Review: BioShock Infinite
written by Justin Prince (@prince_justin)
I’ll admit it; I was not a fan of BioShock. Back in 2007 when the first BioShock game came out, I admittedly didn’t give it a fair chance. Even when BioShock 2 was released and all my gamer buddies were chomping at the bit for another foray into Rapture, I was more so “le meh”. I know, kind of troll-ish but that was how I approached it. I remember when I first saw screenshots and footage of BioShock Infinite and the original debut trailer, I was blown away by this new art direction the series was taking. In place of the bleak solitary horror film-esque tone of the first game, this new world was bright and vibrant with an air of vaudeville sensibilities. Before I continue with this review, I have to mention that it takes a lot for a stubborn bloke like myself to just “change” his mind from something I was so convinced of. I did not like BioShock, and I just put it away much like how I wrote off many other things I didn’t give a fair chance to. BioShock Infinite did for me what many of my friends couldn’t convince my stubborn ass to do, and that was give the first BioShock a fair playthough, and while a few of the things that turned me off a bit still persist, I have to say already being half way through, I am enjoying myself. BioShock Infinite was a memorable gaming experience that I will hold near to my heart, that reason alone was enough to load up BioShock again.
Welcome to the floating state of Columbia. BioShock Infinite takes place in the early 1900’s in a city floating above the United States. Columbia has seceded from the US and rather than still sharing the land, they float above it with a holier-than-thou gaze, a theme that seems ever present throughout the game’s narrative. You are Booker DeWitt, a man down on his luck with debt to his ears. He is tasked with infiltrating Columbia to rescue Elizabeth, a girl who has been kept under lock and key since she was an infant, and take her back with him to New York. With that, Booker satisfies his employers and his debt will be paid. Rescuing the girl isn’t that simple though, Booker will have to face down the leader of Columbia, Zachary Comstock, and a giant beast called Songbird. Booker and Elizabeth’s adventure quickly spirals into a story touching on themes of politics, religion, racism, classism, and of course quantum mechanics.
Despite some incredibly heavy subject matter, the game’s narrative never leaves you wondering “WTF” too often, a few moments may leave you perplexed, but this isn’t like your typical boy meets girl story. Speaking of that, I am so glad that the story didn’t all of a sudden melt into a melodramatic love ballad between the two protagonists. I love a good love story but it would feel incredibly out of place with the narrative. Comstock is an almost perfect villain for the story with Songbird being a truly terrifying monster. What makes Comstock so perfect is how his influence in an effect will turn every resident in Columbia against you; you are the enemy of the state, the false shepherd meant to lead his flock astray. The grand religious undertones are more than evident through most of the game. Songbird is a massive beast, ever watching and searching for Elizabeth, its main directive is to protect her and return her to the tower if she is ever to leave. Some of the best moments of the story come when the pair is forced to deal with and confront Songbird.
One of Elizabeth’s powers is her ability to open “tears” in the space-time-continuum. These tears lead to another world (or version of the world). The tears stand as the main driving force of the game’s narrative. Are you familiar with the theory behind quantum mechanics? One simple explanation is that for every choice we make, there is the possibility of another choice that directly contrasts. It theorized that if you go left, immediately another world is created where you make the choice to go right instead. This creates a seemingly “infinite” (see what I did there?) possibility of worlds. Elizabeth’s power allows her to access these worlds, interacting with them whether it is an item that wasn’t there before or (eventually) walking into them entirely. It takes a little bit to wrap your head around it, but this leads perfectly to subtitling the game “Infinite”.
This isn’t 2007s BioShock. When you trade a city under the sea for a city above the clouds, the scenery changes drastically. Gone are the dark corridors and glass pipes connecting one deck to the next. Instead, we have beautiful scenery and bright vibrant colors. One of the reasons I was so turned off by the original BioShock was the overall ambiance of the level design. While Rapture felt incredibly isolating, I never felt alone while traversing Columbia. From the buildings to the beaches, Irrational Games paid close attention to all the little details. Levels are designed fairly linear with some encouraging the player to deviate a bit, mostly for scavenging or side quests, been never too far off the beaten path. At times, Elizabeth will stop and mention that you can either continue the story or take a detour for some supplies. Generally this is a good chance to stock up on salts, bring your health back up, or scrounge abandoned crates for ammo and money.
