As we have come to expect from developer Irrational Games, it is an exciting and atmospheric first-person-shooter, supported by a strong narrative.
Bioshock games have always featured a lot of intrigue and exploration; a tone amplified even further in Burial at Sea. Heavy noir influences pervade the beautifully rebuilt underwater city. Those familiar with the genre will recognise the beats within the opening five minutes. A detective, a dame, a missing girl, a string of clues.
The very first thing that happens is a sultry femme fatale enters the office of private detective Booker DeWitt. Her demeanour, her words, her wit - all demands attention. Recognisable, but notably different than the last time we saw her, this razor tongued, forceful woman is Elizabeth - the girl we saved from the tower in Bioshock Infinite. Bizarrely, Booker and Elizabeth seem like strangers to each other. This is just the first in a string of intriguing mysteries intended to draw the player into the experience.
Dialogue exchanged between two characters is sharp and snappy. Elizabeth wants to find a girl that Booker believes is dead. Something more seems to be bubbling under the surface, something that Booker, and the player, don't understand yet. Driven by curiosity Booker agrees to help find the girl. It's the first step into a familiar, yet very different, world.
Elizabeth is a different proposition from the character we met, protected and worried about in Infinite. It used to be that Booker blazed a trail for Liz to follow, leading her further into danger, opening her eyes to violent new experiences. In Burial at Sea the roles are reversed. Liz is always a few steps ahead urging you to follow her. It's Liz that wants to confront the dangers and Liz who is determined to uncover the truth behind the mystery.
Booker is very much the same man we first met when he was on his way to Columbia. Stoic, grouchy, pessimistic - he questions everything, eagerly shedding doubt on Elizabeth's assertions. He is a reluctant hero with conflicted motivations. Booker may be the detective of this story, but he's less informed than anybody else. It's a suitable representation for the player-character, and being a detective gives a reason to be involved. Not knowing the answers provides plenty to discover.
The opening hour or so contains very little combat. Instead the player is presented with Rapture in all it's pre-fall glory. Familiar areas from the original Bioshock, and some previously unseen, invite the player to explore.
Booker and Elizabeth have just one lead. To gain the access that they need, players walk the streets of Rapture, visiting various locals. It's here that Burial at Sea is at it's most impressive. Rapture is a sight to behold; buildings and people are both wonderful and eerie. All around you there's intriguing dialogue to overhear, talk of Andrew Ryan and Fontaine, debates about the underwater city's morality. You witness a procession of Little Sisters obediently following their teacher, while a look through glass walls reveal a Big Daddy grappling from place to place. Vistas reveal the extent of the city beyond the area you're in.
This is a Bioshock game, so a few things are to be expected. When enough of the puzzle has been worked out, players progress to the Rapture we remember, and we get to further explore the underwater city.
The change in pace from exploring to combat is quick. You've been comfortably going along with the story beats, lulled into a sense of security, you've let your guard down when suddenly you're in a dark and menacing world where ammo and Eve are in short supply.
Combat has been redesigned from Infinite. In Burial at Sea it more closely resembles the original Bioshock. The wide open areas of Columbia are replaced by tighter enclosed spaces. Enemies will rush you if they catch sight of you, merciless in their pursuit.
Wading in with guns firing and plasmids blazing is an option, but it's not always the best approach. Stealth plays a bigger part than in previous Bioshocks. Enemies can be heard before they are seen, and every plasmid can be used as a trap, similar to how the Vigors functioned in Infinite. The most rewarding moments come from creeping around an area, carefully planning where to put traps, startling your enemies with a plasmid or well placed headshot and looking on as panicked splicers fall into your snares. Of course, unloading a shotgun into a splicer's face is also very effective.
The sky-hook from Infinite, rebranded 'Air-Grabber', returns. Areas aren't as broad as in Columbia, but it's still an enormously useful tool for riding the rails in large halls, or to higher ground in multi-levelled areas. As before it can be the perfect means to escape a bad situation, or give an inviting opportunity for a vicious attack from above.
New weapons for Booker's arsenal include a tommy gun and the gloriously gruesome radar range. The tommy gun fits well with the aesthetics and feels great to use. The powerful automatic spray takes a bit of getting used to. Initially I found holding my aim a bit challenging, but with practice you'll be wielding it like a pro.
There's plenty about Burial At Sea to enjoy, but a significant gripe is that the running time is very short. Curious players that explore every nook and cranny will probably get three to four hours gameplay; unfortunately many players will reach the conclusion much quicker than that.
The short run time leaves a desire for more to do. Not only that, it renders some gameplay aspects almost useless. The purchasable upgrades and perks are too expensive to really be made use of in a typical play through. Unless you're brilliant at finding money, managing your health and preserving your ammo, by the time you can afford to upgrade you'll already be rapidly approaching the endgame.
Burial at Sea is an enjoyable blast through a familiar setting. It's incredibly well-made with an intriguing setting, strong narrative, and great characters. Graphics, audio and gameplay are equally impressive, but the short run time raises a difficult question - is great quality enough to justify a lack of quantity? Personally, for £9.99 I expected a bit more, but maybe I'm just being greedy. Then again, both this and part 2 (where players will get to play as Elizabeth) can be bought together at a reduced £15.99 and that's not outrageous, especially considering the how good the content is. Perhaps when paired together, the adventure's quality will outweigh the asking price.