Do you remember your first ever roller coaster? I remember mine. I remember the concoction of anticipation and adrenaline that churned in my stomach, as I pulled down the overhead harness and suppressed my subconscious shivers, rooted in my intractable apprehension. But all the nerves were swiftly washed away as the ‘coaster’ kicked forward, slowly inclining, teasing at the abyss below. And, sure enough, that first drop occurs, meaning that for the first time ever, your whole world is effortlessly turned upside down. You stream along the parabola, the journey twisting and turning in a parity of intensity and weightlessness, for what in the moment seems infinite but in hindsight was really ephemeral. And every other roller coaster after never quite imparts on you the same untouched inception.
That’s the closest thing I can think of to describe Bioshock Infinite without getting too fan-boy fervent. Bioshock Infinite was, to me, fresh new ground (well, fresh new sky, really). It is the archetype of first-person-shooters to have actively terrible narratives, usually consisting of a testosterone-addled modern day military spec-ops club. Those shooters try so egregiously hard to make you care, but do so with such bad narrative resources that it is far more entertaining to completely detach yourself from any effort to become emotionally invested and just sit back and laugh at triple-A failure. But Bioshock Infinite tore into the industry and said “You guys are terrible. For once, let’s have a game that can be as good as it can possibly be, leaving no conspicuous errors or cut-corners. Let’s create a game that can sell just as much as latest franchise instalments, but laugh down in their faces when we topple them in critical reception, and introduce what could be a glimmer of a gaming meritocracy”. Well, it didn’t really say that; it’s on a disc, an inanimate object. But that’s what I imagine it would say.
Everywhere you go, every note you hear and every sound you see in Bioshock Infinite exudes passion and thoughtfulness, down to every ubiquitous propaganda poster strewn across Columbia. The sunlit Edwardian architecture is a breath of new air, away from Bioshock’s gritty art-deco water-pocolypse, feeling much less ominous and more eden-esque. Even in the dullest of moments, during the tropiest of fetch quests, the potential boredom would be suppressed by the game’s ceaseless attractive features. If the quests ever turned a tad insipid, I would just stop, look, and listen. Not to mention that the game is set in a fantastic floating city above the clouds. I don’t need to describe the axiomatic appeal of that. But despite the exuberant design of Columbia, the design is not the game’s most alluring feature. It’s story is. Annoyingly, the protagonist Booker DeWitt’s characterisation is relatively brittle next to Elizabeth. The brilliance of her toddler like innocence, newly discovering the world as you are, creates an interesting contrast next to Booker’s pessimistic and distrusting attitude. And the game’s superficial beauty is upheld by an interesting look at racism, despotism and the value of choices and actions.
Every line of dialogue and every nod at a universe-enriching easter-egg is fantastically composed, each voxophone placed not as a cheap gimmick, included just because it can be, but rather as a genuine reward for players who have a thirst to further acquaint themselves with the city in the sky. But most importantly, the discombobulating revelation at the end is so powerful that it will only be weeks after completion that you stop questioning everything you’ve witnessed in the game. Everything your mind has perceived to be questionable and the questionable things your mind didn’t perceive are brought to light in a powerful, The Usual Suspects-esque close to Ken Levine’s masterpiece.
And that’s what it is, it’s a masterpiece. It’s years of work and passion fabricated in Levine’s mind, I think, seamlessly translated onto the console.
So why didn’t I like Burial At Sea?
I’ve bought the season pass a week ago now, after about a year of cool-down time from that biblical, Lethean ending, and I have mixed feelings about it. The big niggle for me is that I really really should have played the first Bioshock first. The DLC handily gives you a rough summary of the first Bioshock which certainly helped, but it really didn’t give me enough information to form my own suspicions and conclusions about Burial at Sea’s plot. Who are the little sisters? What is imprinting? What is Big Daddy? I still don’t know any of these things. Supposedly it gives some juicy back story to the first Bioshock game, that brings the two universes together, but frankly, I bought the season pass for this game, so I would expect to get DLC I could easily enjoy based on the money I spent on Infinite.
The Problems [Spoiler Section]
Well, the architecture isn’t nearly as fun. As I said before, tropey fetch quests in Infinite were redeemed by the reassuring beauty of Columbia, but something about Rapture just seems so…dank to me. It’s Gothic and gritty and I personally don’t like it as much as Columbia. So, for me, since Burial at Sea’s fetch quests were as abundant as Columbia’s clouds, I didn’t see any features that could save me from the boredom. I was fetching a plasmid, in a dark and dirty sink hole. It’s still great fun, but no where near as well-executed as Infinite. Also, there were far too many twists and turns for me to take the plot seriously. For example, I feel that Levine used the multiverse aspect as an excuse to recycle characters…and poorly. Booker was annoyingly ambiguous in his dialogue for no apparent reason, insisting that he was suspended in some kind of purgatory, that he was neither here nor there. This would have been fine if this mystery was ever resolved, if we eventually found out why he was appearing so Christmas-ghostly. It almost felt like he was a background decoration used for pretty pointless dialogue. As well as this, the allure of Elizabeth in Infinite was that she was so naive, innocent, and sophomoric, the beauty of a woman with the excitement of a child, and the power of a god. This Elizabeth is, comparatively, dull. Still interesting, absolutely, but so much smaller than what I would have thought. This Eliazbeth has no powers, she is not fascinated by the world but rather repulsed by it, and her feelings, as in Infinite, are projected onto you, so I sometimes felt as miserable as she did. The whole of Burial At Sea spans about half the total time of Infinite, and so I must conclude that that is why the characters were about half as developed as they should have been.
I can’t really say that Burial at Sea is a must have for Infinite fans. If you want more of Elizabeth and Booker, you may be disappointed. Rapture is not Columbia by any means, this Elizabeth is not the same as the one you fell in love with, and the series would have been well enough without. But if you were a fan of the original Bioshock, I would recommend you pick this up, you’d probably enjoy it more than I did. This is a stand alone DLC that rather stands aside instead.
What do you think? Did you like it, or was Levine too caught up in his own universe?