I was not a BioShock fan when I first bought this game and my purchase was driven solely by the artistic choices the developers made, BioShock Infinite is a great choice for the person who wasn't a BioShock fan
At some point in the game, they mention that stealing from folk or provoking the authorities will result in some unsavory consequences, but these are rarely explored. Personally I felt that was a bit of a missed opportunity, they could have implemented a simple morality system into the overarching narrative. Some points do allow a bit of choice, but never beyond a glorified heads or tails. Columbia feels huge, and if it wasn’t for the fairly linear and direct quest path, I feel like I’d be lost most of the time. Though I wouldn’t say this is a bad thing, as I stated earlier the scenery is beautiful, every extra minute I can spend admiring the world in this game was well worth it.
Skylines seemed like the main promotional element from gameplay and trailers. Rather than just running and gunning, Booker can traverse the map on Skylines by means of his Skyhook. Originally I though this would simply be a bit of a gimmick, meant for those times you wanted to feel like an action hero, swinging around your enemies. But it really made sense to the story and the battles. This opened up new possibilities for how you tackle a level, since many are multi tiered with highs and lows, having these Skylines makes for an interesting way to travel. What felt a bit disappointing was that there were not enough of these sequences. The game does a good job of not “throwing you to the lions” per-se and essentially the first couple hours of gunplay seem to train the player character for later parts of the game.
Graphically the whole game is beautiful. The character designs remind me of a super stylized Disney animation and the vibrant level design just adds so much character to the world itself. In a way, Columbia felt like its own character, teeming with personality around every corner! You may not notice if you rush through it, but there will be moments you’ll hear modern music. From “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears of Fears in a distinct vaudeville style or a barber shop quartet rendition of the Beach Boy’s “God Only Knows”. They explained this by a musician having the ability to open tears and peer into other times/periods/worlds. There are a few notable jams to be found, keep an ear open.
From the eyes and ears, all of Columbia is a sight and sound of epic loveliness. I can’t get enough of just thinking of this world, is this how BioShock fans felt about Rapture when they first finished traversing that bleak world? Because I can totally relate, despite the depressing social undertones, gratuitous violence, and aggressive religious themes, I can’t help be see a beauty in this floating city.
Of course, a review for a first-person-shooter wouldn’t be complete without reviewing the gunplay. Since my previous experience with the BioShock franchise was the brief time I spent with the first game, I was delighted to see that rather than forcing you to pick between firearms and Plasmids, you had both hands up ready to combo powers with headshots or vice versa. Speaking about Plasmids, in Columbia they are called Vigors, these abilities are gained by drinking an elixir that bestows Booker with a special power that ranges from flames to commanding demonic crows. These Vigors have two different attacks, you can tap the button to release a direct shot or hold then release to set a trap. You can keep two equipped but switching out Vigors isn’t an inconvenience. You may find yourself sticking to the ones you love best, personally I rarely unequipped the Possession Vigor, this one allowed you to possess mechanical turrets or robots to fight on your side, or you can possess an organic enemy and after they finish fighting for you, they commit suicide. Of course until you upgrade it this Vigor requires the most salt, but it can help turn the tide in an intense firefight.
Gunplay is fast and furious; you can upgrade your guns at various vending machines in the world. The arsenal Booker DeWitt employs is very extensive, from shotguns to hand cannons, Booker never really lacks the firepower. Contrary to “FPS” fashion, aiming down the iron sights is made possible by clicking the right analog stick as opposed to one of the shoulder buttons, similar to BioShock but can be a little jarring for FPS veterans. Unlike BioShock though, you are limited to carrying only two weapons at any given time and must discard one when you pick up another, though ammo is always stored and Booker can continue to collect pistol ammo when he isn’t currently equipped with one, this helps when say you unload too many rounds and have to pick up a pistol from a dead enemy, you won’t be lacking the ammunition for it. Though limited in only carrying two firearms, I never felt like this was a hindrance, weapons fall like candy and there are very few moments where Booker is without a gun in his hand. Thought thanks to his handy, dandy, Skyhook… this really is never a problem.
