Irrational had a tall task coming into Infinite. How do you top a game that many hold in such high regard? Is it even possible?
It’s been a long four years of waiting, but Irrational Games has finally managed to put on the finishing touches and ship the long and eagerly awaited BioShock Infinite to stores. It’s been a long road getting to this point with key departures and shifts in development happening quite a bit. While not technically in direct relation to either BioShock, much will feel familiar to series veterans while still retaining that unique and fresh feel. With a seemingly tumultuous development cycle, does the game represent a perfect Eden or is it just another failed dystopia?
Full review awaits after the jump…
BioShock Infinite opens in 1912, you’re Booker DeWitt, a former Pinkerton Agent and Army veteran of the battle at Wounded Knee. Seemingly caught in some pretty hefty gambling debts, you’re given a golden ticket of sorts to financial freedom if you can infiltrate a city in the sky known as Columbia to rescue/kidnap a girl there. “Bring us the girl, wipe away the debt.” You don’t know why you’re going after this girl, but it doesn’t matter to you. After a rain-soaked ride to a lighthouse, you’re soon sent into the clouds and arrive at Columbia, a once shining example of American pride under the guidance of its founder Zachary Hale Comstock. To say any more would really detract from the experience, so to not spoil it, I’ll end it there. Seriously though, there’s a LOT more going on here, that the floating city aspect may be the least insane part.
Irrational has once again shown that they know what they’re doing in terms of telling a compelling story. Without spoiling anything, the ending literally made my brain melt to the point where I had to take 10 minutes in order to begin processing everything. It’s a narrative that is so compelling it’ll stick with you not only a few days after, but for quite some time. The narrative is easily one of my favorite things about this game and typical of Irrational to push the story to the front instead of sticking it in the back like many shooters do. You get the sense that instead of crafting the story around the gameplay, Irrational crafted the gameplay around the story they wanted to tell. It’s effective and creates almost a different breed of first person shooter like BioShock did back in 2007. A thinking man’s shooter I like to say as it has a lot of intellectual depth to go along with the shooting.
Like BioShock, Infinite also deals with some extremely heavy themes such as racism, religious fervor, exceptionalism, and economic discontent. From the first moments you step into the city, everything seems great but almost immediately, you feel that underlying tension which acts as a sort of powder keg. And when it blows, things go to hell quickly. It’s pretty interesting when you think where the game opens to where it ends. It’s no less impressive that Ken Levine and his team has managed to weave all of these heavy topics into a shooter. It’s something you certainly don’t see often but is no less appreciated. Again, I won’t say too much as I’m trying hard not to spoil the experience for you.
Columbia. It’s a place so gorgeous that I really wish it was an actual place I could visit…just…you know, without all of the civil war, racial stereotyping, and discontent. But seriously, the first moments stepping into that cloud city generates this intense sense of wonder and amazement, sort of like your first moments in Rapture. The colors are vibrant and the sights and sounds do an excellent job to pull you into this world and refuse to let you go. It’s quite easy to get lost in the game playing for a lot longer than you first intended. The attention to detail is also just staggering from the crowd animations, level of polish, and just how it all comes together to create a believable location. From the opening moments as an observer at a Fair, there’s just so much to see, interact with, and take in. It’s expertly crafted and may explain why it took so long for this game to release. Infinite creates a compelling, beautiful, and complex world that comes very close (but doesn’t quite top) to usurping Rapture.
If there’s one thing that I would have liked to see, it would have to be in the character development department. Outside of Booker and Elizabeth, Irrational doesn’t spend as much time on supporting characters as I would have liked. This ranges from people like Jeremiah Fink and Daisy Fitzroy all the way to Zachary Comstock himself. These are interesting people and created by Irrational for a reason. I would have liked to explore them or at least spend a bit more time with them than what we end up getting. Perhaps this is something that will be corrected through DLC.
The crowning achievement for Irrational however has to be with Elizabeth herself as I don’t think I’ve ever been so captivated by an NPC before. While many people may fear her as one long escort quest or someone that’ll get in the way, Elizabeth throws all of that out the window. She’s designed to stay out of your way and also provide items when you need them. Low on health? Don’t worry, Liz will find some and toss it over to you. She’s a worthwhile ally and certainly not quite the damsel in distress she’s made out to be and it’s wonderful witnessing her character develop as the game pushes forward. The amount of effort and programming that had to have gone into bringing her to life must have been staggering. From her facial expressions, believable persona, and how she interacts with the city as if seeing it for the first time, is incredible. One could also argue that she’s the main character here, not Booker.
Gameplay wise, it feels very familiar to previous entries taking queues more from BioShock 2 in the fact that you can have a vigor and gun at the same time. Sure, the gunplay can seem a bit too familiar as it doesn’t feel as tight as more modern shooters but in terms of BioShock, it works. The good news is, there’s a lot new to enjoy here as well on top of existing systems. Booker has a new melee device called a Skyhook that allows him to perform some seriously brutal finisher kills once and enemy’s health is very low. It’s certainly a step up from the wrench in BioShock and one that doesn’t need to be equiped to use as it’s mapped directly to a button. There’s a slew of new powers, called Vigors this time around (but function the exact same as plasmids) and the game manages to spread them out to allow you to experiment and get comfortable without overwhelming you. I will say that the final two Vigors just didn’t resonate with me, but it could have been that you get them fairly late in the campaign.
Combat also gets a new wrinkle with Elizabeth’s ability in that she can open “tears” which allow her to pull in objects to assist ranging from medkits and additional skyhook attachment points, to more offensively oriented things like a Motorized Patriot or turret. They’re completely optional to use, but definitely welcomed especially during more frantic fights. Again, it adds an additional layer to combat and really helps create those unique experiences. And honestly, who doesn’t want a robotic George Washington shooting at your enemies with a Gatling gun while making a speech on your rights and freedoms?
Finally, the last trick combat has up it’s sleeves are Skyrails. At first, using these will disorient you, but once you get some practice with them, they’re a breeze to use and extremely fun. Think of the skyrails as a sort of zipline connecting these floating buildings only you can control the speed and direction you want to go in. Adding these into combat is great fun as you can zip around shooting or even leap off and strike an enemy on the ground. It also helps when you need to flee and catch your breath though enemies can and will use these as well, so you’ll want to be on guard.
Upgrading has been tweaked a bit as now Booker can equip “Gear” items which give passive bonuses in four slots: Hat, Torso, Pants, Boots. It works in the same way as Tonics from previous games, but you’re limited to four which adds a more tactical element as they can be switched at will as often as you want. Guns can also be upgraded via vending machines to add things like damage or clip size. The same goes for Vigors, increasing their usefulness.
Once again, Garry Schyman was brought in to score the game’s soundtrack and once more, he’s created an absolute stunner. The music has familiar elements that bring you back to BioShock but feature a lot of new to bring you back to the present. It must have been a challenge to try to create a compelling follow up that isn’t just a rehash and he accomplished it with flying colors.
There’s something to be said about Irrational ‘s development process. 2K has resigned itself to provide the money, trust and support and get out of their way. In this day and age, that’s an extremely rare trait for a developer. Yes, to the normal outside person it may seem chaotic with Levine even stating that he’s not afraid to scrap or move entire gameplay segments if it doesn’t feel right. BioShock Infinite is just one of those rare games that comes along only once and a while marrying a strong narrative and gameplay together in a very complete package.