Irrational bids you adieu
And so we bid farewell to Bioshock Infinite, and in doing so, farewell to Irrational Games.While the news of Irrational’s breakup came as something of a surprise, the same can’t be said of founder Ken Levine’s desire to move away from the type of overwrought storytelling his creative leadership eventually produced.
Burial at Sea: Episode 2 is the climax of a series that at one point seemed coherent and confident in its universe-spanning mad-science tale, and yet now finds itself in something of a corner; desperate to tie up loose ends and retrofit scenarios that absolve the team for a few of Infinite’s more problematic characterisations and plot holes.Absolution comes by way of a raft of storyline exposition at the expense of mystery, which is perhaps a little too revealing when you have a sequence of events as spectacularly convoluted as those found in Infinite.
Many of the series’ most long-standing plot devices, philosophies and character connections are explained away with drawing boards, audio logs and visual cues, and while I wanted to know their secrets after spending huge amounts of time pondering their existence, at the same time I couldn’t help but be disappointed to find out.
Always a lighthouse...Without going into spoiler territory, Episode 2 finally crosses the streams between Bioshock’s main protagonists and those found in Infinite’s Columbia, leaving players with a resolution of sorts. The circle between Booker, Elizabeth, Atlas, Andrew Ryan, Songbird and Big Daddy is closed, but the manner of their interconnectivity feels somewhat haphazard. It’s a tale that’s built to take players on one final tour of both locales and bid a fond farewell to their colourful occupants.
Even if that’s ultimately what Episode 2 boils down to, man what a tour it is. Nobody does (did) environmental design quite like Irrational, and Episode 2 is chock-full of the neon-lit subterranea and pastel-shaded airborne cityscapes that framed their best work.
One final tour, and a fond farewellIn terms of crafting environments with life and history, this is perhaps the most impressive slice of Bioshock design yet seen in the series. Both cities are dense with atmospheric lighting and subtle detail that points to past events (some of which you may or may not have taken part in), and Irrational even finds time to pull a couple of new presentational tricks during its four-ish hours of gameplay. They remain inventive to the very end.
It opens strongly too, with Elizabeth wandering in a postcard-perfect version of Paris without a care in the world. Edith Piaf plays in the background, flocks of birds flitter in and out of view, flowers and shrubbery line the streets. A chorus swells as she reaches the end of the street; painters, lovers, restaurant-goers and shopkeepers all know her name, and… wait, why do they know her name? A girl offers a baguette from her basket. Elizabeth turns around. She offers again... and again. A child dances past holding his bread aloft, the same motion as he made just a moment ago. Colour begins to drain from the world. Something is wrong.
Cue Rapture. Cue Columbia.
Always a (wo)man...Cue a new combat system. Although Elizabeth plays in pretty much the same way as any other Bioshock protagonist (save for a lack of height, less energy and a more floaty jump), the world she inhabits has been rearranged into a much more dense pattern of corridors and walkways with patches of light and darkness, glass on the floor and water sloshing around every corner. As a result, stealth makes its way into the series in a meaningful fashion for the first time, and brilliantly so.
Elizabeth only has access to a small amount of weaponry and powers as she makes her way through both familiar and new environments, with a Thief-style crossbow taking centre stage in her arsenal. Sleep darts, poison darts and ‘Noise Makers’ need to be scavenged and used wisely as she creeps around the splicers and goons that lie between her and the mission objective, with a new Vigor/Plasmid allowing her to see enemy positions through walls as long as she stays still, or to turn entirely invisible if she activates it whilst moving.
It’s all very Arkham Asylum, and a series of underground walkways beneath several combat zones only serve to hammer that reference home further.
Supplies and darts are kept extremely thin on the ground, and so each silent melee takedown becomes a nerve-jangling exercise in necessary self-preservation. Each of Elizabeth’s enemies are fitted with a visible alert meter that signifies whether they’re on the hunt or simply running through their routine, and as long as you don’t tip that meter into the yellow, it’s possible to dispatch pretty much everybody in the game with a single skyhook to the cranium - even if you approach directly from the front within the allotted second or two.
It’s brilliant fun. Creeping through the dark and jumping into vents is a wonderful fit for Rapture’s closed hallways, and it works surprisingly well during the brightly-lit Columbia scenes too. Swift getaways are possible with Elizabeth’s ability to duck out of sight or spring up onto a Skyhook and bounce onto a suspended walkway, but plotting out a route through each room and swiftly, silently dispatching its series of goons is a mechanic that seems like it’s been missing all along.
Always a city.And when all-out combat becomes the only option, Elizabeth is still able to hold her own against a few foes at a time. Gunplay comes at the cost of noise and increased alert levels however, and while the the shotgun, pistol and explosive radar are all deadly enough in a pinch, you’ll not want to use them at all if possible. There are no inter-dimensional combat tears to take advantage of in this timeline, and although automated turrets can be turned on their makers, doing so costs lockpicks, which means a wasted chance to open one of the many secret rooms and safes in each level.
You’ll come across a lot of those, and while exploration isn’t absolutely necessary to get the most out of Episode 2, this is a game that fares much better in terms of pacing than its relatively short sibling, mixing up combat with short bursts of downtime and storytelling sequences that keep things varied. Backtracking and searching for three parts of a mysterious device predictably make their way into the mission design, but running back through a previous location is so much more satisfying than before: it’s a new chance to make it through undetected.
And in terms of Irrational being at the top of their craft, it’s also worth noting that Episode 2’s audio design is simply wonderful, adding layers of ambient atmosphere and subtly swelling the tension whenever a combat situation approaches. Voice acting is up to the usual brilliant standards from all concerned, and the only real blight comes in the form of a few repetitious phrases uttered by the goon squad as they patrol, with one in particular (an objectivist rant about opportunities to make money in Rapture) cropping up over and over and over again.
Story sequences, when they crop up, are delivered with a traditional sense of conviction, even if the results of Ken Levine’s pseudo-scientific pontification are occasionally indecipherable without frequent reference to a Wiki. In that regard (and despite the chalkboards and logs that offer pointers throughout), you really need to have played through all parts of Bioshock to understand roughly what the hell is going on.
The ultimate answers to each of the games are fully contained within Episode 2’s cutscenes and incidental dialogue, but unravelling it all is still an exercise in confusion.
So many answers
- Beautifully designed
- Much better pacing
- Excellent audio
- Stealthy combat
Too many answers
- Some strange character developments
- Looped ambient dialogue
- Some off character development
Bioshock Infinite: Burial at Sea - Episode 2 PC ReviewWhether or not long-term fans of Bioshock will want to find out all the answers contained within Episode 2 is something they might want to consider. Both games are now neatly wrapped up with the events contained within, and the loop is closed. Personally, I'm not so sure I'm better off for knowing, or that the series is better off for removing the mystery.
Even players that ignore the story analysis are still likely to be happy to have been back to Rapture and Columbia however; to see the lavish design with which Irrational chose to close out its universe-spanning storyline. It looks brilliant, it sounds wonderful, and that trademark sense of atmosphere is best-in-show. For those reasons alone, I sincerely hope Irrational’s group of artists, designers and musicians find work together again; it’ll be a shame if we never see cities such as these brought to life again with such style.
And as the credits roll on the Bioshock series, Elizabeth, it turns out, is arguably the best protagonist of all. Her storyline is rich with humanity and steers clear of life-ending violence with good reason, making me wish we’d had the chance to play this way all along. Bioshock’s pacing and combat has been revitalised by offering a route that simply avoids using a gun.
I'm sure there’s a lesson in there somewhere.
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