Trading the open air of Columbia for the giant aquarium that is Rapture, Irrational Games’ first helping of story-based BioShock Infinite DLC deployed this week. But does Burial at Sea - Episode One improve upon the studio's slightly disappointing arena-based expansion, or is it dead in the water too?
Bearing a remarkable likeness to the opening of the core campaign, the content begins with a snoozing star Booker DeWitt stirring in his office to the sound of knocking. Opening the door, heroine Elizabeth makes her way in, outlining her desire to acquire the services of the private detective to track down a little girl. Seemingly familiar with the child, the gumshoe agrees to assist her.
Tiptoeing lightly around spoiler territory, and in the simplest of terms, this Booker and Elizabeth have never met one another. As far as our protagonist is concerned, this is just a stranger that’s piqued his interest, and while that works conveniently for the purpose of this standalone adventure, the result is that you’ll be left in the dark as to the specifics of these new versions of previously familiar characters – which can be a little confusing initially.
Leaving Booker’s office, you’ll be presented with a sight that you’ll have never seen before: a bustling Rapture. Much like when you first walk the streets of Columbia, this functioning version of the submerged settlement is completely populated. Shops are full of browsing customers, the benches are filled with couples, and friends gaze out of the huge glass walls into the briny deep. Big Daddies can be seen busying themselves drilling holes for construction as sea life drifts lazily by – it really is a sight to behold.
It’s so well realised that we’d have loved to spend the entire running time exploring the city, but unfortunately there’s actually very little to do in it. You’ll frequently find yourself coaxed from one area to another, and while there are items to find and audio logs to locate, there’s never the sense of freedom that featured in Infinite’s campaign.
One talking point that frequently pops up in conversation as you wander the metropolis is the recent actions taken by Andrew Ryan against his bitter rival Frank Fontaine. After a virulent conflict, Ryan sunk Fontaine’s portion of the city, namely his department store building, to the bottom of the ocean, trapping inside his followers and supporters. Courtesy of a tipoff that the child that they’re looking for may be stuck there, Booker and Elizabeth make their way down to the sunken structure, and it’s at this point that the gameplay kicks in.
Having been isolated from the rest of the city with no policing and a plentiful supply of Plasmids, the fate of Fontaine’s comrades was to lose their minds, resulting in them becoming the twisted, insane, and deformed beings known as Splicers. Upon leaving the bathysphere, it’s like stepping back into the original BioShock. Cracked windows, leaking pipes, and little to no artificial light punctuate the environment, accompanied by the eerie sounds of whale song and the frenzied, mad chatter of Splicers as they talk to themselves.
It’s a complete departure from the relatively light tone of Infinite, but a welcome one. What the original BioShock did so well was completely avoid cheap jump-scares, and instead build an incredibly tense atmosphere where even the slightest bump could find you searching for a new pair of underwear. Regrettably, the ever-present Elizabeth, who was invaluable in Infinite, completely destroys any spooky ambience. It’s not because of daft artificial intelligence, but rather the knowledge that she’s always with you, chatting in your ear – it was the isolation that made the original visit to Rapture so memorable.
That’s not to say there aren’t disturbing moments here, though. Gruesome corpses litter your surroundings, creepy manikins are everywhere, and in some cases Splicers hide among them, waiting for you to notice them. We entered a store, had a poke around, left and returned before three Splicers we hadn’t noticed turned from the display window they were posing in and jumped us.
As for taking the deranged individuals on, the excellent combat from the main campaign makes the leap to the DLC, with the skyhook, Vigors (here called Plasmids), and weapons all following suit. Elizabeth can still open tears, allowing access to supplies and other amenities, and upgrade stations allow you to enhance your powers. As one should expect, it all works to a tee under the sea, as it does in the air, with your female companion throwing you health and salts as is necessary.
But at just two to three hours long, Burial At Sea is a whistle-stop tour through a fascinating location. Environments are excellently detailed and warrant exploring, but despite the inclusion of gear and audio logs to find, there really isn’t all that much to see. Gameplay remains a highpoint, and the first episode’s mind-bending conclusion practically demands the second chapter release sooner rather than later. Here’s hoping that it doesn’t feel as rushed, though.
BioShock Infinite: Burial at Sea - Episode One is available now for £11.99/$14.99. Have you dived into the add-on yet? Are you glad to be back in Rapture, or had you hoped for more content in Columbia? Sink to new depths in the comments section below.