The pitch for the first story-based DLC produced by Irrational Games reads like a love letter to BioShock fans. It ticks two boxes the faithful have been clamouring for, for ages.
First, it returns the players to Rapture, the Art-Deco Metropolis beneath the waves. But second, and more importantly, it allows players a glimpse of what the city looked like before greed, corruption and war ultimately tore it apart.
It also sinks players into a detective noir story that reads like Raymond Chandler by way of Ayn Rand. The story opens with private dick Booker DeWitt taking a meeting (against his wishes) with a mysterious woman named Elizabeth. She's after a young girls named Sally, whom Booker shares a history with. Since young girls have become something of a commodity in Rapture - and anyone who played the first BioShock will know why - Booker and Elizabeth decide to check out a known child trafficker and resident nutjob named Sander Cohen.
From the get-go the player will realise that the Booker and Elizabeth in Burial At Sea are different characters to those they saw in BioShock Infinite. The kinks with Booker are lighter; he's still in his element as a hard-bitten detective and he's still wracked with guilt, but he's more plugged into his surroundings in Rapture than he ever was in Columbia. Unlike his client, he knows the score in the sunken city and he wears his cynicism like armour against its invasive nature.
"Players will realise Booker and Elizabeth are different characters to those they saw in Infinite."
Elizabeth has transformed from the wide-eyed innocent player met in Columbia into a femme fatale with an agenda. In her initial meeting with Booker, shadows are playing across her eyes and her dialogue with Booker is tinged with a clipped formality. Elizabeth clearly knows more than she's letting on about and her opinions of her new employee seep through in their exchanges; when he asks her to address him by his first name, she coldly replies that she'd like to keep things strictly professional.
In the Rapture timeline, Burial At Sea kicks off shortly after Frank Fontaine's failed rebellion. As the players wander around Rapture, they'll capture snippets of conversation and newsreels that let them know Rapture's council have turned control of Fontaine's businesses over to Andrew Ryan. They'll also hear that Fontaine's army of Splicers were rounded up and locked in Fontaine's now dilapidated Department Store, which has essentially been turned into an underwater prison. No prizes for guessing where Booker's and Elizabeth's search for Sally will take them.
In a way it makes sense; although Rapture before the fall is as sumptuously opulent as BioShock fans dreamt it would be, there's precious little for players to do in the early stages of Burial At Sea. Beyond eavesdropping, searching for clues, collecting Audio Diaries and picking up cash. There's a mini-quest to gain access to Cohen's HQ, and a meeting with the unhinged hack, but the action doesn't really kick off until Booker and Elizabeth arrive in Fontaine's Department Store.
At this point, players are re-introduced to BioShock Infinite's gameplay template in which they juggle numerous firearms and two Vigors (Plasmids) at a time. The Sky Hook also returns - except it's called an air-grabber here - as does the hot-box level design; corridors are wide and multi-tiered and players have numerous tactical options open to them in each encounter.
However, Infinite's gameplay has been slightly tweaked to mirror the original BioShock gameplay experience. Unlike Infinite, in which players were attacked by organised gangs of AI, the Splicers in Burial At Sea are usually on the back foot. Most of the time they telegraph their positions through insane muttering and players even have the opportunity to start encounters with a stealth kill.
The fact that players can set up attacks lends the charged effects of the Vigors extra weight. Players will find it in their interests to use charged Vigors to set traps at choke points in each room before letting loose with gunfire. The moment they make their presence known, the Splicers will start steaming into them. And the Splicers, for all of their inability to stay hidden, are a pretty tough bunch.
Possibly to counter-balance the edge the player has, a lot of the Leadhead Splicers are great shots and the Brute Splicers are usually armoured and take more than one headshot to take out. Resources are also in short supply; coins, bullets and other pieces of equipment are thin on the ground so players are advised to pick their targets carefully. Elizabeth also can't be relied upon to keep the player's ammo stocked. She'll occasionally toss Booker a Vigor or some bullets, but just as often she'll yell "I'm out!".
While the general gameplay experience has been brought more in line with Infinite's predecessor, it's not an exact match. Players will notice the absence of Health Stations and scrounging in dustbins doesn't yield dividends. Crucially, neither gun turrets nor vending machines can be hacked. Players can only take control of the former for brief periods using the Possession Vigor, but there's no way to lower Rapture's extortionate prices for ammo and Vigors.
The other overriding concern is how short Burial At Sea is. On the easiest setting, one can zoom through it in just over an hour and even those players who decide to rinse it on the hardest setting will find it clocks in at just two hours tops. Given how glorious it all looks and how well it plays, Burial at Sea feels shockingly short.
It's also worth noting that there hasn't really been much innovation in BioShock's gameplay since... well... BioShock. Scrounging and shooting are still the order of the day and however cerebral the plot of Burial At Sea is, one can't help but get the impression that the action feels a little repetitive at times.
But then, if you're reading this, it's likely that you're part of the Cult of Rapture anyway. If that's the case, then rejoice; Burial At Sea is BioShock fan service of the very highest calibre.
Burial At Sea is DLC aimed squarely at the BioShock faithful. If terms like 'Rapture' 'Andrew Ryan' and 'Atlas' mean nothing to you, look elsewhere.
- Rapture looks lovely
- Another twist-filled plot
- Great fan service
- Can be finished in an hour
- Occasionally repetitive action