Bioshock Infinite (PC) review

Bioshock Infinite has some massively large shoes to fill.  When the original Bioshock came out, it was talked about for months afterward.  People fell in love with Rapture and the meticulous level of detail found within.  It contained one of the coolest twists in a game to date (even though it was pretty much identical to the one from System Shock 2…).  The gameplay elements weren’t as sharp as they could have been, but it was a somewhat unique experience for that time in games, especially on the consoles.  How could a game made in much the same framework hit so huge again?  I don’t claim to know how Ken Levine and Irrational managed such a task, but I can tell you that they certainly succeeded with Infinite.

You are placed into the shoes of Booker DeWitt, a man with quite the violent history.  His life has fallen into disarray, and he owes a bunch of money to the wrong people.  Someone offers to pay off his debts – for something in return.  In exchange, this mysterious benefactor wants Booker to find a girl named Elizabeth and bring her back to New York.  If he does so, his debt will be wiped clean.  Not long into the game, Booker finds himself transported to Columbia, a floating city that seceded from the United States at the turn of the century and hadn’t been heard from since.  He quickly must find his bearings in a city that isn’t quite as idyllic as it may seem and find Elizabeth.

The plot doesn’t really pick up until you get to Elizabeth and start trying to make your way out of Columbia.  At first, she is naïve and gullible about the real world.  She has never been outside of her tower and is overwhelmed by everything to see, hear and do outside.  It doesn’t take long for the pair to be attacked by those who want Booker dead and Elizabeth captured.  She is horrified at the damage he can do and must learn to come to terms with it over the course of the game.  Later, Booker is equally horrified at the way Elizabeth can open “tears,” rips into another dimension or time.  Each of them is equally frightened of the other’s intentions and abilities at times, yet they must stick together to in order to make their escape.  It’s clear that they both have their own agendas, but they slowly learn to trust each other as the events of the plot unfold.

The other half of the story comes from the city of Columbia.  Like Bioshock’s Rapture, it is a fully-realized place packed to the brim with details.  This time, however, it is full of living, breathing people.  This makes it a much more interesting place to explore, as it is in the process of falling apart instead of already being shattered into pieces before you get there.  There are two warring factions, the Founders who run the city and the Vox Populi who feel that the “Prophet” is ruining their city, which Booker and Elizabeth often find themselves between as they try to escape Columbia.  Like the original Bioshock, there are several key figures that pop up here and there, such as the Comstock, the Prophet himself, and Daisy Fitzroy, the driving force behind the Vox Populi.  You cross paths with all these people on your quest for an airship, and it leads to some very interesting story moments, especially when Elizabeth’s abilities come into play.

I would love to go more into the characters I enjoyed or the moments that made me smile or shake my fist in rage, but that wouldn’t be fair to you.  I can’t really go into too much detail about any of this game without spoiling HUGE parts of what makes it great.  I can at least tell you that it is one of the best 10-15 hours I (and maybe you) have spent with a game in the last few years and possibly the best ending a game has ever had.

Of course, there is plenty of fighting to balance all the walking around and story moments.  At its core, the systems are quite similar to Bioshock but with a few small differences here and there.  There are a couple more options for weaponry this time around, but it’s pretty much what you would expect from a shooter – pistols, shotguns, machine guns, sniper rifles, and RPGs.  Instead of being allowed to hold everything, Bioshock Infinite adopts a Halo-esque two-weapon system.  Also aped from Halo is a recharging shield, instead of requiring you to pick up usable health packs like Bioshock 1 and 2.  It allows you to be a little more cautious when leaving cover and helps the pace from previous games a great deal.  The shooting feels nice and tight, without any of the floatiness I remember from the original game.

Paired with guns are your Vigors, essentially Plasmids with a new name.  Some of these are similar to Plasmids – such as Shock Jockey – but others are entirely new.  My favorite is called Undertow.  By just tapping the Vigor button, it shoots out a jet of water—something that is very useful when fighting atop a floating city.  By holding the button down, the effect changes to a watery tendril that flies out and grabs an enemy.  They are then pulled to you and held in place for a few seconds, prime for a few shotgun shells to the face.  Fans of the original game may also remember the trap bolts from the crossbow.  Instead of having this weapon, Bioshock Infinite allows each Vigor to be a different kind of trap.  By holding the button down and pointing at the ground, a trap specific to the Vigor is laid down.  As an example, Shock Jockey’s trap function creates electric crystals that burst and electrocute enemies that approach them.  It’s a nice option, but one that isn’t really required to finish most of the encounters in the game.  Your usage of this feature will probably depend on your playstyle.

