Bioshock Infinite. The quintessential FPS that has a serious, mind-bending story to tell. Having pre-ordered the “Premium Edition” of the game and receiving all the nice little pack-ins such as the art book, soundtrack, key chains etc it was well worth the extra $30 or so I would normally spend on a new release. I also attended the midnight launch of the game on March 26th, so I could delve into the sky-faring world of Columbia without hesitation. I was not surprised to see nearly 25-30 gamers packed into my local GameStop to pick up their copy as well, since this game has been so greatly anticipated. The hype machine surrounding Infinite started well over a year a go and hasn’t let up until the day the game was available for retail. Gameplay videos, screenshots, Ken Levine interviews, Q and A’s with talent from the dev team and absurd amounts of countless news stories chronicling the games development and post-production were readily consumed by the mass public. No surprise then is Infinite already deemed “Game of the Year” worthy. A little soon, I believe… but is Infinite worth that commendation?
First and foremost, Infinite is a narrative, story-driven game set in the FPS format. FPS being the obvious choice since it immerses the player into the conditions of the game with ease. When you begin your adventure into Columbia you are literally jettisoned into the heavens with a loudspeaker welcoming you by declaring “Hallelujah” in a haunting, angelic voice. As your character, Booker DeWitt, glares out of the rockets window you see the city-line for nearly the entire city of Columbia and immediately, you are sucked in. It is breathtaking and must be played to experience it. Even non-gamers will appreciate the beauty this heavenly city portrays… at first. Once you step out of your one-man express elevator to Columbia, you are further welcomed by the sound of men and women singing hymns in a sanctuary type of environment. I wont go more into the detail of what happens next since as I stated the game must truly be experienced as my simple words won’t do it justice but let’s just say the game puts you at the center of a city with racism, religious zealots and social collapse permeating the surface of this would-be utopia. Booker, the protagonist, cares not of the plight of the Irish, black or Asian citizens of Columbia but is there to simply perform one task: Get the girl and bring her to New York. The girl, meaning the NPC Elizabeth who accompanies you through-out most of the 16-22 hour journey that is Infinite. Elizabeth, the city of Columbia (which could be described as a character itself) and the folks you meet along the way are what make Infinite resonate and deliver an emotional punch that makes you care about what happens throughout the entirety of the game. Not since Half-Life 2 have I seen a game deliver such a compelling, emotion-driven story that actually makes you care what happens to your AI companion. This is not one big escort mission, and the game makes that VERY clear the moment you and Liz are free to roam about Battleship Bay, going as far to tell you in a tutorial-like manner that “Elizabeth can take care of herself.” Indeed, Liz is a big girl and not some stupid one-dimensional character that gets in the way constantly or hampers gameplay. If the character and AI of Elizabeth failed, then the entire game would fail. Infinite hinges on Elizabeth as part of a story-telling mechanism and she also helps you in battle by tossing you ammo and health. She also has a unique ability to open “tears”, rifts in time from other worlds, dimensions or universes that allow Booker to summon health, ammo or salt crates (the fuel for regenerating your vigors, more on that later) and even pull in structures and skyrails for cover or unique vantage points. More interesting, however, are the rare moments in the game where Elizabeth strays from the cut-and-dry linear path and does some unexpected things. These moments are few and far between, but I encourage you to seek out and find them because they make the game even more compelling and advance Liz’s character development to more than just the chick who picks locks and tosses you bullets.
