In the BioShock multiverse, there's always a lighthouse, there's always a man, and there's always a city. In the world of film noir detectives, the constants are somewhat simpler. There's always a dame. There's always a case. The only variable is how much trouble both will inevitably turn out to be - and in the underwater city of Rapture, you don't need to be a professional s**t-magnet like Booker deWitt to find plenty of that.
Playing Burial At Sea was a strange experience for me, not least because in theory it's the BioShock Noir that I've longed to see since wandering into the PI's office in BioShock 2 - its original trailer feeling less like something Irrational had made than something I'd inadvertently yanked through a dimensional tear. Sure, in my head, it wasn't Elizabeth smokily asking for a light and Booker gracing her cigarette with a plasmid-fuelled burst of flame from his thumb. Everything else though was terrifyingly close, down to tiny details. My ringtone has long been the main theme from the movie This Gun For Hire. Of all the classic noir posters Irrational could have chosen to homage for Burial At Sea, guess which it picked. Creepy.
In practice though, having played through the whole thing from start to finish, it wasn't what I expected - and I suspect that's going to be a common reaction. If not necessarily for the same reason. To answer the basic questions without any spoilers though, yes, while the DLC is set in Rapture, it's absolutely a piece of BioShock Infinite content, yes, it is 'our' Elizabeth rocking the femme fatale look, and yes, this is Rapture Prime rather than an Elseworld. At least, it's meant to be. In an odd but easily ignored time-saver, it does opt to use Infinite's vigors/gear rather than the original game's plasmids/tonics, offering a handwave involving Suchong stealing Fink's research and the city then deciding to go back to injections, and there's a deeply misjudged attempt to retcon in skylines that are then barely even used. For all intents and purposes though, we're indeed returning to the same utopia doomed to become Jack and Delta's ruined playground.
And it is glorious. The first two BioShock games showed us the failure of Rapture. Burial At Sea is our first chance to be part of the dream. Irrational devoted its entire team to this DLC, and absolutely no expense has been spared crafting a small but tightly packed slice of Andrew Ryan's utopia. Forget the claustrophobic hallways of old. This is a city of towering space; of artistry that touches everything from the whales and sea turtles swimming outside the huge windows to the proud slogans imprinted on the waterfalls. This is a world that, as much as it does admittedly follow Columbia's somewhat animatronic approach to people and doesn't actually offer much interaction, sells itself with every flourish, big and small. The restaurant where Houdini spliced waiters serve drinks with a burst of smoke. Details like the two men sharing a loving embrace as they stare out at the endless ocean, and the art deco/abstract artworks stuffed into the corners of rooms with no bearing on the plot whatsoever. Sander Cohen's theatre, providing his usual mix of masked artistry and open sadism inside and out. And more. Finally, Rapture is a city worth giving up the surface for.
I absolutely adored this chunk of the DLC, and while it is a bit of a shame that the only real objective during it can be summed up as 'go into three shops to find a key', its goal of giving us Rapture is otherwise an unqualified success. This is also where you really start to see that Elizabeth now has much more of an edge than the fairy tale ingenue we spent most of the original game with. She's still the same person, but much more her own woman - sharper of tongue, less inclined to charitable thinking, and occasionally downright cold, now refusing to call Booker anything less formal than "Mr. DeWitt", and ominously describing herself as being in the debt collection business. In a clever touch... that I don't think I was just imagining... while the player gets to lead, Elizabeth doesn't exactly follow - taking charge by remaining ahead at all times.
Cohen's theatre is unsurprisingly the highlight, though I won't say what actually happens there, and the design and cinematography throughout is astounding. Bokeh flares from bright lights, every vista is a desktop wallpaper waiting to happen, and no stone has been left unturned. Looking out of the window, I desperately wanted to head there, and over there and find out what was happening over there - and on the way, find the race track whose betting slips litter Booker's desk and find out whether or not Rapture really does have horses or just puts saddles on Big Daddies.
