Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360, PC
Release Date: March 26, 2013
Stuck in a near development limbo and hailing from the prestigious Bioshock franchise, there was both fear and cautious optimism surrounding Bioshock Infinite. It always looked stunning, but the long period of silence and lack of actual gameplay footage was quite disturbing. After multiple delays, we finally get the finished version of Bioshock Infinite to judge and see if the long development cycle actually paid off. Somehow, it totally did, combining an extremely engrossing world, tactical shooting combat, and an unforgettable story all within a game with an increasingly grim outlook.
“Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt” is the vague statement given to Booker DeWitt, a man with a mysterious past who owes money to all the wrong people. This nondescript request sends Booker to not a city under the blue sea, but one floating in the blue sky called Columbia. Run by an idealistic man named Comstock, Booker must find “the girl” named Elizabeth under his all-seeing eye and get her to the appropriate party to “wipe away the debt.”
The above paragraph is the extremely simple way to paraphrase a fraction of the narrative contents and, frankly, doesn’t do the game a lick of justice. Few games place such a focus on the narrative components and world-building, a facet of Infinite that most games could – nay, should – learn from.
Columbia is an accurate parallel to Rapture, but with key differences. For one, not everyone has been eviscerated and most of the citizens have most of their sanity in tact. Columbia remains to be a functional utopia, one rooted in its controversial beliefs and realized incredibly well. Strolling through the carnival, overhearing conversations, and pilfering busy stores lends a sense of place that not many other games possess even if the animation for these NPCs is rather crude. It is playing a video game but it satisfies the hunger to absorb the world and take in the scenery than the need to shoot dudes in the squishy parts. You get to see how these people live and what conditions they endure which allows the player to better understand this world with life and personality.
This cloud city’s life and personality is one rarely touched by video games. Games usually tread safely within the yellow tape of subjects that are easily tackled, but not the daredevil team over at Irrational Games. Infinite takes on thoughts of racism, segregation, and class differences in a way that no other game dares to mingle with. Some of the instances shown are plain shocking but they (thankfully) aren’t played up for that initial shock value. These delicate subjects are handled with maturity and extreme care, further propagating the twisted ideals of Comstock and his population. It’s a little sad that these themes are more or less dumped during latter half of the game, but the courageous inclusion of these themes are well worth the praise.
Columbia is one of the more engaging characters in Infinite, but it is among a cast of well-written and executed personas. Booker and Elizabeth take up the most screen time and you’ll be thankful for that since they are realized so well. Booker is an incredibly strong frontman with all the necessary characteristics and arcs to round him out as a convincing person but Elizabeth steals the show. She embodies a strong female lead with her noble and sometimes carelessly passionate will. I felt for her not only because I had to, but because I wanted to. Both deliver their lines with such incredible emotion, from happiness to anger and then sadness, and become an incredible duo that only gets better the more they interact with each other. She makes him more interesting and vice versa.
The story helps highlight the incredible performances. While I won’t delve into specifics, Infinite‘s plot is complex but told in such a way that always knows when to reveal something new and exciting. This strong pacing picks up even more in the last act and leads to an ending that is one of those finales that you need to discuss with your peers about.
Playing it twice is almost necessary given how intricate some of the science behind it is. Once the credits rolled (and even well before that) my brain had been twisted into a pink pretzel as I tried to decipher what was going on. Confusion of this ilk is the good kind since it led me to research small instances in hopes of finding some bigger plot thread. It’s slightly ambiguous and convoluted but positively so, even if it does resort to scientific jargon and contrived time tears to solve a few problems. Replaying it helps tremendously since foreshadowing seeds are more easily picked apart, making the subsequent scenes make more sense. Pulling off this incredible feat is something usually only reserved for games with “Metal Gear Solid” in the title but Bioshock Infinite has shown that it too can tell an elaborate tale rife with emotion and depth.
The various combat mechanics match this satisfying amount of depth. Battlefields become playgrounds of death since the player gets to usually choose a method approach that fits their playstyle. Guns and vigors (think plasmids from Bioshock) are the most apparent toys and allow for a whole wealth of combos. Challenging enemy encounters bring out the best in the combat because it forces the player to play strategically by mixing guns, vigors, and environmental actions.
It may seem unfair at first, as you drain your account in order to resurrect yourself, but it intelligently forces you to play with a more thoughtful mindset. Rushing in with a shotgun can get a few guys, but why not throw down a Bucking Bronco vigor and some crows to sweep up the many forces? The sheer choice given to the player really allows the player to craft strategies that feel original especially when factoring in the multi-faceted, traversal-focused sky lines. The difficulty can sometimes spike rather suddenly and lacking the ability to carry more than two weapons feels like a missed opportunity, but those aren’t dealbreakers in grand scheme of gameplay.
Elizabeth could have dragged down battles even more but she is a vital asset. In addition to activating tears (which allow for turrets, sky hooks, etc.), she can be a total life saver by throwing Booker ammo, salts (which refill vigors), and health while you focus on the immediate threats of Comstock’s forces. Her support role is an undeniable asset since she can literally save your ass with her impeccably timed health kit tosses. While carrying around health kits a la Bioshock would have been nice, not having to focus on scrounging in the middle of a firefight is a solid step forward in streamlining combat.
Ignoring some slightly unfinished textures, the Columbian skyline is always as gorgeous as any idealistic city should be. Matching the pristine utopian mindset (until you coat everything in blood), Columbia shines with its bright, non-realistic art style that does the game immense favors by showcasing that such fantastic art can overpower a game with lesser technical prowess. Captivating vistas filled with color and personality allow the world to come life even more, a necessary facet in making a living, breathing world.
Bioshock 2 showed us that resting on laurels can result in a passable experience, but Bioshock Infinite demonstrates what is possible when imaginative developers reinvent and overhaul nearly every aspect of a franchise. Infinite has some constants and variables in common with the original Bioshock but the dark places it takes the splendidly constructed narrative is something worth commending for both its execution and boldness. The free-form combat riddled with choices and different methods also ensures that the interactive part of Infinite holds up a similarly high standard. Fantastic, was fantastic, will be fantastic; it is all the same.
+Gunplay, vigors, tears, and other factors make combat a healthy mix of choice, challenge, and satisfaction
+Complex, wonderfully told story with protagonists and antagonists worth caring about
+Elegant art style within a deep, well-realized world
-Combat difficulty spikes rather rapidly sometimes and the two weapon system is a little limiting
-Minor graphical mishaps and sometimes primitive animation