Review: Bioshock Infinite
After fours years in development and tens of millions of pounds in resources, the team at Irrational have finally shipped the highly-anticipated sequel to one of the most beloved video games of this generation.
You play as Booker Dewitt, a man tasked with rescuing a girl from the floating city of Columbia in order to pay off his gambling debts. It’s no coincidence that one of the first actions you make reveals a reflection of Booker’s face; this isn’t the typical faceless vessel that the majority of games present you (FPS games in particular), Booker Dewitt is a genuine and fully realised character whose perspective we happen to share.
While it bears the BioShock name, Infinite is far from a rehash of the original. Sure, the opening is a definite head-nod towards its predecessor, as Booker Dewitt approaches a lighthouse amid dark and stormy waters, but the game literally launches you skyward and immediately eschews any thematic association with Rapture, and this proves to be a running theme throughout. BioShock Infinite is both keenly aware of its roots, and willing to disregard them entirely without hesitation.
Your first glimpse of the floating city of Columbia is spectacular; it’s a pristine and beautiful world of retro science-fiction – a floating city of cloud and Zeppelins that revels in its unique oil-painting aesthetic. Columbia only continues to impress the deeper you delve into its lore and fiction, and while Rapture provided a leaky, broken down environment and an isolated experience, Columbia is clearly in the midst of its own Renaissance; the streets are lined with people and music, there are bright colours and a fairground for you to explore should you feel so inclined. By the time you arrive in Rapture, the drama has already occurred and you’re left to piece it together; in contrast, Columbia is in the middle of a revolution by the time you stumble through the entrance.
It quickly becomes apparent that this paradise of barbershop quartets, hot dogs and beaches hides a more sinister underbelly; seemingly innocent posters hide ulterior motives and propaganda, calls for ‘racial purity’ and pop-culture references that are not of the 1912 era all serve to unsettle the player and position Columbia as an off-kilter society with some serious corruption problems. Zachary Comstock – one of the founders of Columbia – is the egotistical dictator hell-bent on antagonising and de-railing Booker Dewitt from the moment he sets foot in Columbia. Comstock is a worthy successor to Andrew Ryan, with his deplorable views of race making him instantly hateable.
The wonderful thing about Infinite is that it has such a compelling narrative, but it doesn’t force it upon you. You can play this game like Call of Duty and race through to the finish line and the game won’t stop you, but go out of your way to collect the various Voxophones and code-books that are scattered around the city and you’ll be rewarded with further insight into this remarkable world. If there’s one criticism to be had about this new focus on narrative, it’s that you have to go out of your way to find the interesting characters and discover how they fit into this society; the game no longer forces the likes of Frank Fontaine or Dr. Steinman down your throat, you now have to go out of your way to discover their stories.
It’s not until the introduction of Elizabeth that the game really begins to take shape; Elizabth revolutionises both the narrative and the focus of the gameplay, providing an interesting companion for Booker and an emotional outlet for the player, as her awe and enthusiasm at her surroundings mirrors your own experiences. Elizabeth drastically alters the battlefield following her arrival, with her ability to pull objects from alternate realities affording you a more strategic approach to combat by introducing cover, automated gun-turrets, health packs or ammunition on the fly via these trans-dimensional ‘tears’. Combine these elements with the Skylines, and BioShock Infinite’s combat is immediately elevated beyond the realms of a typical first-person-shooter, despite its all too familiar weapons and vigors that (for the most part) are pulled straight from the original BioShock.
After your first encounter, Elizabeth remains an ever-present NPC for the majority of the game. This could prove distracting, but NPCs have come a long way since Goldeneye’s Natalya; instead of becoming an annoyance, Elizabeth becomes a genuine ally and regularly supplies you with health packs, weapon and ammunition. It truly is a technical marvel how well she has been implemented into both the gameplay and narrative; the few occasions where you’re actually separated from Elizabeth feel unnervingly quiet and empty, and are the moments that most closely resemble the original BioShock’s sense of isolation and atmosphere. Returning to BioShock after investing so much time in Infinite would certainly be a jarring experience.
The Skylines prove to be one of the highlights of the game; these exciting one-man-roller-coasters allow Booker to quickly navigate the various islands of this vast floating city. The mechanic is truly an accomplishment and has been brilliantly implemented into some of BioShock Infinite’s action set-pieces; jumping from a skyline and obliterating a nearby foe in one seamless motion is one of the most satisfying and visceral moments you can experience in a video game. However, leaping to and from these skylines in the middle of combat is not as seamless as it should be, and frantically thumbing the right-stick in search of the elusive ‘A’ button notification can leave you open for some serious punishment. As a result, the skylines are sometimes forgotten about once Booker is grounded – especially on the easier difficulty settings – leaving the fight to unfold in a more traditional manner with shotguns and vigors.
BioShock Infinite introduces two new enemies in the form of the Motorised Patriot and the Handyman. Motorised Patriots are robotic versions of George Washington (seriously) or Father Comstock that can provide a significant threat when encountered alongside a handful of typical grunts; the Handyman is a human head attached to a disproportioned mechanical body. While both of these new adversaries are compelling and fit nicely into the fiction that Columbia weaves, neither of them comes close to the iconic stature of BioShock’s Big Daddies. Your first encounter with a Big Daddy was a memorable and intimidating experience; they were physically imposing and were often heard well in advance of the actual encounter, adding to the atmosphere and the tension, especially if you were ill-equipped for the fight. The Big Daddies would be out of place in this new setting, but it does feel like a missed opportunity that Irrational were unable to introduce a character that could provide a similarly iconic experience within the realms of Columbia.
Ultimately, BioShock Infinite feels like a shotgun blast to the face of ideas. So much is thrown at you that some things just fly by your peripheral vision, with very few of the themes ideas explored to their ultimate conclusion. The religious themes and issues of racism that are introduced early in the game are quickly neglected in favour of a science-fiction tale, which still provides one of the most incredible narratives in recent memory, but leaves you thinking that some of the most compelling parts of Columbia might have been left on the cutting room floor.
Let’s be honest, you’ve probably already played BioShock Infinite to completion or have at least added it to your collection. If you’re a video game fan, or a fan of visual media in general, then BioShock Infinite is something that you absolutely have to experience. Judged on its mechanics alone, BioShock Infinite would be little more than an average FPS game, but it’s the narrative, fiction and interaction with Elizabeth that elevate this title to legendary status.
I wrote this for Pure Xbox. I’m crossposting it here for my archive.