The concluding part of BioShock Infinite’s Burial at Sea DLC is more than just a finale for this title. 2K’s decision to close Irrational Games means it’s also the studio’s swan song. And while many will rightly remember Irrational for 1999’s outstanding System Shock 2, BioShock is the series name that will remain on the lips of players whose formative videogame years began around 2007.
In a lot of ways, Burial at Sea is the perfect sign off. It has spectacular art and sound design, a few moments of cynicism-free poignancy, and a plot which stretches, snaps, clumsily re-ties and finally just dispenses altogether with the boundaries of reality.
To establish where we are with spoilery details in this review, I’m going to assume people reading this have played the first part of Burial at Sea and have a grasp of the general events of both BioShock and Infinite. Honestly, without those things you’ll have next to no chance of following the story woven by part two. The various trans-dimensional connotations have become so convoluted that it’s a narrative I probably couldn’t recount in detail even if I wanted to.
But while the story tapestry may be fraying and outright unravelling in some parts, the activities of Burial at Sea part two are probably the strongest in the Infinite series to date. Events of part one have cast players as Elizabeth, which serves as an excuse for Irrational to diverge somewhat from the all-out vigors-and-firearms action of Booker’s adventures. The more stealth-based direction is clear from the first surreptitious knock-out blow to the back of a Splicer’s head, if you hadn’t already picked up the reference to Thief: The Dark Project in the difficulty options.
“1998 mode” tasks you with completing the DLC using only non-lethal means, which is just a “and steal 1,000 in gold to pay your rent” from being an old school Thief mission. It’s possible to opt for the brute force of firearms if you wish, but it’s clear that Burial at Sea part two is meant to be played from the shadows.
As well as being able to deliver an unexpected concussion to the unaware, Elizabeth is equipped with a crossbow that can fire tranquilliser darts, gas bolts or a distracting noisemaker (where, again, the comparisons with traditional Thief titles are hard to ignore.) The Splicers behave a little differently too. They have an alertness bar which can be triggered by audio clues like Elizabeth splashing through water or crunching over broken glass, but alerted foes will return to a more relaxed state if given enough time and no new reasons to stay on the hunt.
In light of that you’d think Elizabeth might’ve ditched her heels in favour of more of a soft-sole approach, but no. Just as Master Thief Garrett could never bear to part with his expensive tap shoes, ‘Liz doesn’t want to take off her pumps either.
BioShock Infinite adapts surprisingly well to a more stealth-oriented style, to the extent that by the end of this add-on I was wishing the main game had some of these mechanics in it. Audio proliferation is strong enough to give the player a decent sense of where prowling enemies are in relation to their position, and while Rapture’s level lay-outs are not exactly wide open they do lend themselves to alternative routes and enough cover to lurk behind.
By that, I mean there are vents. Of course there are vents, it’s a videogame with stealth elements. They’re covered by the same legislation that says every other release has to have a boring sewer level. Flippancy aside, it’s both an additional way to traverse parts of the map and a neat little nod to the life of a Little Sister (though not quite as fantastic as a certain portion of BioShock 2 which dealt with a similar topic.) This DLC also shows us what Elizabeth is actually doing when she’s unlocking a door on Booker’s behalf. The lock-picking mini game isn’t amazing (just a simple test of timing, really,) but nor is it obtrusive.
One of the two new plasmids introduced by this DLC is also conducive to cautious, stealthy play. “Peeping Tom” allows you to briefly see the position of enemies through walls (initially at a small cost) and outright turn invisible (at a much greater cost.) This is obviously pretty similar to the various “detective/eagle vision” features present in various titles, but what I appreciate about this plasmid is how thematically appropriate it feels. Given the nature of Rapture’s society, of course the local XXX store is going to sell you some magic voyeur juice.
If you weren’t careful, part one of Burial at Sea could be over in a flash. Thanks to the slower-paced nature of stealth, part two feels more substantial. It is a little larger in size as well (25 audio diaries compared with 17 in the first part, for example,) but a scattering of side-quests and the sheer fact that your movement is restricted by the altered combat pacing are what make the most difference. With a fair bit of careful exploration and re-visiting of certain areas, my play time extended to about four and a half hours.
Somebody over at Irrational is clearly a fan of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, or at least that manner of storytelling. Events from BioShock take on an altered or brand new perspective, as you view them through Elizabeth’s eyes. As I’ve already indicated, Irrational has over-reached in trying to tie up every single event of all the BioShock titles (aside from the externally developed BioShock 2 which is sadly pretty much ignored) in a cyclical fashion, but there are still some terrific individual set-pieces here.
How well players react to the story revelations will depend on how tolerant they are of Elizabeth being inserted into the BioShock mythos at almost every level. I’d suggest not worrying too much about it, because this is a plot which doesn’t mind hand-waving away her prior status as omniscient god-being within the first few minutes of play. Sci-fi writers take note: if you want to get yourself out of a tricky corner, just put your character in a rowing boat with a couple of British scientists who can exchange quick-witted quantum banter with a dash of Shakespeare to make it all go away. It’s perfectly entertaining, but not as profound as it may appear.
Worrying too much about pan-dimensional consistency is perhaps a fool’s errand, though it’s true that the DLC suffers from too many credibility-busting expository monologues. But away from the overly demanding suspensions of disbelief, I was having too much of a good time stalking Splicers with a crossbow and luxuriating in some more marvellous Rapture atmosphere. Burial at Sea‘s stealth serving proved to be a wonderful palette cleanser after the stodgy offerings of the Thief reboot, and the superb art and audio design are meaningful reminders of just how much Irrational’s combined talents will be missed.