Reviewed by: Jamaal Ryan
I'm ashamed to admit, but I was actually worried about Bioshock Infinite. Announced way back in 2008, and previously expected to release last year, disasters like Aliens: Colonial Marines taught us that time is often not kind to game development. Fundamental changes and tight lipped PR did nothing to serve positive anticipation. But here we are, with one of the most prospected releases in years.
Following the sky shooting standards of its proper predecessor, Infinite aims higher; much, much higher. Its ambition almost cannot be contained in a shooter, a very fine and creatively designed shooter at that. But what Bioshock excels at is mind warping storytelling, done in such a way that’s so exceptional from what we typically see while pushing joysticks and pressing buttons.
With a nod-winking reference to 2007’s Bioshock, Booker Dewitt sits in a boat rowed by a bantering pair, one of which who hands him an oak finished lock box with a pistol, a sheet with symbol instructions, a key, and a picture of Elizabeth; the presumed girl whom he must find that would “wipe away the dept”. As the pair abandons Dewitt standing on the dock stranded as the night rain pours, you make your way to the beaconed lighthouse, and begin your ascent to Columbia.
Your first impression will be this: Columbia glows. It's aggressively vibrant with popping colors, sun soaking god-rays and passing clouds saturating dancing buildings and floating zeppelins. The densely populated visual presentation makes for one of the most captivating settings this generation. This departure from Rapture almost seems as if it was a statement from Irrational looking to prove that this game, with a rooted yet completely different art direction, can still preserve an unequivocal Bioshock theme.
Irrational has made a gradual deviation away from its horror "shock" value to Infinite's complete omission. Unlike the original Bioshock, and certainly in no resemblance of System Shock, Columbia won't frighten you, surprises aside. The city is very much alive with its golden hue and chatty denizens. You won't miss the cautious creeping with the eerie sounds of schizophrenic preoccupation, the dripping of unattended leaks only covered by scratchy distant record players. Columbia is bustling with enough life to fill in the venture.The city is brimming with valuable distractions to look at. Even very early in the game, you'll pick up the habit of combing every nook and cranny of Columbia. This element is gently facilitated by the objective director. For both narrative and collective reasons, you’ll develop a better sense of confidence knowing that you can retract to the main quest with a tap of the button. Even before your ascent to the city in the sky, piecemeal clues will give you story snippets of what's in store, and fictional period advertisements and propaganda inflicts constant reminders just how flawed this anti-topia is.
This attention to detail is masterfully deliberate, and only serves as a proper expansion to the story. Bioshock Infinite is designed to host player agency while the fundamentals of the narrative are delivered directly. Clues lie everywhere, giving you a better understanding of what happens, happened, will happen. This is interactive media writing at its best, leaving you in one of two places: “I get it” and “I REALLY get it”. And when that anticipated ending does come, with a fuller conceptualization of your narrative gatherings, you’ll recline back your seat whispering, “Holy shit”.
Infinite's social commentary and imaginative concept of the early 20th century is dense with heavy handed racism and religious obsession. This isn't a fantasized creed discrimination that writers of yore have carefully depicted. This is in your face bigotry and raw illustrations of what'll happen if an elitist group's impressions of a belief system are taken too far. You'll hear a lost lexicon filled with labels such as "Negro" and other derogatory terms hardly ever expressed in videogames. The frightening wielding of religion inflicts proper social destruction, all presented through an ugly mirror held up a century old civilization. My gripe with this however, is that this social conflict takes a step back from its powerful presence towards the game’s later half. Nevertheless I welcome these naked depictions and societal vices, as this 30 year old medium is in need of more controversial themes tip-toed around before. While Rapture was a dead city that spawned ghoulish remnants, Columbia hosts floating grounds for civil conflict.
The oppressor, or the oppressed?
Early on you’ll encounter Elizabeth, who isn't the stoic, staring partner like those seen in Bethesda's companions. Her emotive expression is fully somatic, as the look of glee, disgust and sorrow is fully realized in her entire posture. She’s programmed and written to be as active as possible, responding to your contextual environment and even lending reactive commentary on your actions. This level of attention to detail makes me wish Irrational took it a step further with her responses to issued commands other than the obligatory "Sure thing!".
Your interactions with Elizabeth are mechanically self-serving and conversational, but I wish I can say that she stays completely out of your way. Doorways can potentially become impenetrable walls with Elizabeth's (very infrequent, but nonetheless annoying) failure to allow you to pass. Minor inconveniences aside, Elizabeth is very much your other half, and you’ll miss her dearly whenever she’s absent from your company.
Excuse me. EXCUSE ME. Wait, I’m sorry. Don’t go!
After a hazing, rose-tinted introduction to the sky city, Bioshock thrusts a THIS IS COLUMBIA kick to your back, sending you spiraling down its ugly underside. Comstock's men are super aggressive, lending a swift reminder of the manic behavior of the Splicers left in Rapture. Pursuers will advance from every direction, and follow closely if you flee. Infinite's first moments will sharpen your resolve quick if you're apt to shooters. But I worry of those who aren't.
