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To Infinity… but what’s beyond? Burial at Sea – Episode 2 and the future of BioShock

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With Irrational Games shutting up shop, what does its swansong DLC hint for the future of 2K’s premiere story-driven shooter?

On 25th March 2014, 2K released the last piece of BioShock Infinite DLC: Burial at Sea (BaS) – Episode Two. Development company Irrational Games completed their last ever project, with many of its staff disbanding for pastures new, and only 15 people staying by Ken Levine’s side to craft new stories and experiences. Burial at Sea – Episode Two also gives players the very first chance to play as Elizabeth, Booker and the player’s companion from the main game and part one of the DLC.

BaS 2 provides a fresh take on BioShock combat, as we are no longer a world-weary former Pinkerton agent, a combat-conditioned lab experiment, or a hulking Big Daddy. Rather a young woman, most of her life spent locked in a tower. As such, Irrational uses the opportunity to experiment with a different kind of encounter design, focused on stealth. Elizabeth’s toolset is reduced to just two lethal weapons, and, for the first time since the original BioShock, a crossbow. However, this svelte little number is more akin to the one-handed crossbow found in Dishonoured than it is to its forebear. The ammo used is of a stealthy nature, tranquilliser darts for solitary Splicers, gas darts for groups and ‘Noisemakers’. It’s a great, suitably subtle addition to BioShock’s already burgeoning weapon sandbox.

Joining the party is a Plasmid by the name of Peeping Tom. Holding down the left trigger turns Elizabeth invisible and later enables her to see enemies through walls and obstacles, as well as highlighting supplies like ammo. Much like Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s similar power and Assassin’s Creed IV’s ability to tag enemies in Eagle Vision, you’ll likely use this one a lot to keep an eye on baddies as you stalk about, waiting for the moment to strike or pass by.

Just watch out when you do. Similarly to the recent Thief (more on that story later), BaS 2’s enemies have a tendency to smash glass all over the bloody place, which is actually handy for them. Elizabeth stepping on it will produce a loud crunch, alerting them to her presence. On top of this, Rapture’s leaks also provide more than just a means to electrocute or freeze enemies. This time, moving through puddles and pools will also put enemies on your trail. It’s a neat touch, but something that really should have been in the series from the very beginning. However, slowing down will do nothing to ‘dampen’ the noise, as even inching forward will throw water up around you.

Sneaking about, you’ll notice markers above enemies, like speech marks. Hollow at first, they fill if you draw attention to yourself by aforementioned glass-breaking and splishy-splashing, as well as moving at normal speed. It sounds like Elizabeth made the wise choice to wear clogs on this sneaky venture…

When trying to kill enemies from the front with the Air Grabber, Elizabeth will just sort of repeatedly bump an enemy backwards.

Get close to your enemy, and you can off them with a whack of BAS’s Skyhook equivalent, the ‘Air Grabber’. However, this works only from behind, and trying to kill enemies from the front won’t work. Instead, Elizabeth will just sort of repeatedly bump an enemy backwards. It’s a bit of an irritation, but also reflective of Elizabeth’s combat ability. It also prevents the player from just running around and meleeing enemies to death before sneaking back into the dark.

Also in the package is 1998 Mode. Here, players must sneak through the entire episode without killing a single enemy. The name is a throwback to the original Thief, which launched in the titular year and was also partially helmed by Ken Levine.

The rest of the BioShock formula is still in place. Yes, combat options limit you almost entirely to a stealthy approach, and I understand that’s the intended direction for this DLC, but choice has always been the heart of BioShock’s combat model. Of course, even within this new design, there’s a broad range of options. There is still a compelling plot, a metric ton of backstory, and a wealth of exploration.

‘Do I electrocute these Splicers in this pool of water? Do I turn one against his mates and enjoy the shenanigans?’

That said, it could have been paced better, with exploration regularly clashing into objective placement. I shouldn’t clear out an entire level of bad guys only to be assigned to revisit the areas for a bunch of MacGuffins, and find the whole bloody place magically repopulated. Separating the fetch quest area from the initial objective area would have worked better.

I didn’t find the stealth mechanics great. First-person sneaking has always been a pain in the arse, especially without a leaning mechanic, even if you can see through walls. However, the new design was loved by most critics, who praised the alternate approach to BioShock’s rich combat sandbox, and the new mechanics and tools introduced to ease players into a stealthier mindset. The praise lodged BAS2 above its episodic predecessor on Metacritic, with an average score of 81  (bizarrely, only on PC at the time of writing) to BAS1’s 71, averaged across PS3, xBox-360 and PC. Many reviews lamented that the stealthier combat approach was not attempted earlier in the series. It’s a bold experiment to end the series on a different note, and one that has paid off in the eyes of critics. With this new approach received so warmly, it would be understandable if future games embraced it further. And what if they did?

As I mentioned earlier, BioShock’s gameplay paradigm has always emphasised options. ‘Do I electrocute these Splicers in this pool of water? Do I turn one against his mates and enjoy the shenanigans?’ Whilst preparing traps has always been a series stalwart, this has never established a mechanical focus on avoiding detection and attacking from the shadows, with the exception of security installations. Even then, it’s about audiovisual clues on the machines themselves, rather than a HUD indicator shared by all hostiles.

So whilst I understand the design shift in this episode of BioShock, it’s not my favoured. Dishonoured has no series precedent, and Thief and Deus Ex have a history of stealth. The latter, however, allows for a variety of tactical approaches.A ‘guns-blazing’ approach can, on occasion, serve the player better than a sneakier solution. Punishing health models often make stealth the only viable option in such games, but BioShock’s enormous breadth of combat approaches suffers from this angle. A fusion of standard BioShock design with several tougher, patrolling enemies from time to time, could better suit future games. It would be very disappointing if BioShock’s trademark combat wealth were minimised so drastically for an entire game or two, for the sake of ‘Ooh, look, a stealthier design’!

Hypotheticals aside, what do we know of BioShock’s future? In a statement to gaming website Polygon, publisher 2K said: “The BioShock universe remains a rich creative canvas for many untold stories, and we look forward to exploring the next BioShock experience.” Whether this means a continuation of some of Rapture or even Columbia’s story is unlikely, the cities’ shared story is pretty much concluded, and Ken Levine is moving on. The likelihood is that 2K will continue the franchise into an all-new setting and story, but retain the series’ defining core, as Infinite did when it was announced in 2010.

God knows when we’ll see that Vita game, though. If we ever see it.

Images: Poptimal, salegame.ru, Eurogamer, and Gamer Headlines

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