It was not until sometime in early 2009 that I finally played the original BioShock from Irrational Games and Ken Levine, the studio’s co-founder and creative director. It almost feels like there was something like an invisible line or barrier that I crossed that day, after I finished my adventure in Rapture the phrase ‘Would you kindly’ would never leave my memory. BioShock was the first game that made me realize the incredible power of storytelling this medium could possess, and more importantly, that couldn’t be matched by film or novels.
Fast forward to 2013, we are now over 5 years past the release of BioShock in 2007, and we had seen directional glimpses of what BioShock Infinite – the next game in the series – would be about. It was a compelling idea. Maybe too compelling to pull off.
I should say that this review will be as spoiler free as possible for those of you who care deeply about story in games because narrative is the center of BioShock Infinite.
Infinite is set in the early 1900s and centers around a city in the sky called Columbia which was founded by a man named Comstock who wanted to display American exceptionalism at its finest by creating a floating city. Columbia and Comstock were praised by the Union for many years until it became somewhat of a problem for America. Not too much is known about the city to outsiders, apart from a mysterious ‘lamb’ that seems to have an incredible importance to Comstock and this revolutionary city.
This is where you – the player – come in. We are in the year 1912 and Booker DeWitt, who was part of the ‘Wounded Knee’ massacre and is also a former Pinkerton agent, has been given a chance ‘to wipe away his debt’ by bringing ‘the girl’ from Columbia to New York. Booker doesn’t know why, nor does he care what’s so special about the young woman he is supposed to retrieve – not yet. A weary, tired and beat down DeWitt makes his way to a mysterious light house which is said to be the way to get to Columbia and he is accompanied by two muttering characters that will become central to the games premise. They are my favorite characters in this fantastic tale.
The first time I entered the floating city was one of the most intense and artistically beautiful moments in my time with video games. Entering Columbia can be compared to the first time you see the underwater city that is Rapture and a moment I will likely never forget. Before DeWitt actually meets ‘the girl’ who turns out to be Elizabeth, players get to explore the city that appears magical at first but also seems to have many facets that hint at something being off about Comstock and his floating city than meets the eye.
Columbia has been so painstakingly and caringly crafted that I couldn’t help but simply stand in the town square, among other places, and observe the magic of a floating city and its inhabitants. Columbia is lively and upbeat when DeWitt first gets to the city. This is much unlike what happened in Rapture where players were entering a city in turmoil. Irrational Games has created one of the most alive, breathing and believable environments ever. Of course much of BioShock Infinite is somewhat stylized, as was the original, but it serves its purpose well and allows for players to get a true sense of the city, its founder and the people who reside there.
Since this is a BioShock game players already have a certain expectation with regards to Infinite’s narrative and of course this game is build around an intricate story. Without spoiling anything that actually happens in Columbia, I can say that the dilemma that occurred with the original BioShock’s final boss fight is avoided quite well – there’s much more to Irrational Games’ second BioShock game than a simple twist.
BioShock Infinite’s world feels very vibrant which isn’t just due to the environment’s that are filled with period art but also the city’s people who portray Columbia in a certain light right from the get-go. Apart from the immediate surroundings there are the deep, intense and developed characters which we would expect from a BioShock game. Of course we have city founder ‘Father Comstock’ and his supporting cast which all play an important role in the game but the most significant character apart from Booker is Elizabeth – the city’s priced possession – and something nobody wants to give up. Learning more about characters and events by seeing signs, overhearing conversations or listening to the many Voxophone voice recordings is ‘required reading’ in BioShock Infinite as important story beats can be missed because Irrational didn’t force it onto the player.
Again, without spoiling anything, Elizabeth is with Booker most of the way through this incredible journey that starts with DeWitt trying to get Elizabeth off the city and to New York. Naturally it isn’t all that easy. Elizabeth is the pivotal character of Infinite and had to achieve a certain impact on the player, which she does and this is why the new BioShock is a success. Elizabeth has a strong character arc and behaves more like a true human being rather than an NPC that waits for the player at certain points. Irrational built her into the gameplay not only by helping Booker during combat but she also picks locks, talks with you and often times expresses things us as players may feel or thing or points out items in the environment. You will care about Elizabeth.
