The internet seems to be divided into two camps: those who feel that BioShock Infinite is “teh best game evar” and those who think that it’s an overrated, bloated piece of garbage. My advice? Put your preconceived notions aside and play the game yourself before you hop on either bandwagon.
By now you’ve probably heard dozens of people talk about how great BioShock Infinite is. There’s been lots of hyperbolic praise said about the game, and the game has been subjected to a lot of dumb comparisons to Citizen Kane (mostly by people who probably haven’t watched Citizen Kane or understand why the film is so important and celebrated.) People are saying the title is “revolutionary,” “unforgotteable,” or that it’s a “game changer” — basically every overly positive game review cliché and lazy buzzword you can think of has already been used to describe BioShock Infinite a million times.
Of course, the crazy amount of praise the game has earned over the last few weeks has caused it to receive an equally moronic backlash from internet contrarians and “free thinkers” who labelled the game as “overrated” before they even played it — and when they did play it, they did so specifically to look for reasons to hate on it. These self-satisfied elitists have spent the last few weeks harping on every minor flaw in Infinite, lambasting the game for issues that they would have overlooked in any other title.
While I would love to hop onto the “BioShock Infinite is overrated” bandwagon (and enjoy the page views that such a stunt would surely generate,) I simply have to admit that I loved the time I spent with this game. Yes, the praise that’s been levied at this game has bordered on the ridiculous, and no, BioShock Infinite won’t change your life and it doesn’t make every game before it obsolete… But it is an incredibly fun and engaging adventure, and that’s really all it needs to be.
In case you didn’t know, BioShock Infinite puts players into the well-worn shoes of Booker DeWitt, a down on his luck private detective who accepts a petty kidnapping job in order to pay off his deep gambling debts. His job takes him to the flying city of Columbia, a vast, floating metropolis in the sky. DeWitt eventually succeeds in tracking down his mark, the mysterious and beautiful Elizabeth, but it soon becomes clear that neither DeWitt, Elizabeth, nor the entire city of Columbia are what they seem.
It takes you a good half-hour before BioShock Infinite sends its first bad guy your way, a length of time which is almost unheard of in today’s world of ADHD addled, instantly gratifying FPS’s. Unlike other games in this genre, BioShock Infinite doesn’t open with a big, bombastic battle scene, and it doesn’t drop you into a firefight right from the start. Unlike the ruined city of Rapture from the first game, Columbia is still a fully functioning society when you arrive: stores are open for business, children play in the streets, and people lounge on cafe patios and discuss their lives and politics. Instead of overwhelming you with action right from the start, BioShock Infinite eases you into its fantastical (and oftentimes disturbing) world, and despite the lack of combat, Infinite’s opening chapter is easily the most interesting and immersive opening chapter I’ve seen in an FPS since the original Half-Life. The game’s extended introduction to Columbia really pays off, as it makes the game’s setting feel like an actual city rather than just a simple stage for the action to play out on.
Now, despite what you may have heard, BioShock Infinite’s narrative isn’t “gaming’s Citizen Kane.” Booker and Elizabeth’s journey doesn’t put Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” to shame. But honestly, what game does? While there have been plenty of games whose stories I’ve enjoyed, I don’t think anyone who’s seen a decent number of non-Michael Bay directed movies or read any amount of “real” literature will disagree with me when I say that video game narratives aren’t quite as sophisticated or nuanced as the stories you’d find in other media. But then again, they don’t need to be: video games are unique because of their interactivity, and the best games have succeeded because they were fun to interact with, not because it was fun to sit there and watch some cut-scenes unfold.
With that said, I found myself enjoying BioShock Infinite’s story a lot. There isn’t a lot of player agency involved in the game’s narrative: Booker and Elizabeth end up at the same place no matter how you play the game, but I honestly didn’t mind. The game sets out to tell a story about two people whose lives haven’t turned out the way they should have, and it succeeds with amplomb; despite my feelings about the secondary importance of narrative in games, I found myself genuinely attached to Booker and Elizabeth. I wanted to learn more about them and their pasts, and by the time the game’s final sequence started playing out, I was honestly concerned about them and anxious about their safety. Sure, they’re not perfect characters — Booker plays the old reluctant hero archetype to a T, and your controllable interactions with Elizabeth are limited to her tossing you some ammo or money every now and then, but they’re still infinitely more developed than the usual throw-away characters that populate other games of this type.
A lot has been made about BioShock Infinite’s supposedly controversial themes, but honestly, there’s nothing in the game that’s worth getting riled up about. Just as the original Bioshock was a less than subtle indictment of the failings of Objectivism, BioShock Infinite’s themes are supposed to illustrate the dangers of racism, jingoism, religious fundamentalism, and other bad “-isms” that are unfortunately seemingly permanent hallmarks of American society. The game does feature some uncomfortable and unnerving imagery and scenes that serve to remind you of America’s less than perfect past — bathrooms that are segregated to keep the “Colored and Irish” away from “pure” whites, Jewish storefronts defaced with anti-semetic graffiti, and propaganda posters that depict Blacks and Asians as uncivilized animals — but honestly, Infinite’s anti-jingoist message should already be common sense to any sane, intelligent adult, so I don’t see what’s so controversial about the game’s morals. Yes, I know, some people have somehow stupidly mistaken the game’s anti-racist themes to be “anti-white,” but frankly, those people are morons and are probably too inbred to hold a controller straight in the first place. If you’re a rational adult who’s willing to accept the fact that America hasn’t always been perfect, you shouldn’t find any of the moral messages or themes in BioShock Infinite to be particularly offensive or revelatory. At the very least, the game manages to advocate its morals without seeming overly preachy or forced, so even if you do somehow manage to disagree with the game’s message, you should still be able to enjoy the main story without feeling like you’re being talked down to.
