Somewhere in a parallel dimension there's a BioShock Infinite that I liked a lot more than the one I played in that dimension. This week when I was playing the second, final episode of Infinites Burial at Sea expansion, I felt like I got a glimpse of that game.
Spoilers will follow for BioShock, BioShock Infinite and Burial at Sea Episode 1.
Burial at Sea has long promised to finally let us follow in the footsteps of Elizabeth, the young woman who appears in BioShock Infinite as a buddy, virgin in need, sad woman in need of consolation, overpowering plotter and, finally, harbinger of The Apocalypse. The second episode of Burial begins more or less immediately after the events at the end of the (generally disappointing) first episode. Elizabeth finally comes full circle by going to the underwater town of Rapture from the first BioShock and chasing and killing the final Booker / Comstock.
Of course, in the BioShock Infinite multiverse, it doesn't mean much to pick up "immediately after" the first chapter. Within a few minutes, everything that seemed (somehow) meaningful at the end of the first episode has been turned upside down, and it's back to the metaphysical races.
In a short period of time, Elizabeth was forced to make a deal with the treacherous revolutionary Atlas – who, as we who we, who played the first BioShock, know, is really the villain in disguise, Frank Fontaine. Elizabeth is plagued by guilt about the fate of Sally, the little sister who became the little sister she used as bait for Comstock in the first episode. Atlas has it and will only release it and spare Elizabeth if she helps bring her submerged wing of the Rapture back to the capital so Atlas can start the revolution that sets the stage for the first BioShock.
If this all sounds pretty curvy and retroactive, that's because it is. Episode 2 is for the fans; especially the fans of the first BioShock. The story is both a BioShock Infinite epilogue and a BioShock prologue, and while it manages the latter feat better than the former, it accomplishes both tasks with a surprising level of success. (Though we're apparently not going to be talking about BioShock 2, an underrated game that apparently never really happened, at least in BioShock Infinite's timeline.)
Here's the first, most unexpected thing about Burial at Sea Episode 2: It's a Stealth Game. Not an action game with half-baked stealth elements like the first episode; This is a full-fledged corner crouching game that sneaks up on enemies from behind and uses a crossbow to take out guards.
You see, for reasons unexplained, Elizabeth has been disappointed with her world destroying cosmic powers and her ability to see into the future. In her words, she is "just a normal girl with a normal pinky finger". This has the welcome effect of grounding a story that was previously completely out of control. We are no longer dealing with the infinite levels of the multiverse, we are just talking about one person in one place who is trying to achieve something. How nice.
Elizabeth can't take much punishment in a face-to-face fight, and the levels are frugal with money, weapons, and ammunition. Smart players will stick to the shadows and sneak past most of the splicers patrolling Rapture without daring to take them on.
At least the stealth works, it works far better than it maybe is. This is mainly due to a new plasmid ability that Elizabeth is getting, which is more or less "stealth magic". It allows her to become invisible for a while and to highlight enemies through walls. All at once, players gain the situational awareness they need to make sneaking fun. You can watch an alerted enemy carefully walk towards the room you are hiding in, and then quickly sneak behind a table when they enter the room. Then when they're investigating a dark corner, sneak behind them and … bam!
Elizabeth's enemies are terribly gritty, and it often seems obvious that the new stealth stuff was carried over to a game that wasn't originally intended to support her. Bad guys are usually supernaturally good at hearing Elizabeth from huge rooms, especially when she steps on broken glass or in the water, and the inconsistency of everything makes the stealth feel both insubstantial and unpredictable. While hardcore stealth gamers may not be happy with the complexity of the simulation, it remains noteworthy how thoroughly a focus on stealth changes the tenor of the game for the better.
Burial at Sea has a constant tension that is far more exciting than the first episode or certainly BioShock Infinite as a whole. I spent most of the time sneaking my way through the various rooms and chambers of the Rapture, always vigilant, always listening, my eyes looking for new threats. The game forces players to slow down and pay attention, so it's a much richer and better-tuned experience than any of its predecessors.
The more I played, the more amazed I was as to why BioShock Infinite couldn't have been like this. It really feels like an alternate reality version of the game that has slipped through one of Infinite's many rifts. Moment after moment, it's a better, more interesting, and more fun game in almost every way.
Sneaking through these beautiful surroundings while avoiding fearsome enemies fits so well with the size and horror of the BioShock series, and gives the cautious gamer so much more space to explore the sights and drink. The many problems I had with the core game fight are largely undone thanks to Burial's stealth, as are many of my complaints about the exaggerated, distracting violence and blood. Burial at Sea is still a dark, violent game, but the violence feels a lot more frugal and specific, and as a result, the game is permeated with a tension that Infinite itself has rarely achieved. For once, a BioShock game doesn't yell at me. What a blessed relief.
It also helps that Burial at Sea is a sprawling, spacious game that greatly rewards exploration. It took me over six hours to play through the entire episode, and I was regularly lost and unsure of where exactly to go next. (In a good way.) Several large areas appeared to be entirely tangential to Elizabeth's search, but curious players are well rewarded for their wandering. Some hidden rooms contain upgrades that make Elizabeth's new stealth powers much more useful, keeping her invisible and seeing through walls indefinitely as long as she stays silent. After Elizabeth received these upgrades, she completely switched from prey to predator, and I had more fun just playing a BioShock game than I have in a long time.