Both the environmental concept and narrative center transforms the gameplay more than enough for this new installment. Unlike the dank halls of Rapture, the sky city presents wide grounds for fire fights. On many occasions, you'll engage enemies in long distances, but the enforcement (and I emphasize again) will close in, bypassing doorways and utilizing sky rails to hunt you down.
Skylines were the most suspect aspect of Infinite's gameplay, but it turns out to be surprisingly intuitive. The input zones of the sky-hook -- allowing you to grip onto freight hooks, sky rails, and dismounting with a viscous knockout of foes -- is very generous, granting a response so long as you point in its general direction. The rides themselves are exhilarating once you've shaken off the jarring jerking of the roller coaster like speed. Accelerating, slowing and changing directions become almost second nature with practice.
Best of all however, is that Skylines stretch the battlefield to massive scope. The winding tracks looping in and around buildings allow you to get from one vantage point to the next very quickly, either fleeing from a brutish Handyman, or delivering a mouthful of iron hook in an enemy’s face sending them careening to the depths below the clouds.
Plasmids are back as Vigors, though their contextual presence and introductions are especially odd. You'll either trip over them lying next to a corpse, or purchase them in a vendor. With everything introduced in Infinite, bringing back Vigors makes killing far more spontaneous. I faced groups by halting them with Murder of Crows, closed the gap violently with Charge, and ridded the rest of the party with the help of the levitating Bucking Branco. Return to Sender and Possession are useful against heavy artillery, and elemental Vigors maximize effectiveness when casted on tear summoned oil slicks and water puddles. There is, however, a strange absence of Telekinesis.
Dancing between mutated powers is a struggle however, only toggling actively between two Vigors felt limiting, and in order to utilize the full repertoire, you'll have to freeze the action with the menu constantly. This sort of decision making feels natural in other genres such as cover shooters, but being that Infinite is a full on first person shooter, it can get interruptive.
Gear takes the place of Tonics, however can feel largely superfluous to combat. Arranging them to strengthen a very focused and particular play style tilts an advantage with perks, but I couldn’t help forgetting about them more than half the time.
But the other half of Bioshock Infinite's combat -- as it is its narrative -- is Elizabeth herself. With no required babysitting, Elizabeth will frequently throw you ammo, health and salts mid shootouts; but her primary ability is opening inter-dimensional tears. These tears exist in a glitchy black and white presence in the real world. But calling upon Elizabeth can bring them into reality. You'll summon cover for protection from explosive ranged foes, unmanned turrets and Patriots for allied assistance, freight hook vantage points for high ground which occasionally comes with a conveniently placed sniper rifle, and in many cases, med kits and boxes of Salts for challenging encounters. A dynamic combat approach of this style is nothing new to shooters, look at Crysis. But Infinite employs an immediate sense of choice being that only one tear can exist at a time.
Together, these make up what is easily Bioshock's most energetic combat system. Certain sections pulls out all the stops, with sprawling multi-leveled battle grounds lined with sky rails and a number of projected tears allowing any number of combat tactics. Booker is also nimble enough to cover ground quickly in order to approach fights from different angles. The level of enjoyment here is unparalleled to anything the franchise has ever done.
Ok. Here we go.
Clearly, Infinite plays quite differently from how we experienced Rapture, but this transformation occurred with some sacrificing intentions and shed skin. The game teases at the gradual increasing of encountering a vast array of enemy types; particularly those that follow the pattern of matching the idiosyncrasies of your Vigors. But without you knowing, this trend is abandoned, offering the similar factory produced breeds that are no less fun, but many who are almost completely forgettable. This is a huge missed opportunity that could have situated the use of your Vigors with certain enemies and lent itself to more strategic combat.
As a franchise predicated on significant encounters, Infinite is surprisingly mute. Songbird’s presence is scarce, though his limited appearances are justified though the narrative. As for the rest, it’s not as if those you fight are necessarily boring; far from it. But one must wonder if this shift was made only to serve the story as opposed to how Big Daddies were baked into the world of Rapture itself. If this is the case, then it worked; because by the time I made it towards the end of the game, my attention was dedicated elsewhere.
I behoove you to revisit Columbia. Bioshock Infinite’s narrative craft will be better appreciated when returning with a different perspective. It’s like watching Momento backwards or piecing together dream-within-a-dream pieces of Inception. There’s an incredible amount of depth to Infinite’s story; and though the story itself is linear, you’ll most certainly uncover new secrets. If you seek for another incentive, the game’s 1999 mode will wring you through a brutal challenge.
You’re gonna talk about Bioshock Infinite for a long time. We all are. The song played at the credit screen of the game’s conclusion is synonymous with millions of heads exploding. Some of us may even forget it’s a game, a game with hyper-dynamic combat that is surprisingly distinct. That is, however, the success of A-class storytelling, an accomplishment rarely seen in the games we play. That is the significance of Bioshock Infinite.
+ Achingly glowing setting
+ System-marrying gameplay
+ A zenith in video game storytelling
- Missed opportunity for Vigors despite excellent implementation.