Thursday, 10 March 2016

Game Review - 'BioShock Infinite - Burial at Sea, Episode 2'

Burial at Sea: Episode 2 marked the end of the BioShock franchise - at least, as far as Ken Levine and Irrational Games were concerned. It was intended not only as the final piece of the puzzle for the increasingly complex tale, but also the final project for Irrational Games. So, naturally, the pressure to ensure that it made for a worthy conclusion must have been fairly high.

With Booker DeWitt's story, essentially, over and done with, Burial at Sea: Episode 2 casts the player in the role of Elizabeth, herself - picking up shortly after the end of the first part. Of course, something seems to have gone wrong. Elizabeth can't seem to remember why she came back to Rapture, or what she had intended to do once she got there. And, her ability to open doorways to other dimensions seems to have vanished. All she knows is that she seems to be stuck in Rapture, and that Sally, the young girl from the previous episode, is still in danger, and needs her help.

It might feel a little cheap to have Elizabeth's reality bending powers suddenly stripped away before you even have the chance to take control - but, from a game-play perspective, it also makes perfect sense. BioShock Infinite had Elizabeth unsure of her own abilities, and learning how to use them throughout the game. Burial at Sea, Episode 1, on the other hand, had her deliberately hiding the true extent of her own abilities for reasons of her own. And, in both cases, her role was simply to support Booker DeWitt - to do what she could to keep him alive until he reached his goal.

This time, though, you have Elizabeth on her own and pursuing her own goals. And, even though you might have liked the prospect of having all of her powers at your disposal (I know that I certainly did), you would have to understand why that might have been a bit much for the developers. The loss of her powers also serves an important purpose within the story, as well - though, you'll find out about that as you play.

So, instead of the god-like being that Elizabeth became, the character that you control is, essentially, an ordinary, though extremely intelligent and determined, young woman. A young woman driven by guilt over her actions in the previous episode. She is determined to return to Rapture to pick up where she and Booker left off - rescuing Sally, the Little Sister that she felt she had abandoned. Of course, returning to Rapture without her reality bending powers leaves her at the mercy of a familiar figure in the form of Atlas - who wants her help in launching his attack on Rapture's ruler, Andrew Ryan. In order to rescue Sally, Elizabeth needs to help Atlas. Of course, both she and the player knows that Atlas can't be trusted to keep his word.

Naturally, with a different protagonist, you can also expect some differences in game-play. The previous entry flirted with the idea of stealth by making it an option for the patient player - and, also, by encouraging a bit more caution on the player's part by making ammunition slightly more difficult to find. Here, though, stealth and caution are practically necessities. Elizabeth, after all, isn't the highly trained killing machine that Booker was - and, the game does try to find ways to acknowledge that. For one, Elizabeth just isn't capable of taken as much damage as Booker could. On the higher difficulties, especially, it's not uncommon for one or two hits to bring you close to the point of death. Another change is that, while Booker was perfectly capable of killing an enemy with a melee attack, Elizabeth is really only capable of knocking them down for a few moments - unless, of course, you manage to catch them by surprise. Sneaking up on an enemy allows you to pull off a straight-forward one-hit knock out.

The game also gives you a wide variety of other ways to take out your enemies in non-lethal ways: tranquilisers, for long-range knock outs; clouds of gas, for groups of enemies; and, noise-makers for that convenient distraction needed to give you chance to slip by. While it is always possible to get your hands on some other weapons throughout the game, and the possibility of taking your enemies on head-on is always there, the developers seem determined to encourage you to play the way they clearly seem to want you to. With its variety of ammo options, the crossbow is clearly the most efficient weapon you will have - and, you'll probably be reluctant to part with it. Also, an upgrade to the Possession Plasmid will cause an enemy to lose consciousness once it wears off. There's even a new stealth Plasmid, in the form of Peeping Tom - a new ability that allows you to, both, see through walls and turn invisible.

Combine all of this with Elizabeth's clear distaste for the idea of going on the sort of murderous rampage that Booker was known for, and it almost seems like the game is asking you not to kill anyone. But, apart from the sympathetic player not wanting to get any more blood on Elizabeth's hands, the decision of whether to kill or to rely on non-lethal methods doesn't really seem to make much difference. It wont change the way that the story progresses, and it wont change the outcome. All you really get out of it is that you might feel a little better about yourself for not forcing Elizabeth to kill. Admittedly, though, that was enough for me to try for a non-lethal play-through - so, maybe the developers were on to something.

