Developer: Irrational Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Bioshock Infinite Review (Xbox 360, PS3, PC)
Ahead of you looms a dark, moody and mysterious lighthouse sitting in the middle of the ocean, separate from land and lore alike. You’re plonked at its entrance and forced to explore what’s inside, and what’s already a mystery in itself is simply a conduit to more intrigue. Six years ago, you entered a lighthouse and plunged into the depths of the ocean below to explore the vast wilderness of Rapture and the horrors that lay within. This year, that lighthouses thrusts you in the opposite direction to a land sitting not with the fishes but with the birds, and suddenly all that mystery becomes an empty canvas with each piece of the picture becoming apparent the more you explore it.
Bioshock Infinite is just that: an empty canvas waiting to be painted. It has an image that’s destined to be painted the way it was always intended, but the process of getting from emptiness to completion is as satisfying as it should be. With Rapture, the horrors that drove the civilization to civil war and subsequently extinction provided the palette for how that game’s canvas was painted. With Infinite, those same horrors are not immediately present the first time you step into Columbia, but uncovering them amidst an aura of peace and pleasantries packs more of a punch, and provides the backbone for what ultimately becomes one of this generation’s most intelligent and captivating narratives.
Bioshock is not immune to telling an intelligent story; its first game had you exploring the ruins of Rapture and discovering how an ideological society ultimately drove themselves to civil war and ruination. Its second had you stepping into the steel shoes of a Big Daddy–and tasked with protecting a small, helpless girl being pursued by inhuman foes, whilst dealing with your own imposed state of human disconnection. Infinite only continues the trend set in stone by the previous entrants in the series, and it does a job so sublime and finely-tuned that it not only feels like a continuation of the quality expected from the series but like something else entirely–and all in the name of storytelling.
You are Booker DeWitt, an indebted investigator from the land below the clouds that’s provided with an escape route from his debt if he retrieves a girl–Elizabeth– from Columbia and brings her to those who want her. And from there DeWitt finds his way to the lighthouse and then up, up and away into the clouds, landing on ground presented as the very example of peace and tranquility despite feeling more like the eye of the storm.
In some ways, Columbia is the antithesis to Rapture: one sits at the bottom of the world, ravished by war and genocide, and the other at the top, populated and controlled. And because Bioshock Infinite is dripping with religious subtext that’s apparent from the very instant you step foot in Columbia, one could compare Rapture and Columbia to Heaven and Hell, though both ultimately provide the same level of self-destruction, and both do it in expertly crafted environments.
Columbia is everything Rapture wasn’t: bright, inviting, peaceful. Its many shops and housing blocks lie atop floating balloons, shifting in and out of alignment at a moment’s notice. Gondolas fly by on occasion populated with singing groups or colourful carousels. Huge, looming statues of bronze and metal tower over the population yet offer no threat or sense of danger, instead mostly comfort. It feels like literal heaven on Earth, and yet there’s a seedy underlayer that represents the beginnings of Infinite’s story, and it all begins not soon after you touch ground in Columbia.
It’s hard not to fall in love with Columbia as soon as you see it. It is, by no means of exaggeration, one of this generation’s most stunning and artistically refined in-game environments. Its many areas feel unique in design to the others in the city, from the luscious grassy top to the foggy desolate areas full of the homeless and starving folk that the city forgot. For a series like Bioshock–famed for having environments that draw you in–to come back with its third offering, and six years later, with a setting like Columbia is a perfect demonstration of how effortlessly Irrational Games are able to reinvent the series despite operating from a direction entirely different to what they had with Rapture. Is Columbia stronger than Rapture? It’s arguable, but in a lot of ways, absolutely.
It’s not just with Columbia where Infinite massively succeeds, either. For this entrant in the series, Irrational created a narrative that’s intelligent, focuses on subjects typically seen as taboo in video games and will keep you talking about it for years to come. It normally wouldn’t be easy for a game to be able to achieve this with a premise as outlandish as Infinite’s, but Columbia is the canvas and the story is the paint that spreads across the page.
