surprising and effective ending and I think that the story was something of a winner.
Episode 2 of BaS takes place immediately following the events of the first episode with the primary difference that now you are playing as Elizabeth instead of Booker, who has no physical presence in the episode (an important distinction to make). If Episode 1 was slightly darker than the core game (which in itself says a lot) then Episode 2 was darker still.
It deals with a lot of the self-recriminations and guilt which Elizabeth feels about the events of Infinite, from the killing of Daisy Fitzroy to the actual final death of Booker himself. She becomes like her father in many ways in that despite managing to briefly escape the cycle of Colombia and Rapture and Booker, she was drawn back in for some quest at redemption, attempting to rescue Sally (the same girl from Episode 1). It’s actually all rather depressing and the story itself is no better. Elizabeth very narrowly avoids death at the hands of Atlas (i.e. Fontaine, i.e. the final boss of the original game) and spends the whole game only just surviving by the skin of her teeth. It really takes the story of Episode 1 further and really ties both Colombia and Rapture together in an extremely effective and convincing way, there’s a lot of intertwining lore and characters and you also spend some time back in Colombia. On the other hand, the ending of the story was a little disappointing in that, and I feel no shame in this minor spoiler, it does NOT end well.
There’s far too much self-sacrifice in Bioshock these days. Booker sacrificing himself so that Comstock never existed and now Elizabeth apparently does the same thing, although the reasons behind her actions are rather cool at least. It just leaves a slightly bitter taste in my mouth though that both of these protagonists do not get the happy ending that anyone who played the game will certainly have wished for them. If there’s something you should know about me is that I hate a sad ending… Usually…
Playing as Elizabeth is fundamentally different than playing as Booker. She is physically weaker than Booker and so does no damage with her melee attacks, she also has less of a history of violence and so this is translated into even less weapons than in Episode 1. Instead Irrational introduce a stealth element to the game. Elizabeth sneaks around and knocks out enemies with a single blow if she is undetected. She also gains the use of a crossbow which has knock-out darts, gas and distraction abilities in order to aid her stealthy progress. You also take charge of Elizabeth’s lock-picking abilities, although unfortunately not her abilities with tears.
Did you make the connection, by the way? If you know anything about games then the whole “stealth” plus “crossbow” thing ought to have made several lightbulbs light up. Yes, indeed, it does actually sound a whole lot like Bioshock was trying to be Dishonored. It actually gets deeper than that too, you are encouraged in the “toughest” gameplay mode to play a “clean-hands”-like playthrough without killing anyone. How aware of you enemies are is demonstrated in a three-tier system visible in a semi-circle above their heads. And, the absolute nail in the coffin: as you wander around splicers will interact with each other and the environment, repeatedly muttering a limited number of lines of dialogue to themselves. “Blow off, choffer!”
It’s a bit of a weird situation. I always made the connection of Dishonored to Bioshock, thinking that it was obvious where it had drawn most of its inspiration. Now though it is suddenly the reverse that is true, and worse its not even inspiration, it actually feels more like a direct clone. I mean, seriously?! A crossbow?! Couldn’t they have just added a silencer or something, perhaps a stealth knockout plasmid?
I mean, don’t get me wrong, its not exactly the same. Admittedly Elizabeth is a good deal less manoeuvrable than Corvo, she has to clamber up and into vents rather than vaulting up easily, you spend a lot more time relying on your invisibility plasmid than on any teleportation ability. You can’t really spend too long in the rafters otherwise you’ll be noticed (which prevents me from also comparing it to the Arkham series). You also do have the option of grabbing guns and going about the standard Bioshocky gameplay, albeit one which requires even more care than the first episode. It IS fun as well, I don’t think that should be merely brushed over. Just because its inspirations are more blatant than most doesn’t make it bad.
All of this said, I have to admit that I feel a little dubious about Episode 2 of BaS. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what frustrates me about it, but I suspect it is the same thing which frustrated me about Episode 1 in that it simply does not FEEL like Bioshock any more.
In fact, this is something which I feel is a reasonable overall conclusion to draw regarding the DLC. It’s good and, I feel, worth the money, but I also don’t think its really as great as it could have been. It felt too far from the games roots and didn’t have that same really aggressive feel. It was always just a little too slow and tame, never really pushing as hard as I think it could have. It was worth playing to get more of the lore of Bioshock and more of the intertwining worlds which the game world is set in, but the actual gameplay just didn’t hit the same chord.