Irrational Games, as we know it, have dissolved into the ether and in their tragic wake fans everywhere will come to rely on Burial At Sea: Episode 2 to receive any form of closure to what has been an absorbing legacy of BioShock. And what closure it is…
I proudly stand as one of those fans – my infatuation stemming from the groundbreaking original BioShock, which I purchased as something of a gaming ‘gamble’ around my birthday on August 21st, 2007. Little to say, the gamble paid off in full and through the somewhat debatable direct sequel and now to the mesmerising BioShock Infinite – I have enjoyed exploring both Rapture and Columbia as much as creator Ken Levine enjoyed creating it. Already I’m in danger of making this review hideously biased – but I’d rather you all know that these are the opinions of a genuine fan, not just a hired writer.
Back in November 2013 I reviewed Burial At Sea: Episode 1 quite favourably, despite it then receiving generally negative reviews by many members of the press. I remember having a fun ride with the game; it attempted to repeat the Infinite formula of leaving you with a bit of a head-scratcher in what always turns out to be a turbulent 5-minute conclusion. Episode 2, for me at least, is a little different – it begins with the head-scratcher and ends with some clarity. Personally I found that a little disappointing, I think a lot of us actively prefer the immediate shock of an unexpected twist ending rather than struggling to grasp what we’re meant to be doing for an hour before cottoning on to the whole thing and watching every facet subsequently fall into its predictable place. Regardless, the narrative picks up right from where Episode 1 left off: Booker DeWitt/Comstock has been murdered by a Big Daddy after trying to forcibly take Sally from a vent in a desperate attempt to atone for his mistakes. Elizabeth, having fulfilled her job in eradicating Comstock from this timeline, is then confused as to why she still remains in Rapture and – more peculiarly – why she suddenly can no longer use tears, see doors and visualize the universe around her. Cue you, the gamer, embarking on a confusing mission that involves Atlas, Andrew Ryan and Dr. Suchong, in an entertaining journey that predicates the original BioShock adventure.
I once wrote of the BioShock franchise: “the non-action moments prove to be the most entertaining. I enjoy the human moments far more than the repetitive combat. Kevin Levine can tell a fantastic story in the simplest of ways, sometimes I get the impression he’d rather not have any action in his games whatsoever.” It feels as though Irrational must have caught a glimpse of that review, as Burial At Sea: Episode 2 opens with a fantastic and utterly charming set piece that can be added to a comprehensive list of the franchises’ most memorable moments. You play as Elizabeth, with all the gentility and non-action qualities that she possesses, as she quantum leaps into an idyllic representation of traditional bohemian Paris. Drinking red wine whilst engaging with the friendly locals, strolling along the river overlooked by the Eiffel Tower – silhouetted by the glorious sunshine. You can take as much time as you like to dance around a maypole with the most French boy in existence as he waves a baguette above his head – all the while serenaded by the fantastically fitting anthem by Edith Piaf: La Vie En Rose. The sad reality is that this isn’t authentic – this is an example of the cliché Elizabeth can conjure after her lifetime trapped in a tower relying on paintings and films for stimulus. Things immediately take a turn for the worse in a harrowing sequence which took me back to the film 1408 with John Cusack, whereby a paranormal cynic believes he’s escaped a haunted hotel room only to have his idyllic surroundings fall apart like a deck of cards to reveal he never left the room. With that metaphor in hand, hopefully you get the picture – it’s not long before Elizabeth is back in the wreckage of Rapture facing the uncomfortable prospect of assisting Atlas in a terrible quest. A quest made even more terrible based on the gamer already knowing Atlas’ fate, and therefore understanding that his fortune is secure in this title.