Bioshock Infinite is quite possibly the most emotionally engaging in the series to date. The story of Columbia, its founders and how it started off as a connected entity to the United States before severing that connection and starting on its path to indoctrination, is more compelling and engaging than those offered previously, and certainly just as enthralling. It’s fuelled by religious subtext, destructive machinations by those in charge, elements of sci-fi, and delivered to DeWitt–and therefore you–layer after layer. It admittedly lags a little in the middle of the game, but Infinite’s storytelling is right up there with the best of the best, beginning at the lighthouse and ending with a hell of a conclusion.
To put it simply: you will be talking about Bioshock Infinite’s ending for a while after the credits roll. Not because it’s bad, or because it disappoints, but because it requires you to. You’ll watch the final sequence–dedicated entirely to the story and not the gameplay–immediately after you’ve finished it, absorbing every last detail, before you inevitably head online and seek out more information. Infinite is a game that’ll be dissected piece by piece weeks, months and maybe even years later, and for it to leave an impression as profoundly strong as this for such a long time is a testament to how expertly crafted Irrational’s tale of patriotism, idealism and even love truly is.
One of the many reasons that contributes to Infinite being able to so effortlessly compel you to keep playing is in the partnership of its two main characters. You enter the lighthouse alone, but finding the girl you’ve been hunting for comes not at the end of the game but at the start–and from that point on, one becomes two.
Navigating the morally corrupt sands of Columbia alone is one experience; navigating with Elizabeth is another entirely. Escorting characters controlled not by human hands but by artificial intelligence (or lack thereof, usually) typically comes with many a groan, sigh and eye-roll. They get in the way, they stand in open fire and allow themselves to be made porous and protecting them from harm usually makes you want to separate all of their limbs from their torso, slowly and painfully. With Infinite, you are with Elizabeth for the majority of the game, but being without her makes Infinite feel empty and less of a game.
DeWitt and Elizabeth’s interactions go far and beyond the typical inter-character dialogue exchanged in video games. They’re wary of each other, but not distrusting. They rely on each other, but survive via their own wits. They care for each other, and so do you. They are the hands that hold the brush that paints Infinite’s canvas, and the game revolves around them, their struggles and how they fit into Infinite’s constantly meandering narrative. Their partnership is comparable to that of Lee and Clementine in Telltale’s The Walking Dead title, and equally as game-defining, only here it’s not just in the story-telling.
Bioshock Infinite is defined by its story, but how you progress from each piece of the puzzle to the next is defined by the sublime gameplay. Columbia’s many enemies provide varying degrees of danger to DeWitt and Elizabeth, from regular gun-toting foes to huge robot ‘Handymen’ and even robotic replicas of George Washington–an idol worshipped by the denizens of Columbia’s districts. They attack not always on the ground but from the skies, and as such, DeWitt must adapt to his surroundings to survive, by using objects on this dimension and from others.
Once paired with Elizabeth, she will be able to rip open tears in the fabric of space and time and bring forth something from one of the many alternate dimensions in Infinite’s multiverse, whether that be some weapons, an automatic turret for defence or just cover to use in the absence of others. Also, considering Elizabeth’s usefulness in throwing ammunition to you during battle always seems to arrive right when you need it the most, she is intrinsic to Infinite’s gameplay. Not only does Elizabeth’s presence further Infinite’s narrative but also its gameplay, as does Columbia’s unique environmental status.
Considering Columbia’s many districts are hosted on separate floating isles, the citizens within obviously needed a transport method that didn’t involve learning to long-jump. As such, the Skyline–a network of tubular rails connecting one place to another–exists, and DeWitt can make good use of it during heated battle. Being able to seamlessly attach and detach himself to the city’s rail system gives many of Infinite’s battles a fantastic sense of versatility and verticality, making some skirmishes genuinely difficult once the hordes start pouring in from all directions.
Regardless of whether you’re swapping gunfire with your enemies from above or below, Infinite’s gunplay systems all work in fine conjunction with each other, providing easily the most refined combat mechanics of the series to date, up to and including the game’s more supernatural player abilities.
Those of you who enjoyed using Plasmids from the previous games will be in luck because they’re back in the form of Vigors. There are less of them, granted, but their usefulness is equal in measure, and some of them are just downright hilarious. Flinging enemies over Columbia’s perilously unprotected walls with Undertow consistently brings about unfiltered enjoyment, as does upgrading the Murder of Crows vigor to make enemies killed by your flocking birds of death turn into traps themselves, unleashing squawking mayhem upon your opponents. All of this good, however, does come with a consequence.