It was interesting to see how so many big budget series experimented with players taking on the roles of their less skilled supporting characters. Burial at Sea, Assassin's Creed IV: Freedom Scream, The Last of Us: Left Behind and Season 2 of The Walking Dead have shifted the focus from their traditionally empowered male protagonists to comparatively disempowered sidekick characters. (Even Freedom Cry's Adewale qualifies because he's under suspicion and attack at all times because of the color of his skin.) Every time a game has done this, we have a more interesting story, protagonist, and game. There is a lesson here: good games don't need strong protagonists, and in fact, many games benefit from putting the player in the role of disempowerment.
Other aspects of the Burial at Sea story are more or less equally successful and failing. I've long since stopped caring enough to try to decipher the many lighthouses and narrative doors of the infinite universe. The series' heady pseudoscientific explorations continue here, while Elizabeth spends her downtime discussing the nature of things on the radio with a possibly imaginary version of Booker. (It's likely, though never entirely confirmed, that she is really only speaking to herself.) Her frequent forays into metaphysics seldom do much to shed light on the tangled events at the end of BioShock Infinite, and the story of Burial at Sea only really gains momentum when it becomes more important returns to the events at the beginning of the first BioShock.
So the irony is that this strongest chapter in the Infinite saga does best when it focuses on the plot of the first game in the series. BioShock sure was a great game, wasn't it?
In the course of Burial at Sea we learn a lot about the working relationship between Dr. Suchong of Rapture and Jeremiah Fink of Columbia, a relationship first hinted at in the original Infinite. That Columbia relied so heavily on Rapture's scientific breakthroughs seems fitting considering how subordinate Infinite is to the initial BioShock here, but it makes it all the more difficult to feel all that has been invested in, what took place in the city above the clouds. Was this whole thing, the story of Elizabeth and Booker and Comstock and the others, just a closed-loop morality game that existed to start a revolution in Rapture? Seems to be so.
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Actor Courtnee Draper does a good job repeating her role as Elizabeth and putting in a bolder performance than in the original game. Burial at Sea plays Elizabeth's intelligence upside down by regularly shaking off vital stats on high tech machines, revealing an encyclopedic knowledge of biology and metaphysics, and generally overwhelming everyone in the room. "Just studying a whole bunch of books and a handful of lockpicks," she says of herself, in a standard piece of selflessness that, admittedly, sounds wrong given the incredible feats she does throughout the game.
This Elizabeth is a surprisingly grounded and relatable character, considering how many versions of her we have met in the past. Plagued by guilt and self-doubt, she is determined to fulfill her mission, haunted and desperate to undo a small portion of the suffering that has caused her.
"We'd all be better off, we DeWitts, if we could leave us alone well enough," she muses at one point. As it turns out, seeing a character grapple with their powerlessness is far more interesting than watching them tear apart and rewrite all of space and time.
BioShock fans will see many other familiar faces (and many familiar voices) from the show, with each character rolling around on and off the stage with a fair amount of pomp and circumstance. Most of it works, though an obvious attempt to undo one of BioShock Infinite's more sloppy and problematic plot developments falls straight in the face and never gets up again.
(Here comes a little spoiler) As we now learn, Columbia revolutionary Daisy Fitzroy didn't just take a child hostage in Infinite. No, she was convinced the Lutece twins to do it because it would force Elizabeth to kill them, thereby making Elizabeth the woman she would have to be for the rest of the Infinite events to happen. Seldom have I seen a more brazen attempt to sweep a widely criticized tale under the rug, and with each of Fitzroy's stilted monologues about her place in the corridors of Fate, I moaned a little louder. (This is how the spoiler ends.)
In addition, a late-game torture sequence is gratuitous and nasty in that it cheerfully compels us to experience a terribly uncomfortable display of first-person fear. As with Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes last week, I wondered: haven't video games given us enough of the excruciating suffering of women? Does another actress have to earn her voice-over strips by standing in front of a microphone and screaming in agony? The entire sequence just feels meant to be shocking and unsettling, with little real reason to exist other than someone deciding, "Hey, that would be cool."
The same is true for most of the last twenty minutes of the game. As the story nears its dark end, much of what came before it goes out the window and we are led to a somber finale that, appropriately, has far more to do with the start of BioShock than the end of BioShock Infinite.
Despite all the narrative flaws, Burial at Sea succeeds in a number of places where BioShock Infinite was unsuccessful. It successfully bridges the gap between Rapture and Columbia and says goodbye to both cities, albeit mixed up. As standalone surprises, Burial doesn't match the heights reached with BioShock 2's awesome add-on Minerva & # 39; s Den, but it comes closer than I expected.
It is unlikely that this will be the last time we see the BioShock universe, but given the current state of irrational games, it may be a while before we get a new entry on the series. Given how thoroughly these games have been twisted in their own metaphysical hocus-pocus, taking a break is probably best. Let BioShock breathe and relax, let it rediscover its center.
It's hard to wish that I could live in a parallel world where BioShock Infinite was as interesting and tense as this new epilogue. A world where the smarter game was the status quo, not the ultimate exception. I don't live in this world, but hey, at least there are funerals at sea. I accept it.