Warning: This review is being kept as spoiler-free as humanly possible.
There's a moment in Burial at Sea that I can't get out of my head.
It's near the onset of the new BioShock Infinite DLC, long before grimmer elements take hold of the adventure. Booker Dewitt, who we pilot yet again, and a steely-eyed Elizabeth have just sauntered into the bar. A waiter, dapper and long-limbed, greets us. He flutes some kind of salutation, an offer to provide refreshments. Like Dewitt and Elizabeth, I don't spare him a second thought. The man's just another NPC, after all. Window dressing. Irrelevant. Unimportant.
Then, he explodes into a red haze.
I recoil in my seat. Before I can fully register what has happened, the waiter has reassembled in front of another indifferent couple, ready to take their order. Bamf. Your order, madame? Bamf. And yours, sir? On and on, he goes, before he reinstates himself at the bar, a vision of obsequious elegance.
The whole sequence takes less than a few minutes to complete but it feels emblematic of this still-vibrant Rapture: genteel, progressive and quietly, irrevocably disconcerting. Our friendly garcon is no Nightcrawler, he's very much the Houdini Splicer not yet gone mad. The troop of Little Sisters you eventually pass by? They're clean, bright-eyed but still firmly entrenched in the uncanny valley. Everywhere you look, there are things foreshadowing what awaits this atheistic utopia -- propaganda videos, missing children posters, random passerbys exchanging concerns about the side effects of Plasmids. It almost hurts. Rapture on New Year's Eve 1958, with its Art Deco-inspired good looks and its friendly Big Daddies and its undersea neighbors, is so beautiful I just want to grab each and every person I meet and scream, "Don't let the events of BioShock happen!"
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Hi. This is the second DLC Irrational Games released for BioShock Infinite. It will most likely make your inner fan person squee. In case you somehow missed the initial bombardment of previews, Burial at Sea is ... slightly mad. It opens like your classic film noir setup. A hard-boiled private detective, a murkily-lit office. A femme fatale who undulates into his life, all curves and conspiracies, with a case he reluctantly accepts because who says no to a woman like that? Especially not when a lost child is on the line. The scene is a pitch-perfect homage to the genre except for one bit -- the part where the detective lights the lady's cigarette with an ember from his fingertips. Which, while probably weird in a Boghart vehicle, makes perfect sense here because the detective's our old friend Booker, the wasp-waisted harbinger of doom Elizabeth and the setting Rapture the night everything went to Splicer hell.
Now, for the one million dollar question: are these alternate versions of Booker or Elizabeth or is this whole fever dream canon? You have to play to find out. Burial at Sea, which took me only two hours to complete in spite of the playing on Hard Mode, is woefully short. Too short for spoilers. The only thing that is more disastrously limited is the amount of time you get to spend in Rapture proper. Only about a fourth of Burial at Sea takes place in Andrew Ryan's paradise. The rest of the time, you're stuck in what is essentially Rapture's makeshift prison -- Frank Fontaine's drowned ghost of a department store. Granted, that isn't necessarily a bad thing. The once-glorious shopping destination, now home to a bevy of maddened Splicers, is rife with places to explore, corpses to meet.
Combat permeates this section, of course, but the momentum is thankfully closer to what was found in the original BioShock than in its Hollywood-blooded little brother. There are a lot of quiet, drawn-out moments to spend wondering -- who the hell killed all the people in the bistro? Why is there so much random money everywhere? -- exactly what transpired in this ruined place. It's almost a pity that Elizabeth retains her function from BioShock Infinite. Burial at Sea does a good job at suggesting that what's waiting behind the airlock could be potentially fatal but the menace is unfortunately somewhat mitigated by the knowledge Elizabeth will just bring you back if you fail at being a bad-ass.
For those desperately holding onto the hope that Burial at Sea might once again reintroduce BioShock's combat system, you're likely to be disappointed. This is still BioShock Infinite, folks. Complete with Sky Hooks, Elizabeth randomly chucking power-ups at you, ammo and medical kits from god knows where no one is telling me anythin - ahem. Still, Burial at Sea gets points for not embracing the more action-packed nuances of Infinite. In spite of all these quibbles, especially at the hardest setting, the DLC had me constantly worrying about whether that silhouette on the wall is indicative of a lone, unsuspecting victim or a member of a roving gang. (Hint: it's almost always the opposite of what you think it is. Bloody Murphy.)
My persnickety side is marginally unhappier with the linear passage of events. Burial at Sea practically drags you forward, coercing you from one plot point to another. Halfway through, it shrugs and discards the detective overtones. During the first quarter, this isn't such a bad thing. While 'go rummage through three stores for key item' isn't the most impressive of quests, any excuse to spend more time gawking at Rapture is a welcomed one. What genuinely galls me is how it derails towards the climax. The cliffhanger ending is definitely hard-hitting but what preludes it is not. The first time Elizabeth opens a tear, Booker expresses some amount of wary confusion. After that? Nothing. He doesn't comment about the way she summons random Japanese warriors or weird, mechanical gun-toting replicas of the Founding Fathers (Look, wouldn't you be shocked?) from out of thin air. Instead, he simply accepts it, the same way you must as you both hurry towards the end.
I liked it, though. All said and done, I enjoyed the DLC. The first of a two-parter tale, it does its job at setting the stage for future events. Of course, I may just be biased by the fact that we will be controlling Elizabeth in the second installment. Without giving too much away, this version of Elizabeth feels older, wiser, angrier. When you pause in your explorations, she doesn't fidget or cringe in fear. Instead, she coolly poses against the nearest vertical surface, so self-assured in whatever her mission is that it's impossible not to wish for a dialogue system. What happened? What is happening? How did she get this way? And what is going to happen next? At $15, Burial at Sea: Episode One as a stand-alone is a tad steep but you're probably going to be rather happy if you purchased the Season Pass.
Now, here's hoping Part Two will let us lead this darker Elizabeth back to Andrew Ryan for a good talking to.
The Nitty Gritty
- Visuals:Burial at Sea is absolutely jaw-dropping even on the lowest graphic settings. Every location is richly appointed with a hundred little details, a hundred things to see and investigate and wonder about.
- Music and Sound:The voice acting is superb. Elizabeth, in particular, shines with her more mature undertones and glacial regard for Booker. Even the Splicers you encounter are masterfully performed. The music is on par with the sound effects, providing competent accompaniment to the sojourn through Rapture.
- Interface:If you've played BioShock Infinite, you've played Burial at Sea. A few small tweaks have been made, such as the return of the weapon wheel, but it remains largely the same game. Which, you know, makes sense because this is a DLC for the former.
- Lasting Appeal:You may want to revisit this a few years now for nostalgia's sake but a two-hour DLC is not going to keep anyone but a gold fish preoccupied for terribly long.
Practically oozing fan service from every pore, Burial at Sea is both as glorious and as imperfect as Rapture itself. The visuals are sensational, the combat a reasonably healthy marriage between Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite. Booker and Elizabeth both take well to their detective noir roles. Yet, like the promise of Rapture itself, Burial at Sea's splendor doesn't last forever. Things go unexplained, shrugged off as the too-short DLC rushes towards its conclusion.