If you're still puzzling over BioShock Infinite's mind-bendy, nearly inscrutable finale, you might just want to set that aside at noon today (PST) and dig into Clash in the Clouds, the first of three DLC packs arriving throughout the year ($5 for Clash in the Clouds alone, or $20 for the BioShock Infinite Season Pass that includes Clash in the Clouds, Burial at Sea: Episode One and Burial at Sea: Episode Two, as well as a handful of "Day One" combat bonuses). Clash takes one of the most consistently problematic aspects of Infinite - the constant, often repetitive combat - and turns it into spectacularly entertaining arena-style skirmishes that surpass many of Infinite's own set-pieces.
There's not a lot of setup here, and not a lot is required. You walk into the chambers of the Columbian Archaeological Society were you'll find, amid the droning chatter of a Motorized Patriot, four paintings that represent Clash's four combat arenas: The piers of the Ops Zeal, the Duke & Dimwit Theater (with a rotating ferris wheel and fireworks overhead), the Raven's Dome aviary, and the snowy promenades of the Emporia Arcade. Pressing the action button in front of any of them whisks you to a galley where you're then presented with the types of enemies you're about to engage. From there, you select your weapons: Infinite's entire arsenal is made available to you from the get-to, as well as a selection of Vigors - you'll be able to upgrade both from cash you loot from corpses in battle as well as cash earned from achievements and "Blue Ribbon Challenges." Each of the 15 "waves" of enemies you'll face in all four arenas is preceded by a new Blue Ribbon Challenge - and while many are predictable, requiring you to rely on a certain type of weapon or tactic, others can be maddeningly precise and demanding (I never was, for example, able to "Defeat the Handyman while he's electrocuting a Sky-Line"). When you're ready, you enter a tear in the side of the wall, and all hell breaks loose.
You'll generally have a few moments to strategize before being spotted by any of the enemies, although it's possible to extend this time by taking cover immediately and peeking around corners. But once you're spotted or you've fired, it's on.
What sets apart the combat in Clash of the Clouds is the undulating Sky-Line threaded through each multilevel arena in a loop. Where Sky-Line combat in Infinite felt sometimes awkward and halting, Clash's loops - as paradoxical as it sounds - opens them wide up. It's easier and far more exhilarating, for example, to survey for and pick off enemies from their redoubts while you're being flung from one end of the map to the other than it is to grovel to Elizabeth for some cover to cower behind. That said, Elizabeth is your constant companion throughout with all her abilities intact: she'll activate tears for weapons, health, and cover, as well as toss you health and ammo when things start looking grim.
If you get nailed before you catch that sloshing flask of health or mid-way between Sky-Line and a Health Kit, you're returned to the galley and given some tough love: a choice between forfeiting your ranking in the Leaderboard, restarting from the first wave all over again, or returning to the Archaeological Society gallery to sulk.
But even death gets a fresh coat of paint in Clash in the Clouds. Off to the right in the galley is the translucent window to Booker's office, where you can buy and bank a single resurrection for $500 a piece; with that in your wallet, dying in a wave allows you to continue without starting over from the first one.
Advancing through the waves in each arena is, not surprisingly, an increasingly difficult process whether or not you feel up to taking a Blue Ribbon home. You'll want to pay attention to the roster of enemies announced before each one, as it'll inform what kind of weapons you want to go in with (some weapons are also available within the maps, or can be snatched from corpses and tears). I stuck with my beloved Carbine and Sniper combo throughout most of the early waves in each arena and invested a lot of cash upgrading them as I had in Infinite. This wasn't a problem while I was being harassed by Soldiers and Firemen, but when the Handymen and the unbearable mosquito-like buzzing of the Siren arrived, I realized I'd made some foolish decisions.
Look, the truth is, I'm just Not That Good. God knows I tried, but in about 45 waves I played out of the 60 available in the game, I went home with two Blue Ribbons, and one of them may have been a fluke. Lead Level Designer Forrest Dowling told me, perhaps out of pity, that the team knew they had gotten a wave just right when only one out of sixty play-testers could bag the Blue Ribbon.
But that's the magic of Clash that wasn't there for me in many of Infinite's battles, where bits and pieces of the story replayed and enemies sprang from the same positions over and over again as I navigated my way through the game. Clash in the Clouds became more satisyfing with repetition, not less, as I committed terrain to memory and leaned more heavily on Vigor combos to buy myself some distance (I'm happy to report, however, that the Murder of Crows upgrade that turns bodies into Crow traps is still a winning play in nearly every circumstance). The closed loops of the Sky-Lines accelerates the pace of combat while elevating some of their hazards - such as death by electrocution - as well.
Stripped of their painstaking ornamentation, the arenas are not radically different from each other - nor do they intend to be. Though I would have preferred more varied locations mined from Infinite's vast catalog, the emphasis here is on becoming more proficient and creative with weapons and Vigors, not exploration or hiding while you chug an energy drink. And goofy moments of chaos - like hopping up, down, back and forth on a Sky-Line dodging rockets as I tried to take out an airship - seem less incongruous and thus more enjoyable than they did in Infinite. After playing three-quarters of the waves and achieving a small fraction of the goals set before me, $5 feels like a bargain to experience Infinite's combat distilled to its most enjoyable essence.