The first half of Burial Sea is that rare bit of DLC that manages to add to an experience without feeling like it was stripped out of the original game; expanding upon threads left over from Bioshock: Infinite and providing closure to a few loose ends it didn’t have time to wrap up.
It feels like an extra chapter planned from the start, supplementing an already rich experience with an engaging narrative which ties the entire series better together, and also introduces a handful of gameplay tweaks which make it stand apart and provide yet another interesting twist to Bioshock’s rock solid core systems.
It’s a trip back to Rapture, yet, a Rapture we’ve never seen before; brightly lit and in full swing before the madness that overrun the city takes place. This look into Rapture when it was still “alive” is far more intriguing than it may appear on paper, giving a better sense of purpose to many of Bioshock’s most iconic elements: the everyday use of plasmids, how Big Daddies and Little Sisters existed within a larger ecosystem of (in comparison) normal people, and an elaboration of some of Rapture’s key figures. It deepens the lore of Bioshock without ever disrupting or repeating what has already been said throughout the three games already, turning a city I thought I had known into a new and exciting place to explore once again.
At the same time it doesn’t ignore its own plot, that of a different Booker and Elizabeth looking for a lost child who is somehow tied to both of them. It’s a compelling look at Booker and Elizabeth as characters outside of the relationship they had in Infinite, still needing to reply on each other to get what they want, but the result being something far more like a mutual transaction than friendship. Their roles are essentially reversed, with Elizabeth guiding Booker who remains entirely confused yet compliant with her instructions. The ending however is what sets everything in its place, both tying Burial at Sea into Infinite, and providing a window into a side of the latter’s narrative that I didn’t know I was missing. It’s startling and genius, and begs the question of just what else I hadn’t considered about the series that presumably awaits me in episode two.
Burial at Sea also serves to rather drastically overhaul some of Infinite’s combat mechanics, namely that of stealth. Stealth was never really an option or even something that existed in the series before, but here it’s almost a requirement to survive, as you’re given far fewer resources to combat enemies and thus must make use of melee and back stabs far more liberally.
I’d have probably grown tired of the change in a larger experience, but for a few hours it made for tense, refreshing encounters that forced a new play style on me without simplifying the combat. Being cut off from most of my weapons and vigors made me conscious of every bullet shot and chunk of salt used up, keeping me especially aware of where enemies were and how I could most efficiently take them all out.
Burial at Sea unfortunately doesn’t have time to fully refine its stealth mechanics as I would have liked, but it has me eager to dig into the second half of the expansion, where I’m hoping these systems having been introduced can then be better realized and more deeply tied into the heart of combat. As it stands Burial at Sea episode one is both impressively compelling on its own, and a bold beginning for a side story that is already shaping up to be one of the most fascinating the series has yet to tell.