Even though we’re only a quarter of the way through 2013, BioShock Infinite feels like the game of 2013 that everyone has been waiting for. That is probably due to its two delays, one catapulting it all the way from March 2012 into February 2013, and the other shoving it just a bit further to late March 2013. But at long last, the game is finally here. Is it a worthy successor to the rich storytelling and gameplay that Irrational Games gave us with the original BioShock? Would you kindly keep reading to find out?
As ever, we do our best to keep reviews spoiler-free, and this game is no different. However, you should note that certain elements of the game are going to be revealed and discussed in the context of the review. We won’t blow a major story twist for you (and there’s a doozy that you won’t see coming), you might read more here than you would normally want to know before delving into this experience. Primarily because BioShock Infinite is a game that you experience, not just play.
From sea to sky, from Rapture to Columbia
The saying “As above, so below” might not be applicable to the world of Columbia. While Rapture was a beautifully realized city beneath the waves that had fallen into chaos and disrepair, Columbia represents its flipside as a vibrant, living world. Through the first half of the game, you will encounter numerous citizens living among the clouds, going about their daily business. You will be able to listen in on scores of overheard conversations that reveal what life is like in this flying utopia, while exploring what it has to offer.
Take Battleship Bay, for instance. This beachfront playground features sandy beaches, an endless ocean of water tumbling off the edge of the floating platform, and a calliope playing a retro-version of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” while swimsuited Columbians frolic in the sun. Of course, you’re visiting this area with Elizabeth, having just liberated her from her home/prison, when all Hell breaks loose and you are confronted with the ever changing and delicate nature of Columbia.
“… the ending of the story will haunt you…”
They story here overshadows the gameplay, and it will wax and wane throughout the game. There are definite lulls between plot points, particularly in the middle. But the ending of the story will haunt you, and there is a jaw-dropping moment that you will want to experience again. If you play through the game again, armed with more knowledge, you will notice a lot of things that you missed the first time around.
You can also choose to go through everything again in 1999 mode which ramps up the difficulty in every way, and will result in permanent death if you aren’t careful.
Comstock vs. the Vox Populi isn’t as simple as good vs. evil
BioShock Infinite does not attempt to sugarcoat its own storyline, confronting you with the specter of racism early in the game when you are urged to throw a baseball at an interracial couple. Then there are the barbaric images that depict other races as “The Foreign Horde,” genetic experimentation, and more, painting the self-styled prophet and de facto ruler of Columbia, Comstock, and his jingoistic nationalism in a harsh light. From the beginning of the game, he is meant to be your nemesis, with you playing as Booker, attempting to liberate Elizabeth from Comstock’s clutches in order to clear all of his debts.
But Comstock already has a nemesis in the game before Booker steps foot on Columbia, in the form of the Vox Populi. This voice of the people and champion of the common man (and woman) group is led by rebel Daisy Fitzroy, and they aren’t afraid of getting their hands dirty as they fight against Comstock and the other founders of the city. Like Rapture, Columbia is not completely run by just one person, and Comstock has to work with some of the other founders, some of whom have delusions of grandeur all their own.
But, the main conflict here pits Comstock against Fitzroy, with each side attempting to portray the other as villainous and evil. But even with Comstock’s “whites only” rules and regulations, Fitzroy is not a saintly insurgent fighting the good fight on the other side. There is a lot more to her side of things as well, allowing her to paint an equally dark portrait of Comstock, while revealing more about her own nature and her ties to the revolution.
Throw, tear, flip: The powers of Elizabeth and what she owes to Stephen King
The main thing that sets BioShock Infinite apart from BioShock is the fact that this time you are not alone. Exploring Rapture was a very solitary, and at times extremely unsettling, adventure. But in BioShock Infinite, once you free Elizabeth, you will have her by your side for most of the game. While she is not intrusive, and thankfully does not chatter on endlessly or repeat herself over and over like other NPCs, she does keep you from having an isolated experience in this beautiful new world.
Because Elizabeth is such a well-crafted character, she drives the story forward in ways that Booker never could on his own. Much of the backstory of Columbia will be filled in for you via audible Voxophones that you find through the game and vintage Kinetoscopes that provide an early newsreel look at happenings around the city, which have all been carefully edited and excised by Comstock and company. However, those are just filler, as Elizabeth and Booker together will process most the larger chunks of this sprawling storyline.
Besides being a nearly constant companion, Elizabeth also proves her worth many times over to Booker. She can toss him cash, ammunition, health, and salt (basically the mana that powers your vigors) throughout the game, which can come in handy in the heat of battle. That is, if you don’t find yourself squarely in the midst of combat and about to die, or in need of ammo or salts. You’ll first have to wheel around, desperately trying to find Elizabeth, and then punch a button to have her toss you what you need. That will in turn trigger a canned animation, and the entire process can take you out of the otherwise fast-paced combat.
