Most gamers will likely never forget the time they first caught a glimpse of the underwater dystopia that was Rapture. Andrew Ryan’s crumbling city full of plasmids and Big Daddies made the first BioShock a crowning achievement of the first person shooter genre and one of the most recognized games of all time. At first glance, BioShock Infinite will strike many as an almost re-skin of its predecessor with yet another gun-toting, power-wielding hero discovering the corrupted underbelly of a mythical locale that is led by an ego-maniacal tyrant. What follows, however, is an experience that incorporates similar motifs but is an entirely different beast altogether. And boy, is it one hell of a ride.
It is made quickly apparent that despite the breathtaking and awe-inspiring initial reveals of Columbia, everything is not what it seems. The floating city might be a scientific and technological marvel but it is also freckled with blight. Keep in mind that in this version of 1912, racism runs rampant through the streets. African Americans, Asians and even the Irish are all seen as trash and should be exploited in every way possible. Mixed race couples have baseballs thrown at them during carnivals, bathrooms are appallingly segregated and that’s just the first few instances. There’s even a cult that hero worships John Wilkes Booth and portrays Abraham Lincoln as a demon that is both humorous and creepy. BioShock Infinite is rarely subtle in how it exposes these issues but it never beats players over the head with it. In games, evil usually has a face of flesh and bone – something to shoot at. Obviously there is plenty of that to do in Infinite but the game also tackles things rarely touched upon in most games, let alone shooters. Often it is easy to forget that the game does in fact take place during an era where these ideologies were perfectly acceptable by a large amount of people. What makes these crude and outdated ways of life more shocking and impactful is that they are starkly contrasting with the stunning architecture and sheer technological prowess of Columbia.
Where BioShock had Andrew Ryan and his skewed upper class idea of a utopia lurking around every corner, Infinite uses Comstock and his zealotry as the driving force. Comstock’s poison is tucked into every brick, cloud and opulent golden statue of an American founding father; and while NPCs might not be able to to see it, Booker and the players do. Some might be justified in thinking that Comstock isn’t as good a “villain” or powerful force as Ryan and it’ understandable. In the waters of Rapture, Ryan taunted the player and we hated him for using little girls as his science experiment. Comstock has many of the same qualities but aside from a choice few loudspeaker conversations, he is relatively cool-headed and maintains a subdued power. However, anyone who is familiar with religious indoctrination or how truly dangerous and influential the words of one person can be when spoken to the right audience will realize how truly terrifying Comstock is. Here is one of the great triumphs of Infinite. To most, the idea of a floating city seems relatively impossible yet things like racism and using religion as a weapon are real and entirely possible. When playing Infinite it is easy to believe how a man who can cause a city to fly can make its people think he is the closest thing to God. Even if it is set a hundred years ago, Columbia and all its surrounding fiction feel completely real.
Filled to the brim with religious, political and social commentary, Infinite has a lot to say and that doesn’t even speak to the surface plot of the game. It’s truly hard to delve too deep into Booker and Elizabeth’s tale without spoiling some of the best moments. As Elizabeth begins opening tears into other dimensions, the story becomes much more intricate. Hearing a song from the ’80s or seeing a nod at Star Wars will leave many scratching their heads but is a great plot device in later stages. It goes without saying that Infinite draws similarities with its predecessor. Plasmids and vigors, Big Daddies and Songbird, a city underwater and a city in the sky – it’s all there but Irrational Games excels at never making it feel like a “been there, done that” situation. Before the credits roll these similarities are handled expertly. And, finally, as everyone will more than likely want to know: the twist. Because BioShock gave players a big twist that is still talked about today, many are probably expecting Infinite to deliver a similar jaw-dropping moment. A word to the wise: don’t try and over think it. Suffice it to say the moment is there and the last twenty or so minutes of the game are a testament to how video games as a medium can deliver thought-provoking stories that would have even the best literary scholars chomping at the bit.