Booker and Elizabeth encounter lots of opposition throughout the game and this is where she becomes more than the focal point of an escort mission. Elizabeth is an incredibly capable companion and while she does not actually shoot guns or engage into combat, she does find you ammo, salts, health and more. She will also never die – this is a much appreciated aspect as the game over screen won’t have your screaming her name. Salts are the equivalent of Eve which powered the Plasmids in BioShock 1 and are used to charge your Vigor bar. Yes, we are now talking about combat.
Much like BioShock the combat is based on the Vigor powers in the left hand, weapons in the right and of course melee which is done via Skyhook this time – while the hook isn’t as fun as the iconic wrench – it does have a satisfying feel to it. There are various ways players can ‘spec’ their character, powers as well as guns can be upgraded. Additionally players are able to increase their health, Vigor and shield capacity – yes BioShock Infinite adds a shield much like Halo does from a gameplay perspective but it is explained in the fiction and makes sense in the universe.
The combat in BioShock Infinite is well executed and it remains quite fun to combine the various Vigors such as the Shock Jockey which is electricity based, or Possession with things like Undertow. The latter Vigor is an ability that can be used to shoot water streams and knock enemies back or can be used to rope enemies in like a lasso would. Using Vigors along with the weapon combat is key and will make Booker’s life much easier. Elizabeth will sense what players are low on and provide specific ammo or Salts along the way. This does not feel forced and is a much refreshing take on a companion AI.
In addition to the signature combat that we have come to know and love with BioShock, Irrational Games added the skylines in various areas of the game. Initially skylines were teased but we didn’t quite know how they would end up being used. In the end Ken Levine and his team at Irrational Games decided it was best to allow players to latch onto the skylines using the skyhook and zip around a combat area or move to a new section of a level. Skylines feel smooth and add a nice new element to the combat scenarios as jumping onto enemies to knock them off platforms or kill them altogether is implemented in a fun way. The Handyman, who was shown in the trailers before the game, is able to latch on and shock the skyline to lower shield or health bars and keeps Booker on his toes but also avoids exploitation of the skylines as lesser enemies can be taken care of easily using the new form of traversal.
In BioShock Infinite players are now able to select certain gear they find around Columbia that will allow for additional skills that can be compared to the perk system in Call of Duty. Wearing a special hat, pants or shirt will add abilities like brief invulnerability after eating food to heal or shock enemies when dropping from a skyhook. While this is a nice addition, it wasn’t something I paid attention to all too much but occasionally noticed the benefit of the gear.
Combat in BioShock to me is somewhat of ‘A means to an end’ in this narrative driven game and that is why I forgave some less enjoyable sections like fighting the same boss three times or a not well checkpointed battle towards the end of the game. Again, I don’t want to spoil anything here but these two sections were something that appeared a bit jarring to me because the rest of the game is so well done.
Playing through BioShock Infinite was an absolute pleasure as it combined an incredible world to experience and explore with characters like Elizabeth and Comstock, which filled the game with meaning and had me engaged into the plot from the moment I began playing the game. Infinite is a game that will have players soak in every moment, every Voxophone recording and make sure no stone is unturned before the credits roll – all of which is strung together with a fun combat system. After finishing the game, I went from thinking about the ending to exploring internet forum threads and various other information, to get more out of the story – much like one would after seeing Looper or Inception. I would be a madman if I didn’t put BioShock Infinite near the top of the list titled: “Games to beat this Year.”
Score: 9.5 / 10
BioShock Infinite was developed by Irrational Games and published by 2K Games for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC on March 26th. A retail copy of the Xbox 360 version was provided to us by 2K Games for reviewing purposes.