Friday, April 11, 2014

Impressions #2: Bioshock Infinite: Burial at Sea: Episode 2

Warning: Though I try to be vague, there may be general spoilers for the game. I take no responsibility for this. Read at your own risk.

Continuing my impressions series, this week I will talk about another game that has been on my mind since I finished playing it. Recently, I used my Bioshock: Infinite season pass to get Burial at Sea: Episode 2. Partly to see the conclusion of Burial at Sea, and partly to see how the new stealth-based gameplay altered the overall experience, I braved Rapture one last time.

One of the things that surprised me the most was how competent the stealth mechanics of the game were. Enemies have decent cones of vision, so players need to be fairly aware of enemy positions and the environment in order to avoid detection. Further, the game does a decent job of giving players the tools to sneak around. Lockpicks can be found all around, and sleep darts can incapacitate enemies non-lethally. Groups can be handled with knockout gas darts and noisemakers can be used to lure enemies away from their usual patrols. There are also hazards like shattered glass that will create lots of noise and attract enemies to the player's position if they are stepped on. The Hand Cannon and Shotgun also make their return, but I cannot comment on them as I played in 1998 Mode and did not have access to them.

Even the plasmid selection has been changed to favor more indirect approaches. The one I ended up using the most, Peeping Tom, has the dual effect of cloaking Elizabeth and allowing her to see enemies through walls. Possession also returns, except the upgraded version knocks-out enemies when it runs out instead of killing them like in the previous episode. Old Man Winter makes an appearance, allowing players to freeze enemies in place. Lastly, Ironsides is a new plasmid that makes its debut in Burial At Sea: Episode 2. That plasmid can be used to catch projectiles in mid-air and add them to the player's own ammo pool.

However, while all the stealth mechanics are there and fully functional, the game itself still falls victim to the AI of the original Bioshock: Infinite. What I mean by this is that when players do get detected, the AI does not seem to know exactly how to handle that. Enemies do fire weapons and launch melee attacks when players are noticed, and they do a good job of quickly alerting the entire room to your presence. However, I never found getting away from them to be too difficult. Vents and grappling hooks seemed to be everywhere, allowing for easy escape since foes had no way of inspecting these areas. Also, no matter how tough the enemy was, a simple sleep dart would almost always knock them out. It was trivial to incapacitate the foe that detected me before they alerted everyone else. Most of the time, I could even reclaim the sleep dart that I used off their corpse for late reuse.

In later half of the DLC, the gameplay became even easier once I obtained upgrades to the Peeping Tom plasmid that negated its otherwise massive Eve cost when standing still. The enemies knew I was there and they knew I was cloaked, but proceeded to march forward anyway because they did not have an exact line-of-sight. This left them wide-open to a sneak attack, especially since when cloaked, a sneak attack from the front is a viable option. Even with the extremely limited health and offensive options inherit to 1998 Mode, it became extremely easy to knock out entire rooms of guards without breaking a sweat. I would cloak, knock a guard out, cloak, watch his friend come to inspect the body, knock HIM out, and then rinse and repeat.

On the positive side, the focus on stealth and avoidance actually encourages exploration in order to look for resources and supplies, especially in the early game. Money is extremely rare, and even large stashes of it will rarely have more than 10 coins. Players can also only hold a maximum of 4 sleep darts and 2 gas darts on their person as well, so poor aim will be punished severely. Health kits can be carried on hand (up to a maximum of 5), instead of being use immediately on pickup. Since, especially on higher difficulties, Elizabeth takes a lot of damage on hit, this is almost necessary.

Eve cannot be carried around in the same way, so that resource ends up being much more precious. All the Plasmids take up a great amount of Eve, so they need to be used conservatively. Instead of being something players rely on, they are really designed to be used in order to turn otherwise terrible situations around at the last minute. While it is overall not as good as Thief or some other high-profile stealth games, it is pretty surprisingly well done on the whole.

As for the story, it leaves me with a weird feeling overall. It feels like many elements to the game's story feel like they specifically put in to address criticisms towards some aspects to both the vanilla campaign of Bioshock: Infinite and Burial at Sea: Episode 1. Did you think Daisy Fitzroy's actions in the later half of Bioshock: Infinite made no sense? Burial at Sea explains exactly why she did what she did (and the explanation is honestly pretty bad). Did you cry foul at the fact that the plasmids in Burial at Sea: Episode 1 were of the drinkable variety seen in Columbia? There is an explanation for that too. Other, more spoiler-y elements explain other inconsistencies in the DLC make it come across as, to quote certain others, very “fix-fic-y”.

At the same time, Burial at Sea: Episode 2 does a lot of things right with it's story and world. For example, whenever Elizabeth picks a lock or plans out her next move in the plot, the game changes the visuals to look more like the pages of a book. This helps players better enter Elizabeth's mind and understand how and where she obtains all of her knowledge. There are also numerous instances where Elizabeth finds codes and ciphers. As she cracks the code for their hidden messages, the cipher is decoded into plain English in real time before the player's eyes. When combined with the tone and feel of general gameplay, this really helps sell sell Elizabeth as a more thoughtful character than Booker.

Another thing that is done well is the character-focused nature of the plot. Although the game is set in Rapture and ultimately leads into the original Bioshock, the story itself is clearly one about and centering around Elizabeth and her thoughts and actions. Story events early in the game rid Elizabeth of her powers. However, the nature of what it is like to be all-seeing and all-knowing thanks to having the combined knowledge of every possible incarnation of yourself is explored. Characters from the original Bioshock, like Atlus, Suchong and Andrew Ryan also play large parts in the narrative. Others from Columbia, like Fink, also make appearances. One of the more interesting subplots involves a bit of a trans-dimensional partnership and idea stealing between the two as they continue to one up each other in their fields of study. On the whole, these characters really add to the game and tie up both the original Bioshock and its Columbian successor quite nicely. Though the ending can be seen coming from a mile away, it is satisfying in its own way, especially to fans of the first Bioshock.

Overall, fans of the Bioshock franchise are bound to get a kick out of Burial at Sea: Episode 2. Stealth game enthusiasts might find what they are looking for here. Although better implementations of these systems exist, the underlying mechanics are solid enough to derive enjoyment from. Odds are by the time this comes out, those who were going to buy it already have and those who were not have already definitely decided to skip out on it, but it is still worth it to think about how this DLC came together. It gets some things wrong as most games do, but it gets so much right that it is hard to think badly about it.

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