The original Bioshock is one of my favorite games of the last generation. It excelled in both atmosphere and storytelling, really raising the bar for both. It dealt with a thought provoking subject matter and cleverly utilised video game tropes to make a commentary on the medium itself. It was a masterpiece.
Bioshock Infinite just didn’t click with me like the original did. It started promisingly, but later threw social commentary and philosophy out of the window in order to purely focus on a twisty-turny sci-fi story. While the original subverted tropes and expectations, Infinite played into them, relying too heavily on its overtly flexible logic. You shot a lot of people, combat went on for way too long and it was just rather conventional. The setting was a novel backdrop, but interacting with it felt little different to any other shooter. Corridors in the sky are still corridors.
While Bioshock Infinite failed on its own terms, its DLC ‘Burial at Sea Episode 1’ seems determined to bring the Bioshock 1 down with it. It takes the complete and cohesive jigsaw of Bioshock one and forces in ill-fitting pieces of Infinite. The end result is a game that cannot capitalise on what made the first so special, outside of superb artistic design.
Burial at Sea is a massive retcon. It takes place in the original game’s underwater city of Rapture, but forces Infinite’s mechanics and narrative tropes in very clumsily. It looks like the Rapture you know, but suddenly there are sky hooks, plasmids are in bottles, and you are using the powers and guns from Infinite.
The problem is that these things don’t fit, they make it a reinvention of Rapture rather than a return. The story of Infinite ties all the games into the same universe, this was a neat trick but they are using this to impose things upon a world that were never meant to be there. It feels inauthentic and gimmicky. Much like Columbia in Infinite, Rapture is just a back drop. The game could be set anywhere, but they chose Rapture and did nothing with it. It seems like a grab at nostalgia, but the changes they have made stop it from being a welcome return.
Another issue is that the shoved in bits of Infinite aren’t even well utilised. You have sky rails, but they seem rather pointless. They make no sense in this setting, look out of place and are never creatively factored into the gameplay. They don’t feel like a necessary addition and they remove a lot of the authenticity from returning to Rapture. You see some familiar sights, but it feels distanced and separate.
On top of this, it’s just not that enjoyable to play. The shooting is less than satisfying, but combat encounters are admittedly better handled than in Infinite. There’s less shooting and fewer enemies, also the aggressive and dumb AI makes more sense in this setting as the insane splicers feel like they should. Combat still never shines though, as encounters are feel like predictable road blocks in your menial journey. There isn’t much ammo either, which isn’t inherently bad it’s just that it doesn’t fit the atmosphere of the game. There’s no attempt at a creepy survival horror feel like in Bioshock one. It looks like Rapture but it doesn’t feel like it.
This ‘return’ to Rapture kind of voids the whole appeal of the setting in the first place. There’s no sense of discovery, fear or isolation – the three things which made the original visit so memorable. Combat is never tense, it’s just there and not very satisfying. Later on you even get a gun that kind of skips the whole process. It fires a disintegrating beam that combusts the enemy and chains on to others. It’s rather cool in theory, but it’s not interesting to use. Late on in the game you have to defend an area while your companion opens a door. This wasn’t tense or threatening though, as I was able to stand still at the door and just disintegrate enemies who came near. Never moving and never losing health.
The final flaw is the narrative itself. Once again Infinite is imposing itself upon Rapture, as protagonist Booker (a private investigator in Rapture) is hired by a mysterious female called Elizabeth. You then continue to do menial point A to point B stuff in a Bioshock fashion, but there’s no saving grace to this. It’s not like the original which used structure to comment on game design, it’s just a lot of back tracking and forced exploration. This would be fine, but there’s nothing that interesting or novel to explore. The first ten minutes place you in populated Rapture, something new and interesting (as opposed to the decaying Rapture of the original). However, after that you go to the only decaying bit of the city – far away from civilisation – and see things you’ve basically seen before.
Even the populated Rapture is lacking, as it doesn’t feel alive at all. Citizens will give you one phrase of dialogue, then just stand there like nothing is happening and stare blankly into space. It has the alien feel of Columbia, where something doesn’t feel right, but this doesn’t work in its favour. It just doesn’t feel like it is supposed to, it feels dead and lifeless when it should be vibrant and alive.
The story isn’t hugely interesting either, it’s very slight cryptic storytelling all the way through and then there’s a massive dump of exposition at the end. The ending itself is rather silly and doesn’t make enough sense, it feels genuinely unearned and a twist for twists sake. It’s all subtle and mysterious, then it’s in your face and out of nowhere. Simultaneously giving you too much information and not the right information. It feels oddly separate from the rest of the game, but an underwhelming ending does feel sadly at home in this package.
Burial at Sea Episode One is a short and unnecessary visit to an alien Rapture. It riffs on a much better game, but never lives up to it. The end result is a constant shadow of what could have been and a severe sense of a disappointment.