In the months, weeks, days and minutes prior to Bioshock Infinite’s release, the only thing loftier than the floating city of Columbus depicted therein was the state of fan expectations for the long awaited follow up to the 2007 classic. The original Bioshock drowned our collectively lazy expectations of what a FPS could be beneath a placid ocean surface that belied a terrifying world beneath. Arguably not since Half-Life and its sequel had gamers borne witness to so perfect a marriage of gameplay and narrative in this particular genre. For a game set so many leagues beneath the ocean, Bioshock possessed a surprisingly heady premise; the city of Rapture and its denizens stood as a grotesque perversion of Ayn Rand’s opus, Atlas Shrugged.
In addition to possessing one of the finer plot twists in the history of this young medium (WYK), Bioshock created an atmosphere as immersive as it was deadly, it’s flooded halls filled with addicts whose narcotic of choice was genetic modification. Bioshock also gave to the medium the breath-holding, heart-stopping image of the diminutively angelic and demonic little sisters and their lumbering protectors, the diving-bell encaged Big Daddies. Following Bioshock’s runaway critical and commercial success, Irrational games retreated into the fog to plan their next project. A competent but minimally evolved sequel was developed by 2K Marin, but most fans kept their eyes fixed to the ocean’s still surface, eagerly awaiting the day when the silent Irrational Games would come back up for air. But it turns out that our eyes gazed at the wrong horizon. Irrational Games and the next Bioshock were hiding in the clouds.
Bioshock Infinite begins in the same womb as did its predecessor: in a dark ocean, an ominous lighthouse as the solitary beacon in the distance. But Infinite promptly proves that it turns its eyes to different, more celestial fields. Secured in a mysterious elevator not unlike the bathysphere in the original Bioshock, the expected descent into the waters of Rapture is instead replaced by a rapid ascent into the heavens where the flying city of Columbia awaits. A mournful violin plays the first time the sky city appears in all it’s glory, a note not unlike that heard the first time Rapture comes into view in the first game. This musical leitmotif joins many other thematic elements that make Bioshock Infinite a true sequel to Bioshock despite the dramatically different setting.
That setting is the year 1912 and you stare at the lighthouse from the eyes of Booker DeWitt, a former Pinkerton agent whose brutal past has left him seeing the world in only harsh monotones. Yet Booker is given a second chance in the form of a note, “bring us the girl, wipe away the debt.” Booker finds himself whisked away to Columbia in search of a girl named Elizabeth. It is not long before Booker finds himself at odds with a megalomaniac prophet named Comstock, on the run with a beautiful young girl, set upon by a monstrous mechanical bird in pursuit, and both fighting for, then against, angry revolutionaries seeking to tear Columbia’s ruling elite from their literal and figurative perch. To say more of the set-up would be to rob the reader of the unfettered joy of discovering Columbia and the story it has to tell for themselves.
Without question, Columbia itself is one of the finer artistic accomplishments of this console generation and is truly a breathing character in of itself. The pacing with which this marvel of a locale reveals itself is meticulously plotted. The first hour of the Infinite is essentially a leisurely stroll through the many pleasures of airy Columbia. Booker can engage in several carnival games, eavesdrop on conversations or prayers among the dapper populace, and even enjoy the anachronistic musical stylings of a barbershop quartet crooning an almost unrecognizable version of the Beach Boy’s God Only Knows. But even in the early goings, it is clear that the gorgeous clouds obscure a rotten underbelly to the floating city. Racist quips, forced human servitude, and whispers of revolution begin to show the city’s seams. It is not long before these taught stitches expand beyond their ability to endure, the visage cracks and Columbia is thrown into violent conflict. Soon the many star-spangled banners are aflame, the cobblestone is buckled and streams with blood, and the white clouds are replaced by those whose fiery tone suggesting a very different form of afterlife than the heavens its citizens speak so frequently of.
Despite its nigh-literary aspirations, Bioshock is, at its heart, a shooter. Booker may equip himself with a number of fire-arms ranging from pistols to sniper rifles, grenade launchers and everything in between. But fans of Bioshock know that munitions are only half of the battle: replacing Bioshock’s plasmids, Infinite introduces Vigors, essentially a variety of genetic warfare that can be unleashed from Booker’s left hand. Vigors range from the more mundane fireballs and electricity to the more unique abilities such as sending forth a flock of angry crows to distract and shred his enemies. Additionally, each vigor has an alternate fire that is deployed with a prolonged press of the button. A forceful wave of water may be used to push enemies off of ledges, or instead used as an aquatic lasso to pull them in for much more personal punishment. Electricity may stream forth from your fingertips in bolts that would make Emperor Palpatine cackle with glee, or may be placed as traps ready to ensnare the wayward victim. The true delight in the use of vigors is finding unique combinations with which to turn enemies into helpless ragdolls. Launch a foe into the air with the bucking bronco, then tear at his flesh with a swarm of angry crows which can also be lit aflame for even more ridiculous chaos.
