Atop the Lighthouse.
Studying history can be a lot like stepping into another world. Read enough books and historical accounts, see enough movies, learn enough about the culture of a particular time and place, and it isn’t too hard to imagine stepping into that point in history. I’m that way with both the Mongol Empire and feudal Japan, and it would seem Ken Levine has the same kind of affinity for early 1900s America. Bioshock Infinite rests in a period of history almost a full century ago. Racism and elitism fought against bubbling revolution, all against a backdrop of societal change. So how far does Bioshock Infinite ascend? Does it fly ever upward, or come too close to the sun and burn? I will go against the way I usually review and tell you the answer right away: It soars. Beating the game the night before going on vacation for a few days was well-timed, because this is one of those games that needs to stew for a while, upon completion, before a final opinion can be reached.
Bioshock Infinite is an instantly striking visual experience. Moving from a stormy sea to a familiar lighthouse, things look good, but not exceptional. Upon your ascension into Columbia, however, all stops are pulled. The game blossoms with color and vividness, along with some truly striking bits of detail. The world around is you is sold with perfection. As I took my first steps along the stone streets of Columbia, I couldn’t stop moving. I had to see everything, absorbing every little bit of this floating chunk of 1912. Everything from the music to the décor, and even the mannerisms and dialects of the characters surrounding me were perfect. That’s a big word, but Infinite’s opening hours leave a big impression. I found myself spending a good 2 hours just going around the streets and festival grounds, listening to every NPC with a sort of childlike wonder. I was in a sparkling paradise, and I never wanted to leave.
But of course, Bioshock Infinite wouldn’t be much of a game if the paradise remained as it was. The protagonist, a former soldier named Booker DeWitt, sets off on a simple mission – find a girl named Elizabeth, and eliminate the debt he carries. But nothing stays simple. The way the plot sets off the action is actually reminiscent of some later developments in the story of the original Bioshock, creating a similar intrigue to the first game in a different way. Armed with a couple vigors, magic-like powers first introduced as a simple fairground attraction, and a gun or two, you will watch as Columbia is turned against you to stop you from pursuing Elizabeth. And once you find her, it’s not hard to see why.
Up until you meet Elizabeth, Bioshock infinite plays as a fairly straightforward shooter. A good shooter, with some very cool and unique foes, but it seems to be missing something. That something is named Elizabeth, and she changes everything. Your new companion has two main functions. The first is basically a scavenger function. She tosses you ammo, health, and salts (juice for those sweet, sweet vigors) at opportune moments. Useful, but not particularly revolutionary. But then come the tears.
Elizabeth brings in a substantial strategic element to the game. In battlefields, Elizabeth can open tears, little doorways that manifest resources for you to use. A chunk of cover here, a health stash there, or even a helpful turret buddy or sniping post, can make all the difference at the right moment. Booker can only carry two guns at any time, but Elizabeth can bring up a change of weapons, and all you need to do is get to it.
Strategy between guns and salts play a big part in how you play. I found a good technique was to use the Bucking Bronco vigor to suspend my foes in the air, then blast them all away at once with a well-aimed shotgun blast. If ranged combat is more your style, you can use the Undertow vigor to push your foes away and create some distance, then pick them off with a quick sniper shot. You can also set ground traps with the vigors, each with slightly different effects than their direct combat versions. All the choices available, plus Elizabeth’s help, would be great on their own, but there is one more element that adds even more to the experience.
When I first heard about the skyrail, I was skeptical. I assumed it would be something of a gimmick, a point-A-to-point-B mechanic without any real usefulness. What it turns out to be is the cherry on top of Bioshock Infinite’s combat. Every large battlefield comes rigged with a skyrail system for you to ride, allowing quick transportation across the battlefield, and often allowing access to areas otherwise inaccessible. Since Elizabeth can only have one tear open at a time, the rail can be used as a vantage point to swap resources while managing to stay a little safer. Riding across the rails, cuing Elizabeth to open different tears for use as you bomb, blast or snipe your enemies from above, proved to be one of the most exhilerating, fast-paced experiences I’ve ever had with a first-person shooter. A lot of elements come into play here, and they all work together in a perfect harmony.