At its core though, BioShock Infinite is still an FPS, and even with a good story and an immersive setting, Infinite wouldn’t amount to much if it didn’t have fun shooting bits. While Infinite’s narrative connection to the original Bioshock is minor, its gameplay feels like a natural evolution of the formula established in the original BioShock: just like the original game’s protagonist, Booker wields a variety of guns with his right hand, while he tosses Vigors — Infinite’s equivalent of Plasmids from the first game — with his left. A lot of the core elements of Infinite’s combat should be familiar to veterans of the first game: “Salts” serve the same function as Adam, you can still buy supplies and upgrades from a variety of vending machines scattered throughout the city, and despite the change in setting, the game’s arsenal of guns aren’t that much different from the ones you used in the original BioShock.
Irrational Games could have probably made BioShock Infinite’s combat identical to the original game’s and people still would’ve been satisfied — there’s still something undeniably satisfying about distracting a squad of enemies by summoning a murder of crows and then picking them off one-by-one, or luring an enemy into a pool of water and then killing him with a single, well placed lightning bolt — but thankfully, Irrational didn’t stop there, as they’ve added a number of new improvements that make combat in Infinite feel substantially more dynamic and strategic.
Columbia’s battlefields are lined with suspended metal rails called “skylines,” which are used by both Booker and his enemies to traverse from one floating platform to another. While riding the skylines is initially disorienting, they prove integral to surviving most of the game’s battles: The skylines let players quickly zip from an area to another, and unlike the claustrophobic confines of Rapture, gunfights in Columbia usually take place in wide-open, expansive, sandbox style battlefields, so you’ll definitely want to use the skylines to quickly speed around each area in order to flank enemies or find a safe spot to take cover while your shields recharge. In addition to the skylines, Elizabeth can use her mysterious powers to manipulate each battlefield through the use of “tears,” which are basically inter-dimensional gateways. The tears can be used to bring in anything from extra spots of cover to hide behind, to automated turrets and sentries to give you some much needed extra firepower.
I’d strongly recommend that you play through BioShock Infinite on Hard on your first time through, because the added difficulty really shows off the depth of the game’s combat. While you can simply run and gun your way through the game on Normal, on Hard you really have to take advantage of the terrain and all of Booker and Elizabeth’s abilities in order to survive: you’ll need to lay down traps, funnel enemies into chokepoints, and constantly use the ziplines and tears to keep from being overwhelmed. The level design in Infinite is impeccable: everything is there for a reason, and (on the harder difficulties at least,) the game rewards players who make creative use of their environment. It’s one of the few FPS’ out there that rewards strategic thinking over twitch reflexes.
That thoughtfulness is BioShock Infinite’s most defining trait. Triple A games from this generation often feel like they’re pandering to the lowest common denominator in order to attract as large of an audience as possible, yet BioShock Infinite never feels like its dumbing itself down in order to appeal to the CoD generation. It feels like a work guided by a singular vision rather than something that was designed by committee; it’s easy to see that this was a game that was designed by a group of people who were passionate about the project and weren’t simply doing the job for a paycheck. It’s hard to quantify in words, but the game has a level of personality that’s simply missing from most over triple A, big budget games.
It’s that personality — that soul, if you will — that makes it easy to overlook BioShock Infinite’s shortcomings. For instance, the game doesn’t let you manually save, so you’ll instead have to rely solely on autosaves to record your progress. This wouldn’t be to bad if the autosaves weren’t spread so far apart: one time I quit the game because I had real life matters to attend to, and when I loaded the game up later, I discovered that the last autosaved happened half-an-hour before I had quit.
But to dwell on BioShock Infinite’s flaws is to miss out on the big picture: the game isn’t perfect, but it’s as close as any triple A developer has gotten within this generation. BioShock Infinite is an incredibly rare product: it’s an FPS with smarts, and it’s a big budget game that’s not afraid to take some risks. Those risks may not always pay off, and the game didn’t make me stop and reconsider my entire worldview, but that’s okay. As long as you don’t approach the game with an agenda, I don’t see how you could walk away from BioShock Infinite unsatisifed. Despite what the internet may tell you, BioShock Infinite is neither the best nor most overrated game in history: it’s simply a very polished, very thoughtfully designed game that kept me thoroughly entertained from beginning to end… and honestly, isn’t that why we all started playing games in the first place? If you expected anything else from BioShock Infinite, perhaps you should reassess your priorities, because while it’s not revolutionary or a “game changer,” BioShock Infinite does everything that a good game is supposed to do: it gave me an experience that I was happy and grateful to have had. As far as I’m concerned, that warrants a perfect score, even if it’s a slightly imperfect game.
Final Score: 10/10