2007′s BioShock was a seminal game of this generation. The combination of the wondrous city of Rapture and its denizens, as well as the flexible gameplay and mind-bending narrative (highlighted by one of the best “twists” in the history of game narratives) combined to form one of the best games of all-time.
2013 finds Ken Levine and Irrational Games returning to the BioShock franchise for the second time (2010′s BioShock 2 was developed by a different team) in the form of Bioshock Infinite, hoping to make lightning strike twice.
Boy, does it ever.
In some ways, Infinite’s ambition feels out of place in today’s gaming landscape. It sure knows how to make an entrance, allowing itself and the player a chance to stretch their legs out and get to know the sky city of Columbia. Right away, the religious and racial overtones of the game make themselves known, instantly letting the player know that, indeed, we’re going there.
Columbia is immaculately crafted, with intricate architecture that is stunning to behold. There is a sterling attention to detail and care given to the world, as each inch of it feels lovingly crafted. As with BioShock, there is a wealth of environmental storytelling present. The opening areas of the game are filled with massive statues with religious inscriptions on them, and later areas (after things inevitably go horribly wrong) show the chaos and pain on a human level. Shops that were previously full of life lay ransacked and unmanned, allowing you to play the part of looter.
Of course, the awe in the environment is bolstered by the fact that it’s a city in the sky, the import of which unfortunately diminishes as the game pushes on. It actually feels like a bit of a missed opportunity, as there is surprisingly little in the way of vertigo-inducing sequences, save for one or two that really stick out. The skylines do get a ton of usage in combat and traversal, and with good reason. They are a joy to use, replicating a rollercoaster ride in the best way. You can use them in combat to zip around and take out enemies, but mostly I spent my time on them riding slowly up the inclines, then zooming down the declines. There’s a tangible sense of speed when flying down the skylines that undoubtedly makes the best usage of the environment.
The combat arenas are also crafted with an intelligence and sense of space that is unheard of in most shooters. They’re downright luxurious compared to contemporary shooters, with wide-open areas typically set in the middle and twisting hallways set off to the sides. Rapture was claustrophobic and the battles reflected as much. They were intense and personal. Combat in Columbia is much more open and feels less desperate. Enemies are aggressive but there is so much ground to cover for them that it’s impossible to feel really overwhelmed on the default difficulty.
Perhaps due to the openness of its arenas, BioShock Infinite is much more focused on shooting than its predecessors. A gun is put in your hand well before any “vigors” (Infinite‘s “plasmid” replacement) and melee combat, something that was viable as a means to complete most of BioShock, is unfortunately underplayed here. It’s not nearly solid enough, and the rapid-fire swipes with your skyhook just can’t replace the satisfying bludgeoning the wrench was able to provide in BioShock. Again, the lack of enclosed spaces necessitates this change, but it’s unfortunate nonetheless.
I found myself leaning on the ”Possession” and “Bucking Bronco” vigors more often than not, using them to augment my ability to kill using my trusty Carbine and Machine Gun. Combat in Infinite is fun, but it requires less creativity from the player. Using the plasmids to set up elaborate traps for the enemies in the first BioShock was one of the real joys of that game’s combat, and none of that is really necessary here. However, Infinite has less of a reliance on the annoying turrets that (I thought) plagued the first game, which is a definite improvement. The combat is tighter and more fluid, especially with the addition of the skyhooks, but it feels like above-average FPS combat, which stands out negatively in a game that pushes the medium forward in so many other ways.
One other distinct disappointment with BioShock Infinite is in its enemies and encounter design. There’s nothing as iconic or interesting to fight as the Big Daddy from the original BioShock (though the Handyman comes closest in scope and the Patriots come closest in terms of spectacle), and the enemies are mostly run-of-the-mill baddies who demonstrate average intelligence. Part of the thrill of BioShock was encountering a Big Daddy and deciding how (and if) to attack it, planning out the encounter as you observed it from a distance. Each Big Daddy encounter was an event, and there’s nothing quite like that here. The implementation of the Songbird as an opposing force is a disappointment, and there’s nothing new to see from an enemy perspective after about halfway through the game.
BioShock Infinite does things with its narrative that make other games look amateurish by comparison. Levine and his team crafted a game with proper thematic heft behind its popcorn-movie shooter gameplay, bringing to mind some of the best mainstream filmmakers of today such as Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino. The time-and-universe bending plot brings to mind Rian Johnson’s Looper and Shane Carruth’s Primer (both essential viewing if you liked Infinite’s story), and the way the team pulls the curtain back on what’s really going on is an absolute show-stopper and shows the utmost confidence in the narrative and writing.
A mind-bendy narrative is nothing though without a good emotional throughline, and thankfully BioShock Infinite succeeds in spades thanks to the relationship between protagonist Booker DeWitt and Elizabeth, the girl he is tasked with saving. Ultimately, more than anything else, this is their story, and their interactions provide poignant moments that are actually affecting on an emotional level. Booker is a cold-hearted toughguy with a shady past, and this contrasts with Elizabeth’s naivete and earnestness in surprising ways. One early objective, for example, has Booker trying to get Elizabeth to stop dancing with a group of people. In the midst of this daring rescue against insurmountable odds, all she wants to do at that moment is dance. It’s not to say that Elizabeth is flaky or any other potentially negative stereotypes associated with a young female character, it’s that she has literally never been around other people, and the experience of being out in a place where music is playing is overwhelming for her at that moment.
Booker and Elizabeth feel like people, which is one of the greatest compliments I can pay them as characters. Their motivations (especially Booker’s) aren’t always clear, and their reactions to the happenings around them feel natural and earned.
There are some places, though, where the fact that this is a game gets in the way of the real emotional moments. There are two systems in the game that create somewhat random outcomes. One of them is the conversation system between Booker and Elizabeth, who have actual conversations whilst travelling throughout Columbia. These aren’t told in cutscene or as strictly signposted “story moments,” so they feel like incidental dialog. Unfortunately, the tone of this dialog doesn’t always flow consistently with events that just happened or are about to happen, so there can be an instance of Booker revealing the same bit about his past to Elizabeth twice in the span of 2 or 3 minutes, with her reacting to one instance of this like she just got punched in the stomach. It only happened once, but it took me out of the experience momentarily.
Elizabeth is also a (somewhat) random loot generator, which makes her useful on the battlefield, but sometimes again breaks the immersion of the story. She’ll go from crying to “Hey, I found this coin,” in a matter of a second or two, which does just enough to remind you that you’re playing a game.
There’s so much more packed into Infinite‘s narrative that I feel I could go on for another 2000 words, but as a basic primer it deals with race and class warfare, as well as the cost of revolution, better than most literary works. There’s no romanticizing or lionization of any of the characters, and even the ostensible “comic-relief” characters have a dark secret to discover. At times the game comes off as nihilistic in its approach to the world, but Elizabeth remains at its redeemable center, keeping it (and the audience) grounded in some sort of hope for the future.
BioShock Infinite transcends videogames as a medium to deliver one of the best pieces of genre storytelling in any medium in quite some time. Unfortunately, it is somewhat held back by its form as a game, with some design decisions that feel reductive compared to the other component parts. Regardless, BioShock Infinite is a triumph of storytelling and world-building that is a must-play and a significant leap forward for gaming as a whole.
A copy of BioShock Infinite for the PC was purchased by the reviewer for the purposes of this review.