BioShock Infinite not only faces a need to achieve critical and commercial success, but it has to deal with being the true follow-up to 2007′s BioShock, one of the most lauded games of all-time. From the moment that Irrational Games announced Infinite, people set the highest of expectations. The third BioShock entry needed to not only tell a story and show a world equally if not more compelling than the first’s, but it needed to improve on the actual game component, whether that was by borrowing from other games like 2K Marin’s BioShock 2 or by introducing fresh concepts that would change up the combat. It feels almost unfair to ask for such a game, primarily when other single-player components of big budget, triple-A games in the past several years have not come close to reaching the quality of BioShock.
Luckily BioShock Infinite largely lives up to the expectations with its masterful execution of storytelling and its mostly breathtaking world. Like its predecessor, Infinite weaves several actors in a drama that shows the crude, disgusting extremes of political and social philosophies and ultimately culminates in a fantastic revelation. But it also suffers from being too similar to BioShock; it straddles the line between offering players a sense of familiarity and comfort and being too formulaic. Perhaps it is a bit of stretch, but Infinite may partially suffer from being a game or at least a first-person shooter.
Booker DeWitt is tasked with retrieving an Elizabeth from the floating cityscape of Columbia, a former triumph of American ingenuity and engineering. To reach Elizabeth and to return her to New York, DeWitt is forced to deal with the city’s two warring factions and their leaders: the Founders, led by Father Zachary Comstock who is also known as “The Prophet”, and the Vox Populi, led by African-American rebel Daisy Fitzroy. It is through the city and these two groups that Infinite presents its “themes” like nativism, religious fundamentalism, and racism.
The introduction of Infinite‘s first star, the city of Columbia, could not be more perfect. As DeWitt arrives in Columbia, you see that it is a massive, sprawling network of airships, large and small, populated with streets and Beaux-Arts style buildings straight out of any American city affected by the City Beautiful Movement of the late 1800s. An enormous statue of an angel graces the center of the city and faces the grand bridge sitting in between two islands as Columbian flags, looking very much like American flags, flap wildly. Hiding in the clouds and basking in the bright sunlight, Columbia succeeds in presenting itself as a majestic marvel, a tangible heaven of sorts. In this world, it is the epitome of American might, a glorious example of American exceptionalism.
But Columbia also serves as Comstock’s stronghold for his brand of religion and his political and social beliefs. Almost immediately, the city drowns DeWitt in its strong adoration for its leader and his ideas. The first area that you can explore in Columbia is basically a church that serves as an entrance into the city. As you step down into the center room, a giant statue of Comstock welcomes you with open arms. The major rooms contain gigantic stained glass images depicting Comstock as a sort of savior. “Pilgrims”, dressed completely in white, listen eagerly to a preacher who speaks of baptism and sacrifice. DeWitt is forced to accept baptism to even step foot into Columbia. Even when DeWitt is finally outside, you see that the religious overtones are not limited to the church. Buildings are plastered with posters of Comstock, residents talk with excitement and love for their Prophet, and statues of the Founding Fathers loom overhead in all their intimidating glory. Even one of the enemy types, appropriately named “Motorized Patriot”, has the face of George Washington. In setting a tone and in characterizing its city, Infinite does it well.
As Infinite progresses, the true colors of Columbia surface, and its initial appearance is proved to be an illusion. Columbia has its tidy parts with active shops filled with customers and a bustling fair filled with carnival games to play, but the city has its darker, grimier sites as well. Ones that destroy Columbia’s image of being a “New Eden” and a materialized paradise. Although Comstock would like to maintain complete control over the city and Columbia’s privileged elite like to remain ignorant of the city’s flaws, the Vox Populi threaten to destroy the capitalist establishment and the upper class. This militarized resistance, made up of Columbia’s oppressed lower class and minorities, adopt more socialist ideals and demand equality for all of its citizens. Racism and nativism are blatant in this society, complete with separate bathrooms and racist remarks by many of the white residents of Columbia. One prominent businessman maintains his industrial dominance through exploitation of the poor in what basically amounts to slavery. Infinite‘s world is rich with such problems and tries to bring them to your attention.
But that’s where Columbia falls short. Two main issues plague the game in its efforts to immerse the player. The first is the brevity of many of the themes’ presence and the failure to fully explore them. In favor of the actual plot and story beats, the game drops the themes after a certain point. Themes do not need to be constantly examined during the course of a narrative, but it would have been interesting to see the game further expound on a few of them in major ways. For example, in an early part of the game, DeWitt traverses through the headquarters of a society dedicated to racial purity. Although the walls of the building are adorned with banners proclaiming the white superiority, Infinite does not show the members of that society actually doing anything in relation to their goals. They are mere enemies to gun down. Aside from one central moment fairly early in the game, racism is more a subtle part of the world, not necessarily a topic the game has much to say about. To Infinite‘s credit, there are African-American NPCs who further emphasize the presence of racism in more meaningful and personal ways. But even there is a feeling of disconnect because there are rarely ever moments of interaction between two races. Most of the themes ultimately do not necessarily tie in with the plot and what develops.
