BioShock Infinite demonstrated how to properly deliver a conclusive story while still leaving room for sequel-requisite ambiguity. By the end, or at least after some spirited discussion with friends, a competent understanding of what happened was achieved. In a medium where narrative often lacks any sort of patience or subtlety, BioShock Infinite assumed the role of an outlier and assigned itself a member of the Games Whose Stories Won't Embarrass Its Champions Club.
The issue is how in the world Irrational would go about obliging demand for BioShock Infinite's downloadable content. Clash in the Clouds sufficed as a gameplay-focused extension, but it deliberately excised the narrative threads that defined its progenitor. Burial at Sea, the first half of a two part saga, is the first real follow-up to BioShock Infinite. Thematically, its task is not unlike The Matrix Reloaded, wherein a popular work of creative and critical indulgence has to oblige its past by creating a future without using the same bag of tricks. The chance of that pissing people off is statistically high, but it's a risk Irrational had to take. Or maybe it was risk Irrational wanted to take. Either way, Burial at Sea shoves off in a new direction with provocative results.
I won't be giving away many of Burial at Sea's plot details. It's roughly two hours long and front and back loaded with meaningful content, though the middle kind of fizzles in its attempt to create tension and atmosphere. Burial at Sea takes appreciation for classic film noir and strikes it against the wild world of BioShock's rapture. This theme starts out hot and heavy with Booker meeting Elizabeth presumably for the first time before settling into a glorious exploration of artistic extravagance. It's great while it lasts, though in inevitable gives way to less interesting but more characteristic gameplay elements.
To state it clearly, I liked walking through Rapture but I didn't necessarily enjoy playing it. A complete assortment of firearms (Booker is no longer restricted to just two) and a handful of Plasmids brought back fond memories of combined projectile passion. In their brevity, unfortunately, they failed to create much of anything new. Making an ice bridge with the new Old Man Winter Plasmid was neat but felt like more of a compulsory device than a genuine mechanic. Likewise, employing the new Radar Range gun to make people explode from a violent heat death was contextually interesting but mechanically absent. Even Skyhooks, perhaps Infinite's greatest contribution to BioShock's combat, felt stale. I had done it all before, and in Burial at Sea it felt like it was standing in the way of all I really wanted; more story.
And then there's Rapture. Its cameo at the end of BioShock Infinite was one of my favorite gaming moments of 2013. It struck at exactly the right time in the narrative, just when it couldn't possibly get any crazier Irrational thumped down a trump card that simultaneously embraced nostalgia and overloaded expectations. I couldn't believe it was happening and how much I missed living in that particular world. When I learned Burial at Sea would entirely take place in Rapture I was somewhat disheartened; I liked what was there, but I didn't see how Irrational could make the same trick work twice.
The answer is simple; Rapture isn't a trick. It's not a careful walk through familiar areas. Instead of a splicer infested wreck of failed dreams, we visit rapture in the midst of its thriving sunken objectivist utopia. The first half of Burial at Sea is composed entirely of walking and talking - and absorbing every last detail. Not unlike your first trip to Infinite's Columbia, the idea here is to take it in enjoy a glimpse of what Rapture was like when it was working as intended. Every area is shiny and new, both in terms of Rapture's artifice and the player's experience. There's no retreading to be found - every area is built specifically for Burial at Sea.
Rapture still does a wonderful job at establishing a surreal atmosphere with a believable premise. The intriguing masked dancers on pedestals outside of Sander Cohen's club, the Eyes Wide Shut level of indifference and tension inside the club, and the savage history of violence depicting in Fontaine's Station all make for memorable sequences. Brief callbacks, like the noise of an activated turret or the "circus of valuuuee" vending machines walk a careful line between embracing one's past and exploiting it.
Burial at Sea ends by raising more questions than it answers. For a series that's thrived on raising philosophical discussion amongst its supporters, it executes its mission well (and with a second part on the way, more of its matter-of-fact details should be pressed out shortly). While the voice cast returns and reads their parts convincingly, it still feels like two disparate actors reciting lines to no one in particular. The detached dynamic between Booker and Elizabeth's voices bothered me in BioShock Infinite and it still aggravates me in Burial at Sea. Still, it's a minor annoyance in a presentational package as refined as BioShock.