Game: Bioshock Infinite
Developer: Irrational Games
Publisher: 2K Games
We’ve all experienced hyped up games before and we all think we know what to expect by now. A period of excitement leading up to the game’s release followed by the inevitable crushing disappointment that the game doesn’t live up to our ridiculously high expectations. Sometimes they turn out to verge on terrible (Deus Ex: Invisible War anyone?) while other times they’re good but just can’t match what we’ve built up in our heads. Step forward Bioshock Infinite to smash that pattern completely by matching and even exceeding every hope I had for it.
Much of the success of the original Bioshock rested on the joy of exploring the immersive environment of Rapture, the Art Deco city beneath the sea. With the move to a new location here, I think most of us were expecting the same again: an impressive new environment in which to fight deranged opponents with renamed plasmids, and a similarly told storyline. Rapture in the sky. Irrational could easily have done this and we would probably have enjoyed it. Instead of playing it safe however, they have decided to build on the foundations of the original game. Fundamentally, the features that distinguish it as a Bioshock game are all there, but Infinite feels like a far different experience. In fact, I see parallels in the move from Bioshock to Infinite with the one several years earlier between Half-Life and its sequel. There was a similar gap between them, and while Half-Life 2 visibly revolutionised gaming, I believe that under the surface Bioshock Infinite is just as much of a leap forward. It’s really that good.
One of the key features of the game, as with the original, is in the environment. Rapture was beautiful, but it was an enclosed, even claustrophobic environment beneath the sea. Infinite is a linear game, but its setting of Columbia couldn’t be more open. Even before you emerge out into the city itself, the level of immersion is impressive, but stepping out into the city floating amongst the clouds is simply stunning. Buildings bob gently up and down as they line up with each other, while others fly off to join up with other streets entirely. And where Andrew Ryan’s vision of utopia had already collapsed by the time we arrived in the previous game, Columbia is very much a living city. I’ve mentioned occasionally of other games that they offer a glimpse into another world, but it’s never been as accurate as it is here. The whole environment really feels like an early 1900s American ideal, yet every part of it that you visit feels different. Where in Bioshock it was rare to meet anyone who wasn’t openly hostile, in Infinite we arrive amongst crowds of ordinary citizens. Everywhere you look there are people stood around having conversations, workers going about their business, children playing games. It’s all helped by not only the high quality graphics and impressive art design but also by the best sound I’ve ever experienced in a game. The soundtrack is fantastic and the voice acting first rate, but most of all the ambient sound is absolutely flawless. This more than anything makes it feel likewe’re genuinely entering another world, rather than simply seeing one.
There’s very little I can say about the plot. This is a game that really should be experienced fresh with no knowledge of what is going to happen. I’ll stick to the basics. You play the strangely named Booker DeWitt, an ex-Pinkerton agent sent to Columbia to “bring us the girl and wipe away the debt”, a recurring quote throughout the game. The girl in question is Elizabeth, who turns out to have a strange ability to open “tears”, holes in reality to other times and other worlds. She plays a major role in the story and, to a certain extent, in the gameplay. Alongside the personal plot, there’s the story of Columbia itself. Impressively, much of this is told via the environment itself on a scale I haven’t seen before, and in a way that should be used more in gaming. Overheard conversations, statues and plaques, the architecture itself, everything adds to the backstory. Past events are shown in brief propaganda films on 1900s kinetoscopes, like political versions of “What The Butler Saw”. And there’s the return of the audio logs, this time in the form of Voxophones. These fill in a lot of detail about the characters in relatively short snippets. It’s an amazing amount of detail and there’s nothing there to pull you out of the world of Columbia. And it all happens amidst a conflict between the Founders of Columbia and the Vox Populi, originally formed to defend the rights of the oppressed classes and races.
I’ve made it all this way without even mentioning the combat. Thankfully, the game is very strong here too. It follows along the lines of previous Bioshock games, including the improvements to the action that Bioshock 2 added along with a few new features of its own. Where the earlier games had Plasmids, Infinite has Vigors, and where you previously had to collect EVE to use them, you now have Salts. Other than the name change, this is the one place where the game remains constant with its predecessors. They effectively work in the same way, and you can dual wield them with weapons as in the second game. Also like Bioshock 2 is that fact that you have an always available melee weapon that doesn’t need switching in and out amongst your other weapons. Where that game gave you a Big Daddy drill, here you have a Sky-Hook. This was designed to be used to travel around Columbia via Sky-Lines, roller coaster style rails running overheard that connect various floating sections of the city to each other and provide a quick way of getting around. You simply attach the hook to the line and fly along on it, which can also give an advantage during combat. Booker also uses it as a more traditional weapon, the propeller attached to the device acting like a blade leading to some surprisingly gory deaths. Yet the violence never feels gratuitous. It’s as important to the character of Booker DeWitt as the tears are to Elizabeth.
