BioShock Infinite (PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed])
Developer/Publisher: Irrational Games/2K Games
Released: March 26th, 2013
Very few can claim to be the types of games that you can point to when someone wants to know what makes this medium special, showcasing what interactive entertainment can offer that others can’t. This console cycle alone has offered up examples such as Portal, Mass Effect, and most recently Telltale’s The Walking Dead, but what really kicked it off was the original BioShock back in 2007. Irrational Games offered us an utterly unique setting unlike anything ever seen before, it presented the player with a brilliant antagonist and heavy themes, and the brilliant plot twist in the middle is something that would only ever work in a video game.
BioShock 2 came and went, but as it developed by 2K Marin rather than Irrational, there was a very distinct disconnect. It was good, expanding and improving on the mechanics of the original, but it didn’t quite hit the mark thematically.
BioShock Infinite, then, has a lot to live up to. The franchise is back in the hands of its creators, and expectations have hit near-impossible levels. If the worlds that Irrational have crafted are any indication, however, we know better than to expect anything less than the impossible.
Like Rapture’s introduction in the original BioShock, entering Infinite’s floating city of Columbia for the first time makes for a jaw-dropping experience. Unlike the withered husk of the once-great Rapture, Columbia is in its prime — the architecture is stunning while its inhabitants open a fascinating window into life in 1912 America. It quickly becomes difficult to resist the compulsion to explore every square inch of the city, inspecting all of the signage and knick-knacks of a bygone era.
You’re in Columbia as Booker DeWitt, who has been sent to the city with a simple line of instruction: Bring us the girl, wipe away the debt. It’s unclear to the player what the debt is or to whom Booker owes it at first, but he presses on without cluing us in. The girl in question is Elizabeth, who is kept locked in a tower since birth by the city’s founder and self-proclaimed prophet Zachary Comstock, claiming her to be “the lamb” that will one day take his place.
I won’t say anything more than that regarding specific plot points, but the writing is razor sharp. Racism and xenophobia are tackled head on in a way that makes the player uneasy, but never crosses the line into being crass. Religion is treated much the same way, with the citizens of Columbia worshipping Comstock and America’s founding fathers as gods. As with its predecessors, much of BioShock Infinite’s story is told through audio logs scattered throughout the city. This is where the bulk of the game’s character development comes from, and once again it pays off in spades.
Booker and Elizabeth’s character arcs and interactions are also nothing short of terrific — Elizabeth’s expression of genuine wonder and curiosity about the things around her as she interacts with them for the first time always elicits a smile, and the interplay between her and the world-weary Booker make for an enthralling narrative.
It also becomes abundantly clear after a short time in Elizabeth’s company that she’s the real star of the show. She can open tears in time and space to place objects such as gun turrets and cover to aid you in combat, she’ll throw supplies at you when you need them most, and she’ll even spot hard-to-find objects as you explore the city; any concerns of a defenseless princess quickly deflated. There are short periods where the two of you are separated, and you’ll undoubtedly miss her the entire time.
A wonderful AI partner isn’t the only change to the way that BioShock Infinite plays compared to previous entries. Installed around Columbia are Sky-Lines, which are meant to get people and freight around the city but serve just as well to get you around in the middle of a fight. By simply jumping towards them, players can zoom up to higher ground for better vantage points, or just to get out of a hairy situation. Control on a Sky-Line can be a little finicky in terms of smoothly dismounting, but it never fails to exhilarate.
Standard enemies abound as always, but they’re frequently supported by mechanical Patriots, minigun-wielding robots that can absorb large amounts of damage. The single biggest threat of all comes in the form of the Handyman, a biomechanical abomination that can nullify Sky-Lines by electrifying them and can make quick work of you should you get reckless. While these enemies are menacing and provide some great imagery, they don’t instill terror and dread in you the way the original BioShock’s Big Daddy did. That’s merely a nitpick, though, as they require strategy to defeat, rewarding you with a sense of accomplishment for doing so.
The combat itself doesn’t deviate much from previous BioShock games. Vigors replace the iconic Plasmids, but they’re fundamentally the same — genetic powers that allow you to shoot outrageous things out of your left hand at the pull of the left trigger, such as fire bombs, water jets, lightning bolts, shields, mind control, and even a murder of crows. You can also hold the trigger to lay traps with many of your powers, although luring enemies into them can be tricky. You can assign two Vigors at a time to swap between and use on the fly, encouraging some fun and useful combinations to dispatch your foes.
The guns featured in the game don’t offer as much variety, unfortunately. While they’re somewhat upgradable, they more or less feel like standard fare. A couple here and there feel unique, such as the volley gun and heatgun, but besides that there isn’t much of note. You can also collect Gear, which grant you different upgrades and abilities. Some of the abilities granted by the Gear that you equip can be valuable, such as making your shield recharge much more quickly, but many of them can feel superfluous as well.