While these abilities may sound consistent with the Bioshocks of yesterday, Infinite differentiates itself by taking combat to the skies with the use of magnetic rails. Early in the game, Booker dons a hook-arm that doubles as both a brutal melee weapon (complete with juicy executions) and a form of transportation that may be used to zipline along the elevated rails about the city. The motion allowed by the skylines provides a sense of verticality in the environments that was absent in the characteristically claustrophobic Rapture seen in Bioshock 1 and 2. Riding lines from ground level to several stories skyward and back again opens up multiple strategic possibilities for each combat encounter that beg to be experimented with. Boxed in by turrets and flame wielding soldiers down low? Take to the high ground with the zipline and drop a bead on them from above with your sniper rifle or, better yet, lock on and pelt them while zipping continuous circles around the environment. And lest you become too comfortable in your sense of air-superiority, be forewarned, your foes may make the same use of the skyrails as you, and some of the more intelligent of opponents will electrify them to bring you crashing to earth in a positively charged mass. Taken together, the use of skylines is an exhilarating new form of combat to Bioshock and it is a shame that they are not quite ubiquitous in Columbia as we might have hoped. They are instead mostly designated to a finite number of memorable combat set pieces that make the long stretches of zipline free combat feel a bit vanilla by comparison.
Indeed, Bioshock Infinite strives to provide options in how you approach its combat. This is aided by the availability of “gear” which provide passive combat bonuses to take the place of the passive plasmid abilities seen in the prior iteration of the franchise. Gear affords a fair bit of customizability to your play-style, whether you want to increase the splash damage of a drop attack, provide an ammo boost every time you leap to a skyline, or regain some health or salt (the essence that Vigor use draws from) with each kill and so on. Gear may be swapped in and out without permanence so a build that works for one encounter against a multitude of weaker mobs may be readily adapted for a one on one against a heavy-hitter. This becomes increasingly important in harder difficulty settings in which you can and will die, a lot. Vigors and weapons may be upgraded at vending machines and take on new damage and accessory perks the more you choose to invest in the ones you use most frequently.
One would think that with the fully customizable guns, vigors and hookarms, Booker could not possibly have another secret weapon up his sleeve. He does, however, and her name is Elizabeth. The doe-eyed young lady is Booker’s near-constant companion throughout the approximately 12 – 14 hours of gameplay Bioshock Infinite provides and at no point does she wear out her welcome. While platitudes heaped upon the quality of her AI may be a bit overzealous (I had her lose her pathfinding on at least 5 occasions in my play through, and disappear entirely twice), she certainly carries her weight in the adventure. In a lesser game, Elizabeth would be the formula for a game-length escort mission, but in Infinite, sometimes you wonder who is truly escorting whom. In addition to being a constant source of ammunition in the heat of combat (ostensibly foraging the battlefield under cover to help you out), the fiction of her character allows Elizabeth to open “tears” in the time-space of the battlefield. These tears effectively call in stationary turrets, motorized air-sentries, health kits, or even perches for Booker to affix to with his hook-arm for a new perspective (and drop) on the fight. The use of Elizabeth’s tears greatly add to the flow and strategy of combat and are very easily implemented with the press of a button.
Even if she wasn’t so damn helpful in a fight, Elizabeth would be a vital part of the Bioshock Infinite experience due to the quality with which her character is both written and acted and this is crucial to what elevates Bioshock Infinite above its peers. Booker and Elizabeth share an almost constant dialog on their journey and the care with which their relationship develops translates into an incredibly developed supporting character. As such, Elizabeth joins an all-to-short line of AI companions that the gamer finds themselves genuinely caring for (a line consisting of the likes of Ico’s Yorda, and Enslaved’s Trip) Even when the shooting begins to grow a bit long in the tooth by the mid-game, the desire to see what fate awaits these two characters will keep you playing to the next checkpoint and beyond.
Graphically, Bioshock Infinite astounds from an artistic level if not always a technical one. The aforementioned majesty of Columbia in both peacetime and chaos is a site to behold. Textures on the console versions can be a bit muddy upon closer inspection, but that is certainly more the fault of aging consoles than lazy design. The visual splendor of the diverse outdoor and indoor environments, their classic architecture turned to ruin, far outweighs minor complaints in graphical fidelity. Bioshock is a feast for the ears as well, with an incredible soundtrack that makes use of an orchestral score that responds to the onscreen action (even capping off headshots with a horn blare), as well as delightfully playful versions of a number of 80’s hits sung in a style and production more appropriate to a much earlier part of that century.