The second issue is that despite all of BioShock Infinite‘s efforts to create a believable and lifelike world, it ends up delivering many moments that make the game feel like, well, a game. Columbia feels heavily restricted in its accessibility. Progression is fairly streamlined with the exception of a couple of areas of the game. For Columbia’s apparently massive size, very little of the city is made available for exploration, making the game a very directed experience. You go where the game wants you to go. Its direction includes the presence of and interaction with Columbia’s non-enemy NPCs. Conveniently enough, during combat sequences, the residents of Columbia who are not trying to kill DeWitt either disappear or simply are not around. When the game does not want you to fight, such as when shortly after DeWitt first meets Elizabeth, those NPCs are around, interacting with each other and perhaps saying a line or two to DeWitt. What really disappoints is the inability to interact with almost all of these NPCs. They may say a line to DeWitt or not say anything at all, and all DeWitt can do is stand there, with him rarely responding to anything. One NPC begs DeWitt for money, but you are unable to donate anything if desired and DeWitt says nothing in response. A full conversation system like Fallout‘s or Mass Effect‘s is not necessary, but some method to respond, either automatically initiated by DeWitt or manually driven by player choice, would be appreciated.
All that said, Infinite has a level of detail that everyone should appreciate. The architecture and the art of each area come together in creating memorable levels and in sustaining the atmosphere of Columbia. The audio tapes, known as voxophones, add a lot of depth to both the main story and Columbia’s history. Little nods to BioShock and other games are there. Although somewhat out of place in relation to when the game takes place, some covers of more modern songs (as in after the 1950s) can be heard throughout the game. And scattered throughout the game are little clues that allude to the main story but are not obvious during the first playthrough. Upon reflection or a second playthrough, many cryptic occurrences in Infinite begin to make sense, and it is hard not to think that Irrational was incredibly clever in the subtlety of planting those seemingly non-essential moments. It is the little things and the smallest of details in the environment that can really put a smile on your face.
BioShock Infinite‘s second star, and perhaps the more important of the two, is Elizabeth. She is perhaps Irrational’s greatest accomplishment in Infinite. Elizabeth manages to be a truly believable, likable character and avoids being a complete hindrance and annoyance during gameplay. From the moment DeWitt stumbles into her residence, Elizabeth demonstrates that she really is a person with actual motivations and goals, something that most characters in games fail to do. Her past believably gives context for her dreams, thoughts, and behavior. Little, non-story related interactions with her as she talks about herself or the environment fill in the pieces about her character. Most of all, there is a feeling that there is more to Elizabeth than meets the eye, and that mystery continues to grow throughout the game. Elizabeth, as a result, is extremely likable and during a portion of the game when she is absent, I actually missed her. It does not hurt that her facial expressions and her voice acting are top-notch.
After DeWitt manages to find her, Elizabeth accompanies him for the rest of the game. Although in most cases escorting other characters is something to dread because their AI is incompetent and useless, you will never have to worry about Elizabeth during gameplay. Unlike Ashley of Resident Evil 4 or the Little Sisters of past BioShock games, Elizabeth does not have to be protected. In fact, she helps you both in and out of combat. During exploration, Elizabeth notes the location of useful items such as lockpicks and ammo. She also finds money and gives it to you. While you are fighting enemies, Elizabeth occasionally tosses items and ammunition to DeWitt, based on your current needs. If low on health, she tosses you a health pack. If the sniper rifle is the active weapon and you are low on ammo, she sends sniper rifle rounds. It is a great way of avoiding player frustration and simultaneously helping you continue fighting. If there is any fault with Elizabeth, it is that she contributes to a slight breakdown in immersion, such as when enemies completely ignore her, which initially makes sense and later not, and when you are completely invulnerable when receiving an item from Elizabeth. However, these problems are fairly negligible when there are more pressing concerns during combat.