Tonics also return in a new form as Gear.  You are given four slots for equipping Gear with each piece having a different effect.  Some examples of upgrades are an area-of-effect shock given to enemies who strike you or a speed boost when your shields break.  I found one quite early that gave me a brief period of invincibility whenever I used a health item, which I utilized a TON over the course of the game (especially as I played on Hard).  These can maybe be a little game-breaking but help build your character in small ways towards the kind of playstyle you enjoy most.  Vending machines return as well, in three varieties.  There are the default vendors that sell ammo, health, and salts (essentially mana) for a small cost, weapon vendors that upgrade your different firearms for a fee, and Vigor vendors that upgrade your powers in a similar way.

Now for the features that aren’t quite the same.  As mentioned earlier, Elizabeth has the ability to tear holes to other worlds.  This doesn’t just play into the story but can have an effect in combat as well.  Most combat scenarios have a few different items that are essentially phased out of reality, indicated by their grey color and wavy image.  By holding a button, Elizabeth will phase in the item in question to your reality, allowing it to be used or picked up.  These range from more ammo or health packs to automatons that will fight for you until they are killed.  Those temporary allies are a great deal of help, distracting enemies so you can go and heal or sneak around them for a attack from the rear.

Also worth mentioning is how Elizabeth helps you in combat.  She will constantly find ammo, health, or salts (essentially mana for your Vigors) for you when you run low.  Tapping the interact button when she calls out to you will make you turn to her as she throws you the item, along with a brief window of invincibility during the animation.  It’s very seamless and a nice feature, giving her a place in a fight without having to worry about her well-being (especially since the enemies never bother to attack her).

The other new element is the skylines.  Since Columbia is floating in the sky, a new mode of transportation had to be added.  Skylines are rails that run between areas which can be ridden on with a specific magnetized device, which you receive early on.  Not all of the combat scenarios have these skyrails, but the ones that do are easily the most exciting.  Pointing at one and hitting the jump key locks you onto the rail and you are GONE.  It’s amazingly fast and a great way to get out of combat quickly to recover health or find some ammo.  I had the most fun with the combat when these skylines were involved, but they were surprisingly limited.  I would really have liked to see more of them in the combat scenarios, as they made the fight unlike any other game I have played before.

Bioshock Infinite is an absolutely gorgeous game.  It has been worked on ever since the release of the original in 2007, and it shows in every little detail.  I just spent my first hour in Columbia walking around, looking at everything I could, and listening to the conversations around me.  Fans of the posters from the original will find many great new designs in Columbia.  It can be hard to want to move on at times, as you might be afraid of missing something (and you will miss something).  It adds incentive for playing the game multiple times, hearing about things you missed and wanting to see them for yourself.  One great example of this detail happens early on, when you stumble into a small fair being held for the celebration of the birth of Columbia.  There are several attractions where you can try out some of the guns and Vigors that you will be using later in the game.  It is obviously a tutorial sequence but is so well justified in the world that I didn’t care.  The animations are fantastic as well.  Elizabeth’s face is one you see for most of the game, but her range of animation, particularly during emotional, story-beat moments, is absolutely astounding.  The only slightly jarring thing about the game is a little bit of gratuitous violence here and there, particularly in the melee kill animations.  I guess that Irrational wanted these moments to really stand out in just how vicious both Booker and Columbia can be, but they pulled me out of the game a little bit because of how at odds they seemed with the rest of the design.  They aren’t really that numerous, however, and didn’t affect my enjoyment that much.

Music-wise, I think that Bioshock Infinite is just okay.  None of the tracks really blew me away, but it did its job adequately at the least.  The real impressive bit of the sound design comes from the voice acting, particularly Booker and Elizabeth.  Many of you probably have heard or seen the pre-release coverage showing the lengths Irrational went to in order to have realistic voice performances and it shows quite clearly.  It is some of the best and most consistent voice acting I have heard in a game and really helps to sell the relationship between the two characters.  It also tells you a ton about them, particularly the way that Elizabeth will have something to say about a lot of things you see or do in Columbia, most of them showing just how naïve she really is.  The sheer number of lines of unique dialogue is quite impressive and the consistent quality across them all is even more so.  Not once did I feel that a character was someone acting – it always felt as if I was listening to that character speak directly to me.

Bioshock Infinite is an absolutely astounding game.  Every single element is extremely polished and works with the others to combine into a fantastic cohesive whole.  The story is extremely well-written and nuanced enough that I’m sure we will be discussing it for months, just like the original’s.  While the combat isn’t really the main draw for the game, it is nicely improved from past games in the series and is enjoyable enough for the length of the campaign.  Maybe the most impressive are characters and setting that are so richly defined, more so than almost any other game world in existence.  Very few games have me wanting to learn so much more about the world they create and Bioshock Infinite left me with a ton of unanswered questions—not necessary ones for the plot but ones I just wanted to know the answers to, out of my own curiosity.

It’s really too bad that all games can’t be this well-realized, due to the troubles of development time and money concerns.  I would love to see worlds spring fully from the minds of several other developers, exploring the interesting places they have created.  For now, I will just have to go back to Columbia and explore it as fully as I can.  Not that I’m complaining or anything…

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