When the original Bioshock first broke ground on the consoles, it impressed everyone with clever gameplay mechanics, a spell binding and engrossing narrative and inspired visuals. It quickly became not only a cult classic, but one of the definitive games on this generation of consoles. A new IP that gained a significant audience with the sheer quality it presented to the gamer. While Bioshock 2 wavered slightly, it was s till a worthy sequel (although never reaching the heights of the original). Some attributed that to return to Rapture, a city which was squeezed for every bit of exposition the first go-round. Now, the series takes the Far Cry route, that is, changing the setting, the main characters, the philosophical lessons and pretty much everything else but keeping the name. Does visiting Columbia hold the same sense of wonder that the first Bioshock did or is Infinite just another step in the downward spiral of the series?
It’s hard to go into Bioshock Infinite devoid of any expectations. The series fans are expecting a new, groundbreaking effort to redefine game narrative yet again, the same way its predecessor did. I’ve never been a HUGE fan of Bioshock, but I did enjoy the game and I am a big fan of video game narrative tackling serious subject matter and treating gamers like mature members of society. In that sense I’ve always respected Bioshock, from a distance. So I tried my hardest to write this review from an impartial perspective.
You pay as Booker DeWitt, a beat-up, down on his luck protagonist so deep in dept that he is offered one last chance at absolution. As such, Booker must travel to Columbia and retrieve a girl named Elizabeth. Everything else is kind of hush hush, and it’s up to you to uncover it is you go. Much like Rapture, Columbia is a living, breathing city with a rich history that can overwhelm you as you immerse yourself in it. It is a floating city that used to be a part of the United States but then split due to ideological differences, led by a religious zealot Zachary Hale Comstock.
It’s one of those video game settings that you have to experience and take in for yourself. On the surface, Columbia seems a great place when you first arrive, but as you peel back the veneer the dark underside reveals itself more and more. This is a city not without it’s problems, smack in a middle of a struggle for power between the leadership and the group known as Vox Populi. The setting presents serious topics that some may argue reveal the reality of the world we live in, the past, the present and even warns us about the future in ways. It deals with issues of nationalism, religious devotion and the race struggle. It doesn’t hold back and is brave in the face of serious and controversial subjects.
The narrative itself is great too. In true Bioshock fashion you will run into twists and changes in the plot. Similarly, the ending is so ambiguously captivating and head-scratching that you will want to replay the game again just to view it all in perspective. It is all sold by tremendous voice work by the lead actors. The sounds of Columbia are immersive. Overheard conversations, distant tunes and radio announcements. The score itself is fitting of a large-scale project. It works on so many levels, enhancing the experience as you explore the dystopia in the sky.
Visually, Bioshock Infinite is no slouch. It might not have the technical flex of a title like Crysis, but the name of the game here is design. The city feels and looks like a living, breathing place. The team created and imaginative setting that is reflective of its ideological background. There are diverse environments, and interplay between the outside and inside makes for clever transitions. It is a truly unique setting that sticks with you long after you’re done playing. The greatest accomplishment is that Columbia feels like a real place that could have existed at once.
The gameplay is also extremely well thought out and dynamic. As far as progression goes, Infinite is a fairly linear game, sending you down the same path. There are moments of rest and exploration where you get to learn about Columbia if you wish or converse with Elizabeth, but these can be as brief or as involving as you chose. The combat is fun, and you will constantly find new ways to combine both gunplay and the use of Vigors. Vigors this time around replace plasmids from Rapture, but the concept is the same. They grant you a super natural ability. You can only have 2 equipped at any given time, so every battle will involve some sort of strategy. Do you want to set a puddle of gasoline on fire or send murderous crows from your hand and electrify them as they fly (that’s right, flying electric crows as weapons, I wish I was making this up).
The system itself is fairly simple, but it allows for a lot of fun experimentation to happen as you discover all of the different combinations. You will also get to upgrade your weapons, vigors, gear (an RPG element that improves certain key stats or critical hits) and even health, salts (mana) and armour capacity. Infinite manages to introduce each element without overwhelming the player with the mechanics. Another x-factor up your sleeve is Elizabeth herself, who is able to open “tears” to different dimensions. In key battles you can call on her to supply you with ammo, cover or even summon an ally turret if need be. Taking advantage of each of the gameplay elements in tandem to come out on top is incredibly satisfying and rewarding.
Infinite is not particularly hard, but it is challenging, with certain sections ramping up to incredible difficulty. Still, there are no consequences for dying and Elizabeth will more often than not will scavenge for medkits, salt potions and other goodies such as coins for you when you’re out of battle, ensuring you never run dry of supplies.
While the game is in fact linear, there is a certain openness for combat in each section. Columbia is a floating city, connected by sky rails. Early on you will gain an ability to sky hook from one place to another on these fast travel contraptions. You can use this in combat to gain higher ground, or to get to cover faster. This kind of verticality in combat opens up the battlefield and makes every encounter as unpredictable as they are unforgettable.
By the time you reach the end of Bioshock Infinite you will feel strangely accomplished and impressed with all of the care that went into the game. It was one of the most complete gaming experiences I’ve had in a long while. My vacation to Columbia left me in a sense of awe. From gameplay, to the mature story, to the living, breathing city in the sky. There was no detail to small or trivial for Irrational Games. In the end it is a title that is worth playing as it is truly like nothing else we’ve seen.