Elizabeth is somewhat of a parallel to the fairy-tale story of Rapunzel, who is trapped in a tower and must be rescued. But that’s where the similarities end. Elizabeth is a smart girl, wise beyond her years. She is infatuated with Paris and wishes to travel there someday. She is never let out of the tower and is constantly monitored via two-way mirrors by the games main antagonist, Zachary Hale Comstock and the Lutece Twins. For what reason they have her imprisoned and why she is of such high importance to Comstock and the Lutece Twins (who value her stock as a science experiment and much less as a human being) is a mystery that unravels as you make your way thru the game. Guarding Elizabeth and keeping her protected, as well as bringing her books, food and anything else she would need is Songbird, a giant mechanical fowl who possesses great strength to ward off any malcontents looking to spring Liz from her tower. I found the relationship between the two extremely interesting, as Songbird was made (or was he?) specifically for the reason to protect and serve Liz. Obviously, as Elizabeth matures into adulthood she realizes that Songbird, while having good intentions, is doing more harm then good by keeping her locked up in her tower. Songbird of course doesn’t understand and sees nothing amiss, as he is there to protect and unconditionally love the child since her inception into Columbia. When you eventually find and rescue her, Songbird views Booker as nothing more than a kidnapper threatening to break up his “family.” He should relentlessly pursue you through-out the city of Columbia for the entire duration of the game causing for some tense moments, but realistically Songbird only appears when the game finds it convenient to bail the story out of trouble nearly ever time Liz and Booker try to do something drastically important that could alter the linearity of the game, like try and escape on a zeppelin or confront Comstock. Sadly, Songbird is extremely underused, never fully realized and mostly relegated as a supporting character which I find strange since Irrational hyped him (which actually was Songbirds original name, “HIM”) so much before the games release. I was strongly looking forward to having the beast relentlessly pursuing me and Liz all over Columbia, but it never happens. I sincerely hope that Songbird will have a more fleshed out story arc in a future DLC pack, since there are three of them coming. I found one of the most saddening and heart-crushing moments in the game occurs between Liz and Songbird, which goes to show you how much of a stronger presence he deserved.
Elizabeth’s AI and how she functions in the game world is masterfully brought to life by her body movements, the characters animation and the exceptional voice-work by Courtnee Draper. Her big blue eyes and period-piece dress are fully realized by the games beautiful graphics. While I played the game on the PS3, it ran very smooth and although most of the textures looked like mud up close you will be dazzled by the city at large so much you won’t notice these minor imperfections. Also, as a PS3-exclusive extra every North American copy of Infinite includes the original Bioshock on the disc for installation. I wish more companies would add exclusives like this to the discs instead of the form of digital downloads. This is why Blu-rays have such an absurd amount of storage space, publishers! I could definitely see this game getting a re-release on the PS4 with HD textures, high-resolution gameplay and better lighting effects. But as the game is, it still is beautifully crafted. You can tell a lot of work went into designing the world of Columbia. I only wish you could explore it more before things go awry, when it still appears in it’s “utopian” state. There’s a good hour-or-two of gameplay that lets you freely roam the city before being forced to start shooting and skyhooking baddies left and right. This is where Infinite excels, not the gun-play and the vigor’s (essentially comparable to the original Bioshock’s Plasmids) but the non-linear approach to exploring Columbia in the first bits of the game, venturing into the various shops, eave’s dropping in on the NPC’s conversations. I found this to be more fun then shooting your way through dozens of mindless (but cleverly designed) baddies. You almost wish there was more unfettered exploration allowed in the game then the actual combat, because you really get the feel that Columbia itself could’ve told just as compelling story along with main narrative of Booker and Elizabeth.
This is where Infinite stumbles, because the game consistently goes into the routine of “enter new area, bad guys spot you, firefight in an arena situation ensues, kill off all the baddies and then advance”. Lather, rinse and repeat. Don’t get me wrong, I above anyone else enjoy a well-crafted FPS with excellent gameplay mechanics, but Infinite is little more than an above average FPS driven by the story, the need to find out what is going to happen next to Liz, Booker and whoever else you may be involved with at the time.