Burial At Sea isn't all about tourism though, and once the exploration is over, there's work to be done. Elizabeth wants Booker to find a missing girl, who is quickly revealed to be a Little Sister trapped in a department store turned sunken prison for Frank Fontaine's former allies. Shocking nobody, they've all descended into spliced-up mad-howlerdom, and are thirsty for their next hit of ADAM. This is Rapture after all. Becoming a crazy elemental spewing monster is in sub-section 3b of the residency contract.
While this is a preview, not a review, and there's still time for things to be tweaked or changed before Burial At Sea arrives, I was left a bit disappointed with this second half - mostly, to be fair, because the opening section was so impressive. It's not bad by any means, and its best scenes are excellent. It feels a lot like treading water though, combining elements of the other games but struggling to find new spins on them.
The best part is, as ever, the location itself - Fontaine's store offering lots more variety than you'd think, with each department getting its own look and atmosphere, and the splicers' drooling obsession with what's in the Little Sister's stomach leads to some savagely dark visuals best discovered for yourself. Even Booker and Elizabeth get in on that act to a point, not to Harvest but with Elizabeth's newfound pragmatism proving every bit as worrying as when Eleanor, her fellow BioShock Lamb, turned dark in BioShock 2.
Most of the stay though is devoted to combat, and as much as Burial At Sea tries to create a more threatening environment than Columbia, splicers and the threat of a Big Daddy attack stopped being intimidating several years ago. Not only does it waste every chance to give them back their street cred, the splicers are actually further neutered thanks to the already clumsily added Not Skyhook offering super-easy melee takedowns on demand, and Elizabeth's constant presence a reminder that you're functionally immortal amongst all the crazies. Her tear manipulation fits better, being inherently an out-of-context ability even in the main game, but also felt a little inappropriate at times, with her opting to bring in Mechanical Patriots, freight hooks and such rather than Rapture themed additions - not to mention guns piled up with far more ammo than you ever actually get. These may be placeholder assets though.
In regular combat, Burial At Sea also plays with much more restricted resources than Infinite, with a distinct lack of convenient bins to rummage in and Elizabeth far more regularly shouting that she's got nothing to throw across than actually serving up ammo/Eve mid battle. It doesn't matter though, because the maps are usually fairly quiet anyway, with no real attempt to use the more advanced engine to serve up dramatic moments like a Big Daddy battle that trashes the set in an apocalyptic display of power and fury, or making the store feel like it's actually bursting with psychotic killers instead of a few roaming survivors.
DLC being a little by the numbers is one thing, but actively going back to a former game's numbers really does feel odd. The three years since BioShock 2 did them last is nowhere near long enough for a nostalgic thrill. Throughout it all, I kept thinking back to BioShock Infinite, and both how it managed to combine social areas with combat ones, and how much more fitting that could have been - had the store had a sense of order to it, with Booker and Elizabeth trapped between Dishonored style gangs on the brink of sanity for instance, rather than more crazy addicts. Or how cool it could have been to actually stay in civilised Rapture, and really push the noir element that's largely sidelined after leaving Booker's office at the start. Elizabeth's presence is rarely enough of a game changer to breathe new life into the fact that we've already spent well over 20 hours running around around its ruins. No matter how good looking these new ones are.
Even if you are in the mood though, this is a seriously short episode. While nobody could call Burial At Sea lazy, the money and effort dripping from every pixel, there's only about an hour and a half of actual game here - and that's if you savour it for all it's worth. If you just blitz through, the Rapture tourism section can be used as an egg-timer and the rest can easily be shot through. As part of the Season Pass, with a second episode on the way, that's not too bad. Certainly, the lead-in to that finale is suitably intriguing. At Ł10 per episode though, the big questions demand expensive answers. Will players accept that this level of craft in DLC can't come cheap? We'll find out soon enough, when the release date of "Holiday" rolls around.
This article was based on a press trip to Irrational's offices in Boston. Irrational paid for travel and accommodation.