While Infinite’s gameplay is strong and consistent throughout the entirety of the game, it occasionally feels like Irrational knew they they were onto a winner and decided to insert many generic ‘shooty shooty’ sequences, particularly towards the end of the game, to show it off. Infinite is more combat-focused than its predecessors, and usually the engagements you share with your enemies are not too long and consequently tedious, but there are several moments when the meat keeps pouring in for you to clean off, and no amount of stellar gameplay makes them feel anything less than frustrating.
Also, to make matters worse (or better depending on how you look at it), Infinite retains the same overly lenient punishment for death as the previous titles did. Gone are the vita chambers but being able to simply lose a few coins and have nearby enemies regain a little health makes their removal seem purely cosmetic. Why the Bioshock series insists on taking such a light response to death remains a mystery, and one that affects the gameplay in a negative manner, albeit not to a huge degree.
In regards to the weapons you’ll be getting killed by or killing with (hopefully the latter), Infinite’s arsenal rarely feels interesting to the point that the first Bioshock title’s did. For example, you have your bog-standard shotgun, machine gun, pistol and so forth but instead of feeling unique, they simply feel like any old pistol from any time period reskinned to fit the 1912 theme. It’s not an important issue but it still deducts from Infinite’s arsenal feeling as versatile as it was in the first venture to Rapture.
Speaking of Rapture, what are Infinite’s equivalent of the infamous Big Daddies? Well they come in the form of the robotic sculptures of George Washington as previously mentioned. Armed with minigun-esque weapons and the ravenous desire to rip you limb from limb, they at first appear threatening before you realise they’re actually not that scary at all. Unlike the game’s other giant robot forms–the handymen–they can be beaten and outmanoeuvred easily. That being said, as with the Big Daddies, their design is unique enough to be interesting and they fit in with the decor and art style of Columbia. C’mon, a giant George Washington robot? That’s gotta count for something, right?
In both the narrative and the gameplay, Bioshock Infinite excels in a large number of areas. Unfortunately those same achievements aren’t carried over to how the game is presented to you. Infinite really isn’t a good looking game, at least not on a device that isn’t a PC. Occasionally the extravagance of the set pieces mask the blackened truth but outside of those moments, Infinite isn’t a graphically tight game. Its textures look incredibly dated (on-par with the first Bioshock, which after six years is a huge step back), the draw-distances poor and blurry and the character animations sometimes stiff.
Infinite not providing blisteringly strong visuals doesn’t detract from the experience being anything less than memorable, of course, but when you’re observing Columbia’s many structures and gazing in awe at its artistic designs, you can’t help but feel that the city may have left more of an impact had it looked like a game that belonged in 2013 as opposed to six years in the past. Gameplay does trump graphics, and that’s absolutely the case with Infinite, but not noticing its shortcomings in that area is impossible, unfortunately.
On the other side of the technological spectrum, Infinite delivers in heaps and droves with its audio offerings. First and foremost: the voice acting. Troy Baker and Courtnee Draper, who voice Booker and Elizabeth, consistently provide a believable and emotionally engaging edge to their characters, and alongside the script are largely responsible for the game’s central pairing being as defining as it is.
As well as succeeding with its voice cast, Bioshock Infinite also makes good use of an authentic score consisting of tunes relevant to the time period and even to Columbia itself. The Bioshock series has never lacked in providing a soundtrack that matches the heavy atmosphere of the respective titles, and Infinite only manages to continue that trend, as it demonstrates time and time again that it’s more than capable of doing.
When you come to look back at Infinite’s canvas months or years down the line, you’ll remember it fondly, for the wonderful art direction taken in creating Columbia, the engaging partnership of the game’s main characters, and the bending, intelligent narrative that is dressed in back-story and personality. You’ll remember how the characters drove the story, and how the story drove the game, but most of all, you’ll remember how each part of Bioshock Infinite’s mechanical structure flowed in almost perfect conjunction with each other. Infinite is not just a game that you need to buy; it is a game that you need to experience, in all its rich, stunning glory.Bioshock Infinite Review (Xbox 360, PS3, PC),