Ahead in the clouds
Developer: Irrational Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Platforms: PC, PS3, Xbox 360 (reviewed)
When BioShock first released back in 2007, it was a game changer. Redefining the linear FPS experience, Irrational Games brought us under the sea to the wondrous world of Rapture. Offering our first glimpse at a completely original setting, critics and players the world over were awestruck as they were introduced to a dystopic underwater city left to “burn” at the hands of the overzealous Andrew Ryan. Rapture was unlike anything before it; inhabited by deranged Splicers and policed by the fear-evoking Big Daddy. In fact, the original BioShock was such a triumph that when 2K Marin produced a sequel, it had little chance of surpassing the greatness of its predecessor. Without the “wow” factor of being introduced to an entirely new world, the unfortunate sequel was tasked with trying to deliver a more refined action-shooter with a comparatively-irrelevant story. Despite succeeding in its efforts to craft a more intuitive gameplay experience and include a better-than-expected multiplayer component, BioShock 2 inevitably took a lot of heat for the simple fact that it wasn’t the original BioShock. Now, six years later, Irrational Games has returned to the helm to deliver BioShock Infinite. This time around, their solution to surpassing the greatness of Rapture was to craft an even more engaging new world to explore. Enter Colombia, the floating city-in-the-sky.
What makes Colombia such a beautiful counterpoint to Rapture is the fact that we’re seeing the city in its prime. While Infinite may cover some of the same sociopolitical themes of its predecessor, it does so in much more subtle terms, visually speaking. Colombia is not a city in ruin; it is beautiful, colorful, and pristine. The folks are happy, and all is seemingly well. That is, until a certain Booker Dewitt rolls up into town. (See what I did there? He rolls up because it’s a city in… oh whatever.) Dewitt, otherwise known as the “False Shepard” is suspected of arriving in Colombia for the sole purpose of bringing chaos and ruination to the peaceful city. But, as one might expect in the universe of BioShock, everything is not as it seems.
Without venturing into spoiler territory, Booker’s mission from the very beginning seems simple enough: His job is to rescue Elizabeth from the clutches of “The Prophet”, overseer of Colombia, and bring her back to New York. Obviously, it’s a task easier said than done, and so upon reaching Elizabeth all locked away in her tower, the two begin a journey that will take them beyond Booker’s wildest imagination. Elizabeth, on the other hand, is much more imaginative. So much so, in fact, that she possesses the ability to open tears into other worlds, worlds that she describes as alternate realties, a form of “wish fulfillment” of sorts. These tears become central to the plot, while simultaneously shaping Infinite’s innovative new combat system. Scattered across the battlefield, Booker will come across numerous tears that Elizabeth can open when prompted. By simply holding down the corresponding button while looking at a tear, Elizabeth can pull health packs, weapons, and even allied support in the form of turrets, automated rocket launchers, and mechanical soldiers into the world to aid Booker in combat.
As an FPS, BioShock is no stranger to running and gunning. As you’ve done before, players will be dual wielding a weapon in one hand and a “vigor” (think Plasmid) in the other. But since Colombia lacks the distinctive darkened corridor aesthetics of Rapture, instead taking place out in the open (sky), the dynamics of combat have shifted a bit. This time around, combat places players much more on the offensive, with a number of vigors that thrust the player right into the middle of the action, instead of relying on cover-based shooting. Addtionally, Booker has a regenerative “electro-magnetic” shield so that he can take a bit of punishment before his health begins depleting, again reinforcing the fact that players can expect to take a lot more bullets than during their time in Rapture. The weapons aren’t anything you haven’t seen before in any shooter, with a mix of shotguns, RPGs, machine guns, and pistols. The real genius of combat in Infinite can be attributed to one thing in particular: Elizabeth.
Clearly the star of this show, Elizabeth is given painstaking tender, love and care by the fine folks at Irrational to create the most lifelike character I’ve ever seen. In combat, Elizabeth will take care of herself, so that players only need focus on the action at hand. When you’re in a tight spot, in need of either health, salts (stamina for vigors), ammo, or a bit more cash to purchase an upgrade from the vending machine, Elizabeth has your back. It’s funny, really. On its surface, BioShock Infinite is an escort mission wrapped in a fetch quest; two of gaming’s most infamous, overused, and unwanted tropes. Yet, because of the amazing work the team does in bringing Elizabeth to life, she becomes so much more than that. Elizabeth is not a responsibility, she’s not an obligation; she’s a partner. A very smart, totally believable partner you come to rely on. It’s hard to describe the feeling you get the first time you run out of bullets while an enormous Handyman, Infinite’s closest version of a Big Daddy, is charging towards you, only to hear Elizabeth’s soft, sweet voice gently call over “Hey Booker, need some ammo?”
When not in combat, exploration plays a much larger role in Infinite over previous installments. There are optional side-quests Booker can pick up that are triggered by finding certain items hidden in back alleys and behind locked doors, which Elizabeth can open provided you’ve found enough lock picks whilst scavenging crates and such. Collectibles this time around come in the form of voxophones, audio recorders that offer more insight into the behind-the-scenes story of Infinite; giving us a closer, more honest look at the characters in play. Additionally there are “Kinetoscopes” which provide brief black-and-white video clips showing off the construction and backstory of Colombia itself. These items, when combined with the overall design and narrative, provide Colombia with a rich history and compelling characters.
