18 November, 2013

BioShock Infinite: Burial At Sea Episode One Review

The story’s cool, but the game needed extra cooking.

BioShock Infinite: Burial at Sea Episode One (PC, PlayStation 3 [reviewed], Xbox 360)
Developer: Irrational Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Released: November 12, 2013
MSRP: $14.99 (included in Season Pass)

BioShock Infinite: Burial at Sea, Episode One is a total mouthful. It’s a lot of ideas in too confined of a space, too much steak, sizzle and grease for this bite-sized downloadable content that can be completed in three hours. For what Ken Levine and the always intrepid crew at Irrational are trying to do, they may be biting off more than they can chew. The result is a dish that includes too much of the game, including the frustrating mechanics of the original title and the broken promise of a beautiful world. If Columbia is supposed to be our gaming equivalent of a moving theme park, then this remodeled Rapture is its horrific Coney Island analogue, where the problems stick out ever more so due to its tinier nature.

The story of BaSE1 (a frustrating acronym I intend to use from now on because it somewhat proves my point) is a strong sketch. You wake up from a drunken slumber as Booker DeWitt, Private Investigator of Rapture, on December 31, 1958, the night of Rapture’s revolution and downfall. Your first client is a femme fatale version of Infinite’s AI companion character Elizabeth, who requests that you find a girl named Sally.

Your journey through Rapture will take you from its brightest peak to its deepest recesses. No other title in the franchise has done a better job of showing the sort of decay that emerges through the class segregation inherent in Levine’s adaptation of Objectivist philosophical ideals. Starting in Rapture’s shining metropolitan hub, you’ll come in contact with the higher class that espouses specifics of 1950s gender politics, social roles and romantic ideologies, only to find that something ugly is driving the artists like Sander Cohen. After traipsing through art galleries and record shops, you’ll soon come to the quarantined zone of Frank Fontaine’s stores and industries, where splicers, Little Sisters and Big Daddies await your group.

To say any more would spoil some of the most distinct pleasures of BaSE1. This is a Ken Levine game, so the “onion” principle of storytelling definitely applies. You start with a kernel of a great idea and must uncover the deeper motivations of everyone involved. Peel back the skin and see that everybody is hiding something. The ending is a fascinating twist on the already-complex story of BioShock Infinite, and it left me wanting many more answers immediately. Fans of this series will be rewarded for their investment, both in terms of hours spent arguing about the “constants and variables” of the world Levine has made and with regards to the money.
Sander Cohen is still absolutely terrifying, even in the three minutes you briefly spend with his mad self.
But the strength of the narrative of BaSE1 can’t undo the frustrating mechanics of Infinite. Even in its brief form, this felt like a slog to play through, more than other BioShock titles have before it. The systems of Infinite have not aged well, with the tears from the parent game standing out as particularly frustrating and stopping any momentum from emerging. Many combat situations allow for players to engage with splicers through these tears, but they disrupt the game by showing exactly what type of combat situation will be present. There’s no surprise there, no real display of mechanics that can provide extra enjoyment. I can beat the entire DLC with only my guns at present, and that’s a huge disappointment for me.

That’s the main problem of BioShock Infinite: Burial at Sea, Episode One. For every new idea that BaSE1 introduces, it takes two steps back for players. Stealth has been introduced for the first time in the series, with a crawling mechanic that allows Booker to instantly kill an opponent with one swing if he swings his skyhook at their exposed backs. But the ability to perform these kills are mitigated by the enemy AI and the map layout, so the play style isn’t one that can be consistently performed. This seeming abandonment of game concepts frustrates the player, who must then perform constant combat with splicers that do not vary in any meaningful way. The player enters the room, they fight, they might die, and then they come back and take out the remaining splicers. If they have money, this cycle never ends and never really surprises. The routine of combat becomes a drudgery, not a form of engaging play, and this must change or else the series is in serious trouble.

The weapons remain the same, with the addition of the Radar Range to the arsenal. When used, enemies explode in a satisfying microwave mist of gore. The Old Man Winter plasmid makes its debut appearance too, with options for players to freeze their opponents and shatter their bodies. Overall, they are fine additions to the game, yet neither really changes the form of play. Nothing truly feels like the hybrid of Columbia and Rapture, nor does it lean towards one game or another as a designed whole. Instead, we’re left with the sad oil and water of the cosmetic design changes.

Elizabeth is still compelling, but she doesn't catch fire like she did before.
Perhaps that’s the real flaw in this piece of a greater whole. If anything, BioShock Infinite: Burial at Sea Episode One is just a cosmetic update on the entire ideology pushed by Levine and his team at Irrational Games. It’s a short story taking place in the trappings of its parent title. The film noir presentation is dropped after about five minutes, and it’s replaced by the familiar art deco design of Rapture and the original BioShock. Nothing catches hold with the immediacy needed for this, nothing truly excites until the end. Yes, it’s great to take another trip to Rapture, but the potential of seeing it in its peak before the fall is never truly realized. That’s the problem with Levine’s package in this chapter: Too much sizzle right now, not enough of the steak. His ideas are too big, the package is too small, and everything is mashed together in a barely-satisfying set. Yes, we've got our twists and our ideologies, but the chore of getting there almost detracts too much from the experience this time. 

Maybe the flaws will be corrected in the subsequent final chapter, but it’s not here for us right now and that’s a problem in its initial release. What’s most frustrating about BioShock Infinite: Burial at Sea, Episode One is that the very gaming portion of the experience is so flawed, while the narrative is crisp and compelling. If there was a stronger design in place, this wouldn’t be a problem. But when the game becomes a chore to play in order to reach the story sections, something has gone wrong with the execution.

At this point I’m playing BioShock and its ilk because they are some of the strongest storytelling examples in the medium. This one joins the “would you kindly?” and “constants and variables” in terms of its excellent narrative ideas at work, and will likely appease those who want to experience these games solely for their stories. I just wish that Irrational Games remembered to link the enticing story to a more immersive and purposeful game design. 

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