In terms of actual game-play, the stealth mechanics almost seem to make Burial at Sea, Episode 2 too easy. Tranquiliser bolts, in particular, seem awfully easy to come by - and, used bolts can even be recovered, occasionally, for a second use (maybe even a third, if you get particularly lucky). A well-placed gas bolt can take out an entire group of enemies at once, as well. Also, so long as you can keep yourself stocked up on Eve (which also isn't that difficult), Peeping Tom will let you get off a sneak attack even if you're standing right in front of an enemy.

Admittedly, there are ways to attract attention. Firing a gun, naturally - though, if you're using guns, than you're probably not too worried about avoiding notice. Also, stepping on broken glass, or splashing about in water, will alert anyone nearby to your presence. And, even the actual sound of a sneak attack can alert anyone else to the fact that something is wrong. But, much like with all stealth games, it doesn't seem to take them very long for them to decide that there's actually nothing to worry about. It also doesn't seem to take much effort to lose them, even if they do spot you. Dashing out of sight and ducking behind something will usually do the trick. Or, if you happen to enough Eve, you can simply activate Peeping Tom and casually stroll away.

There was really only one tough spot, involving a scripted ambush toward the end of the DLC, where I struggled. But, even there, it's possible to clear the room with the usual stealth tactics. You just have to be a little more cautious.

All that being said, though, there is still 1999 mode - the difficulty setting added post launch to bring back the punishment of 'old school' FPS games. And, there is even a new 1998 mode included here - which can only be unlocked by completing a non-lethal play-through of Episode 2, and which promises to add to the stealth experience. I haven't played the DLC on either setting, yet, so I can't really say what they add to the experience.

While Burial at Sea, Episode 2 does focus more on the characters and events of the original BioShock, BioShock Infinite and the city of Columbia aren't entirely ignored. The true value of the DLC can be found in the way that it seeks to bring a sense of closure to the entire story - beginning when Jack first set foot in Rapture back in 2007, and continuing with Booker DeWitt and Elizabeth in Columbia. The strange connection between the two cities has been hinted at, before - but, here, that connection is brought out into the open. But, of course, this is the point I can't really talk about, without fear of ruining the experience for anyone who may want to see it for themselves. Let's just say that, in terms of the overall story of the two cities, Burial at Sea, Episode 2 is practically an essential purchase. It's not just a piece of the overall puzzle, but it may actually be the most important piece. Whether that final piece of the puzzle would actually provide satisfying answers for long-time fans, though, would have to be a matter of debate. I can already see reactions ranging from praising its cleverness, to declaring it all to be a convoluted mess. For my part, I tend to swing much more toward the former, than the latter. I'm satisfied with the way it ended, even if I'm not entirely happy about it. It also doesn't hurt that Burial at Sea, Episode 2 is actually a significant improvement over episode 1. It's longer, for a start - giving you more value for your money, if the dollars versus hours comparison is important to you.

It also feels like a more complete experience. While episode 1 seemed to weigh everything on the surprise revelation of its own ending, and pushing the player toward it as quickly as possible, episode 2 feels more like a proper journey of discovery. And, then, there's Elizabeth herself - who, as far as I'm concerned, has always been a more interesting character than Booker. It seems like such a small thing to have a protagonist in a video game who doesn't want to kill, and who is actually willing to admit when she's scared - but, it did wonders for making her into someone that I felt I could actually relate to. Don't get me wrong, I don't want every character in a video game to be like Elizabeth (I enjoy taking on the role of an unstoppable bad-ass as much as anyone), but it's still a refreshing change.

Burial at Sea, as a whole, exists in some odd mid-way point between the original BioShock and BioShock Infinite. It shows that the two stories are actually intimately connected, and gives the player important revelations on how and why. If you wish to experience the whole story of the BioShock franchise, as the developers envisioned it, then this final piece of DLC does feel very necessary. However, there's also nothing stopping you from simply treating them as two separate stories that don't necessarily need to be connected. Whether the DLC is worth the money, for you, will basically come down to how invested you feel in the whole experience.

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