Words, images and moving pictures have a way of bringing places to life in a romanticised way that captures the essence of a place but makes it seem better than it actually is. I experienced this for the first time in a video game within the first five minutes of Burial at Sea episode 2. I’ve been to Paris on several occasions, but I’ve always experienced it as a noisy, hectic city, albeit a striking one. In its opening scene, the concluding episode of Burial at Sea shows Paris as the city you imagine it to be if you’ve never experienced it first-hand. It’s a really beautiful sequence (if a little sugary), and one that seems completely misplaced for a first-person shooter. It made me think, yet again, that the entire production team was wasted on making such a generic style of game, that somewhere there’s an undiscovered genre that this series should have been part of.
But, somewhat strangely, in what’s likely to be the last ever BioShock outing, Irrational went and made a stealth game. This is problematic for two reasons: first, whomever actually bought into the series as a first-person shooter will find that even that’s been mostly stripped away; secondly, you spend much of the game crouched down and on the lookout for enemies, which means you don’t really get to enjoy the lavish production values as you otherwise would.
Still, it’s nothing if not bold of them, and actually episode 2 seems to be a lot less risk-averse than anything else Irrational have ever done. There’s less emphasis on gunplay, a female protagonist (you play as Elizabeth in this outing), and even Rapture’s red light district makes an appearance (“sexual congress the Rapture way!”). Even the relatively breezy storyline makes way for a much more sinister and depressing one. For many people, this will be the chapter of the series they’ve been waiting for, and for others, they’ll find that actually the stealth system is pretty good.
Unlike other stealth games, the emphasis is on sound rather than light. Enemies will tend to zero in on Elizabeth if she makes any noise, and this means being careful where you step (carpet good, broken glass or water bad), and even though she can jump onto freight hooks like Booker could, she can only hang from them for a little while before they start to audibly creak, again attracting unwanted attention (jumping off them will also make noise, unless you press the crouch button mid-flight for a silent landing). What’s interesting about this system, compared to other stealth games, is it means you don’t really need to pay as much attention to the direction enemies are facing, at least unless you’re trying to sneak up on them for a knockout blow.
Elizabeth herself is completely feeble, having a miniscule health bar that can be depleted in less than a second, and no opportunity for resurrection. Because of this, she can’t go toe-to-toe with Big Daddies, spotting any group of enemies typically means having to find an alternate route, and setting off an alarm is certain death. She does have a couple of tricks up her sleeve though, as she can lockpick automatons to disable them, and gains the Eve-powered abilities to detect enemies through walls and turn invisible early on.
There are a couple of unintended side-effects of the focus on stealth. Because the approach of bombing into a room and shooting everything on sight is no longer valid, you spend a lot of time in rooms with patrolling enemies just waiting, and this means you get to hear them say the same recorded lines over and over, something that’s made worse when they’re said by different enemies. The other issue is that it makes the pacing extremely slow, as you’ll typically enter a large room populated with various threats, and have to slowly work your way to some objective (often you can get away with sneaking past enemies rather than having to eliminate them all). Make a mistake, get cornered, or die in some other fashion and you’ll have to start over again.
There’s also the lethal vs. non-lethal dilemma, in that you can opt to merely knock out enemies using tranquiliser darts or remove them permanently via many of the weapons and powers available throughout the BioShock series. In truth though, it doesn’t seem to make any difference which approach you take, and for me the decisions were made by how much noise I was willing to make, and how much ammunition I happened to be carrying (which was never very much). The AI is not particularly smart either, as you can just hole up around a corner, make some noise, and sit and wait for a string of enemies to walk right into your crosshairs (provided you don’t run out of bullets), and with the ability to see through walls (which persists unless you move), you can always see exactly where their head will appear.
There are some minor concessions towards this, with one enemy type that can teleport, enemies that are resistant to certain types of weapon, but the real challenge is always that you can quickly run out of options, thanks to your limited reserves of ammunition and a total of zero special powers that can do any lasting damage.
As you might expect, the story is just fantastic, showcasing some of the best storytelling seen in the medium to date, with Irrational even taking the opportunity to fill in some continuity issues and plot holes for the entire series (there are a few plot devices that are used that don’t really make any narrative sense though, like having an imaginary Booker talking to you the whole time). It’s a superb send-off to the series, albeit a rather grim one. Burial gets about as dark as Columbia was bright, with one scene in particular that would have sat comfortably somewhere in Goodfellas, and plenty of backstory dotted about that made me feel very uneasy, culminating in an ending that’s cathartic but not exhilarating. This is not something to play if you’re in a bad mood, but considering how short the episode is (around 5 hours or so), it’s required playing if you’ve already experienced BioShock, BioShock 2, and Infinite. That said, if you haven’t played through the other games, some of what happens might be lost on you. Ironically, I actually think it’s fair to say you probably don’t need to have played through episode 1 of Burial at Sea to get most of the impact from the story (though it’s certainly worth playing in its own right).
It’s a pity to think Burial at Sea Episode 2 might be the pinnacle of Irrational’s illustrious legacy, and that people might overlook it simply because it’s a bit of downloadable content for a game that received somewhat mixed reviews. In many ways, this is Irrational Games signing off, showcasing some truly astounding art direction and storytelling, and proving exactly why they’ll be so fondly remembered in years to come.