BioShock creator Ken Levine spoke recently of how he's ready to move away from the linear narratives that he's curated for the past 19 years to embrace something new. Since the inception of the series in 2007, this tightly-scripted form of expression has been one of BioShock's great strengths and has facilitated some truly memorable narrative moments - but it has also been to the series' detriment.
This was most keenly felt in Burial at Sea: Episode One, which seemed more concerned with nailing the impact of its return to Rapture than with providing a fully-formed gameplay experience. Episode Two is free of the burden of this re-acquaintance and excels as a result. It not only concludes the DLC's story arc but ties together the events of both BioShock and BioShock Infinite, enhancing Irrational Games' overarching exploration of existentialism - while also remembering to offer players plenty to do.
Following the dramatic conclusion of Episode One, we step into Elizabeth's high-heeled shoes to continue the story, which is more ambitious and significantly longer than its predecessor. Elizabeth has taken up Booker's mission to save a young girl named Sally, but for much of Episode Two's four-hour running time, this goal takes a back seat as the story examines a more vulnerable, less self-assured woman than the femme fatale of Episode One. Irrational also has a great deal of fun looping the narrative back on itself and weaving together strands from every major event of the BioShock timeline as some familiar names from the series' past crop up and the developer delves deeper still into the perplexing theories that it introduced at the end of BioShock Infinite.
Constants and variables. BioShock Infinite's first story add-on does a staggering job of weaving a vivid and memorable tale around these core concepts. Irrational has had tremendous fun with the notion of taking characters with whom we are familiar and transporting them to a time and place that we have only imagined - Rapture, the undersea city from the first two BioShock games, before its explosive fall.
It's compelling to look in on Infinite's Booker and Elizabeth, a pair we know to be inextricably tied and yet who appear here as relative strangers. It's exciting to guide them through surroundings to which they are connected but do not belong. Throughout the opening act of Episode One's 150-minute run-time, Irrational serves up a cornucopia of references to Rapture's most evocative themes, places and characters, spinning variables around the many constants that we believe to be fixed.
This opening also serves to highlight the myriad ways in which Rapture is the inverse of Infinite's skybound setting, Columbia: from the crushing black of its horizon to the false freedom of its societal ideals; from Booker's transformation into one of Rapture's own to Elizabeth waltzing into his office with talk of jobs and debts before leading purposefully from the front, rather than following timidly behind. As the constants and variables coalesce time and again, it's a delight to sit outside of it and observe, to pick at the many threads of BioShock's richly woven fiction.
The first DLC is a wave-based combat game - and it's out today.
First things first: this is not the story-driven new BioShock Infinite adventure for which you were probably hoping. That will come in two parts, the first of which is called Burial at Sea and should be out later this year, and it's there that your dreams will really come true - Booker's a private dick, Elizabeth's a dame with a problem, the two haven't met before, and did I mention it takes place in Rapture before the fall? The fact I'm not making this up is extremely cool.
Before that, though, there's Clash in the Clouds, a five-dollar stopgap that promises a little bit of fan service around the edges, but which is mostly a set of challenges that aim to bring the best out of Infinite's combat, unrelated to the main game except through shared assets and mechanics. If you endured rather than enjoyed the fighty bits of BioShock Infinite, then you might prefer just to look up the secret stuff on YouTube. Me? I loved the combat in Infinite, so this should be right up my street.
Clash in the Clouds is a wave-based arena game, then, where Booker and Elizabeth - now rather mute - team up to see off increasingly devilish combinations of enemies over four maps that have been modelled on, but not directly lifted from, familiar sections of Columbia. Finishing off enemies in creative ways earns points and cash - points go towards fighting your way up a leaderboard, while cash can be ploughed into weapon and vigor upgrades at the hub area you visit between waves.
It would be hard not to begin with Elizabeth. Your computer-controlled female co-star is convincing enough that she becomes one of the most normal things in BioShock Infinite, a tightly wound first-person shooter where you summon fire and lightning from your fingertips as you fight your way through an impossible city suspended in the clouds. And like Andrew Ryan - the idealist who built Rapture, the city under the ocean that dominated the first BioShock - she is a constant presence.
Before you meet her, the game is all about her. She is the daughter of Zachary Comstock, a self-styled prophet who has transformed veneration of America's Founding Fathers into a supremacist cult, and who conceived the floating city of Columbia as a new Ark to carry his followers away from "the Sodom below" - the United States of America. As Booker DeWitt, a former soldier and strike-breaker with a troubled past, you have been sent to this new Eden to retrieve her and take her to New York.
Once you meet her, the game is all about her. She has been kept in a tower for almost her entire life, reading endless books and trying to understand a strange power she has to open 'tears' in the fabric of reality. When you set her free, everything is new to her, and because believable companions are still so rare in video games, you share her sense of wonder as she dances with strangers on a beach or brings fruit to a frightened child cowering under a stair. She never gets in your way, and while it becomes apparent from time to time that she is being subtly teleported around out of sight to fit the circumstances of your behaviour, you dismiss any sense of her artificiality as quickly as you would deja vu.