The latest and last chunk of DLC for BioShock Infinite acts as a finale for the game, the BioShock series as a whole and, following the recent shock announcement, Irrational Games itself. Is it a worthy conclusion?
It’s already been well-advertised that Burial at Sea Episode 2 switches the player character from Booker to Elizabeth, a change that proves more than just superficial. (Incidentally, if for some reason you’re reading this without having played both Infinite and Burial at Sea Episode 1, spoilers abound from here on in.)
Picking up where Episode 1 finished, Elizabeth finds herself at the mercy of Atlas and his deputies, but manages to stave off her execution by brokering a deal to get them back into Rapture – i.e. you’re essentially working to kick off the civil war that provided the backstory to the first BioShock. Clever. You’d think that for a woman who can rip holes in space and time, this would be a simple trick, but Elizabeth’s ability to use Tears has been removed. The plot works hard to provide a proper explanation, but it’s clearly a case of gameplay logic – a fully-powered Elizabeth would be too easy to play as and would leave the game too complicated to actually make. As a result, Episode 2 plays very differently to the previous games in the series.
Whereas BioShock protagonists up to now have been more than a bit handy in a fight, Elizabeth is close to useless. Her health bar’s tiny, guns are considerably less effective because she doesn’t know how to use them properly, and her melee attack doesn’t even hurt enemies, only knocking them back. However, if you sneak up on them and melee, you’ll knock them out. And there’s the key – by changing player characters, Episode 2 has suddenly become a stealth game. And it’s clear which stealth game it has in mind. One of the difficulty settings, which requires you to get through the game without killing anyone, is called “1998 Mode” – 1998 being the launch year of Thief: The Dark Project, the first game in the recently rebooted Thief series, which several key Irrational staff (including head Ken Levine) worked on. To complete the nod, Elizabeth’s main weapon is a crossbow which uses different ammo – tranquilisers, knockout gas and an enemy-baiting “noisemaker” – much like Thief star Garrett’s weaponry.
So gameplay switches to a more measured, slower, more deliberate method of creeping around. Vents can be used, broken glass gives you away if walked on, ammo is a lot rarer and a new Plasmid grants both invisibility and X-ray vision for maximum enemy-surprising. It’s a refreshing change of pace, and highlights your newfound vulnerability – you can’t even take down the one Big Daddy that appears in the game, just avoid it. It also makes Episode 2 by far the hardest game in the series, and the lack of Vita-Chambers or the like – it’s just an old-fashioned checkpoint system – means you’ll likely replay certain sections several times before you manage it. One suspects this is partially a reaction to criticism about Episode 1’s short length. Episode 2 is still fairly brief, but it’s a good deal longer than its prequel, with much more to see and do.
There are nice touches all around. Elizabeth’s proficiency with lockpicking enables a new type of lockpicking minigame – it’s just a basic stop-the-needle-at-the-right-moment exercise, but it’s beautifully presented as Elizabeth’s fondness for mechanical trickery manifests in a sort of 3D-blueprint-vision that pops up elsewhere. Her skill at codebreaking also makes an appearance – sadly, you don’t get to try and crack any codes yourself, but again the presentation is nice as the coded letters come into decrypted focus as she stares at them. The game also works hard to justify its grand finale status, with several key characters from the series making unexpected but welcome appearances.
The one major drawback to Episode 2 is the way that the stealth aspects don’t always interlock with the established mechanics. As mentioned before, the guns you get are fairly useless aside from the crossbow, and although you have four different Plasmids you’re unlikely to use any of them much except the aforementioned invisibility-granting Peeping Tom. The lack of BioShock’s usual lifesaving mechanics also makes certain sections quite irritating – we only got through one tricky section near the end through a fluke, unintentionally causing one powerful enemy to kill his compatriots as he tried to fireball us to death. Finally, the game’s conclusion also left us slightly deflated – no doubt intentionally, as it makes it clear that events are tying in to the original BioShock and that game should be considered the series’ true thematic finale, specifically the “good” ending that is here made explicitly canonical. It’s still a depressing note to leave the wonderful character of Elizabeth on.
Overall, though, Episode 2 is by and large a good end for BioShock (even if it may not be – 2K Games still has the franchise rights following Irrational’s dissolution, so we wouldn’t be surprised to see a new team set to work. It’s definitely the series’ “proper” end, though, as creator Levine won’t be involved any more). It ties in the original and Infinite well, and provides a pleasingly unexpected gameplay shift at the last minute. While not the jewel in BioShock’s crown – we still think the first game’s the best – it proves as good a full stop as any.