Bioshock Infinite: Burial at Sea – Episode 1 (PS3 Review)



The thematic through-line of Bioshock Infinite’s twisty, mind-bending story was one of constants and variables. It expertly tied a brand new story and a fascinating, gorgeous new city full of impossible wonder into the very basic core thread of Bioshock’s original story and the countless tangential ways it might play out or skew similar – “There’s always a lighthouse. There’s always a man. There’s always a city.” Yet Burial at Sea – the first in a two-part chunk of episodic downloadable content for Infinite – seems more hinged on the constants than the variables, unraveling a solid story, but stooping to the tried-and-true gameplay and scenery that we’ve trudged through a little too often in the franchise.

Story-wise, Burial at Sea picks up one of the limitless parallel story threads left dangling by Bioshock Infinite’s ending. This time we find a slightly film noir inspired alternate reality where Booker DeWitt is a gumshoe working in the underwater city of Rapture and Elizabeth is a prickly femme fatale who needs his expertise to track down a missing girl. From there on, it’s a tricksy tale of constants and variables as you slowly piece together just what part the now mysteriously hard-edged Elizabeth and Booker have to play in this parallel universe narrative.
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The ending of Bioshock Infinite left the franchise open to an infinite amount of thematically linked, but wildly diverse possibilities in terms of story and setting, so it’s more than a little disappointing that Burial at Sea goes right back to the well-worn fanservice familiarity of Rapture. If you’re eager to see more of the most popular underwater city since Bikini Bottom, then the beautifully-rendered opening moments of this DLC chapter will be an undoubted highlight as fans get to see the world of Rapture before its collapse as a thriving, vibrant world of prosperity and possibility. It’s not quite the awe-inspiring spectacle that our first introduction to Columbia was, but fans will certainly get a kick out of seeing a new side to Rapture.

Sadly, Burial at Sea quickly and inevitably drags you to the seedy underbelly of the city and with it, pulls you back into the familiarity of the first two Bioshock games. Again, you explore the damp, dank corridors of Rapture, completing fetch quests and fending off maniacal Splicers with the aid of guns and superpower-in-a-bottle tonics. There’s nods to the wider story of the first Bioshock games, name drops and the inevitable Big Daddy/Little Sister appearances, but ultimately it feels a little too much like surface-level fanservice, with no real attempt to use the parallel universe setup to explore or subvert well-known Bioshock characters. More of the same is certainly not the worst thing when it’s coming from a franchise as well-crafted in gameplay and narrative as Bioshock, but while this DLC offers up a suitably gripping and satisfying story best left unspoiled, it’s a shame Ken Levine and co. didn’t follow on from the welcome change of Columbia with a setting equally new, original and interesting.
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Owing to the downloadable add-on nature of Burial at Sea, the gameplay itself feels awkwardly truncated in some significant ways, too. As in the Bioshock games proper, you get weapons and destructive superpowers to juggle upgrade, whether at vending machines or by grabbing hidden power-up packages and gear. The core weapon upgrade mechanic feels a bit hacked off at the knees here, though; this being essentially a new story in the Bioshock Universe, your character progress from the main game won’t carry over, but the selection of weapons is slim and you won’t be spending enough time in Burial at Sea to drop more than a few incremental upgrades into your arsenal either, making the whole system seem a little arbitrary.

It does add a dash of challenge to the proceedings, though. Elizabeth is again on-hand to toss some scavenged ammo and EVE your way in the heat of battle or open tears in reality to resupply weapons or offer the use of robot sentries. But even then, since you’re never really given the option of becoming particularly over-powered and ammo is in short supply, enemies prove pretty damn tough throughout, forcing you to play a little more strategically. There’s some slight tweaks to the combat, too, with the weapon selection wheel being reintroduced after it’s absence in Infinite. It’s a handy addition, and one that removes the slightly irksome ‘two weapon’ limitations and lets you carry around whatever you like, switching on the fly. But while it’d be a helpful improvement on the full game, in the DLC it’s a bit of an odd inclusion considering you won’t stumble across more than a few guns and vigors, while the addition of Infinite’s rail-traversing skyhook system seems like an afterthought inclusion with no real use in Rapture’s cramped, close quarters. To sweeten the deal a bit, there’s a new weapon for players to find and put to destructive use – a microwave-emitting gun that fries enemies until they explode in a blood-misted vapour. It’s a fun addition, but the short lifespan of the DLC means you’re barely given any time to play with it or sink points into beefing it up even more.
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Burial at Sea offers up a tight, well-crafted little story that plays on your expectations in some minor, but effective ways, weaving an engaging mystery. For fans of Bioshock and particularly the first game, the chance to take a guided tour through Rapture at its pre-downfall decadent heights is a well-constructed joy, but sadly the two-hour-long DLC is too half-hearted in most other respects, content to tread water in the familarity of Rapture without trying anything new, with gameplay mechanics that feel far too cramped within those short, soggy halls.

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Bioshock Infinite: Burial at Sea – Episode 1 is out now for PS3, Xbox 360 and PC.