After watching my significant other polish off the campaign from Bioshock: Infinite last week, I found myself itching to play the DLC, which I’d hitherto ignored on the basis that I thought it’d be mediocre at best. The first episode of Burial At Sea was, sadly, almost exactly that. If you ignore the plot, it’s basically just the combat from Infinite transplanted into Rapture, really nothing more than a change of scenery.
But Episode 2 is something else entirely.
Fair warning: I’ll be discussing plenty of mechanical spoilers here. I’m not going to discuss anything story related, but if you’re really keen to stay spoiler free then I’d recommend finishing off the episode before reading on.
Where Episode 1 kept the familiar protagonist of Booker DeWitt, Ep2 casts the player as Elizabeth herself. This change of perspective forces a fundamental rethink of the way you approach combat situations. Infinite was predominantly a run-and-gun shooter, its quiet moments lasting just long enough for the player to decide which generic NPC to shoot first, a combat style which Episode 1 followed almost to the letter. Episode 2, meanwhile, introduces stealth into the Bioshock universe – so effectively, in fact, that I wish it’d been like this from the start.
Plenty of chaff has been stripped from the world to make room for the stealth mechanics. Most of the weapons are gone, as are the vast majority of plasmids. Elizabeth is weak – She can’t take many hits, she can’t carry any huge guns and she can only do melee damage to non-alert enemies. Ammo for actual guns is pretty scarce, and Elizabeth can’t hold much of any of it. All of this forces the player to think properly about how they’re going to approach each combat situation. Still, Elizabeth isn’t without help. She’s got a few new, stealth-oriented plasmids, which let her see through walls, or turn temporarily invisible. There’s also a crossbow which fires sleep, gas and noise-making darts. But the most interesting change comes from a few simple tweaks to one of the original game’s most interesting mechanics.
In Infinite, the sky-hook was used primarily to make fights more kinetic. You’d swing around, find a high vantage point, take a few pot-shots, then Indiana-Jones your way back to the ground, landing right on top of some poor sky-racist sod. In Burial at Sea, it’s been re-tooled slightly to work a bit more like the grappling hook and gargoyle combo from the Batman: Arkham games. This completely shifts the dynamic, giving Elizabeth a good bit of vertical mobility, plus the option to quickly escape a fight that isn’t going her way. I really enjoyed the sky-hook segments of the original game, and it’s fascinating to see how, just by changing the way the hooks it attaches to are laid out, the purpose of the device has entirely shifted.
The series has always been good at marrying gameplay to narrative – the ‘big twist’ towards the end of the original Bioshock being a fantastic example of this kind of game design. Here, the player’s journey mirrors that of Elizabeth. She’s coming to terms with going from a nearly omniscient, dimension-hopping demigod to a time-linear mortal, whilst the player, stripped of the majority of guns and plasmids, lacking even the ability to do direct melee damage, is having to re-learn their approach to the game from scratch.
This creates an interesting dynamic, as both the player and the protagonist learn to cope with the world simultaneously. Early on, you’re mostly limited to a few sleep darts, a stealth takedown, and a plasmid that’ll render you temporarily invisible. As you – and Elizabeth – grow in power, you’ll both start to gain a bit of confidence. The transition from a scared girl taking opportunistic pot-shots from the shadows to a femme fatale Predator is rewarding, and quite natural. That said, stealth is still very much mandatory. You’re never going to be as capable in straight up combat as Booker or Jack were towards the end of their respective games.
If Burial At Sea: Episode 2 was an experiment in introducing stealth to the Bioshock franchise, it’s definitely worked. I enjoyed Infinite, even naming it one of my favourite games of last year, but even then I knew it wasn’t without its problems, particularly in the diversity of options it gave the player. In many ways, Burial At Sea: Episode 2 is a far better game than Infinite ever was, and the plot even makes a little bit more sense than the oft-mocked batshit crazy end to that game. The shift towards slower, more thoughtful play has also brought the game a little bit further back towards its original, more cerebral roots.
I actually think it’s a bit of a shame this didn’t come sooner. If this had been what Infinite was like, even just for a few hours, it really would’ve helped to offset a lot of the criticism that game received.
Literally as I’m about to publish this, news has broken over on Rock, Paper, Shotgun that the Bioshock series will be continuing, under the care of 2K Marin, developers of the (in my opinion) rather excellent Bioshock 2. If there is to be a successor, either spiritual or actual, I’d love to see some of the ideas from Burial at Sea: Episode 2 brought forward. A mix between this and the more in-depth hacking and environmental mechanics of the first two games would, to my mind, make for a hell of an experience.
Let’s hope they don’t fuck it up.