This review contains spoilers for both the main game and the DLC. You’ve been warned.
BioShock Infinite was a good game. Not a fantastic, generation-defining game, mind you, but a very good game. It featured engaging gameplay, gorgeous visuals, fantastic sound design, an engrossing narrative (at least for the first three quarters), and stellar acting from Troy Baker and Courtnee Draper as the game’s main characters, Booker and Elizabeth. Say what you will about Infinite – it was an undeniably well-made piece of interactive entertainment.
On the other hand, the first episode of BioShock Infinite’s Burial at Sea DLC is not a good game. In fact, it’s a bad game. An embarrassingly awful game, even. Burial at Sea combines the worst parts of the BioShock games in awkward ways and wraps them up in a buggy, unpolished package.
Okay, it’s not all bad. In fact, the first third of the game, which takes the player through a recreation of Rapture in its prime, is impressive and engrossing. Rapture is a gorgeous place, all red and gold, standing as a tribute to Randian capitalism. There are dozens of NPCs to see and interact with, and the slow, deliberate gameplay allows the player to soak everything in.
Still, as impressive as the first third of the game is, I found it difficult to fully invest in it, for the same reason I found it difficult to invest in the first two BioShock games: Rapture doesn’t feel like a believable place to me. It feels like a mishmash of concepts and ideologies and architectural styles that don’t fit together, and this really hits home when you’re walking through a pre-rebellion version of Rapture. Columbia held together as a believable place within the context of BioShock’s fiction, because it twisted something familiar – Disney-fied Americana – into something more sinister; there was at least an entry point for the player – at least those who had ever been to Walt Disney World. On the other hand, there’s nothing in Rapture’s hodgepodge of art deco and objectivism and deep-sea locations that serves as an anchor for the player, and there’s nothing that ties these disparate elements together. I still don’t buy into Rapture as a setting, and that made me feel like I couldn’t fully invest in whatever story Burial at Sea was trying to tell.
That being said, I could still admire the first third of Burial at Sea, Episode 1 as a stunning technical achievement. It takes a lot of skill to make the act of walking around and talking to people feel engaging, and Irrational succeeded marvelously in that regard.
Too bad they botched the last two-thirds of the DLC.
It’s easy to say that the combat is what ruins the DLC, which is true, but the combat in the main game was solid. It’s not the sheer fact that combat is happening that ruins Burial at Sea; it’s the way the combat is implemented. The main game’s combat was suited to large, open, well-lit places. Transferring it to the dark, cramped corridors of Rapture just doesn’t work. At all. It becomes impossible to tell where enemies are firing from, and sometimes they’re able to walk right up to Booker while his long-range rifle dangles uselessly in front of him. The low amounts of ammo and resources make it seem like Burial at Sea is going for somewhat of a survival-horror vibe, but that doesn’t mesh well with the game’s loud, rapid-fire weaponry. To an extent, the first two BioShock games suffered from this problem as well, but Burial at Sea amplifies it to an intolerable extreme.
But it’s not just the combat that goes downhill in the last two thirds of the game; the character interactions and storytelling go downhill as well. The audiologs basically become excuses to deliver door codes to the player, and the ones that don’t are narrated mainly by Dr. Suchong, whose fake East Asian accent calls to mind the hilariously racist accents from the original Deus Ex. Elizabeth becomes increasingly agitated and impatient, and while that makes sense in the context of the ending, it has the nasty side effect of telegraphing her betrayal and also being super fucking irritating.
The thing that’s most disappointing about the storytelling, though, is the decision to focus on the metaphysical, timey-wimey aspects of Infinite’s narrative, rather than the sociopolitical ones. There were already a few too many mindfucks in the closing hours of the main game; adding another mindfuck about Comstock transforming back into Booker here is just comedy at this point. It’s not interesting or surprising; it’s basically BioShock spoofing itself.
What really sinks Burial at Sea, though – no pun intended – is just how buggy and broken the whole thing is. This first episode was obviously a rushed product, and it shows in numerous ways:
- Elizabeth’s AI seems stupider than in the main game. She often gets in the way and has trouble running around Booker. There were a couple of times when she trapped Booker and I had to make him jump over her to escape.
- I once saw Elizabeth get stuck running on the spot, despite the fact that there were was nothing in front of her. Here’s a screenshot.
- Booker once got stuck on scenery and couldn’t move, forcing me to reload a checkpoint.
- The game magically reduced my resolution to 1280×720, and I had to manually readjust it back to 1920×1080.
- At one point, Elizabeth yelled that she would wait for Booker as he crossed a chasm, but then when he turned around, she was right there next to him.
- The menus in the DLC wouldn’t work properly at times, highlighting menu elements other than the ones I had selected with my cursor.
- Sometimes Booker’s gun would clip through enemies that stood too close to him, making it impossible to shoot them.
- Eve was mistakenly referred to as “Salt” in a number of places, showing that the developers forgot to change some stuff when they brought it over from the main game.
- Skyhook executions didn’t work most of the time. Booker would just stand there doing nothing while I held the E key.
- This one is by far the worst: For most of the second half of the game, I couldn’t pick up new weapons to replace my old ones, not even through tears. This forced me to scrounge for ammo for my existing weapons.
This is more than just a lack of polish. Some of Burial at Sea’s mechanics were fundamentally broken in my experience. Irrational is a major studio, not a ten-person indie operation; this level of bugginess is unacceptable, period. It takes an already frustrating experience and makes it borderline unplayable.
For that reason, I have to declare the first episode of Burial at Sea an abject failure, one that is not only dreadful on its own terms, but that also sullies the name of one the year’s best games. It shows a complete misunderstanding of what made Infinite appealing, and it doesn’t even have the decency to be basically well-made. Burial at Sea, Episode 1 isn’t just a letdown; it’s an instance of complete disrespect for the player.