‘Is it someone new?’ asks the preacher in BioShock Infinite, poetically harking back to the ghoulish splicer’s welcoming sentiment in 2007’s BioShock. Back in March 2013, this was just sheer fan service – an intelligent pat on the back for the fans that subsisted the franchise for 6 years. Now as we head towards the winter and ‘Burial At Sea – Episode 1’ makes its anticipated appearance, this coupling is far more appropriate than one could ever have imagined. ‘No,’ you can tell the splicer/preacher hybrid, ‘these aren’t new characters – not quite, anyway…’
Yes, Burial At Sea returns to tell us an all-new, crafty tale in the Booker De Witt/Elizabeth saga. That initial tie between 2007 and now is incredibly convincing, as this chapter ditches the lofty heights of Columbia and plummets gamers back into the underwater dystopia of Rapture. However this isn’t the Rapture as we know it… This Rapture is pristine, its art-deco aesthetic not besmirched by bloodstains and broken décor. This Rapture is alive, it’s a jive with energy, it’s… on the brink of chaos. Set on New Years’ Eve 1958 – the night in which war broke out under the sea and one year before the events of the first game take place, Booker is tasked by Elizabeth to locate a missing child, presumed dead. This is where the gamer takes over and begins their relatively brief quest into a fresh mystery, yet a familiar case.
Burial at Sea successfully shows us what Rapture was like when it was considered a utopia, a theme explored loosely in one section in the underwhelming BioShock 2. While it’s intriguing to see our iconic setting in such a new light, I was on the whole underwhelmed by its lack of dynamism and vigor. During the initial ‘tour’ (whereby there is no action, just exploration) I was surprised to find so many motionless inhabitants sat on chairs or stood by walls, occasionally offering one or two sentences worth of exposition. They are purely there for show, there’s no movement – no excitement, in fact I even forgot this game was taking place on New Year’s Eve. Once you exit Booker’s office at the beginning, the very first thing you spot is a waiter stood silent with a brimming champagne trolley. That, as far as I can remember, is it for ‘celebration’ iconography – the rest of the journey resembles a typical day-in-the-life of a Rapture inhabitant. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, perhaps they’re not particularly jovial people, but I remember a fantastic sequence in 2007 where you enter a room utterly obliterated, with banners torn down and glass on the floor and a big sign saying ‘Happy New Years!’ I struggled to get that sense of a party atmosphere in this DLC offering, which is a fair let down given the games’ strong premise.
That’s not to say Burial At Sea is a bland offering – far from it. There are countless moments whereby I was either hooked with tense anxiety or chuckling at some of the games’ wittier moments. The non-action moments, for me, proved the most entertaining – a dance with Elizabeth, overhearing her try and charm shopkeepers while you root around looking for masks, a chance meeting with the exceedingly enchanting Sander Cohen… This was the case in Columbia, too, I enjoyed the slower moments far more than the recycled action – Ken Levine can tell a fantastic narrative in the simplest of ways, sometimes I get the impression he’d rather not have any action in his games at all.
The graphics are superb and resemble a Columbia-esque interpretation of Rapture, rather than a revisit to the identifiable 2007. This seems to have been Levine’s objective, as he claims rather than kitbashing (creating existing assets and modifying them to tell a new story, a la BioShock 2) they re-built everything from the ground up. This means a significantly short playing time (roughly 2 hours if you explore the majority of the game) but a boost in overall quality. Take your pick, quality over quantity?
The narrative is strong and follows a similar format to BioShock Infinite – you’re introduced to a world, things get hectic and then a surprise ending has you gawping at the screen in disbelief. I re-experienced all of these same emotions during Burial At Sea, which is a fantastic thing to have achieved, however they’re naturally less astounding as they were the first time round in Infinite.
Overall, Burial At Sea is a fantastic DLC offering that, as a standalone experience, could quite rightly be the first few levels of an Infinite sequel. As it stands though, it’s a little on the short side to justify its rather hefty £11.99 price tag and some lazy design (the inhabitants of Rapture feeling lifeless, Elizabeth being virtually invisible to the enemy during fights) cripples the game from being a classic. I’m a massive fan of BioShock and I can happily say this offering did not disappoint, keep on producing the good stuff Irrational!