Bioshock Infinite is Ken Levine’s latest creation, and possibly his best creation to date. While it can suffer from some flat story-telling and combat at times, overall it is a well crafted adventure through another beautifully created world, full of detail, beauty and great action.
Gather round, ye children of God! Rest thy weary soul and listen as I tell you the tale of the glorious city of Columbia! These are My Opinions, and there shall be no spoilers!
You play as Booker Dewitt, ex-soldier and Pinkerton sent to the flying city of Columbia to find a girl and deliver her to New York to satisfy a debt. The girl in question is Elizabeth, a young woman who has the ability to open windows to other world. While on your way to find her, Booker ends up attracting unwanted attention from Columbia’s leader, the prophet Comstock, who labels you a danger to the society he has managed to build, and you must escape his wrath with the girl. It presents itself as a fairly standard adventure story – get the girl, fight the bad guy, don’t look back at the explosions. And while the ending seems to drag out a little and fall kind of flat in comparison to the rest of the story’s set-pieces, it’s once credits start rolling and you are free to think about it that Infinite’s story really hits home, and boy, will it hit hard. I’m not spoiling anything here, but that is something I’m saving for a future article.
The characters are well realised, and you can empathise and relate to them as people. Booker is identified as “the roguish type”, all daring-do and ability, but he never comes off as smarmy or cocksure (I’m looking at you, Uncharted’s Nathan Drake.) There are no witty one-liners or macho show-boating. It means that despite him having a voice, unlike previous Bioshock protagonists, the player never seems to be out of control of their motivations. You genuinely feel the same, or at least similar, to how Booker reacts. Elizabeth also matures very well over the course of the game, and is never really annoying or a throwaway love interest unlike so many female leads in games. The games marketing and hype may seem to have portrayed her character as overly-sexualised, but it’s not something that detracts from her character, or is even that noticeable and come the end of the game, you will definitely see her differently and as a whole person.
The floating city of Columbia is a beauty to behold, a mosaic of colours and bright open spaces – a real contrast to the rust and claustrophobia of Rapture. It’s reminiscent of a southern American town in the early 1900s, with open-air markets, opulent civic buildings and red-brick factories. Zeppelins buzz overhead and buildings in the distance bob up and down. Even during the more linear, indoor stretches of the game, it always manages to fit in a breathtaking vista that reminds you that you are indeed in a huge floating city. For the most part, the city feels alive, which is often a difficult effect to achieve. People go about their daily business, adults drinking tea outside cafés, or children playing Cowboys and Indians in the street. A board outside a tailors surprised me when I realised that it didn’t show opening hours, but docking hours. Sure enough, as I moved along the street, lines cast off and an entire garden park floated away to it’s next stop. With this realistic world though, comes through the nastiness you’d expect from a real one. Columbia is modelled as a ‘what-if’, and realises the vision of the South seceding from the USA. As such, racism and elitism are rife, and make for some compelling story-telling, as well as a history lesson on a darker time in our cultural upbringings.
It’s a shame that this image of a living, breathing world is shattered as soon as the shooting starts. The directing of the game tries to avoid it, but there are instances of you walking down a crowded street, getting into a conflict with the local constabulary, and all the NPCs vanishing into thin air. No screams or running to for cover and safety, just outright disappearing. It’s a jarring and ghostly effect, and knocks the immersion just enough to be noticeable. Audiographs are also present to fill in some much desired exposition about Columbia, but this still feels artificial and staged, just a voice-over filling in details about things that could have been shown to you directly. Still, it’s always nice to learn more about the city.
Graphics-wise, Bioshock Infinite is a masterpiece. What the originals did for the appearance of water, this does for light and space. Beautiful vistas rendered with shining light and great physics, cloth billowing in the wind and textures beautifully detailed on both characters and environments. Sometimes though, it can be almost too beautiful. I can’t quite set all the dials to eleven on my computer right now (playing through Bioshock 2 before starting Infinite actually blew one of the processors on my quad-core,) but still, some of the lighting effects can make it quite hard to see what’s happening. Bright rooms filled with dust can be dazzling in the sunlight, and I found that sometimes enemies were obscured by pure walls of glare. Still, a true beauty, and no amount of screenshots will do it justice.
Infinite retains the solid gameplay refined in previous Bioshock games – left mouse fires your gun, right mouse fires your equipped power. The guns are loud, heavy and control well, making shooting comfortable and easy to master, which is a good thing as you will be spending the majority of this game in combat. Plasmids remain in all but name (called Vigors this time), and allow you to support the shooty-shooty with a variety of effects. Stun your opponents with a lightning bolt from your fingers, or unleash a flock of murderous crows to peck at their eyes. Combining Vigors with each other or the environment also brings out some interesting effects, such as the ability to light your crows on fire, or blow enemies off Columbia’s many railings. It turns what could have been another generic (albeit pretty) shooter into something with a little more style.
Although this game takes place in the vast openness of the sky, your movement can still feel restricted because, obviously, you can’t fly. Infinite circumvents this problem with the introduction of the skyrail, a series of rails looping the environments, supposedly for the city’s freight and tram connections. More often and not however, they are there for you to zoom around the battlefield, giving some speed and verticality to fights. You can also perform insta-kills by dropping down from the skyrails onto unsuspecting enemies. It allows for some action-packed swashbuckling that never seems out of place.
Despite the fact that the game is essentially one super-long escort mission, none of the terrible gameplay features that one normally associates with them are actually apparent here. This is because Elizabeth, in a first-time occurrence for an escort NPC, is not actually a brainless robot, and can be a valuable asset to your play. She isn’t attacked directly by enemies, so you don’t have to worry about her running off and getting killed. Using her powers, she can pull in items from other worlds to help you in your fight, from stationary cover to mobile turrets. She also scours the battlefield for anything that can help you, from ammo to healthpacks. Although this can get a bit annoying at times (‘reload’ and ‘accept help’ are mapped to the same key) it’s definitely more helpful than a static bullet-sponge NPC, and makes Elizabeth more believable as an actual character. In fact, it’s the times that Elizabeth isn’t with you that the game devolves into more of a generic man-shoot.
I played the game from start to finish on the Normal difficulty, spending a lot of time exploring, looking for collectibles and secrets, and I finished up in just under twelve hours, which is a fairly respectable time for a story-driven single-player game. Of course, the ending damn near demands a second play-through immediately, so you can go back and realise the significance of what you probably just glossed over in your first run. Beyond that though, the replayability of Infinite is not… um… infinite, and is dependant on how quickly you enjoy hearing the same story over and again. Myself, I can’t read the same book without at least a few months in between to forget some of the details.
With Bioshock’s signature solid combat and well-written story, Infinite once again proves that Ken Levine knows how to make a great game. I highly recommend you to play this, and you just have to if you’re a fan of the previous two outings. It’s a fantastic adventure in a beautiful world, and you shouldn’t miss it.