Rapture, we’ve missed you. The original BioShock‘s undersea city was a beautiful, if unsettling, location. A dead, art deco metropolis of dripping, cylindrical corridors and cavernous interiors strewn with rubble, Andrew Ryan’s failed creation became the most intricately detailed character in a game focused on examining questions of identity and agency. BioShock Infinite introduced the floating turn-of-the-century city of Columbia, and it was in this vibrant space that we saw glimpses of what Rapture might have looked like before its terrible fall. The team at Irrational Games isn’t known for hanging onto the past, but that’s exactly where they take us when we return to the bottom of the ocean in BioShock Infinite‘s first story DLC, part one of the two-part Burial at Sea.
She was worth a stare. It all looks so familiar at first. Burial at Sea begins in Booker DeWitt’s dingy office, the same one that we visited so many times during the events of Infinite. It’s when Elizabeth arrives, seeking help from this private investigator that she doesn’t appear to be acquainted with, that things start to feel off. Her face, only lit across the eyes at first by a sliver of light pushed through the office’s tightly drawn blinds, is the same, but it’s also not. Her cheeks are drawn tighter and her mouth seems incapable of flashing a smile. Her tone is serious and her voice is low, husky. She’s pale, almost death mask pale, but more than anything else, it’s the eyes. The sense of innocent wonder that made Elizabeth such a charming companion throughout the events of Infinite is gone, and in its place is an icy appraisal. Booker is no confidante or friend; he’s hired help.
That’s exactly what Elizabeth needs. She holds up a picture of a young girl, smiling and clutching a doll named Sarah. This is Sally. It’s not clear how at first, but Booker has some connection to her. He thinks she’s dead, though Elizabeth insists that she’s merely lost. We learn more about Sally as the story continues to unfold, but this is enough to set things up. Booker and Elizabeth set out to find her, and the office door swings open to reveal…
I chose… Rapture. It is December 31, 1958, a full year before the terrible events that bring Andrew Ryan’s undersea utopia to its knees. The original BioShock‘s waterlogged world is replaced by a series of bright, airy spaces, filled with light and life. Booker and Elizabeth’s first stop is a theater belonging to Sander Cohen, Rapture’s premiere performance artist. He apparently has some information about Sally, but in order to get it, you’ll need to sneak into a closed event that’s happening at the theater. While part one of Burial at Sea eventually gives way to more traditionally BioShock-y combat, this first section is built entirely around exploring and spending time with the people in one of Rapture’s lively entertainment centers.
The more things change. When Burial at Sea does eventually transition into the full-blown combat scenarios that are typical of the series, the action feels like it’s drawing more from the first BioShock than it does from Infinite. Booker and Elizabeth’s adventure through Columbia was a ceaseless advance through a series of largely unfriendly environments filled with enemies that had time to prepare for the pair’s arrival. BioShock, on the other hand, charted the protagonist’s slow creep through a dead undersea city. Splicers, Big Daddies, and Little Sisters existed in a self-contained sort of ecosystem that you could disrupt in whichever manner you chose.
Burial at Sea works much the same way. Nearly every combat-oriented location you step into is occupied by Splicers that are just going about the business of existing. There’s a well-justified narrative reason for you to fight deranged Plasmid junkies before the fall of Rapture that we’re not going to spoil here, but needless to say, Booker and Elizabeth find themselves with a goal to achieve and an army of trapped Splicers standing in their way. They travel around together as they did in Infinite, and Elizabeth still opens Tears or throws ammo/health your way when you need. All that’s really changed between our two protagonists is their demeanor toward one another, but that changed relationship makes a big tonal difference as you play. Booker feels cut off. Elizabeth follows him closely, but she’s not anything resembling a companion.
Old meets new. The old-school BioShock approach to combat design turns out to be a refreshing change after Infinite‘s gauntlet. We’re back to Plasmids here – some old, some new – rather than Vigors, but you’ve still got the same secondary attack ability for these powers that you did in the most recent game. This means you’re able to set traps; while not terribly useful in Infinite, having the ability in Burial to trigger most combat encounters on your own terms gives new life to Booker’s trap-setting abilities. There’s a lot of fun to be had in setting up a Rube Goldbergian gauntlet of death and then luring an unsuspecting gang of Splicers into it.
There are, of course, some entirely fresh tools in the DLC. The new Old Man Winter Plasmid blasts enemies with a burst of frosty air, though it’s also just as effective when you need to say, use a gushing horizontal spout of water to create an icy bridge. There’s also the Air Grabber, which amounts to Rapture’s version of a Sky Hook. You may not be soaring above the clouds in this undersea city, but there’s an entire network of pneumatic mail delivery tracks that lend some new-school BioShock depth to any combat encounter.
The most satisfying new addition, however, is the Radar Range. This new weapon is nothing more than a handheld device that spews a concentrated burst of microwaves at whatever you point it at. Fire on some poor Splicer to slowly cook their insides; keep the beam active and on target long enough, and you get to watch as the doomed Splicer disappears in a burst of blood. Icky, sure, but satisfying too.
Utopia reborn. The Rapture you encounter in Burial at Sea feels far closer to the bustling energy of Columbia than it does to the leaky innards of Andrew Ryan’s failed utopia. There is life everywhere, just regular folks going about their day, chit-chatting all the while. Much like your first steps through Columbia in Infinite, there’s a lot of value in taking your time as you immerse yourself in this earlier era for Rapture. Stop and listen to what the people are saying. Go hunting for audio diaries. Check out one of the “Need To Know Theater” kiosks, a nod to Infinite‘s Kinetoscopes.
The graphics aren’t necessarily sharper or more detailed than they were in Infinite, but we’re being presented with a new vision of our beloved Rapture. Now you can see what a glorious city it was before it fell. Irrational didn’t simply transplant the older game’s environments and apply a new coat of textures. These are bona fide new spaces for you to explore, and they’re brimming with the same life and personality that characterize the rest of the BioShock games.
Burial at Sea isn’t a terribly long chunk of DLC; no more than two or three hours for those that want to speed through it. That would be missing the point though. Rapture is back, and it’s realized in a way that fans have never been able to see before. Our hands-on preview runthrough of the DLC’s entire first part – a second part, starring Elizabeth, will be released sometime in the coming months – was in the “late beta” stage, and it felt fairly complete. There’s no hard release date set yet, but Irrational can confirm that “holiday 2013″ is the definite window. We’ll be sure to let you know when we hear final release word on part one of Burial at Sea.