They say things are often best left to the imagination. Irrational clearly paid this sentiment no attention, as Burial at Sea leaves nothing at all to the imagination, smothering you with details, ideas and backstory from the start.
This makes Burial At Sea, like its progenitor, a perfectly crafted experience, full of wonders to bear witness to, conversations to eavesdrop and jack-in-the-box buttons to punch. It’s once again like being on a tour bus with no downtime, no moments to sit and just eat a questionable sandwich at the side of a highway whilst waiting for the driver to sort out an overheated engine. It’s an approach which has served the series well, and in Burial at Sea, it’s tighter than ever, no doubt helped by the fact that we are revisiting a familiar location, one where questions that have lingered from the original BioShocks might get some answers.
Given the ending of Infinite, I’m a little disappointed that we weren’t introduced to an entirely new place, and it was with a little trepidation that I set foot into Rapture once again, given that it’s a rare prequel that delivers interesting narrative beyond mere fan service. But it’s nothing if not spectacular– almost a decade after first climbing into a Bathysphere, I was impressed at just familiar everything was, and at the same time, how different, updated, more defined.
Here’s that place, before the city fell apart.
Here’s that person, before the situation made (or unmade) them into someone different.
Here’s a splicer, more of a fashion victim than a monster.
Here’s a little sister, merely eerie, as opposed to twisted and vampiric.
Here’s a big daddy, as terrifying as a week-old baby, insatiable in the dead of night (and more fearsome than anything found in Infinite).
All of it is perfectly realised, with no requirement (or opportunity) for any imagination on the player’s part. Everywhere there’s something to look at, a million cinematographers weaving light and shadow to look perfect from every possible angle, to the point where taking screenshots was less of a joy for me than usual; I was unable to feel like I’d truly discovered any particular image that hadn’t been put there for me to find in the first place.
In the weeks since I reviewed BioShock: Infinite, I read a lot of differing opinions on it. In all that I read, the one line that resonated with me the most was “Bioshock Infinite is hurt by being an FPS”. Burial At Sea promises something more from the outset, with an opening that could have been lifted right out of The Maltese Falcon, dripping with equal measures noir and intrigue, and I got the feeling I was in for something rather special. Step outside and I’m back in Rapture, before the events of BioShock, when the underwater city was at the height of its splendour, with grandiose, physically improbable architecture, lavish parties, and commonplace superpowers.
Then almost immediately the game makes a very strange U-turn into more mundane RPG territory, with you going to three more or less identical locations in search of something to move the plot forward (and showcase the undeniable talent of the art direction of the thing). But it was an otherwise uninteresting sequence to play through, and in truth I was thankful when we got back to moving the narrative forward with simple violence, as much as it left me with a taste of the truly ground-breaking game Infinite could have been, as opposed to the glorious carnival sideshow that it is.
But it isn’t long before we find ourselves back to solving every problem with bullets or plasmids, raiding hat-boxes for booze, and the former noir and RPG tropes become a distant memory. Honestly, I’m fine with that. I don’t need my DLC to try to re-invent the wheel, and some of the best expansions have been those that either add new mechanics to a game, as in the case of Brave New World, or give us the same game in a new, interesting setting, as in Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon’s Keep.
Burial at Sea is successful terms of melding Rapture’s BioShocks with Columbia’s Infinite. We’re back to using plasmids, but they work much like the vigors in Infinite. The locations are more varied than in Columbia, thanks to an assortment of pristine, flooded and derelict buildings. You’re allowed to carry multiple weapons once more, and cycle between them, as if this was somehow a limitation of high altitude, and a new, genuinely interesting weapon is even thrown in. We get to use the skyhook (by another name) for melee and aerial assaults. There’s even something of a stealth mechanic, whereby you can creep up on unsuspecting enemies and take them out. And there’s the articles of clothing which inexplicably grant you superpowers. It really does seem to take the best of all three games and still find ways to surprise you. The only real issue I had was that the checkpointing was just awful, and there were times where I’d returned to the game to find my progress set back by 20 minutes or so.
Booker and Elizabeth are back too, the former largely copy-and-pasted from Infinite, whilst Elizabeth is given a femme fatale makeover, though strangely her half-skip walk remains unchanged, and doesn’t befit her more assured personality. She’ll help out the same way in combat too, throwing you items or opening tears (which provide some new things this time out), and in terms of the plot it’s clear she knows a lot more than she’s letting on.
Ultimately, it’s more of what you’d hope for after Infinite, and I’m glad that Irrational at least showed some originality in moving away from Columbia, giving us a new story to experience, even if it’s one in a familiar setting. It’s a labour of love rather than a cash-in, and takes more risks than it needs to, even though I might personally want for the series to start doing more.
It hits all the same high notes as the main game, as well as leaving you with a sense of feeling unfulfilled in other aspects, but the care and attention is undeniable. As you’d expect, it’s fairly short, maybe one-sixth of the duration of Infinite, but it’s much more dense, the artists at Irrational being held to ever higher standards, without the entirety of it coming apart at the seams; the painterly nature of it maintaining harmony rather than clamouring for attention. It’s “wonderful” in the same way as Infinite, and without relying on the strength of its own heritage as a crutch.
One thing’s for sure, I am eagerly awaiting the next installment.