What BioShock Infinite Got Right
- + An amazing game world
- + Elizabeth is a revolutionary AI buddy
- + Great all-round shooter
What BioShock Infinite Got Wrong
- - Console visuals well below PC offering (Dah!)
When you first see the floating city of Columbia in BioShock Infinite, you’ll know you’re experiencing one of gaming history’s defining moments. Dressed in classic early 20th century decor, Columbia is a frighteningly real look at social issues stilling plaguing contemporary society.
It’s a fascinating world, one hard to look away from. It’s a piece of art, embroiled in controversial themes of passionate nationalism and brutal racism. It is, at its core, a shooter -- one drowning in depth and satisfying innovation -- but its narrative, world and characters are all as equally compelling as the gameplay is addictive.
It’s a hard game to critique. It appears to find a perfect balance between story-based combat and role-playing mechanics, but just when you think you know everything about the game world, you find something so subtle yet so powerful that you forget everything else you’ve learnt up to that point.
And therein lies BioShock Infinite’s power: it drags you in with storytelling techniques that so impeccably drive the action that it’s going to be hard to pick up another shooter anytime soon. It’s in love with itself because it knows how beautiful it is, and its distinctive split personality -- ranging from grounded emotional distinctions to outrageous quackery -- gives it a unique identity that helps define it as one of this generation's best shooters.
Cast as war-veteran-turned-PI Booker DeWitt, you’ll head to the floating city of Columbia to track down Elizabeth, a mysterious woman held captive in the city for well over a decade. Booker’s past is fascinatingly mysterious -- the words, “Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt” are plastered and spoken throughout the game’s eight-or-so-hour length -- and his relationship with Elizabeth (you’ll find her early on) forms an unparalleled emotional bond that will redefine how we engage with AI-controlled buddies.
Their relationship is touching in the same way the Little Sisters’ bond with the Big Daddy in the first BioShock was, but on a far more personal, engaging level. Elizabeth isn’t just “there”: once Booker gains her trust, they form a formidable team during combat.
It’s a fascinating world, one hard to look away from. It’s a piece of art, embroiled in controversial themes of passionate nationalism and brutal racism.
BioShock Infinite’s combat is designed for experimentation. Much in the same way plasmids added substantial depth to the gameplay in the first two BioShock’s, “vigors” are the bread-and-butter of the Columbia battlefield. Fueled by “salts” -- basically Booker’s salt levels -- they offer a number of alternative means to combat the game’s at-times ruthless enemies.
Variation is important: you’ll have a number of outstanding 20th century-inspired guns at your disposal, all upgradeable, but the combination of a heavy-handed and upgraded gun with a vigor can make you a far more efficient killer, even if at the objection of the pleasant, peaceful Elizabeth.
The vigors alone are all substantially different from one another. “Possession” allows you to posses enemy machinery or humans, who will commit suicide when the possession wears off. It’s quite a sight to behold. Devil’s Kiss lets you throw fireballs the way of your enemies, while Shock Jockey sends electric currents through multiple foes.
These are all accessible using hotkeys, and you can quickly change them without stopping the play, but console players will need to hold down the left bumped to switch: you can only have two vigors selected at once. This pauses the play but you’ll choose your required vigor quick enough that you won’t even notice the break in play: combat is addictive and explosive enough to push you to choose quickly.
Elizabeth’s role is in the form of ammo, salts and health sourcing, and if you’re down on any during battle she’ll pass them to you with an on-screen prompt. A quick animation happens and she’ll hand you the required item. It works well and definitely helps in the heat of battle. Combat is fairly easy early on and so this mechanic isn’t necessary, but Elizabeth acts a formidable companion in later stages when enemies are in higher numbers and are far tougher to take down.
Five-years in the making, BioShock Infinite is a telling example of how an otherwise tiring genre can be reborn to offer original, innovative experiences. Engaging in a firefight, particularly on the game’s harder difficulty settings, demonstrates BioShock Infinite’s effort to reinvigorate the shooter genre. Where the gameplay excels the most is in its sheer variety: weapons are dropped by enemies frequently and you can often mix things up, and the vigors allow for a welcomed break-away from your standard shoot-em-up gameplay.
Beyond BioShock Infinite’s great gameplay is a world demanding that you explore it. Its beaming heavenliness is as inviting as it is intriguing, yet the city expels a fractured history of American exceptionalism and social themes rarely touched upon in games.
Irrational Games’ stunning game tells a powerful tale with present-day implications, yet its the fascinating and convincing world of Columbia, a 1912 relic of nationalism and powerful religious beliefs, that will keep you coming back.
At its core, BioShock Infinite is a shooter, but it offers far more than the mindless givings of many contemporary war-based action games. “Rebirth” actually plays a powerful role in the game’s story, relying on religious undertones of prophets, false shepherds and redemption, adding significant meaning to your actions throughout the game.
Yet BioShock Infinite manages to offer a refreshing take on the issues it raises, never leaning a specific way with a certain agenda: the game slyly steers clear of choosing sides, highlighting faults in each social movement.
What the game world does best, though, is convince us that a city in the sky is actually possible: the science is irrelevant, because as long as a person has the drive to achieve, anything is possible. You might find yourself randomly searching the world’s many secret locations, and while the game does direct you down a linear path, it’s a wide one that certainly needs to be explored.
Columbia maintains a consistent level of originality and intrigue on console, but it lacks the visual pizazz of the PC counterpart. That's a given, but the difference represents a need for new console hardware. The console version looks good at a distance, but close inspections may lead to disappointment. This game is clearly optimised for PC, but its visual distortion on console is hardly a deal breaker: it just doesn't look anywhere near as pristine.
The Final Verdict
Irrational Games has managed to better the standard it set with BioShock in 2007. While the world doesn’t quite have the same shock-factor that Rapture did -- game worlds have evolved greatly since then -- it’s a stunning creation, drowning in historical context inspired by a charming era. As it teaches us lessons with its social commentary, it sneaks in an explosive action experience so refined, so engaging, that it’ll be hard for other shooters to top it for years to come.