Happy New Year
Note: The following review contains major spoilers for Bioshock Infinite.
In an appropriately paradoxical fashion the ending to Bioshock Infinite both seemed to pave the way for a multitude of possibilities for the Bioshock series going ahead and meant that there were few places for it to go at all. Irrational’s limitless multiverse is a story device that could allow for as many different fallen utopias and hero’s journeys as the developer could possibly imagine, with the caveat that they could reuse whatever elements from previous games they wanted in their new universes. On the other hand however, you can’t go much bigger than revealing the events of your plot to have been the result of a vast interlocking plan involving travel through time and dimensions, and Infinite’s determinism prescribed a formulaic blueprint for the franchise going ahead. There’s only so original you can be when all your stories must contain a dystopia, a man, a lighthouse, a protector-protected relationship, and so on. Both sides of that coin are visible in Burial at Sea, a set of content which is more of a remix of Irrational’s two Bioshock games than it is an experience unto itself.
Burial at Sea: Episode One uses the same gameplay structure as Infinite and the principle characters here are once again Elizabeth and Booker, but not as you know them. On December 31st 1958, the night that Rapture falls, an alternate timeline version of Elizabeth visits an alternate timeline version of Booker at his detective agency in the city. She hires him to help her rescue a child named Sally from the underbelly of Rapture, but it’s not long before Booker is plagued by unexplained visions and the job is complicated by the social fabric of Rapture falling to pieces around them. While Booker’s residence may have changed, he is more or less the same person from Infinite and the differences in how he comes across are really a byproduct of him having a different relationship with Elizabeth, who is something else entirely. This time she’s not that closeted, bright-eyed girl in a tower, she’s a smooth and confident femme fatale who knows her away around the world and knows how to get what she wants. She is perhaps the most interesting new part of Bioshock’s world. Her character redesign is simple but striking and her personality is intriguing, with Courtnee Draper’s fine voice performance giving the sense of a character who’s really been through the ringer. The old Elizabeth was defined by a lack of control over her own fate, but the new Elizabeth is who she is because she has a tight handle on hers. This character dynamic does cost something in terms of drama however.
One of the things that made Bioshock Infinite tragic was that Elizabeth started as an optimistic person and grew to be Booker's friend, but eventually came to see Booker as a monster and the world as a cruel and harsh place. With a darker, more world-worn Elizabeth there’s not the same chance for that downfall and there’s nowhere near as much character development to be done, not to mention there’s not the same chemistry between Booker and Elizabeth. It would be okay if there was something else to fill that void but there isn’t. It’s also hard to care about our two protagonists as much when an infinite universe means that whatever happens to this Booker or Elizabeth, there will still be an infinite number of them who are fine elsewhere. Then there are the top-down issues with the narrative.
The stories of the Bioshock games work on two closely intertwining levels: There’s the large-scale ideology and state of the city, and then there’s the natures and transformations of the individuals characters. In terms of the bigger picture we discover Bioshock’s worlds and learn their terrible secrets. We uncover their politics, their monsters, their technology, their ideologues, and their architecture. We learn where the cracks formed and what philosophically broken ideas shot them in the foot. But we’ve already learned all we have to learn about Rapture; Burial at Sea has Bioshock 2 Syndrome but even worse. The game can present new levels and tools for combat but that’s not the same thing as truly introducing a new place, and this problem trickles down. The characters we see in Bioshock are shaped by and are a major contributor to the worlds around them. Discovering the cities is also a process of discovering and moulding the characters, and Booker and Elizabeth aren’t anywhere near as in tune with Rapture as they were with Columbia. They don’t figure into this world in any serious way and are barely affected by the sociopolitics of Rapture the same way all the other characters are. It leaves the story feeling fairly uneventful until the very end when it drops a mound of details that add up to an elaborate plot twist. And the characters aren’t the only thing that don’t feel entirely at home.
The gameplay of Infinite is weighted less towards the careful planning that was a frequent part of the original Bioshock and more towards typical run-and-gun action, and this isn’t a fit for the sinister, foreboding atmosphere that Rapture is built to strike up. The Skyhook in particular feels oddly disconnected from the level design. It worked in Columbia because of the floating city’s beautiful open vistas and the need to leap between airborne buildings, but you don’t feel like you’re riding one of those bracing rollercoasters when it’s repurposed for the more enclosed space of this underwater metropolis. The game does shake it’s on-the-fly roots a little by dropping the two weapon system from Infinite and reintroducing the original Bioshock’s weapon wheel. It also gets a little something out of adding a brutal new gun and a new plasmid, and the final combat sequence is thrilling to be a part of, but it would have been nice to see some additional changes, especially considering the lack of new content elsewhere.
The thing is, for everything that’s wrong with Burial at Sea, it’s still Bioshock and Bioshock just doesn’t know how to be bad, it doesn’t have it in itself. While the story is unsatisfactory in many ways, it’s fairly serviceable in general. Even if the gameplay might be off-kilter, it’s still fun enough to carry you through the experience, and the environments are a masterpiece. Right up to the end nobody was able to realise spaces the same way Irrational could. Burial at Sea is full of these perfectly framed views of a dying but mighty city and uses them to deliver impactful moments both loud and quiet. It’s a gallery of carefully composed and lit sets which are both visually nourishing, and help tell the story of the city without spelling things out in words of one syllable or having to halt the gameplay. The city once again feels like it’s its own powerful character and Irrational manage to put into a 90 minute DLC what most developers can’t manage in an entire game. The opening sections of the content are arguably the best, giving us a look at a sleek, lustrous pre-disaster Rapture, and there’s an encounter with a character from a previous game that thoroughly gave me chills.
Knowing that this was one of the last things Irrational Games made, it’s disappointing that Burial at Sea: Episode One does not meet the bar set by the Bioshock series, but then that’s a very high bar. There’s little new to learn about the world, seldom meaningful narrative to explore, and the gameplay doesn’t entirely belong where it’s been placed, but it’s at least competent in most facets, and the almost unparalleled art and sound design is still something to behold. This is far from Bioshock at its best, but if the series looks this good at its worst that says great things.