Retaining the same gun and power combo that made BioShock the shooter/strategy hybrid it was, Infinite feels very familiar for the most part. The standard assortment of shotguns, pistols, rifles and projectile weapons are not wildly inventive but are complemented by the wealth of upgrades that can be bought over the course of the game. Vigors instill Booker with various supernatural powers that spice up combat and add the much needed strategic element to the combat. Devil’s Kiss and Shock Jockey are the expected fire and electric powers, Murder of Crows launches a flock of crows at enemies making them more vulnerable to damage and Return to Sender produces a shield that soaks up gunfire and sends it back. There are eight vigors in total and each also has an alternate mode where the effects can be laid down as a trap. Add in gear that can be equipped to give Booker various combat bonuses and that sums up the core elements of Infinite’s combat.
Perhaps the most notable difference from the original BioShock is that the “shooting” mechanics feel more simplified. In the original, players had to juggle plasmids and guns to tackle a variety of foes. Combining the effects of multiple plasmids yielded deadly results and imbued the game with an element of strategy. Here, players will more than likely stick to a few vigors to take on every single task; it’s even possible to go through most of the game and rarely switch guns. Two arguments can be made: one, the game is simply too easy or two, it allows a massive amount of variety. To the first point, yes, the game can be pretty easy even on the hard difficulty setting. Problems can often be solved by stunning a few enemies with electricity and then blasting them with an RPG or volley gun and then hiding for a few seconds while the shield recovers. Of course, there are more extreme difficulty modes for those looking for a true challenge.
Speaking to the game’s amount of combat variety and room for player experimentation is something else entirely. It’s true that most of the gear, weaponry and vigors and can be woefully underused throughout the course of the game. Part of the problem is that Infinite doesn’t provide the player with enough opportunities to stretch their legs and try out a new toy in a practical situation. Enemies, for the most part, are just fellow humans with the same guns Booker can wield. Some have more armor, or are less vulnerable to a certain vigor or have a power themselves. Even when the mechanical Patriots are added to the mix it is under a hail of bullets. Battles can be so hectic at times that it is detrimental to the flow of the game. Instead of thinking about how to tackle a group of enemies, the focus becomes more about trying to figure out where the gunfire is emanating from and then firing a vigor off in that direction. Though the gameplay can be routine it doesn’t stop it from being satisfying. In the heat of the battle it is almost invigorating watching the head of one of Comstock’s minions explode after being set on fire. Those with weak stomachs should be warned that this visceral combat does lead to some particularly gruesome moments, especially in the melee finishers that illicit a scream of terror from Elizabeth. The skyline sections are actually done quite well. The sheer rush from moving at dizzying speeds and taking on foes never gets old and certainly does add on to the wealth of options available to players. Booker’s arsenal and the player’s ability to experiment would have also been improved if a weapon wheel had been in place instead of being able to hold only two guns at a time. On the fly strategy is hard to implement when the player has to run around and find new guns to use.
Taking into consideration that Infinite is a shooter, it seems completely ridiculous to critique it for doing something that every shooter does. As a generation that has revolved around games like Halo and Call of Duty, pointing and shooting a gun is par for the course. But with Infinite, the tools are there to go beyond just a festival of guns but often it finds itself shackled to shooter tropes. Piling up a mountain of bodies is simply part of what defines a shooter; then again, the expectations for Infinite are exceedingly high. This is where Elizabeth comes into play as she represents the perfect way to use a companion AI into a single player experience. Players will never have to worry about Elizabeth during combat; the game even explicitly states that she can take care of herself. In combat Elizabeth will toss players ammo and salts (which power vigors) and after the first few intense battles, it’s easy to recognize how great of a mechanic this proves to be. Not only does Elizabeth provide great feedback outside of battles by interacting with Booker and the environment and tossing money, she never gets in the way. Literally. There were a scant few instances where she would block a doorway but it only took a second or two for her to move out of the way. Technically there was one time she didn’t get into an elevator and had a conversation with Booker like she wasn’t a few stories down, but the cut-scene ended and she popped right back up after the loading screen. Using Elizabeth to open up tears in mid-battle is also a wonderful system. Spawning medkits, guns, cover, turrets or even skyhooks adds another layer to the intense (yet overwhelming) combat. Elizabeth does so much so effortlessly that she becomes not only an incredible AI partner but one of the best tools that Infinite gives you.
