I very quickly realised my mistake when I decided to tackle BioShock Infinite as my first proper review. Attempting to capture in words the stunning world the game creates and the level of detail apparent in every part of its construction, while not revealing too much that it spoils the experience or the narrative is incredibly difficult.
NOTE – I will not be spoiling any of the story in the review, and anything I do talk about will have been revealed in other coverage or trailers. However, I am of the firm belief that the less known about Infinite going into it, the better the experience. You have been warned.
Infinite sees Booker DeWitt launched head first into the city of Columbia, a snapshot of 1912 America taken city form, floating in the clouds above the rest of the world. Neither Booker nor the player starts with any idea about the nature of the city, its inhabitants or its ideological leader, Zachary Comstock. Columbia epitomizes Comstock’s world view, where the founding fathers of America are worshipped as godlike figures with him as their prophet. It has also taken on the less desirable parts of the era, where African-Americans and the Irish are very much treated as second class citizens in a way not shown often in games, if at all. While not used in great amounts in the core narrative, it adds to the sense of unease felt while walking through the utopia of Columbia. Very quickly you realise that this utopian veneer is very thin, and a full-blown civil war lead by a group known as the Vox Populi bubbling just under the surface. Booker is charged with the sole task of finding and returning a young woman named Elizabeth who has apparently been imprisoned there.
Your relationship with Elizabeth is one of the core things that makes Infinite such a unique game. The amount of friendly companions that turn other games into 10-12 hour long escort missions bred a healthy level of worry that this would fall into the same trap. Luckily this is not the case. The game makes this very clear from the outset, saying explicitly in an on screen message that Elizabeth can look after herself and that you don’t need to worry about her. The fact that Infinite accomplishes this by making her essentially invisible to the AI feels slightly lazy, but in a normal play through you only see behind the illusion a few times. Most of the time this is when Elizabeth offers to help by finding ammo and health in the environment and throwing it to you from across the area. On top of being immensely useful in the middle of combat, it provides a constant reminder that she is close by, and makes it impossible to forget about her.
The dialogue between Booker and Elizabeth is immensely well written, with humour and emotion in all the right points, and so many pieces of incidental conversation and interactions that are entirely possible to miss. It turns her from a mindless scripted robot into a real character that encourages you, in fact damn near demands, to invest emotionally in. This is true to such a degree that the few sections where Elizabeth is not present are incredibly lonely and bleak, pushing you forward through Columbia until she is at your side again.
Columbia is one of the most detailed and believable worlds I have ever digitally set foot in. Considering that the game is set in 1912 and Columbia consists of a collection of islands floating in the clouds should say a lot about the accomplishment here. Every corner is packed with incidental detail filling out the history of the world and the current political and cultural situation. For someone who enjoys checking every nook and cranny of a location, I was constantly worried about missing some vital detail, all the while the game does not force you to look at any of it. Graphically Infinite delivers in a big way. Despite using Unreal Engine 3, the flawless art direction and attention to detail pushes the visual experience far beyond the current batch of titles using the more technically advanced CryEngine or Frostbite engines. With an introduction that actively encourages the player to explore and take in the incredible sights, it manages to create a world that feels deeper and more real than those of its peers. It feels like somewhere in Irrational’s studio there is a blueprint for every building and feature of Columbia, and that everything you see has existed for a long time. Infinite makes the very smart decision to show you Columbia at its peak before it starts to fall apart, making that fall even more grandiose. There were many times that I wished I could have seen Rapture while it was still the utopia that it was illustrated to be, and I am glad Infinite did not have the same issue.
Anyone familiar with the combat from the first two BioShock games will be immediately comfortable with Infinite, with firearms mapped to the left mouse/trigger and ‘vigours’ mapped to the right. Vigours are Infinite’s analogue to the plasmids of the original, granting you powers that sap your replenishable ‘salts’. These powers range from your industry standard Fireball(tm) to launching a flock of crows at your foes, distracting them long enough to throw an electrical shock or disable them by lifting them off the ground. The extra layer on the combat comes from the two new environmental features of Infinite, Skylines and Tears.
Skylines provide Columbia with a cargo transport system, but also allow the police force and your good self the ability to attach to these overhead rails and move quickly around the environments. Great effort has been made to make attaching and landing from Skylines as fluid as possible, with a simple aim and button press triggering Booker to make huge leaps to attach to the rail, and a helpful landing point indicator to aid dismounting. Apart from a few instances of plummeting to earth when misjudging the distance to the rail or not aiming in just the right way to trigger the attachment, the Skyline interface is very well implemented and provides a level of mobility and verticality not seen in many first person shooters.
Elizabeth’s mysterious ability to bring objects into the world through tears adds another option to combat, such as materializing an automated turret, a pile of weapons or a crate of health as they are needed. While there is no limit to the amount of times she can do this, a small cooldown and only one item being allowed in the world at once requires a balancing act. Do you phase out the cover you are cowering behind to bring in that box of salts you desperately need, even though it’s on the other side of the courtyard?
While it sounds like all these options would make planning a combat scenario out a possibility, this turned out not to be the case. Following the rhetoric that I was hearing at the time, being a reasonably proficient first person shooter player I started the game on Hard rather than the recommended Medium difficulty level. At this setting any semblance of a plan for a combat encounter crumbles almost immediately, with tactical skyline retreats and panicked tear activations as you sprint past become the norm. Every fight becomes more about survival than feeding a power fantasy. This is especially true with encounters involving the higher tier enemies, like the bio mechanical gorilla of the Handyman or the relentless chaingun first march of the Motorised Patriot. By the later stages of most shooters, players have learned how to deal with such encounters, or have developed tactics for doing so. On the higher difficulties the Handyman especially falls on the wrong side of ‘bullet sponge’, continually giving the impression that I was doing it wrong. I have been assured that on Medium and below none of the above is relevant, and the combat becomes much more manageable but not as entertaining if you have a reasonable amount of experience with shooters.
Coming from the immensely well-regarded story of the original BioShock, Infinite has a lot to live up to. Not only did BioShock create an amazing world, it has what is considered one of the best plot twists in the history of video games. This has the unfortunate side effect on Infinite where the continual threat of the narrative rug being pulled out from under you means you over analyse every story beat as it comes up. Infinite also lacks the very clean wrap up of the original, where the big reveal tied up most of the loose ends remaining in the story of Rapture up to that point. Instead the conclusion almost demands conversation and deliberation, and discussion of it has almost become part of the games experience. This is enhanced by the fact that key plot points are hidden in Voxophones, audio diaries left by the inhabitants of Columbia, that can easily be missed in a play through.
While I have yet to come to a decision concerning the conclusion of the game, and if the amount of conversation debating what actually went on was intentional or down to slightly lazy storytelling, BioShock Infinite is well worth your time. Well rounded and well written characters that you will emotionally invest in, one of the most well realised settings you will find this generation, and dynamic combat means that Infinite is already well placed for many future Game of the Year discussions.