Six years ago we got our first glimpse at the destroyed beauty of Bioshock’s Rapture: the impressive underwater city built upon the ideologies of self-interest and progression at all costs. Unfortunately, by the time we reached the city, it was ravaged by splicers, psychopaths, and internal politics to the point of near total abandonment. With this first of two story add-ons for Bioshock Infinite, we’re at long last given a brief look at the bustling beauty of Rapture before its messy and violent collapse.
It’s certainly a delight to visit this unseen era of Rapture, but it becomes quickly apparent that all is not as we were expecting.
We’re back in the shoes of Booker Dewitt, with an evidently more noire themed Elizabeth as our companion through Rapture. Our objectives and existence are left vague in the context of Bioshock Infinite’s dimension bending constants and variables. Why are Booker and Elizabeth in Rapture? Is this the same pair from the events of the main game? Why is this Elizabeth so cold and detached in comparison to the one we remember? We’re teased with a few hints here and there before the rug is pulled out from under us in spectacular fashion, just like the main game.
Without spoiling anything, it’s worth nothing that (at least in this first part alone) Burial at Sea’s plot acts as a side story rather an essential piece of fiction that reshapes our knowledge of the core game. That’s not to say what’s here isn't worthwhile, as there are certainly intriguing developments in context of Infinite’s harrowing finale.
It’s easy to forget that Rapture was once as beautiful and astounding as its aeronautical counterpart. The familiar sign that reads “No gods or kings, only man,” is an incredible sight when juxtaposed with the bright lights of the underwater city and sea life passing through. It’s a stark contrast to the terror and uncertainty when we first saw this sign before entering the bathysphere to Rapture in the original Bioshock.
There’s a strangeness to Rapture that we could only piece together before, but here we see it center stage, paraded around with an eccentricity and insanity that we’d expect from a city with minds like Sander Cohen at the forefront. It's hard not to be astounded at how well Irrational has captured the simultaneously awe-inspiring beauty and haunting realities of this city. Rapture’s style is indeed breathtaking, but it’s easy to feel like we’re just letting the atmosphere of the city wash over us, rather than truly being a part of it.
Like our opening moments in Columbia, we so desperately want something meaningful and interesting to engage us in this world, and yet we’re provided little worth doing other than engaging in a fairly brainless fetch quest. Burial at Sea follows Infinite’s theme park style, which is particularly egregious here due to its truncated length. Our opening walkthrough of Rapture includes a group of Little Sisters being instructed by a woman, to which Elizabeth looks at in confusion, as well as a Big Daddy hard at work out in the deep ocean depths, yet these are only fleeting moments lacking any substance. These moments come off as mere cameos rather than an essential piece of this DLC: a shame considering how crucial these two elements are to our understanding of Rapture.
Then suddenly, just before things start to get interesting, we're right back to familiar confines, loaded the teeth with weapons, ready to fight splicers that we know all too well at this point.
Burial at Sea is still very much a combat focused FPS, so it’s not long before a bathysphere takes us right back to a familiar set of combat instances through the dilapidated halls of an old shopping center run by the infamous Fontaine. This area is rich with splicers and abandoned plasmid stores, so it’s right back to the business of shocking, igniting, freezing, and shooting these insane denizens over and over again. While it may seem a bit unfair to criticize a Bioshock game for being combat focused, Irrational very overtly creates a split between the non-combat introduction, and the combat heavy instances that span more than half of the episode. It's disappointing since I didn't want to leave this beautifully rendered version of Rapture at it's peak. I wanted to explore more and see life in Rapture when things are going as they should, and yet we're forced to leave in favor of an all too familiar setting because the game is, after all, about fighting hordes upon hordes of enemies.
Combat has received a few tweaks in comparison to the main game. The most notable change is the general scarcity of ammo and EVE, which should make encounters far more tense and challenging - in theory. In tandem with the series’ signature quick respawning, it instead feels like you’re just banging your head on these fights until all the enemies are finally gone. The two weapon limit has been done away with to counteract this, but it essentially ends with you clumsily opening the newly added weapon wheel to find which weapon has any ammo left.
A large part of the frustration in Burial at Sea is due to its cramped level design. Encounters mostly take place in small rooms filled with a staggering number of enemies. It feels overwhelming to be attacked from every side with little room to maneuver. A renamed Skyhook called the Air Grabber allows you to glide along Rapture’s pneumo tubes like in Infinite, but it's woefully underused and far less effective here. In fact, the only encounter where it proves particularly effective is the final fight of the episode, in which quickly maneuvering on the tubes is an effective way of creating distance between yourself and your opponent. Tears also return as well, but they enter the picture too late to allow for surprising and interesting things to be done with them. I counted one really cool and fun use of a tear in a combat scenario (that I won't spoil here), but most are basically rehashes of what we saw in Infinite.
The combat ends up feeling like a mashup between Infinite and the original Bioshock, but the short length of the DLC doesn’t leave room for any of the mechanics to really settle in. Weapons and plasmids are slowly doled out, and by the time the game has shown its hand, it ends abruptly. Due to this, Burial at Sea comes off as a very conflicted experience. The tighter and more challenging gameplay afforded by ammo scarcity fails to create any sort of tension, and is instead frustrating. The tacked on addition of the Air Grabber never finds a home in the cramped halls of Rapture, and doesn’t capture the freewheeling speed and intensity of the main game.
In fact, conflicted is probably the best word to describe part one of Burial at Sea. Our brief trip in Rapture’s main street is all too short, leaving much of the focus on the combat, which itself tries to do too many things to fit the scope of this DLC. While the mysteries of the narrative setup are interesting enough to keep things from feeling pointless, it plays a bit too much like slogging through hordes of enemies to get to the thrilling reveal at the end.
But of course, Irrational’s return to Rapture is visually beautiful, and we're reminded why it remains one of the most intriguing locales in games, perhaps still more so than the sun-bathed streets of Columbia. The sudden and poignant finale manages to capture the same sense of shock and amazement that Infinite does as well, which at the very least justifies slogging through. While the combination of frustratingly underdeveloped combat and a short length weigh the experience down, there’s definitely enough worth seeing here, at least from a visual and narrative standpoint. I’m eagerly awaiting part two, which I’m hoping will delve deeper into the untold stories of Rapture, and visit a certain man we’re all so desperately yearning to see.