When Booker would rather get up close and personal, his Skyhook doesn’t act as just a cool way to swing across the Columbia skyline, this gauntlet can also be used as an effective melee weapon. You can knock guys around or get up close and perform a melee kill move to some visceral results. A personal favorite is digging into an enemy’s head and turning it “on,” you’ll see. While this is useful for those moments you want to combo a Vigor into a melee kill, I found myself not using it as often. It felt like Booker wasn’t very proficient with the Skyhook. Hitting enemies with it feels clunky and I found myself reverting to gunplay/Vigors as my go to method in dispatching foes. I would have liked a simple combo system rather than just button mash for melee, on the up side though (unlike the wrench in BioShock) you don’t have to switch out your gun to use it.
As I mentioned earlier, Elizabeth’s power over these “tears” in the world drive the narrative, but they also act as a strategy for firefights. She can open up a tear that brings say a friendly turret or Patriot onto the field to fight for you, reveal hooks you can latch on to in order to gain a different perspective, or to grab a much needed health pack. These “tears” are littered all over the battlefield once the game mechanic is introduced. In fact, Elizabeth as a whole is a game mechanic that many folks who played this game are raving about. She really is the best A.I. ever! You as the player are not forced to protect her in firefights, she is more than capable of hiding and taking care of herself (though it does seem a bit unrealistic at times), but if Booker starts running low on health, salt, ammo, or cash, Elizabeth will get your attention and provide you with what you need.
Enemy types are varied, from your standard grunt to the menacing Handyman. Speaking of the Handyman, this enemy type is Infinite’s answer to the Big Daddies of Rapture. There’s no creepy Little Sisters harvesting adam from the dead, but the Handymen are just as menacing. The Motorized Patriots are a pretty tough enemy to face as well, armed with a fully automatic crank gun; these are motorized robots wearing the masks of dead Presidents (a common one found wears a George Washington mask). Much like the splicers in Rapture, various enemy archetypes utilize some Vigors and can be pretty tenacious. The ghastly Zealots employ a Vigor similar to the Murder of Crows that Booker can get and the Firemen send flaming projectiles to the player character, there is some strategy to be had with each enemy as far as quickly dispatching them, for example the Handymen have their “hearts” clearly exposed on their chest and Motorized Patriots are vulnerable when you shoot the gears in their back. But of course, we can’t forget the power of the almighty headshot. Some reviewers mention that the action and violence felt too gratuitous and seemed out of place in this gorgeous world, but personally I found that the stark contrast between the beautiful set pieces and dirty violence fit well with each other. Zipping on skylines and emptying clip after clip into oncoming waves of enemies is an absolute delight.
The final moments of this game will leave you grasping for every little thread to keep holding on, the final twist is a surprising enough twist to keep you as a player wondering how you never saw it coming, and the story and theme will stay with you long after the final credits roll. The ending is fairly well laid out and doesn't leave much up for interpretation. I was not a BioShock fan when I first bought this game and my purchase was driven solely by the artistic choices the developers made, BioShock Infinite is a great choice for the person who wasn't a BioShock fan... but also, BioShock Infinite changed my mind a bit about the original, that says a lot for this game.
A final thought that comes to mind, in reflection of my time playing BioShock Infinite I feel this sense of regret. It's a bittersweet feeling mind you, this isn't regret from disappointment in the game mechanics or story, based on my review it's obvious how much I loved this game. My regret stems from that fact that never again will I feel the same way I did when I first played this game, never again will I get to experience Columbia the way I did when I first saw that vibrant skyline. I do intend to replay this game sometime down the road mind you, but it won't be the same as my first... There's something inherently beautiful about that.
ed note: when I reviewed Tomb Raider I called it "the best game I played this generation." I am going to have to eat those words because BioShock Infinite is truly the best game I've played this generation... I spoke too soon...