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Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Bioshock Infinite: Burial At Sea.

Bioshock Infinite: Burial At Sea.

This review contains spoilers for Bioshock Infinite: Burial At Sea, Episodes 1 and 2.

A thing that is unjust: That Bioshock Infinite, a rare gem of a game with a unique and engaging storyline that combines cutting political and historical satire with a personal narrative that is alternately charming and heartwrenching, and adds to that a gorgeous setting and fine gameplay, should not go home with as many Video Game BAFTAs as The Last of Us, a game whose main selling point is that it takes the twin cliches of 'rugged man escorting innocent girlchild' and 'zombies first-person-shooter' and mashes them together like a brony and a local farmer's horse.

But my dissatisfaction is mitigated slightly by the fact that, with yesterday's release of Bioshock Infinite: Burial At Sea Episode 2, the Burial at Sea DLC which caps off Ken Levine's involvement in Bioshock (and might signal the end of the franchise altogether) is now complete.

The first striking thing about the DLC is that it's nearly as long as a regular video game. Both episodes together weigh in at about six hours – potentially longer if you take the time to explore the many nooks, crannies, and locked rooms scattered about both episodes. That's a play time bordering on an AAA game, albeit a very short one – the last time I saw that happen was with Dishonored's Daud DLCs.

Both episodes are well-crafted but markedly different. In Episode 1, you play as Booker DeWitt, the player character of Infinite – but this is an alternate Booker, one who has taken up work as a private investigator in Rapture, the underwater Objectivist utopia (read: hellhole horror city) of Bioshock and Bioshock 2. After the end of work for a day, he is visited by a noir femme fatale version of Elizabeth, your companion and helpful item-thrower-and-interdimensional-portal-opener of Infinite, with a job for him: There is a girl gone missing, and Elizabeth wants her found.

Thus begins a short but immensely fun adventure that takes Booker and Elizabeth through a pre-fall Rapture, as they attempt to steal a mask to enter a party (a process that involves gruff, tough-as-nails noir Elizabeth breathlessly extolling the virtues of abstract artwork in a hilarious ruse) and then down into a sunken department store that has been re-purposed as a prison, to fight their way through the superpowered drug addicts there.

All of Episode 1 plays as a love letter to the noir genre – both film noir and the works of Raymond Chandler and others – and it hits its noir beats perfectly, adapting them to Rapture's gorgeously decadent underwater setting perfectly. The episode finishes with a startling but well-foreshadowed plot twist, too, one that leaves you wanting more: Luckily for me, I was a latecomer to the Burial At Sea party, having bought it on Steam during a sale, so Episode 2 was due to come out in only four days.

Episode 2 drops you into the role of Elizabeth: No longer the helpful escort who keeps you from dying, she is now in the main role, with no escort of her own save a disembodied voice. The gameplay is startlingly different from that of Episode 1, or the Bioshock series in general: At first, at least, it's far more stealth-based. While giving the only female protagonist in the series a stealthier gameplay style leaves a slightly poor taste in my mouth, it makes some sense: She's not a genetically enhanced ubermensch like Jack, a cyborg monster in a diving suit like Delta, or a trained soldier and mercenary like Booker – she is, as she points out, a bookworm.

The stealth doesn't last long, anyway. Before long, I had found enough guns and ammo with Elizabeth to comfortably kill most people who strayed into my path – and not long after that, I found the Radar Range, a weapon unique to Elizabeth. The Radar Range, a device that looks like a portable electric fan, fires beams of microwaves that rapidly kill people or, if trained on them for a long time, makes them explode and kills everyone around them. It swiftly became my favourite weapon, and I continued using it – along with a few brief flirtations with the Hand Cannon – until the end of the game.

I challenge anyone to do otherwise. It's a microwave emitter. It makes people explode. More than once, I drew chastisement from my playing companion for just cheerfully burning everyone who looked at me funny. I regret none of it.

In contrast to Episode 1's short noir story, Episode 2 is longer (it took me about four hours to finish it), and not really noir at all: Instead, it serves as a swan song for Bioshock, bringing back a whole host of past characters, in both cameos and major roles, and ultimately tying all three games together.

It also affected me quite deeply. Episode 1's ending left me shaken. Almost the entirety of Episode 2 left me alternately hurting alongside Elizabeth and deeply impressed at her: Not only does she demonstrate a hard-as-nails toughness that would put Booker to shame (I jest, it'd make him extremely proud), but also a sparkling intellect and a deep nobility of spirit. These are all qualities we saw from her in Infinite, but Burial At Sea takes them to a new level: Elizabeth's resolve is constantly tested (including in one scene that is more overtly brutal than anything a Bioshock protagonist has faced), and she is constantly presented with temptation to stray from her mission, and she continues nevertheless. It's a story which is both classically heroic and deeply human, and her success at the end is both uplifting and deeply bittersweet – made more so by the fact that as the game wound towards its finale, I became increasingly unsure as to whether she would succeed. 

(For striking moments, special mention to the bizarre Parisian dream sequence in the beginning, which starts off with famous artists giving Elizabeth paintings, progresses on to random Frenchmen complimenting her, then progresses on to birds landing on her fingers and singing along to the background music, and ends with fire, rain, screaming and death.)

The two episodes together are a triumph of storytelling, and like Bioshock Infinite are fine examples of why people who proclaim video-games to not be art are wrong and should feel wrong. If this is the end of Bioshock – and I hope it isn't while at the same time thinking that if future installments can't live up to the legacy set by Infinite and Burial At Sea, they maybe shouldn't bother – then it was a fine and worthy ending.

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