Earlier this week, Irrational Games invited us to its discreet Boston offices to get our hands on the first part of the exciting BioShock Infinite Burial at Sea DLC. As we revealed in August, the two episodes that make up the narrative expansion bring us back to Rapture, the underwater city of Irrational's original BioShock adventure.

Before we go any further, know that there are very light spoilers focused on the over-arching story and the more subtle elements that make Burial at Sea so enthralling. I won't be ruining the story and even the things I describe should be experienced first-hand. Of course, if you haven't played Bioshock: Infinite at all, you might want to steer clear.

Burial at Sea Part 1 is itself broken into two halves. The story begins as a more mature Elizabeth enters the familiar office of Booker DeWitt. This office looks the same, but it's located in Rapture. Elizabeth requests DeWitt's assistance in finding a girl who has gone missing.

It is clear that Elizabeth knows Booker, but he is clearly oblivious about the connection between BioShock Infinite's characters. The exploration of those nuances is one of the greatest parts of Burial at Sea Episode 1, and I certainly will not spoil it for you here.

As I step out onto the promenade, I am treated to a Rapture at its peak. The people I encounter as I walk through the common areas aren't spliced up junkies, but normal citizens going about their lives.

This is a Rapture we only ever heard about in audio logs. This is Andrew Ryan's utopia, and it's the first look at what made it so appealing to all of those people who later became addicted to adam.

I implore you to take your time with this section of the game. Walk through the shops. Listen to the ambient conversations. You'll learn about Ryan's actions against Fontaine and how he sank the criminal's department store and turned it into a prison.

Beyond that, I learned a great deal about Rapture's societal norms. Unlike Columbia, a biblical paradise with a rotten core of racism and excessive nationalistic pride, Rapture is liberal. Andrew Ryan's society favors ability over appearance and the sweat of the brow over moral of the heart. 

As I wandered through, I witnessed two men openly arm-in-arm looking at the beautiful seascape outside. A man casually offered the companionship of well-dressed women. Provided you contribute to Rapture, no one judges your personal choices.

"One thing I really regretted in BioShock 1 is for various reasons, including the number of characters we had, is that we didn't feature non-white characters," Irrational co-founder and BioShock Infinite creative director Ken Levine said. "For all the negative things you can say about Rapture, it wasn't a racist or homophobic society. It was a very socially liberal society. It's 'who are you and what can you do?'"

The return to Rapture gave Levine a second chance to tell more of the city's backstory. "I didn't want to beat people over the head with it," he said. "We have a lot more character models and heads. The goal here is not to say, 'we are representing homosexuality in video games.' We're here to show what the city was like."

In order to find the missing girl, Sally, Elizabeth and Booker must explore the city and enlist the help of a character who will be known to those that played the original BioShock. Other familiar personae are included by way of audio logs (not Voxophones, of course) and by watching Need-to-Know machines (which are similar to Columbia's Kinetoscopes).

Burial at Sea is very much a blending of familiar Rapture elements, the power of BioShock Infinite's engine, and the lessons the team has learned in the years between those two releases. "We were creating everything from the ground up," lead level designer Andres Gonzalez told me. "As we started to craft the story, we brought things back from both worlds that aided us in telling that story.

After meeting the child trafficker, Booker and Elizabeth travel by bathysphere to Fontaine's department store. There, things are very much like the Rapture we know. 

Sinking the store to the bottom of the ocean has left the retail establishment leaking. The prisoners, Fontaines followers and those unlucky enough to be accused as such, have overused the plasmids on hand. Thankfully, we have an array at our disposal.

In addition to Devil's Kiss, Possession, Shock Jockey, and Bucking Bronco, a new plasmid has been created. Old Man Winter is similar to Bioshock's Winter Blast, but with the ability to create traps (just like all the other vigors-turned-plasmids). There are no gene tonics, but new pieces of BioShock Infinite's gear are scattered about.

Elizabeth will still scrounge for health, eve, and ammo, and Booker will still eat everything in sight. I found lockpicks for safes and doors, and was only confounded by the absence of the hacking mini-game when faced with a turret that can only be temporarily shocked or possessed to ease its destruction.

Infusions are well hidden, but I had no problem finding Circus of Values and Ammo Bandito machines. You can upgrade plasmids and the new microwave-powered Radar Range weapon, but don't expect to find any Power to the People machines.

Combat is markedly different in Burial at Sea. Splicers work together (something we didn't see very often in the original BioShock), and I often had time to survey a situation, lay some traps, and stealthily take out one or two with an Air Grabber, Rapture's version of the Skyhook that Booker can use to cruise around on the overhead pneumatic tubes.

"In BioShock 1, I believe if we had more than three AIs on the screen at one time, the game would come to a halt," animation director Shawn Robertson told me. "We had to be very careful about how many characters we had. Our tech is way more established in Infinite than it was in BioShock 1." This allowed the team to create scenarios where more splicers work together to surround Booker.

Elizabeth has access to many familiar tears, with the addition of a samurai that is a melee version of the Motorized Patriot. The difference in Burial at Sea is that resource management is much more important. Ammunition, eve, and money are far more limited, making each encounter and gear loadout decision an opportunity to maximize damage output while minimizing expenditure.

It's fascinating to feel both at ease in the return to Rapture and the sense of wonderment I remember diving deep into the ocean on that first bathysphere ride. Splicers move as I remember them (though there are no spider splicers at this point in Rapture's tortured history), and some hide their faces in terror of catching a glimpse in the mirror.

The splicers retain some of their humanity. While they crave adam, their conversations are filled with coherent plotting rather than the gibberings we've previously experienced. Still, the madness is starting to set in, and the wild-eyed addiction that plagues nearly everyone we've met on past adventures lurks nearby.

"It's funny getting to do splicers again," Robertson said. "Not only did we have to go back to BioShock 1 and reintroduce ourselves to what our thought process was, the two animators that work with me (Grant Chang and John Mangagil) and I had to reacquaint ourselves with what splicers are. It was good fun to step back into those shoes."

The story evolves quickly over the three-hour adventure, and ends on a perfect cliffhanger. I'm left wondering how stepping into Elizabeth's shoes in Episode 2 will work narratively and mechanically.

Burial at Sea Episode 1 does not have a specific release date, but it will be out this holiday season. Episode 2 will be coming next year. This is the DLC we've been waiting for, and I was not disappointed.