The narrative is gripping, the production values and overall presentation – as always – are exceptionally high, so what can be said about the mechanics of playing as Elizabeth? Well, for starters, they’re a mixed bag. They’re exactly as they should be on paper – a smaller health bar, a reliance on melee combat and the occasional stealth-supporting plasmid, however they don’t necessarily translate well in-game. The sound design is so powerful, it constantly feels like enemies are right behind you – this was fine in the earlier games as you had an arsenal of weaponry at your disposal, now it just makes things confusing as you have a severely limited array of options and constantly checking behind your back becomes generally distracting rather than tension-building. The enemies can be gauged by a small ‘spidey-sense’ above their heads which inform you of how aware they are to your location; on the whole this worked well enough but it was generally inconsistent and I couldn’t gauge exactly how well I could be seen. I’d tend to spend most of my time crouched in corners and dark places and even then my foes would scream so loudly as though they’d spotted me, I was constantly jolting around in confusion.
The game can be made incredibly difficult if you wish to play it properly, which I did. This means taking your time to assess your surroundings and locate where enemies may lie using the handy Peeping Tom plasmid (a suitable name derived from the location where you find it: a strip-club) which can show you enemies through walls and even turn you invisible depending on how much EVE you possess. However when playing the ‘stealth’ game you need to take your chances when they come – that means dashing past an opponent at the right moment and not looking back. This was a real thorn in my paw (excuse the in-joke there) because for me, a BioShock game demands exploration. The universe Irrational create is so compelling and beautifully crafted, I want to make sure I don’t miss a single detail – right down to reading the small print on a poster for Dr. Suchong which arguably no normal person would do. Having to sacrifice that exploration to make sure I didn’t die proved to be a difficult balancing act and not one that I particularly relished. This isn’t the games’ fault by any means, just a sacrifice that naturally has to be made to facilitate the concept of stealth play – which is always welcome after the barrage of repetitive combat Infinite offered its players.
It took me roughly 4 hours to finish the game and, despite wrapping up both BioShock & BioShock Infinite’s stories comprehensively, it left me wanting more. It was a sad moment to catch a final fleeting glimpse of Rapture as ‘Beyond the Sea’ returned to warble for a few moments before cutting to black. Mid-way through the game, Andrew “The Lion” Ryan raises a question: why can’t I have a slice of that pie? My answer to him is, you certainly can – there’s more than enough content in Burial At Sea to tide anybody over (a welcome bonus for me having just reviewed Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes – a fully licensed disc-based game with roughly 10 minutes worth of content). Excusing the underwater puns, Burial At Sea is as deep or as shallow as you want the experience to be. You can attempt to rush through it (easier said than done with the option of a stealth play being mandatory) or you can soak it in as I did, the latter of which will reward you with a thrilling gaming experience.
It’s not infallible though – aside from the occasional clunky mechanics, I found the game embarrassed itself at times with its return to pseudo-scientific/quantum physics mumbo jumbo. I totally understood what it was trying to say, however it just highlighted flaws in the nature of videogames rather than offering any real point. At one section in the game you find a laboratory filled with prototypes and designs for creatures in both Rapture and Columbia. Here, the voice of Booker tells you something along the lines of: “Elizabeth and Songbird, Little Sisters and Big Daddies – everything was cross-engineered, it was always connected. There’s always a lighthouse.” Taking into account what the game is trying to say, it’s obviously a deep message noting the reason behind the apparent similarities between two completely contrasting universes. In actuality, I took this more along the lines of: “we’ve made two stylistically similar games because this is a videogame not a film, therefore the combat is the same and the enemies need to be similar and it must always starts with a lighthouse, because anything different would alienate fans of the game.” This is absolutely fine, this is what videogames are all about – I just wish the game wouldn’t try and justify the gameplay similarities between the original BioShock and Infinite because of scientific cross-engineering and quantum physics. It’s not pretentious; it’s just a bit daft.
In conclusion, Burial at Sea: Episode 2 is as near perfect a DLC offering as you’ll ever get in this current age of gaming. It’s narrative-driven, which is a huge bonus for those of you who long for more from your games than just endless gunfights in large maps, and the graphic presentation, audio design and overall entertainment value stand comparably with anything out there at the moment. It’s not consecrated by any means; there’s some clunky mechanics in there and a lot of the intellectual injections don’t actually have as much weight as you’d think they do, yet for what it is it’s a perfect swan-song for the BioShock era and I wish Ken and the team at Take-Two the best for the future. Farewell Columbia, Farewell Rapture – return to us again one day, would you kindly?