There are a few things that Infinite is just completely missing and their exclusion is certainly questionable. Puzzles are almost entirely absent in the game. There are a handful of side missions that boil down to finding an item to unlock a chest or area and that’s about it. There aren’t any machines or turrets to hack, just possess them with a vigor. It would have made sense to include a few areas where the player was forced to use different vigor combinations to advance but it’s just a missed opportunity. While there might be some hidden reason behind it, the most bizarre aspect of Infinite is the save system. The only time the game saves is during an auto-save. There’s no manual save option and that can create a lot of problems. Because a lot of time is spent scavenging large areas, that progress could be lost by restarting a checkpoint. Eventually the fear of losing progress might kick in and a session of play will extend just to reach the next place an auto-save will begin. Hopefully this will be fixed soon in a patch. Though the element of choice is present in a few instances, it only rarely yields results. Booker can often be too passive in the fully realized world.
Troy Baker and Courtnee Draper bring Booker and Elizabeth to life with incredible vocal performances. Baker is able to portray Booker as this rough cowboy-type who begins to soften towards his charge. Draper manages to nail the childlike fascination Elizabeth has with her world but also her sudden disenchantment with the true horrors of Columbia. The sincerity behind these performances further bring the story to life in amazing ways. The rest of the cast delivers as well though a great deal of their voices are heard through the collectible voxophones. Voxophones are scattered throughout Columbia and are the primary way a great deal of the backstory is revealed to the player. For those willing to spend the time scouring every inch of the floating city, the payoff is great. Hearing, seeing and collecting everything is part of the enjoyment in Infinite and is often a distraction from the shooting elements of the game.
Hearing The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” or Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” in 1912 won’t make much sense at first but past the initial story reasons, the soundtrack is appropriately weird and atmospheric. From the eerily beautiful opening moments to the mouth dropping conclusion, Infinite sounds great and might even make people want to hear century-old versions of classic hits.
Whether it is on a console or on a PC, Infinite is gorgeous and that can’t be denied. High-end PC gamers will obviously get the best visuals but the console versions do a great job of keeping up. On the Xbox 360, textures can often take some time to load and the draw distance isn’t always the best. Still, the game pushes the hardware even if the graphics focus on being stylized over realism. Columbia is a marvel to behold and is truly one of the most realized game worlds ever. Maybe that doesn’t stop a lot of invisible walls and doors that lead to nowhere cropping up, but part of that comes from the player’s desire to see absolutely everything and scan every inch. Special recognition should also be given to the motion capture behind Elizabeth. Her movements and facial expressions are almost second to none and watching her interact with the world is a joy.
The biggest criticism one can probably throw at BioShock Infinite is that it sometimes suffers from “being a game”. Because of its scope and ambition Irrational Games has attempted to break through the limits of the medium in almost every way. Part of creating such a cohesive world and experience is that players want to experience everything it has to offer. Seeing everything means also seeing the flaws that are threaded into the game. Infinite should be criticized for its shooter gameplay not because it is sub-par but because it doesn’t truly take advantage of how inventive and varied it can be. If someone wants to nitpick then there’s certainly fuel for the fire. The biggest truth about BioShock Infinite is that even days after playing it, it won’t easily be forgotten. Booker and Elizabeth’s story warrants multiple runs and its conclusion will light up the industry for weeks and months to come. BioShock Infinite is able to surpass one of the biggest strengths the original had while also solidifying BioShock as a franchise worthy of exploring. Beyond the sea or high above the clouds, BioShock is incredible and Infinite leaves you wanting more; and for that we give it our Editor’s Choice Award.
Note: A copy of the game was provided to Gaming Illustrated by the publisher for the purpose of this review.