The weapons themselves consist of the usual variety of pistols, shotguns, rifles and explosives. Where it scores over the original game is that they almost all feel useful. It was easy to run through Bioshock using nothing but the wrench as a weapon to the point that the guns felt worthless. The wrench and one Plasmid was all you needed for the whole game. You probably could get through Infinite with just one weapon, but it actually feels far better to experiment with the weapons and Vigors this time round. All the weapons feel and sound suitably powerful. The Vigors follow a similar pattern to those in Bioshock, with the likes of fireballs and electricity bolts, and a murder of crows replacing the swarm of bees that attack enemies. These all feel satisfying to use and aid a huge amount in combat, and they can be used in combination with each other as well as with environmental hazards. Added to the ability to shoot from the Sky-Lines, there’s a huge amount of versatility in the combat so that it never feels repetitive.
As mentioned earlier, Elizabeth plays a huge role in the game, and you’ll be travelling around with her for the majority of the game. She’s far above and beyond any of the usual video game companions we get stuck with. As with Half-Life 2’s Alyx Vance, she’s a likeable and believable character rather than a burden, but the implementation goes further than even that landmark game. Rather than just following you around right behind you, Elizabeth will go looking round rooms on her own as she enters them, even pointing out useful items to you as she discovers them herself. Her ability to find things becomes very helpful in combat as she often finds extra ammo, health and salts to throw to you just when you need them most. She can also open tears to bring in useful items to help you. But it’s in the writing and the way her character develops over the course of the game that really makes her so important. She’s one of the best written characters in gaming and it’s hard not to like her, and she feels like a real person, despite her strange ability.
And then there’s the ending, which I obviously can’t give any details about, other than that it’s extraordinary. It completely takes you by surprise, it’s initially confusing, yet makes sense when you think back on what has happened. And you will think back. More than any other game I’ve played, this is one that will keep you thinking for a long time after finishing it, re-evaluating earlier events and constantly making new realisations about the plot. It’s one of the finest examples of storytelling in gaming.
The game isn’t absolutely flawless, but it’s about as close to it as anything ever is. Perhaps the plot slows down for a while somewhere in the middle of the game, and there’s a battle towards the end of the game that goes on a bit longer than I would have liked, but there only stand out considering the strength of the rest of the game. And where the Vigors which replace the Plasmids make about as much sense, the Tonics of Bioshock which added passive abilities have been replaced with clothing items that do the same thing, which is never explained. It’s the sort of thing that would pass unnoticed in most games, but is noticable in Infinite considering how carefully thought through everything else seems to be. There’s also a checkpoint save system that isn’t particularly well spaced out, but this is saved thanks to the fact that you respawn when you die, eliminating the potential frustration of having to repeat big sections of game when trying to enjoy the story. None of these have any significant impact on the game, which is never anything less than an amazing experience.
That may have been a bit light on content, but I’m going to jump straight to a wrap up because I just don’t want to risk saying anything that could give away any aspect of the story or the world at all. I’m just going to simply state that this is a game that should be played by everyone with any interest in gaming, and especially anyone who appreciates games as a storytelling medium and as a form of art. I’ve been playing games for virtually my entire life, from the age where I was first able to understand what was going on, and probably even before that. I’ve been a big, possibly obsessive collector of games for most of this time. The number of games I’ve played is well over a thousand. And despite all that, Bioshock Infinite managed to continuously find new ways to surprise, shock and impress me throughout the nineteen and a bit hours it lasted on first play through. I believe it should stand at the very pinnacle of gaming, a perfect example of what can be achieved with attention to detail and well thought out writing and design. And it’s not the gameplay that makes it what it is, although that is excellent. It’s not Columbia, as wonderful a place to explore as it might be. It’s not the plot, as mind bendingly intricate as it can get. It’s the combination of all these things, and most of all, the small moments and details that most developers don’t seem to realise are important. And that’s what puts Irrational Games at the very top of what they do. How many other companies could release a landmark game like Bioshock and then still manage to create something so incredible to follow up? Has anyone other than Valve ever done that?
So as I said, play this game. Maybe you’ll love it as much as I did, maybe you won’t, but I don’t think anyone will be able to totally dismiss it. Because amongst the many firsts of Bioshock Infinite, I’ll leave you with a personal one. As someone who generally dislikes how DLC is used, this is the only game that I’ve ever placed a pre-order for the DLC season pass. I can’t wait to get back to Columbia. So just avoid reading anything else about the game and play it as soon as you can before the game is spoiled for you in any way. And with that said, I’ll stop.Read the review of the Bioshock Infinite DLCs here.
Save System Review: Badly placed checkpoints, saved by the fact that you can’t actually die. Not perfect, but acceptable.
Graphics: High quality graphics that have their own unique style. They look beautiful at the highest settings and have wisely avoided trying to look realistic in favour of imagination.
Sound: Some of the best sound I’ve ever heard in a game. Fantastic voice acting, great soundtrack and amazing ambient and environmental sound.
Bugs: None that I encountered.
Gameplay: Brilliant gameplay that only improves as the game goes on and you gain more options. A welcome improvement over the combat from the previous games.
Storyline: Excellent story that I can’t say anything about for danger of spoiling it. It builds up to the perfect ending and will keep you thinking for a long time.
Arbitrary Final Score:
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