In fact, if there is any sort of downside to criticize in Infinite, it’s that these characters are so well-developed behind the scenes through the use of kinetoscopes and voxophones that their in-game relevance is tragically undercut. Most of the enemies Booker and Elizabeth encounter are disposed of within an hour of meeting each, which is hopefully something the team will remedy with upcoming DLC. Characters like Daisy Fitzroy, as seen in the Infinite prequel novel Mind in Revolt, and Jeremiah Fink, are absolutely marvelous, and I wish the game spent more time developing their stories. Disappointingly, Father Comstock, the Prophet himself, doesn’t feel nearly as much of a threat as Andrew Ryan did. Comstock’s villainy is mostly passive, his atrocities being committed behind closed doors so that the player, while developing a hatred for him due to his general despicableness, never really feels a strong enough bond to make Comstock feel like a nemesis. The end result is that BioShock Infinite feels like a game with no real villain, no sense of urgency other than simply completing the task at hand: Getting Elizabeth out safely.
Luckily, where the narrative mildly falters in creating a true antagonist, it makes up for in spades in character interaction. Booker and Elizabeth play beautifully off of each other, their witty banter and dialogue during exploration and slow elevator rides creating endless amusement for the player. These two really get to know each other over the course of the adventure, and by the end of the game you really feel an emotional connection to both of them. Not only is Elizabeth a partner in battle and a companion throughout your journey, but she’s a friend. Someone you can trust when things start to go wrong. She’s quick witted and strong willed, and it’s her attitude alone that inspires Booker to complete his mission. Along the way, their collective faith will be tested, loyalties will be shaken, and hopes for a happy ending will seem just out of reach. But by the end, the thrilling conclusion to Infinite will leave you staggered and emotionally drained. Unfortunately, I anticipate the ending will take a lot of slack for obvious parallels that will be drawn to a particular recently-released film. In fact, one of the worst parts about the conclusion to Infinite is that you feel like you’ve just seen it somewhere else before, which is probably because you have. Tragically, this will lead players to cry foul and accuse the game of being a copycat or otherwise cop out, but simply standing on its own merit, Inifinite provides a satisfying conclusion that is both intimate and contained, yet leaves expansive room for continued adventures in the world of BioShock.
Stepping away from narrative and mechanics, Infinite must also be commended for its absolute beauty. Colombia is a stunning, vibrant city filled with incredible music, wonderful attractions, and lively inhabitants. While it may seem strange at first to hear 1910 remixes of modern music that shouldn’t exist in the period, once players begin to understand the world, the sights and sounds of Colombia become even more engaging. Listening to the folks talk amongst themselves provides added insight into the minds of everyday citizens, strengthening the overall experience and adding to the unparalleled immersion Infinite offers to players. If the floating airships don’t surprise you, perhaps using your “sky hook” to ride around on the rail lines connecting Colombia’s major areas will. Booker and Elizabeth can use their sky hooks to get an aerial view of each section of Colombia, speeding around like human cargo freights to either take in the view or sneak up and flank unsuspecting enemies. There are a variety of locations to explore throughout Colombia’s various districts, and opting to adventure through all of the hidden nooks and crannies will pay dividends; as you’ll get to see everything from diners and bars, to libraries and shops, picking up bonus voxophones along the way to further enhance the experience.
Overall, BioShock Infinite is a crowning achievement for Irrational Games. It crafts a beautiful story, filled with engaging and lovable characters you won’t want to leave behind when the credits roll. It designs a beautifully imaginative city in the sky, as Colombia provides the same feelings of awe as Rapture inspired within us so many years ago. It provides fast paced combat, kept constantly refreshing by the wealth of tactical options provided by Elizabeth’s unique abilities. But most importantly, it reinvents the idea of an escort mission. No longer should we have to be tied down by our accomplices. Infinite proves with Elizabeth that AI companions don’t have to be morons, nor do they have to detract from the experience. Instead, not only can they further the narrative, they can become genuine partners on our adventure. I have to admit, it’s going to be suck being whatever shooter I review next, because Infinite spoiled me something fierce. I don’t want to have to experience corridor shooting alone anymore, nor do I want a real-life online partner chatting in my ear the whole time. Thanks to Elizabeth, I now long for an intelligent AI companion to comment on my actions and help me out when I’m in a pinch. I now want someone to converse with my character to make my single-player experience feel less isolated, and have it baked right into the central narrative. While Elizabeth makes Infinite a unique experience, it’s one I wish the future of games is full of. She’s a one-of-a-kind work of art, one I certainly appreciate for her unique originality, yet simultaneously hope will soon be replicated ad nauseum.
As for my recommendation, I don’t think this part will come as any sort of surprise. BioShock Infinite is an astounding achievement, one that everyone should play and experience. Regardless of which genre you prefer, I myself being one to turn and run from the typically mundane plethora of shooters, this game is an absolute must-play. While it certainly helps having played at least the original BioShock as a point of reference to familiarize yourself with Irrational’s unique brand of storytelling, Infinite stands entirely on its own and can be thoroughly enjoyed as a standalone experience. Do yourself a favor and give it a try. And once you’re finished, be sure to come back and share your experience in the comments below