BioShock Infinite on its release earlier this year received the sort of critical praise that would make a pop-star buy a private jet in an orgy of self-congratulation. Flawed but hugely ambitious, Irrational created a sweeping, involving narrative and world that left many gagging for more. Perhaps it was felt Columbia had been exhausted, or that world had been (ahem) closed. Instead of re-visiting the sweeping cloud city, Burial At Sea returns the series to the underwater metropolis of Rapture in a DLC which may alienate as many fans as it was meant to please.
Waking up in his office, private investigator Booker DeWitt is approached by a mysterious femme fatale named Elizabeth to help him to find a child – a child that he has a vested interest in. So far, so noire, but the alluring possibility of a Sam Spade-esque tense caper is unfortunately quickly dropped for a relatively basic search and rescue narrative framed in the terms of Infinite and its predecessors. The dynamic of Booker and Elizabeth plays slightly differently to Infinite; Booker is much more assured in his surroundings, while Elizabeth is clearly hiding something and wishes to keep the arrangement as professional (and distant) as possible. Events in Infinite are cryptically referenced by Elizabeth, and Booker fills in much of the background to political and social movements leading up to the original BioShock, but make no mistake – this is the world as created by Infinite, and thus shares many of the main game's startling problems.
Any BioShock die-hard who was tempted into this DLC by the thigh-flash of a pre-carnage Rapture will find themselves bitterly disappointed. The areas which detail Rapture in its former glory are sparse and dull, with a strange sheen that suggests a lack of polish. Even more soulless are the background characters, who share Infinite's shockingly poor facial animations and stare, dead-eyed, as you wander past. This was a huge problem in Infinite, and once again it ruins any impression of a living, breathing world. Hours of detailed subliminal dialogue is fine in itself, but when delivered from the mouths of stolid charisma-vacuums it is unsettling in a way that was never intended.
The meat of the game comes into play when Booker and Elizabeth are plunged into Coltraine's Department store, a permanent prison for splicers and other miscreants. It's certainly a very good impression of the original BioShock, but it is no more than that. True, it is dirtier, harder and scarier than Infinite, with a far greater emphasis on stealth and traps, but BioShock does this better. Splicers are more individual than the squads in Infinite and can thus be tricked into charging blindly into your traps. Ammunition is scarce, as are guns, so one must find varying means to kill the enemies.
Not that you get much time to really take in the intricacies of Burial at Sea, because it is spectacularly short; shorter than the shortest man in the world, knee-capped, sinking into quick-sand while the White Stripes play the shortest gig in the world (again). I spent a lot of time meandering and exploring (not that there is much to encourage such behaviour), and I dragged the time played kicking and screaming to just over three hours; a less discerning gamer could, I'm not kidding, finish this in an hour, possibly less. For an £11.99 piece of DLC, with a sequel of equivalent value soon to follow, this is appalling value. Ambition and scope are forgivable in a game with the range of Infinite, but in a DLC which in many respects feels like a backward step it is an undisguised slap in the face to the gamer.
On its own terms, Buried at Sea Episode One is a perfectly decent addition to the BioShock roster; undoubtedly fun, it continues, in its way, the ambition of Infinite. For the most part, however, it comes across as a package of wishful thinking and self-indulgence which has wildly backfired. The setting of Rapture, after the possibilities of Columbia, feels jaded and old-hat; the prison is BioShock-light, while the pre-carnage Rapture is a disappointing fudge littered with unconvincing decorations masquerading as people.
What could have been an interesting noire fusion of the Bioshock series was merely wool over the sheep's eyes, instead forcing a proto-BioShock which features neither the breath-taking ambition of Infinite nor the desolate loneliness of the original. The fusion of gameplay is well done, as are the oblique references to events past and present. Whether this is worth £11.99 for HALF a game is entirely up to the buyer, but, to put it into context, that is over ¼ of a full price game, and over ½ once the second pack is purchased. You can make up your own mind as to whether that's worth three hours of BioShock-light that will neither please nor appease hardcore fans.
This review is based on a digital copy of Bioshock Infinite: Burial At Sea Episode One for the X360, provided by the publisher.