REVIEW: Bioshock Infinite: Burial at Sea Ep. 2
Written by: Colin Tanner
2014/04/02 6:42 AM
Since it’s introduction in 2007, the Bioshock series has marveled and challenged its audience, not by its gameplay or it’s graphics (though those have consistently been excellent) but through its exploration of big ideas. From Andrew Ryan’s devotion to societal objectivism to Zachary Comstock’s devotion to the Christian God and American Exceptionalism, both titles have delivered characters of conviction. Despite all their setbacks, these two “villains” accomplished the impossible through sheer will and an uncompromising (though realistic), world view.
Sadly, conviction is not a word that springs to mind when I think of Bioshock Infinite: Burial At Sea Episode Two. Rather, I think of insecurity. A doubtful, worried tone has hung over the entirety of the DLC but it comes into full focus with this most recent release by Irrational Games. The big ideas that were once the cornerstone of Bioshock have now been replaced by a meandering, unfocused plot that has little to add and borrows so much from those previous works.
Is Burial At Sea Episode 2 really that bad? Of course not! Despite a confused and tired narrative, this DLC still shines as one of the best designed, performed, and technically competent games of this year. Pitted against it’s peers, Episode Two easily stands out as a handsomely accomplished title. But when faced with it’s own legacy, especially with it’s attempts to revise the entire series’ cannon, it comes off as a hurried and unnecessary entry.
The story begins moments after where Episode One ended. Only this time the player is playing as Elizabeth Comstock, the reality bending heroine of Bioshock Infinite. But something’s wrong, her metaphysical abilities are gone and she’s trapped in underbelly of Columbia. Voices are calling out to her, giving suggestions and clues as to what she should do next. Has she gone mad? Or is something far stranger at work? Without her powers, Elizabeth if forced to hide in the shadows as she sneaks her way through the crumbling underwater city.
To go any further into story would ruin most of the experience but I was underwhelmed by it’s unsatisfying and unnecessary answers. One in particular seems to be an attempt as fixing one of Bioshock Infinite’s weaker plot turns. The results come off as hamfisted and patronizing. Worse yet, some of the most obvious questions are left completely unanswered despite being asked aloud by the characters. I simply could not understand the main character’s motivations and actions despite rewatching cut scenes. Leaving the audience something to ponder has usually been Bioshock’s strong suit but here it truly comes off as plot holes and a bad fan script.
What Episode 2 lacks in cohesion, it makes up for by brilliantly directed moments. The opening sequence alone stands as one of the most breathtaking scenes I have ever experienced in a video game. The brief explanations of Columbia’s haunting Little Sisters and Big Daddies are unnecessary, but still provide a disturbing sense of wonder. So too does the dialogue. The educated yet manic ramblings of a Splicer provide a window into the mind of the confused and betrayed. Voice acting remains as tactful and emotionally intelligent as ever with fantastic performances by Troy Baker and Courtnee Draper.
But the strongest element in this episode is the Art Direction and design. Every environment feels designed to be lived in, not just walked through. My personal favorite is the Ryan The Lion Preparatory Academy, a pre-school that educates it’s young and impressionable to despise “parasites” A cartoon lion with a cigarette drawn in a style reminiscent of E.H. Shepard’s Winnie The Pooh confidently and cooly displays self reliance and rejects sharing. A factory for underwater transportation is far less humorous but equality believeable. There are dozens of examples and all are of equal quality. That’s what makes the world of Columbia so haunting, a brilliant art team that can create environments that tell a story. Most often, the stories are violent and isolating but impossible to forget.
Gameplay is easily the biggest departure for the series. While Bioshock Infinite involved a partner to through you items during combat, Episode 2 is a solo affair. In fact, combat is gone altogether. Instead players are treated to a new stealth game, avoiding the psychotic splicers and lumbering Big Daddies. The results are for the most part successful. Certainly you can sneak up behind every splicer and knock them out but the more reliable approach is to sneak out the environment unseen. Elizabeth takes far more damage than previous protagonists and her use of weakened guns simply isn’t a good option. A new Plasmid allows Elizabeth to see enemies through walls and turn invisible for a brief time. It’s a refreshing and welcomed change to the traditionally combat heavy series and it creates a sense of tension that was missing in the original Bioshock Infinite.
I am disappointed in Episode Two, if feels like a wholly unnecessary and narratively confused chapter in the Bioshock Universe. What is the central idea at work here? Frankly, I can’t answer that. But it’s the brief moments, beautiful scenery, tense exploration, and masterful voice acting that save this title. There’s no grand vision, or should I say there’s no original vision in Episode Two. Still, this collection of smaller concepts creates a wonderful title, one of the best of the year, that should be played by anyone who’s experienced all the prior stories. But that’s really my central problem. This is an expansion to two narratives and it relies far too much on past creative successes to ever stand on it’s own. We’ve already experienced the story, these are just the leftovers. Wonderful on their own but too dissonant to ever come together.
Is Burial At Sea Episode 2 really that bad? Of course not! Despite a confused and tired narrative, this DLC still shines as one of the best designed, performed, and technically competent games of this year. Pitted against it’s peers, Episode Two easily stands out as a handsomely accomplished title. But when faced with it’s own legacy, especially with it's attempts to revise the entire series’ cannon, it comes off as a hurried and unnecessary entry.