Elizabeth also plays a huge role in the game’s narrative. Her actions drive the game forward, and her chemistry with Booker moves smoothly from a soldier and his charge to that of two partners, working towards the same goal and willing to protect each other at any cost along the way. When you fall, it’s her who picks you up, not some lifeless and convinient vita-chamber. The AI is fantastic, and her character design makes her one of the most recognizable human characters in recent gaming history. Even the facial animations are worth mentioning, as Elizabeth is one of the most genuinely expressive, real, and overall beautiful characters I’ve seen in a game.
The story that unfolds is one of the city’s past, future, and the possibilities change and revolution can bring. At times you may question the logic and validity behind some of the twists the story takes, but everything finds a solid resolution by the end, and it’s extremely satisfying when it does. The final 20 minutes pull back the curtain of the mysteries the game creates, and the truth behind the great flying city is given to you in one of the most mind-boggling and perfectly-executed endings I’ve seen in a long time.
But the narrative encompasses far more than our two main characters. There’s Father Comstock, the great prophet in charge of Columbia and the man determined to get Elizabeth back. There’s Daisy Fitzroy, the leader of the revolutionary Vox Populi group who draws an increasingly blurred line between righteous justice and maniacal guerrilla tactics. Characters such of these act as voices of the people, each on different sides. Comstock leads a skyborne city where America is treated not as a country, but a religious philosophy. Racism runs thick in the city, the oppression of which has become too much for the slave classes, who rise up under Fitzroy’s leadership. Neither is portrayed as absolute good or evil, nor even are Booker or Elizabeth themselves.
As you’ve probably guessed, Columbia is far from being the perfect utopia it pretends to be. And through the characters and the return of voice recordings scattered about to add more narrative, you learn a lot about the workings of it’s industry and culture. You travel to every corner of the city, from the offices of radical racist groups and the shining towers where the rich white men live, all the way down to the dirty slums full of both the downtrodden and defeated and those crying for revolution. The world it creates is not only unbiased, but realist to a point where I would have had trouble reminding myself I was playing a sci-fi shooter had I not spent 10 minutes shooting a giant handyman robot with a mutant super-heart beating in its chest. But the science fiction elements are integrated into the world to a degree even greater than that of its predecessor.
Now, there’s one question that I’m honestly surprised I haven’t heard asked very much, and I want to kind of nip it in the bud. In the end, is Bioshock Infinite a better game that the original? Obviously it hasn’t been long enough to view both games within the test of time, but critical analysis is still what it is. Both games succeed in creating incredibly rich worlds, with some of the best-written narratives I have ever seen in gaming. The gameplay in both is exceptional, creating fast-paced battles with inspired enemies. But where Bioshock has a lot of great things I could say about it, I honestly think Infinite has more. More detailed gameplay, with additional levels of strategic depth and enjoyment thanks to both Elizabeth and the skyrail. More story. The first Bioshock told a series of smaller tales about Raptures different districts all encompassed by an overarching narrative, while Infinite’s various narrations and vinnettes are all more directly connected to the greater story of Booker, Comstock and Elizabeth, as a result, the story produced is more complex. While some people may prefer the storytelling structure in the first game, the tale being told in Infinite is one of the finest pieces of fiction ever brought into a video game. In the end, Infinite prevails into, well, infinity.
One day, when games are seen as an art form on the same level as film or books and are taught about at artsy colleges, Bioshock Infinite will be one of the most commonly talked about examples of how storytelling In games should be done. People will be graduating with hopes of one day reaching that level. I, myself, couldn’t stop thinking about the way each and every detail of the story is changed upon a second playthrough, with the knowledge of what everything is leading up to. The gameplay is exhilarating, allowing you to span huge battlefields in seconds and bend them to your will, mixing first-person shooter gameplay littered with possibilities with strategic management of your resources. The world in which you are put is one of the most fully realized, genuine places I have ever seen in a video game. In short, Bioshock Infinite is an absolute masterpiece in the senses of gameplay, writing, and presentation, and earns a perfect 5 universe-spanning tears out of 5.
Final Verdict: 5/5
Available on: Xbox 360 (Reviewed) PlayStation 3, PC ; Publisher: 2K Games ; Developer: Irrational Games ; Players: 1; Released: March 26, 2013 ; MSRP: $59.99
Full Disclosure: This review was based on a retail copy of Bioshock Infinite purchased Hey Poor Player.