Irrational’s first story add-on “Burial at Sea,” if we’re going to continue the liquid metaphor, is about as deep as the puddles of blood you leave spilling out from most living things throughout the two hour play time. The DLC currently holds a surprisingly low and thank-god-for-the-honesty Metacritic score of 68. After the thoughtful critical backlash Bioshock Infinite received within the mainstream and “serious” game criticism circles (primarily for no one really giving a shit about the terrible combat that undercuts what makes the game interesting) one would think that it couldn’t get worse, that the strengths of Infinite would be embraced and evolved. Well, that doesn’t happen. Burial at Sea does accomplish a great feat though: It ruins the world of the original Bioshock and exposes how in this the post-Stanley Parable reality that Bioshock Infinite is infinitely shallow.
The promise to return to the underwater dystopia of Rapture was at first exciting, but, you know, careful what you wish for. This isn’t the Rapture we once knew, not only because it’s “pre-fall” Rapture, but because all of Infinite’s mechanical and narrative baggage are carried onto the bathysphere and allowed to contaminate our favorite Ayn-Randian Atlantis. Most of these concessions are brought about by the need to allocate resources from Infinite. Skylines, tears, vigors renamed plasmids, Elizabeth’s immersion breaking presence, and the spammy combat all force their way into the game and pervert what made Rapture great.
Pre-fall Rapture is interesting for about a total of 20 minutes, mostly thanks to Sander Cohen’s superb reintroduction, and that’s about as engaging as this whole two hour pulp romp gets. Most of the storytelling early on is done through the fly-on-the-wall mechanic, where the player triggers conversations by moving next to NPCs, completely unnoticed. This device is a decent attempt at providing the player with diegetic storytelling. But like most of this add-on and retrospectively Infinite, it’s a contrived and lazily executed mechanism. Burial at Sea’s non-dynamic implementation of these devices reveal the superficial attention to detail the Infinite games have and how the games only allow you to really exist in the world when they deem necessary. Notably, this and similar half-assed expository systems are executed in lieu of GTA V’s fully baked storytelling devices that give the player a sense of presence, of having agency, and a persistent existence in an organic world. It doesn’t help that the commentary these NPCs and even the infamous audio logs offer are often uninspired. Compounding these flaws is the fact that we spend about 30 minutes in this somewhat intriguing pre-fall Rapture before being plunged, drowned, into a narrative situation that will have us performing the worst part of Infinite, the combat, for the rest of the DLC.
With the majority of Burial at Sea forcing us to partake in the boring and frustrating combat, the player is now given more time to ruminate on the lackluster design of the shooter part of this FPS. Irrational has made a few tweaks here and there, like allowing you to carry more than two weapons at one time, but for the most part the same broken and unfun violence is in place. The shield system forces spammy enemies, which forces you to fight in a spammy way. Still gone is the tactical approach to combat of the original Bioshock. No research, no ammo types, no preparing for a fight, no thinking for yourself. I played the game on hard and found the game keeping me low on ammo in attempt to create a survival horror feel. While this works in Bioshock, the game design of Infinite contradicts this approach, enemies take too many bullets to put down and the game is too inclined to making you feel powerful. Moreover, there’s no true resource management to give the player any sense of responsibility in these outcomes, producing further frustration when death occurs.
There was opportunity to provide the player with interesting uses for the plasmids, to give us another way of interacting that didn’t involve pressing an in game button or pulling a gun trigger. If you’re listening Irrational, I’ve looked up the definition of “hint” for you, as it seems you have no idea what the hell it means: “a slight or indirect indication or suggestion.” This means instead of repeatedly telling the player that “the water right in front of you can be turned into a bridge using Old man winter,” you could say “water can be frozen using Old Man winter” or better yet, you can stop suggesting the player is an impatient idiot. The game by default treats as if you’re from an alternate universe where logical deduction doesn’t exist. You can turn off the hints the apologist says. But to the apologist I ask, isn’t the player entitled to solve the problems of the game he or she has bought? Burial stamps out the joy of figuring out that you can use the freeze power to, you’ll never guess, freeze water, or other practical uses for plasmids. It’s understandable that a new game mechanic must be given proper exposition, but it’s ridiculous that by the 4th time you need to ice some water to create bridge the game is still giving that oh-so-incredibly-immersive text telling you exactly what you have to do. That this is by deafult is the problem, implying Infinite and Burial don’t have confidence in themselves. Irrational seems worried that if we run into a bit of frustration in the form of the most rudimentary puzzle, we’ll turn off the game, a worry that is ironically produced by the game’s insistence on the player having to shoot things. It’s a relief that we play Bioshock game’s for the story, not for lackluster interactivity, right? They totally nailed the narrative, right?
The DLC does nail story. It nails it to the cross, drives a nail through its limbs so it can’t move, and hammers the final nail into the wood of it’s narrative coffin. Burial at Sea shows us that the current and future narrative progression, the reasons, and the molestation of the original Bioshock will now always be supported by because “constants and variables,” aka because convenient justifications. This accomplishes several strokes of annoyance. We, the player now, have no reason to care for any versions of Booker or pretty much anyone from that universe except maybe Elizabeth because she is the exception to the metaphysical rules. Subsequently, Elizabeth’s character is fated to become even more of “the one,” the Neo of the Bioshock universe, a move that would be we welcome for placing a strong female front and center, but would simply be a boring character progression nonetheless. The narrative convenience of multiverses undermine even the famed Irrational/Ken Levine twist. It’s likely you will see the general nature of Burial’s twist coming. Irrational and Levine have desensitized us, taking shock and awe out of Bioshock’s plot trickery, leaving me with more of a “of course,” than with intrigue and surprise. What’s more, the plot seems to have Act II missing, filling the space in between the exposition of Rapture to its final revelation with filling splicers with bullets.
Burial at Sea did offer up a twist I never saw coming: That maybe Bioshock is no longer relevant and that Elizabeth’s multiverse mess may be the worst thing ever to happen to Bioshock. The two hour play time is the last reason not to bother with this DLC. The superficial detail, the facile commentary, the uninspired story, the lack of interactivity, the abysmal combat, and the true destruction of the Rapture that sold us on Irrational and the Bioshock universe should all be reason enough to wonder if it’s time to bury this franchise.