Game Review: BioShock Infinite
Pros:Setting and story brilliantly realised, astounding visuals, wonderful soundtrack
Cons:Action scenes perhaps a bit samey at times
In a world where most AAAs seem mortally afraid of spreading their wings, BioShock Infinite is an absolute wonder. Colm reviews.
BioShock Infinite is in some ways a curious beast. A spiritual sequel to a spiritual sequel, it both echoes and subverts its 2007 predecessor (which itself was intended as something of an echo of the System Shock series of the hallowed ’90s) without actually bearing any relation to its plot. It’s a phenomenal game in its own right, but its loftiest heights are very much scaled from the shoulders of its older brother.
Infinite is the story of Booker DeWitt, former soldier turned Pinkerton turned private contractor, hired to travel to the flying city of Columbia and rescue a teenage girl, Elizabeth, in order to wipe away a debt. As with the original BioShock, the game begins at a lighthouse, but the different tone of the game is established when you open the door and find, rather than a looming statue of the founder framed by aggressive messages of self-determination, a series of modest cross-stitches offering gentle messages of salvation and redemption. The inversion is completed when you take a rocket to the skies and, breaking the cloud barrier, get a first glimpse of your new home.
In the original BioShock, the opening reveal of the underwater city Rapture was a powerful moment, but this first view of Infinite‘s Columbia is outright breathtaking. Where Rapture was dark and decrepit, a city already consumed with post-utopian ruin, Columbia is bright and vibrant and utterly, joyously alive. Infinite is a visually stunning game both in terms of art design and graphical output, and never more so than in its opening hours.
As spectacular as it is though, there’s nothing quite as iconic as Rapture — no ‘No gods or kings,’ no ‘I’m Andrew Ryan,’ no ‘A man chooses’ — but then, the twisted veneer of humility over Columbia’s personality cult doesn’t allow for that kind of grandstanding. The Bible-esque inscriptions repeated throughout the game — ‘The seed of the prophet shall sit the throne and drown in flame the mountains of man’ — are often gorgeously written, sentences you’ll want to run around in your head just to savour the feel of them, but they don’t exactly roll off the tongue. Even the fact that it’s a floating city kind of ceases to be important later, as you go through environments that are either indoors or structured in such a way that they might as well be at ground level. After those opening hours, the fact that you’re up in the sky is rarely at the front of your mind. But unlike with Rapture, the nature and ideologies of Columbia aren’t really the focus: the game is very much about Booker and Elizabeth, with Columbia and its personalities and conflicts being mere background to their story. It’s much more personal and emotionally grounded than the Rand-baiting turns of BioShock‘s tale.
One of the criticisms of BioShock was its weak final act, where after a killer twist it devolved into an escort mission capped off with an out-of-the-blue boss-fight and arbitrary ending. Creative director Ken Levine said in interviews that he was surprised at players’ reaction, as he assumed that story was a secondary concern for most people. There’s far more confidence in the storytelling in Infinite, and it’s very obviously the number one concern from its first moment to its last. It takes a good half hour of wandering through Columbia (longer if you want to really take in the sights and sounds) before you get your first taste of action, and the game is all the stronger for it. And without giving any specifics about the ending, it’s a satisfyingly lengthy sequence that properly ties up the plot and themes rather than just aiming to reassure the player that they have Won the Game.
That’s not to say that the emphasis on storytelling has led to deficiencies in the gameplay. Combat has a similar feeling to the original but it’s been greatly improved, with a variety of weapons and Vigors (magical/pseudo-scientific powers, filling the same role as BioShock‘s Plasmids) all having their uses. Exploration will reward you with gear that can be equipped and swapped around for various benefits (as well as the sheer fun of having messages like ‘New Pants — DEADLY LUNGERS’ pop up on screen) while a regenerating shield on top of your health encourages risk-taking. Elizabeth is enormously helpful during fights: she can use her own quantum trickery to manipulate the environment to your advantage, as well as find ammo and other supplies to keep you going. The way she shouts updates to you and throws you items when you need them most lends a real feeling of camaraderie and, together with the frequent non-combat interactions, greatly enhances your relationship with her.
The formidable powers Booker has at his disposal during firefights are balanced out by enemies who won’t hesitate to take advantage of your mistakes, and a variety of tough super-enemies in the vein of Rapture’s Big Daddies. You need to strike hard and fast if you’re going to survive. One happy side-effect of this is that firefights are relatively brief, and the game never turns into a mere shooting gallery. There is a boss-fight later on in the game that grates a little (or a lot, if you don’t figure out the best way to approach it), and that compounds its error by making you go through it three times (mercifully, not in a row), but generally speaking the game knows when to fade the combat out in favour of exploration and character development.
Some people will find issue with the game’s save system, or lack thereof. There’s no way to manually save the game, as it relies solely on a checkpoint system. In addition, dying won’t kick you back to the last checkpoint — rather, Elizabeth will revive you, at the cost of some money and having your enemies’ health replenished. Or, should you wish, you can easily bring up the menu and manually revert to checkpoint on death, which will mean a loading screen and a loss of progress. It’s not an ideal solution for the hardcore old-skooler, but the save system is clearly designed to have the player experience the story with a minimum of interruption and loss of immersion, and it’s hard to see how the game would have been much improved with a more traditional quicksave/quickload setup. Still, it might have been nice to have it to hand even if only during the hardcore ’1999′ mode unlocked after the first complete playthrough (or by entering the Konami code on the main menu, if you’re really keen to get stuck in).
It’s a minor quibble, one of very few that even seem worth making. Levine and all the team at Irrational have done a magnificent job, and produced a game (and a series) that will be a touchstone for gaming generations to come. Rarely do we see a setting this well realised and a story this well told in mainstream games. In a world where most AAAs seem mortally afraid of spreading their wings, terrified that they might accidentally let a trickle of ambition seep in, a game like BioShock Infinite is an absolute wonder.