*Mild spoilers follow! You’ve been warned!**
Bioshock Infinite has faced more than its fair share of delays, story changes and lofty promises since it was announced a couple years back that industry titan Ken Levine and the crew at Irrational Games would be developing the series once again. After the semi-bland outing that was Bioshock 2 (a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth), a breath of fresh air was definitely needed, and now that we’ve had a chance to explore the fantastic floating city of Columbia, we’re glad to announce that just about every single fear we may have had has been laid to rest. Rejoice, nerds, for one of the greatest games of this or any generation has indeed been gifted upon the gamers of the world.
The year is 1912 and you are Booker DeWitt, a former American solider turned Pinkerton agent turned private eye. You owe a lot of money to some very bad people, so when you are hired to free the young Elizabeth from the mysterious city of Columbia in exchange for a clean slate, the opportunity to get your life back on track is simply too enticing to pass up. But the world is often more complicated than it seems, and what is supposed to be a simple rescue mission sets into motion a series of events that will cause DeWitt to question his own morality, his place in the grand scheme of everything and his very existence.
It was entirely possible that years of excitement and expectation could have buried Bioshock Infinite. It seemed that every new tidbit of information was promising bigger and better things, and each delay was cause for more worry. Was Irrational stalling? Had they bitten off more than they could chew? These are valid questions, but within the first ten minutes of gameplay, we are treated to a rich and creative universe so ambitiously gigantic yet so masterfully executed it’s almost hard to believe they pulled it off at all.
Our first vision of Columbia is every bit as exciting as our first glimpse of Rapture if not more so. It is a bright and cheerful world bustling with life, and you’ll probably spend a good amount of time freaking at how amazing everything looks. Wandering around the plazas and thoroughfares of Columbia provides a sense that people really do live out their lives here, a welcome change from the non-stop insane denizens of Rapture. And yet, despite the seemingly happy facade of the city, there is a sense that something evil lurks underneath. Perhaps it’s the unabashed religious zealotry or the sheer adoration heaped upon the city’s founder, Comstock, from Columbia’s citizens. Whatever the reason, something is not quite right. Bioshock Infinite, like other games in the series, utilizes mood and tension to drive its story forward, and as you adapt to these new surroundings, it builds on these tenets perfectly by tackling the concept of racism and patriotism wrapped in the guise of religion. Really, Irrational has presented a thinly veiled critique of blind faith, and it’s almost as if nobody can fathom that Comstock would be an evil man because he claims to love God and has constructed an actual, physical heaven of sorts.
When things get going, they really get going. In fact, before you know it you’ll be swapping out guns and firing off Vigors as Comstock puts an entire army between you and your ticket to a new life. It’s harrowing and difficult at first, especially on the higher difficulties, but once Elizabeth joins you, Bioshock Infinite truly shines. The AI programming is flawless and finds Elizabeth easily keeping up and providing ammo, health and salts (these power your Vigors similarly to Bioshock’s Eve) as well as serving as a means to access hidden areas with her lockpick skills.
The slow bond that builds between DeWitt and Elizabeth is excellent. As she has been locked away in a tower her entire life, it only makes sense that she would have trust issues. As such, it’s quite believable that she would cower and run upon witnessing her first murder. Yes, DeWitt doesn’t have much of a choice in terms of killing, but the way it effects the young woman makes actual, believable sense.
The new Skyline and Skyhook mechanics are a blast. The hook becomes an excellent means of roller coaster-esque traversal along a system of rails set up to ship cargo around the city. In these sections DeWitt can shoot enemies while careening along the rails or dismount/strike foes with ferocious power. Irrational was good enough to provide a means of acceleration, deceleration or reversal mid-travel, and achievement/trophy hounds will find plenty of reasons to experiment. The hook becomes your melee weapon and is worth checking out for the grisly finisher move animations alone.
There are plenty of cool new enemy types all over Columbia. In addition to the regular, gun-toting humans, there are Vigor-wielding badasses like the Firemen and Crow Kings, Big Daddy-like heavies in the form of the Handyman and Motorized Patriot and the horrifying Boy of Silence. Each type is so cleverly spread out in each area that combat never feels stale even if it does get tough.
Scattered throughout Columbia are pieces of gear: a means of assigning passive abilities to DeWitt. These abilities are awesome and varied enough that gamers ought to be willing to give each upgrade a spin. Some give DeWitt better handling ability on the Skyrails while others allow anything from faster movement, increased headshot damage or faster reloads.
Many trailers showed glimpses of Elizabeth having powers of her own, and the final game finally shows us that she has the ability to open up portals, or tears, into other worlds. This provides an extra layer of intrigue as theoretical physics, vis-a-vis time space and inter-dimensionality, come into play. From the moment you enter another dimension with Elizabeth in order to complete an otherwise impassable mission Bioshock Infinite becomes straight-up science fiction-y. Things can get a little confusing from this point, but it’s still fun to think about infinite dimensions and our infinite selves. To simplify, think of time like a river…just because you can’t see around the next bend doesn’t mean nothing is there, nor does it mean the path you’ve been traveling ceases to exist. Yikes, right? It’s pretty cerebral material for a video game, but those willing to put in the proper amount of brain power and/or thought will find it extremely exciting to think about and uncharacteristically intelligent for a video game.
This Billy Pilgrim/unstuck in time and space concept also means totally cool covers of unexpected pop songs. The carnival organ version of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” or the barbershop quartet singing “God Only Knows” are subtle but meaningful touches that highlight the story nicely.
The Plasmids found in the original Bioshock provided new strategical possibilities, while Infinite’s Vigors are, for the most part, not integral to your success. Each one is fun to try out for a few battles, but none shine in the same way as before. Finding new weapons is far more exciting, but even this is disappointing thanks to that weird video game rule that only lets us carry two weapons at a time. Perhaps the intent here is that it wouldn’t make sense for one man to carry 15 weapons around, but when playing a game that allows the main character to shoot crows out of his hands, the idea of carrying too much weight becomes absurd.
The highly-publicized Songbird is super-cool at first, but we are never given an explanation as to who or what he actually is. A gigantic bird robot? OK…maybe, but he sure seems to have a whole hell of a lot of feelings for a robot.
Middle portions of the game become a downright chore, specifically a two-part boss battle that might have been interesting if there had been a strategy available beyond standing as far away as possible with a sniper rifle. The way in which these battles play out could have been so cool, but substitute cheap enemy waves for actual challenge—one of gaming’s largest and most constant letdowns! If developers wish to create more hours of gameplay, it would be much appreciated in the form of additional content, not frustrating repetition.
The Bottom Line
Gamers have been expecting a lot from this game—especially with three delays and multiple years between the last iteration. The good news is that Irrational Games has delivered. Bioshock Infinite firmly cements the series as one of the greatest titles in the medium and manages to add so many new elements while staying true to the core feelings set down in Rapture. DeWitt and Elizabeth are well-written and exciting characters who evolve and change naturally over the course of the brilliant narrative, and the twist ending is every bit as shocking as learning Atlas’ secret in the original Bioshock. A second play-through is even more enjoyable as seemingly unimportant bits of dialogue suddenly make far more sense. The bad news is that this is as linear as games get which, in and of itself is no big deal, but has the potential to turn off gamers who love that sandbox feel. Regardless, Bioshock Infinite will no doubt be cited in “games are art” arguments from now until the end of time, and we officially cannot wait to see what else Ken Levine has up his sleeve. Buy this right away and enjoy the awe that is Columbia.
9.5 out of 10
Developer: Irrational Games
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PC
Rating: M (There’s an achievement called “Industrial Accident”)