But Elizabeth’s real strengths lie in her ability to open “tears” in the fabric of reality. These rips offer her the ability to pull items through from different realities, such as a box containing medical kits, a gun automaton, new weapons, spots for your Skyhook to latch onto, and more. She can also open larger tears, taking herself and others into these different dimensions, for better or worse. There’s a brief moment where you see her using this ability to visit Paris, but the tear lands her in a version of the future where Revenge of the Jedi, the original title for Return of the Jedi, is playing at a movie theater.
These tears become more serious throughout the game. As Elizabeth takes Booker and herself through these tears, they alter the very fabric of their own world. In some cases people who are dead in the current world and are now living, and they find themselves now facing the memories of being both alive and dead, which drives them to the point of madness, and in some cases death.
While neither of these ideas are particularly new in the realm of science fiction, the game – directly or indirectly – owes a debt to Stephen King. Both the tears and the resulting insanity of multiple realities are prevalent throughout The Talisman and his Dark Tower series. In The Talisman, the main character has the ability to “flip” between similar realities, and in the Dark Tower books, Jake, one of the main characters, remembers dying in another reality while still being alive. The resulting dichotomy nearly drives him insane.
Fine, there’s a story in here. But how does it play?
There’s a strong story here, but I WANT TO SHOOT THINGS. For the most part, BioShock Infinite plays the exact same way that the original did, albeit with a few tweaks. Gone are Plasmids, but in their place are Vigors, which work the same way. These can also be tweaked and upgraded, either by purchasing the upgrades from a vending machine, or by acquiring gear that can affect your abilities much like Tonics did in BioShock. You can carry any number of gear items around with you, but can only wear four of them at a time; they fall into one of four categories: hat, shirt, jacket, and trousers.
Most players will settle into a combination of weapons, gear, and upgrades that work best for their particular style of play. During my full playthrough of the game, I tended to use a Machine Gun or a Carbine for long-range shooting, with a more powerful weapon like an RPG or a shotgun in the second slot. Cycling the gear often to reap different benefits is worth the effort, but some like the “Burning Halo” hat, which set enemies aflame when you melee attack them, are an easy choice. You can only carry two weapons at a time, but ammunition is fairly plentiful. If you can’t find ammo you can almost always find another weapon lying around, so having only two firearms wasn’t that limiting.
Combat gunplay will become extremely virgorous
“When a video game can take you from explosive combat featuring magic powers and exploding weaponry and still move you on a deep emotional level, something special has happened.”
Your foes will ramp up quickly in difficulty, and while the baton-wielding policemen fold easily, you’ll soon be facing armored enemies who resist damage and blast flames. Then there are larger enemies like the Motorized Patriot and the Handyman who are much more difficult to take down. They have their weak spots, but they also soak up damage like a sponge. The Possession and Shock Jockey Vigors will be your friend when dealing with them, but you can chart your own course. There are plenty of weapons and Vigors to to choose from, so your mileage will vary.
You also can’t discuss combat without talking about the Skyline system, especially since your Skyhook, once acquired, allows you to perform brutal executions – as well as traverse levels. It’s partly an on-rails travel system, as you control the speed, direction, and where you enter and exit. You’ll find yourself wondering how Booker’s arm doesn’t rip off as you plummet from one rail to another, and it can be a real trip to look backwards while “lining” to see Elizabeth following behind you on a Skyhook of her own. You’ll want to master this form of travel as soon as possible, as it will quickly become important as a combat tool.
Despite everything that is new here, along with the incredible eye-candy of the vibrant city in the clouds, the complete BioShock experience is just a shade paler than what the original game provided. That strange, spooky feeling you had while exploring the depths of Rapture – combined with the terror that would wash over you when you heard a Big Daddy’s bellow – were powerful. Not that Columbia doesn’t provide a similar experience, but it’s just not quite as gripping – but only by a matter of small increments, not a gaping, disparate gap.
The bottom line is that BioShock Infinite is a triumph in storytelling that should not be missed. The small dings don’t detract from the deeply moving story, which comes down to the writing and the incredible voice acting. Be sure to stay tuned through the credits; Ken Levine directs voice actors Troy Baker (Booker) and Courtnee Draper (Elizabeth) through a scene where Booker plays the guitar and they sing a moving, sad version of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” When a video game can take you from explosive combat featuring magic powers and exploding weaponry and still move you on a deep emotional level, something special has happened.
Score: 9.5 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the PC via a copy provided by the publisher)