I don’t normally believe in putting too much weight on how long a game takes to finish. It’s a part of the reviewing equation, and it’s always important to keep in mind that players will not have the privilege of a free review copy, but in this era of cheap and plentiful PC titles it takes a particularly egregious example of poor cost-to-time returns to really stand out. BioShock Infinite’s first of two Burial at Sea chapters is one such example.
During my first run through this piece of DLC I took a completionist approach, hunting down as many NPC conversations, hidden nooks and audio diaries as I could. I took in the scenery of a pre-collapse Rapture, explored every side avenue offered to me and even had to restart a section because an airlock loading zone bugged out on me. By the end, I’d found all but a couple of the 17 audio logs and felt fairly comfortable that I’d seen every area Burial at Sea had to offer.
It took barely three hours.
Then I ran through again, with prior knowledge of where to go and what to do. I wasn’t dragging my heels, but nor was it even close to a speed run. In fact, I even re-visited a couple of the side areas along the way.
That time it took slightly more than an hour.
When I feel confident that the majority of players will run through an add-on in less time than it takes me to write the review of it, there is a problem. An even bigger problem is that part one of Burial at Sea is on sale for a stand-alone price of $15.00 USD. There is no way it is worth that amount of money, and it’s outrageous that this expansion was split into two parts merely to justify a ‘Season Pass’ with three bits of (and I do despise this word, so I apologise) ‘content’ in it.
I’m convinced that the only reason it costs $15.00 apiece for this two-parter is that it makes the $20.00 Season Pass look good value in comparison. It isn’t. All that has happened is the stand-alone price has been inflated beyond reason to encourage players to embrace and accept the disgusting concept of blind pre-payment for DLC. DLC that, at the time of purchase, is of an unknown quality and comes with no solid guarantee that it will even be produced. Anybody involved with this pricing decision should be ashamed of themselves.
Developers Irrational probably had little to no say in the economics, but this add-on is nonetheless soured by just how brief it feels.
Since the rest of this write-up is going to be about how the Burial at Sea add-on plays, let’s all be clear about spoilers. I’m assuming anybody reading this has played BioShock Infinite and knows what happens. The first BioShock might get spoiled a bit too since this DLC is taking us back to Rapture. What I won’t be doing is spoiling any of the narrative specifics of Burial at Sea, but I consider anything put out as pre-release info as fair game.
This first chapter slings the coat of noir around its shoulders without ever quite managing to actually put it on. The opening scenes (which you may have seen in a trailer,) however, are the classic genre intro. A lady sways into the office of a boozy, dishevelled private eye with a job proposition and, against his better judgement, the investigator agrees. That lady is Elizabeth, older, but still missing her finger. The private dick is Booker. And, once again, he’s going to be searching for a girl: a missing child named Sally.
A lot of pre-release hype has focused on the chance to see Rapture at its decadent heights, on New Year’s Eve 1958. In the initial segment, you do indeed see this. Every conversation is either about discontent at Andrew Ryan’s actions against Fontaine (it really does help to have played the first BioShock, though the ambient dialogue will fill in the basics,) Randian super-beings cruising for action, or directed at Booker himself. This latter branch adds some neat little extra noir flourishes, like the hotel porter earnestly telling DeWitt to get lost before “the house dick” shows up. Anyone who’s read Chandler’s Philip Marlowe books should appreciate the writers’ ear for details like those.
Stretched to its limit, this initial portion of the DLC probably lasts 40-50 minutes. Rapture has never looked more sumptuous, with an active bustle and one familiar face in particular providing some of the spectacular imagery the series is known for. DeWitt and Elizabeth even engage in a little distraction-based investigative work.
But Burial at Sea has a similar structural deficiency to its parent game in that it offers a wondrous, populated opening but then forgets all about that and dumps you in area devoid of any sane life or any sign of the noir tone it was cultivating just a few minutes earlier. Marlowe was not adverse to brandishing a gun, but he mostly did battle with his wits and his quips. As DeWitt dispenses with another pack of crazy Splicers by setting them on fire and crushing their skulls with an air-grabber (Rapture’s sky hook) the noir coat falls from the shoulders and is left far behind, never to return.
That’s probably inevitable in a title that is, after all, a first-person shooter. Still, it’s regrettable that the pace is so rapid and truncated as it’s at the cost of maintaining the noir feel. Instead, that tone is quickly replaced by the new BioShock staple of the nature of the relationship between Booker, Elizabeth and the timeline of the universe.
The combat portions are perfectly fine, and will be familiar to anybody playing this because they’re pretty much identical to BioShock Infinite. Ammo (at least at first) is somewhat limited and the ransacked shops that much of the action takes place in are more cramped than the open skyways of Columbia. The DLC hasn’t forgotten that Infinite introduced that style of fighting though, so there are also arenas where the air-grabber can be used to rain Booker-shaped destruction upon the poor, demented Splicer population.
Burial at Sea adds one absurdly powerful new weapon that you’ll get to use for roughly fifteen or twenty minutes before the conclusion of the DLC, and renames ‘Winter Blast’ to ‘Old Man Winter,’ perhaps in the hope that some people will think it’s a new vigor/plasmid. It isn’t. It’s Winter Blast. Freezing people and smashing their chilled bodies is still quite gratifying, but you’ve done it before.
While it doesn’t live up to the noir billing, Burial at Sea does manage the unenviable task of tying together the universes of BioShock and BioShock Infinite. In its short time on-screen, it imparts a fair bit of additional flavour to the fall of Rapture and succeeds in answering the question of how, why, when and what Elizabeth and Booker are doing in Andrew Ryan’s neighbourhood. As it’s merely part one the rather harrowing conclusion will still leave players with questions, to which the answers are likely to once again be some variation on “I dunno, parallel universes and timelines and stuff?”
This return to Rapture’s beautiful, evocative surroundings squeezes a little more out of the underwater city’s now-familiar themes, but wastes the chance to tell a truly noir story. Instead, any sense of mystery is provided by the presence and behaviour of Elizabeth (eclipsing the hook of the search for Sally,) and Booker is once again along for the ride with a collection of fancy, violent tricks. If you came for more narrative, then Burial at Sea just about delivers; but it ultimately does a poorer job of wringing emotional meaning out wretched circumstances than BioShock 2’s superb Minerva’s Den.
Looming large over all of this is the overwhelming sense that this short opening chapter should never have been sliced from its concluding episode, and that a disreputable plan to make a Season Pass more appealing has led to ridiculous over-pricing. Still, if corruption through greed isn’t an authentic noir subtext, then what on earth is?