After three games and two expansions, I thought Bioshock and by extension Irrational Games had run out of ways to surprise me. I thought I knew all their tricks, the sort of experience I was in for, and how to overcome the obstacles they threw at me. I thought I was prepared for the second half of Burial at Sea, Irrational’s final piece of work before its disassembly, but, well, you can probably guess from this introduction just how accurate all that hypothesizing actually was.
Burial at Sea stands as both the knot that ties the entire series so impossibly together, and a complete upheaval of both its mechanics, and what you presume to know about the narrative that has been twisting through these games for years. Within its opening moments it had already keelhauled much of what was told through the first episode, introducing so many questions with no easy (or possibly any) answers. Questions that looped back around to the very first game, in ways I couldn’t believe, and was dumbstruck when the answers finally did lie before me as I struggled to take it all in. It’s extremely precarious to mention even the smallest plot detail, as Irrational has essentially extended the mind numbing ending moments of Infinite into three hours of continual insanity that never lets up until it’s finally time to lay all the cards on the table, as everything suddenly becomes clear.
I was quite literally at a loss for words throughout most of the experience, moving forward while my brain struggled to keep up, but what’s so remarkable about this second episode is how much it feels like something planned from the very beginning before anyone even knew what Bioshock was or what it would turn into. It’s not an extension of the series for people who want it (as the first episode was), but a critical slice of plot development only possible to exist after everything that came before it.
It also helps that going through and learning Burial at Sea’s secrets is so enjoyable, bringing perhaps the biggest change to Bioshock’s mechanics that the series has ever known, yet finding ways to root them all firmly in its world with as much polish as if they had always been there and we just couldn’t see them.
Stealth has become a necessity in episode two, evolving from the interesting but shallow change of pace it was in the first episode into an engaging, critical element of episode two’s gameplay. You’re much weaker now than you’ve ever been, and that translates into needing to use your head rather than your guns whenever possible, and Irrational has provided the tools to do so with an essential new ability that allows you to spot enemies through walls and turn invisible, as well as a handful of slick alterations to a handful of the series systems to better allow you to sneak around levels. I was a tad concerned to learn just how stealth oriented the episode was, but after just a few minutes of playing around with these new mechanics my worries were set at ease and I began to love stalking and concealing myself from enemies, picking them off one by one.
Though my health bar was constricted, I never felt like I was the one who needed to worry, instead moving about like a predator waiting for my chance to strike. It’s a distinction that is probably the biggest reason that episode two succeeds in creating a stealth game (seemingly out of thin air) that’s so immensely entertaining even without the constant story beats driving you forward. It’s like nothing the series has ever done before, which makes it so surprising that part of me is now wishing there was a way to incorporate the mechanics into the other games, so I could have more time to play with them.
The second episode of Burial at Sea is a better send off for the series from Irrational than I ever could have predicted. It calls back to the original game, while pulling it ever closer to Infinite, in ways that seem like some master plan Ken Levine cooked up from Bioshock’s conception, as if he somehow had the plans for the series already worked out and just needed a bit of time and a substantial budget to see them come to fruition. It’s a perfect close to a book I didn’t want to stop reading, yet another reimagining of how that book reads, and one that I’m probably going to need at least a few more times through to even begin to fully understand.