Despite these praises, however, Bioshock does have a few noticeable flaws. From a technical perspective, clipping and frame rate hiccups did noticeably occur in my XBOX360 build of the game, and at one point Elizabeth got stuck in place in her zipline animation necessitating a checkpoint reload in order to progress. From a design perspective, the decision to limit guns and vigor capacity to two at a time adds an unnecessary and incongruous amount of “realism” to a game already deeply steeped in the fantastical. To make use of an unequipped Vigor requires pulling up a game pausing radial menu that robs the action of its momentum. This limitation is an inexplicable choice by Irrational games given that it serves only to handicap the player, discourage experimentation and makes combat suffer relative to its more free-form predecessors. Coupled with the addition of a Halo-esque regenerating shield, it would seem as if Irrational tried to simplify the player’s immediate combat readiness at the sake of depth. Additionally, despite one or two standouts, the vigors on display are either re-skinned versions of the plasmids seen in the original Bioshock (fireball, check, electricity, check, swarm of creatures to disorient enemy, check) or not quite as inspired or useful.
While on the subject of mismanaged variety, enemy types run the gamut from generic club, gun or pyro wielding foot soldiers to the imposing “heavy hitters” such as the motorized patriots and Handymen, yet none capture the unbridled risk-reward anxiety of a showdown with the Big Daddies from the original Bioshock. The sole enemy that does evoke such terror and sense of vulnerability never ultimately results in an actual combat encounter, which seems like a profoundly missed opportunity. That said, Irrational seems to have learned from at least one of its mistakes: the much-panned final boss fight of Bioshock that was so against the grain of the rest of the experience has been remedied here with a fairly memorable final scenario that tests all of your finely honed strategies.
For the sake of those who followed Infinite’s development and promotional material closely, it should also be mentioned that many of the features demonstrated in multiple design-stage trailers and demos did not make it into the final product. While nowhere near the degree of deception demonstrated by Gearbox’s recent Aliens: Colonial Marines, Irrational may be taken to task for a considerable volume of previously advertised content that was omitted. This includes everything from the extent to which skylines were implemented, unique vigors, entire set piece and plot moments shown in trailers, and most significantly, multiple ways by which Elizabeth was meant to interact with the combat environment which were apparently left on the cutting board floor. To be clear, the final product does not FEEL as if it is missing features per se and remains a stellar game, but those who poured over early trailers may be left scratching their heads in comparison.
To end on a high note, however, would be to discuss, well, the end. There will be no spoilers here, but suffice it to say that Bioshock Infinite’s ending is one of the most considerately crafted, surprisingly implemented and thought-provoking finales to any videogame in the past decade. In an recent interview, Ken Levine (the creative mind and steady hand behind Bioshock) stated that he believed gamers had never seen an ending like what Irrational attempted to do with Infinite’s final 20 minutes. Well, I am thrilled to report that their aim resulted in a resounding success. This is an ending that must be pored over repeatedly, contemplated upon when alone and discussed over drinks when in company. More importantly, it is an ending that begs the gamer to immediately restart a new game (perhaps on the brutal 1999 difficulty level) to see the adventure once more with eyes armed with hindsight. Truly, Bioshock Infinite’s ending is an achievement that should be celebrated by the entire industry and its legions of fans.
Bioshock Infinite is a game that wears its legacy well while setting out to claim its own space. It is an example of a product that pushes gaming forward in both artistry, story-telling, and virtual tourism, if not always gameplay mechanics. Infinite does have a few flaws but , for the most part, they are merely a few scattered dark clouds in an otherwise sunny and open sky. In the end, you are left with a game whose narrative implants itself deep in your mind and heart where only the elite few of gaming experiences settle. This is due, in large part, to a genuine relationship between two extremely well developed leads that culminates in a mind-shattering finale. With Irrational Games having now brought their meticulous and artful approach to game design to both the ocean’s deep and the vast, cloud laden skies, one can only wonder how the next Bioshock could possibly surpass a game that is, in both name and quality, Infinite.
Fun Factor: Amazingly enough, the competent combat is not the true star on display here, it is instead the immersive world, characters and story. As such, the “fun” takes a back seat to “awe.”
Difficulty: Playing on the default difficulty will be a breeze to anyone competent with FPS. A first play-through on Hard is recommended to squeeze the most out of your first run. Move onto the insane 1999 difficulty only if you like your challenges Dark Souls worthy.
Length: Approximately 12-14 hours per playthrough, truly the perfect length for a game such as this that allows you to take in its world without overstaying its welcome.
On the Negative Side: A few technical difficulties and combat design choices that may actually be a step backwards for the series.
Bang for your Buck: Full price is well spent to experience this exceptional marriage of gameplay and story telling. It is refreshing to be able to say that for a game that stands on the worth of its single player and has the self-confidence to not tack on a superfluous multiplayer death match mode to attract the cool kids.