By Leo Stevenson
How does a development studio follow up one of the most respected, most analysed and most brilliant games of 2013? By returning to the catalyst for their incredible (and ever growing) narrative and one of -- if not the most -- revolutionary games/experiences of this past gaming generation. BioShock and its setting, Rapture.
That's exactly what Irrational Games has done with the first story based DLC for BioShock Infinite. While the return to Rapture is, well, rapturous, it's not all smooth sailing. An excellent plot that subverts expectations and consistently delights and surprises is let down by sub-par, bog-standard combat, respawning enemies and big-dumb action. Not that big-dumb action is a bad thing, it's just that in "Burial at Sea" it's out of place and poorly implemented. That's not to say the DLC isn't fun, because it is. There's just something about it that doesn't quite fit.
Without going into specifics of the plot, which is far and away "Burial at Sea's" greatest strength, the DLC opens on Booker DeWitt in his office, sprawled on his desk, presumably passed out from drink. Racing forms litter the top and a small doll's head rests to one side. A calendar reveals that it's New Year's Eve 1958. The first of many mysteries that spring up during the add-on's three hour duration.
Elizabeth saunters in seeking help from the private eye in finding a missing girl. A girl, it turns out, was lost by Booker during a gambling trip. Elizabeth wants to find her for her own reasons, which become clearer the further you progress. Following Elizabeth out of Booker's office it's revealed that Booker's office is actually located in Rapture. Not the Rapture we recall from BioShock, but rather Rapture in its heyday. Much like the beginning of Infinite, the opening hour of "Burial at Sea - Part 1" is a combatless, immersive stroll through the busy High Street. Rapture's residents mill about having seemingly innocuous conversations, but eavesdropping reveals much about the current state of the great underwater city and its residents. All is not well, as Booker and Elizabeth are soon to find out.
After exploring the area, Elizabeth and Booker discover that Sander Cohen may have some knowledge of the missing girl's whereabouts. Upon gaining access to his ultra-exclusive club -- and taking part in a sequence better left experienced rather than read about -- the pair find themselves in the sunken Fontaine Department Store. Andrew Ryan has caused the building to be lowered deeper down onto the seafloor to serve as a prison for Fontaine's army of Splicers. It's revealed that Sally is located in the Homewares department and Booker and Elizabeth head off after her. It's here that the combat kicks in, the story takes a backseat for a while and "Burial at Sea - Part 1" loses its way.
Combat is essentially unchanged from Infinite. Booker has access to a few Plasmids (not Vigors, this is Rapture not Columbia after all) including Possession, Devil's Kiss, Shock Jockey and eventually Old Man Winter. The SkyHook is renamed the Air Grabber, but functions identically, however zooming around the very limited rails in Rapture doesn't even come close to capturing the thrill of Columbia's Sky Rails. Returning to Rapture is a double edged sword. While it's great to see it bumped up graphically and it's a nostalgic trip down memory lane, the updated combat from Infinite simply doesn't translate as it should.
What's worse is that to up the difficulty of the DLC, ammo is incredibly scarce. This would be fine except than every time an area is cleared of Splicers, upon leaving and returning to the area a whole fresh batch have spawned. The backtracking nature of the gameplay means that more often than not you'll be relying on Elizabeth reviving you so you can chip enough health away from yet another swarm of identical Splicers. It quickly becomes a grind and rather than use the tools at your disposal it is simpler to use Shock Jockey and melee over and over again. That's not to say there aren't some excellent combat moments, it's just that they're overshadowed by the shallow repetitive slog that borders them on either side.
After battling through the Homewares department our dynamic duo eventually find Sally, but all is not well. Without going into any details, the conclusion to "Burial at Sea - Part 1" more than makes up for the sluggish mid section. In fact, if combat had been significantly scaled back I would be awarding this add-on a higher score. The pacing is all over the shop and that saggy combat section really lets down an otherwise excellent experience.
If you're a fan of the BioShock then you owe it to yourself to experience this DLC. I'd suggest playing on an easier difficulty setting so you can blast through the non-story sections because they're the real stars of this package. The narrative continues and expands the narrative of both Infinite and the entire BioShock universe in ways you likely won't see coming that will simultaneously delight and floor you. Here's hoping in "Burial at Sea - Part 2" Elizabeth has some more interesting gameplay options to go along with the top-tier story telling.