Bioshock Infinite's first expansion makes me genuinely sad. Considered in isolation (or without having completed the main game) it's totally inoffensive - the usual Challenge Mode-style action game add-on, in which you battle 15 waves of nasties on four maps, gathering cash that can be spent on either new abilities and upgrades or unlockable concept art, character models and the like. Pleasingly, the latter appear as in-game artefacts - you'll view them by touring the Columbian Archeological Society, which lends this expansion the air of a celebration, an exploration of both Bioshock Infinite's development and Columbia's cavernous backstory.
In other respects, however, Clash in the Clouds feels like a betrayal. Infinite, you see, is an Unkillable White Bloke With A Gun game that exposes the concept of an Unkillable White Bloke With A Gun to a measure of contempt. It's also a game that towards the conclusion, gently mocks the iterative mindset that all too often guides sequel and add-on creation. None of that's really apparent in the first DLC pack, which is patently an exercise in stalling for time while Irrational works on the two-part, story-driven Burial at Sea expansion (out later this year).
There's no narrative to keep the glisteningly gory thrills of the gunplay at a critical remove - where Infinite invited you to feel shame and self-disgust, Clash in the Clouds merely asks you to be a calculating murderer, with "blue ribbon" cash rewards on offer when you beat waves using certain combinations of weapons, Vigors and techniques. This gives the game's sandbox design a chance to shine, it's true, and the maps accommodate this - expect reasonably intricate, nicely decorated labyrinths of skyrails, Tears, sniper's eyries, patrolling airships and the like, with leaderboards waiting in the wings to compel another playthrough.
But it feels very much like the original's heart has been torn out, and that's nowhere more troubling than in the silence with which your sometime sidekick Elizabeth greets actions outside of combat. Infinite veterans may recall the anxiety they felt at seeing Elizabeth's demeanour gradually shift in the course of the story from bubbly enthusiasm through battle-scarred dread to grim resolution. Assuming you've polished the campaign off, it's "grim resolution" all the way here, which conveys the odd impression that Elizabeth disapproves of the whole exercise, 2K's nose for a quick cash-in included. Elsewhere, it's gutting to see great setpiece characters like the Siren deployed as context-free "boss wave" enemies, their narrative significance and ambient trappings junked for the sake of a difficulty bump.
It would be nice to say that the sophistication of the combat ultimately transcends all this, but while decently open-ended, Infinite is no Gears-beater - there are still those moments of brickwall frustration when enemy numbers hit critical mass. They're accompanied by infrequent but deflating bugs and design niggles, such as characters getting stuck on things, and Booker repeatedly plummeting to his doom because the game instantly respawns you on the ledge from which you fell.
The pack's saving grace is its price - 400 MP for a quartet of maps plus an assortment of new audio recordings, videos, assets and artwork isn't to be sneezed at, and those who loved Infinite's combat will doubtless sink hours into the blue ribbon challenges. But it's depressing to see a developer that applied so intense a spotlight to existing practices and archetypes resort to so generic an expansion. Hopefully, Burial at Sea will make up for it.
Not quite a dark cloud, but no silver lining
- Good value
- Serviceable Bioshock gunplay
- Fan-serving unlockables
- Treats violence as its own end