Combat against enemies is largely no different than the previous BioShock games. In DeWitt’s right hand is a projectile weapon, and DeWitt’s left hand serves as a conjurer of magic-like abilities. While you will mostly battle with the typical, first-person shooter affairs of pistols, machine guns, shotguns, RPGs, and such, the magic-like abilities, referred to as “Vigors” in the game, are the more intriguing weapons. Vigors range from sending a murder of crows at enemies, which will temporarily stun them and leave them vulnerable to extra damage, to a flow of water that can blow enemies away or bring far ones directly to you. They can be used in succession to create combos, and most of them offer a trap form that take effect when enemies come in range. Every gun and Vigor can be upgraded in multiple ways, such as a gun’s rate of fire and damage and secondary effects for Vigors. In the end, Vigors are exactly the same as Plasmids from the previous BioShock titles. I did not deviate from three Vigors at most in my use, but you have the option to utilize the entire arsenal of Vigors if you want. At least Infinite does not limit what Vigors you can hold at a time; each one remains available after you find it.
When enemies appear, the game basically establishes a combat arena that you cannot leave until every enemy is killed. The usual scenario takes place: various types of enemies may appear, items are located throughout the area, and sometimes parts of the environment can be used, such as using the Devil’s Kiss Vigor to light an oil spill on fire. At cursory glance this makes the combat seem boring and much like every other shooter, but Infinite offers two unique additions to spice things up. One is Columbia’s skyline system, which is a system of rails that can be used to move from one location to another by DeWitt, Elizabeth, and enemies. While on a skyline, you can control the speed of travel, reverse direction, and leap onto much of the environment. Combat is not necessarily interrupted while using skylines, though, as you can also shoot guns and jump onto the enemies. The skyline system allows for quick movement from one part of the map to another, which can be useful when avoiding the often hectic gunfights and the tougher enemies like the Handyman, and it allows for better use of height in combat. Using a skyline is quite fun, and switching from one skyline to another is quite exhilarating, particularly if a huge drop is involved. The second addition is tears. They may be best described as rips in time and space. Elizabeth is able to open them, which reveals alternate worlds or realities. While serving as an incredibly important part of the story, tears can also be opened during combat in the form of items, cover, and automated turrets and robots. Grey, flickering objects appear in the arenas, and they can physically manifest with the help of Elizabeth. Just point at the location with the crosshair and hold the use button, and Elizabeth opens that tear, bringing that object to the present reality. A single tear can be open at a time, and they are quite handy in pressing situations when you have low health or requires a distraction in the form of a turret.
These additions are welcome and definitely distinguish Infinite‘s combat from other shooters, but they feel somewhat underutilized and in some cases unnecessary, perhaps more so on easier difficulties. The skyline is used in probably fewer than half the total gunfights, which is disappointing considering the potential depth they can add to the combat. The skylines are also some of the only moments in which that setting of “city in the sky” is really apparent. Its purpose also feels diminished because combat does not require their use. Enemies that are far off can just be sniped, and even Vigors can be used on them when they are rather distant. Tears also could have been used as environmental tools, such as a heavy, large object that can be dropped onto enemies. More creativity with tears could have made each gunfight memorable and unique. After all, what is the difference between Elizabeth tossing DeWitt a health pack and DeWitt using one from a tear-created crate of health packs? Why not something individual for each arena that can keep combat fresh and amusing?
The best parts of Infinite are not the game. Its strength lies in its story, which is better directed and written than its predecessor and most, if not all, other games. The quality of storytelling is perhaps the game’s largest differentiation from previous BioShock installments. Although the war between the factions and all the themes are generally tossed aside halfway through the game and can be equated with how irrelevant the portions of BioShock were in the buildup to its climax, Infinite handles story pacing a lot better, and its shining moment is not situated two-thirds into the game only to be followed by a lackluster third half. The game keeps you wondering as the mysteries of the plot slowly unravel before taking full control of the experience to show the mind-blowing ending it wants to show. There are no broken morality choices and no major decisions that dictate how the story unfolds and that show alternate endings. With the help of well-written characters (the Letuces are absolutely delightful with their air of mystery and snarky banter) and an incredibly detailed world despite its flaws, Irrational has crafted an experience unmatched by any other game on the market.
BioShock Infinite stumbles back and forth between being just another entry in a series and being an independent, groundbreaking masterpiece. As its characters and storytelling have set new standards, its combat and level design have not. That is not to say the game is not fun; the gunfights are still plenty exciting, and decimating large groups of enemies with the right abilities and weapons is satisfying. Exploring what you can of the world is still a joy. But given what Infinite is doing with its story that the shooters like Battlefield and Gears of War are not, one would hope that the other parts of the game are up to par. In visuals and audio, Infinite reaches those standards, but in fully introducing and executing new gameplay concepts, it is not there. But maybe the game does not need to be the best in every regard. Perhaps it is enough to tell the stories of Elizabeth and DeWitt for Infinite to be one of the best games of the generation. Most will definitely agree with that.
This is a review of the Microsoft Windows version of BioShock Infinite.