The game has a wide array of weapons, all pretty much your standard FPS fare (excluding the skyhook) ie: shotguns, sniper rifles, pistols, rocket launchers, machine guns. You can upgrade every weapon in the game so that each gun amasses more ammo, more damage, faster reloads, larger clips etc but who cares? It’s not an important part of the gameplay as most enemies can be disposed of with a maxed out sniper rifle, machine gun or shotgun. You can experiment with different weapon combos (Infinite allows for only 2 weapons to be carried at once) and Vigors, but as I said it’s really not necessary as the driving force in the game is the need to advance the story. The Vigors themselves are somewhat interesting and required to complete the game, but finding all the Vigors is not an actual requirement to defeat any certain bad guy, or get to a secret part of a level. Like the weapons, you can advance the potency of your arsenal of Vigors with each Vigor allowing for specific upgrades. But also like the weapons and guns, you can get away with using 2-3 maxed out Vigors most of the time. There are very few situations in the game that call for you to actually use the Vigors to advance the story, most of them just add as a combatant advantage. I found the combination of Bucking Bronco (which sends the villains stranded in levitation so they can be picked off one by one) or Shock Jockey (self-explanatory), Devils Kiss (launch fire from your fingertips) and Murder of Crows (same as Devils Kills, except you propel ravenous crows to dispatch a group of nearby villains) to be the most useful of all the Vigors. I typically always had Bucking Bronco equipped with one of the others listed above. The use of what Vigors on what enemies can evolve to develop a unique strategy going into a firefight, but most of the time its hide behind cover, then return fire while your enemies try to flank you or reload. Things do get interesting when a Motorized Patriot, Handy Man or Boys of Silence get involved, but I even found the Handy Man and Boys of Silence to be grossly underused. There is also one “heavy-hitter” battle that is obscenely redundant and will make you curse constantly for having to endure the ludicrous fight a number of times, one after the other. I won’t say which heavy-hitter it involves but it borderlines on annoyance and almost sucks the fun from the game. ALMOST. (I still did mildly enjoy running around gunning down soldiers as long as my shields and health were up to par).
While the vigor-weapon combo can be utilized to strategically electrify, ignite, crush, levitate or crow your way thru baddie after baddie the best parts of the fighting involve making use of the skyrail. Latching on and zipping around your enemies or flying gondolas is a blast in Infinite and is one of the gameplay mechanics that was designed brilliantly. I only wished there were more skyline fights…perhaps in the DLC? As much as the gameplay sometimes felt repetitive the skyline battles were a much needed break from the regular gun-fighting to something much more unique to Infinite. As I said before, I was glued to my screen for 8-10 hours straight when I started my first playthrough on hard difficulty. And even though some parts of the game’s action could’ve used more exploring then shooting, I kept coming back for more because the city of Columbia, it’s inhabitants and Elizabeth had a story that I had to finish. While some FPS games have lackluster stories or characters you couldn’t give 2 cents about, they have gameplay that excels far beyond the norm and keeps you coming back because the gunfighting is absurdly fun and the weapons and environments add a certain level of realism to the game. Killzone 2 and 3 are both games with sub-par stories and characters I couldn’t care less about, but the gun play, destructible environments, well designed enemies and weaponry were so fun and addictive I kept coming back for more until I finished the games. Infinite is the opposite, the gun play and mechanics are average but do excite every now and again with the Vigors and skyrails, but you don’t keep coming back for the combat. Rather you soldier on in Bioshock Infinite because the story and narrative are so compelling and Elizabeth as a character is so fresh that you want to be around her and continue the adventure. I only wish that Infinite could’ve had the best of both worlds. Much has also been said about the ending of Infinite and while I won’t reveal anything that will spoil the game, I can tell you it will leave you thinking about it for hours and days after the game ends which is a very good thing.
Overall, Infinite is an adventure worth experiencing. With beautiful graphics that bring the city and characters of Columbia to life and a wonderfully orchestrated soundtrack, its no wonder Irrational spent years in development on it. Like a good book that just can’t be put down, you will want to see Infinite through to it’s end and will be almost saddened by it’s conclusion. Thankfully we have three expansion packs on the way and I can only guess at what they may have in store. While the gameplay can become extremely repetitive, the addition of Elizabeth to drive the plot along with her crazy time-rift opening abilities, the game never really gets boring. There are a few parts that drag (mostly in the last several acts of the game), the end arena battle leaves something to be desired, Songbird definitely should have been used MORE but all in all I look forward to a return trip to Columbia to meet more of it’s memorable characters and settings when the DLC arrives. I can’t say if Bioshock Infinite is the “Game of the Year” since there are still other contenders that haven’t been released yet (*cough* The Last of Us *cough*), but it certainly is a worthwhile experience that any serious gamer who enjoys a great, addictive story, amazing settings and wonderful characters should play.