Bioshock Infinite has to be one of the most highly anticipated games of this console generation. It was developed by Irrational Games, the studio which produced the original Bioshock way back in 2007, and has a lot of things in common with its predecessor both thematically and mechanically. The game is set in 1912 and you play as Booker deWitt, a former soldier who must journey to the city of Columbia to rescue a woman known as Elizabeth in order to clear his gambling debts. However Columbia is no ordinary city, it is suspended in the clouds and controlled by the mysterious and egotistical Father Comstock, a self proclaimed prophet who has erected statues of himself everywhere. Predictably Booker’s presence and purpose in Columbia are not welcome, which means that you mostly have to fight your way through the city in order to accomplish your mission.
At heart Infinite is a first-person shooter, but it has a few additions to the standard formula. As well as being able to use a variety of upgradable guns to kill enemies the player can use ‘vigors’ which are ostensibly magic powers that work almost identically to Bioshock’s plasmids. Whilst firing a weapon with one hand, the player can use the other hand to inflict vigor-based carnage on enemies. Some of my favourite examples involve sending a flock of flaming crows at an unfortunate soul and suspending a group of enemies in the air before electrocuting them all. These vigors can be upgraded and the player can also wear up to four pieces of performance-enhancing clothing called ‘gear’ which improve specific abilities. The other big addition to the game mechanics are the ‘skylines’ present in most of the larger environments. These are primarily used for transportation of goods around Columbia but the player (and enemies) can also latch onto them to move quickly around the environment as well inflicting various types of death from above. The extra options this verticality gives you made these sections of the game some of the most fun to play through. All of this combines to give a pretty varied and flexible playing experience, although I found that I settled into a shotgun/charge vigor/melee combination about half way through which worked on most enemies. I also wish there was a little more enemy variation, and you never get to fight anything as iconic as Bioshock’s Big Daddies.
The other thing that sets Bioshock Infinite apart from other games is Elizabeth. Most of the game is spent with Elizabeth at the player’s side, which is quite a bold move from Irrational, considering the hatred escort missions usually provoke in seasoned video game players. They get around the usual problems by using a few clever tricks, the biggest two being that Elizabeth is never harmed in combat (due to story features I won’t spoil) and she constantly gives the player money and supplies that she finds around Columbia. This means that having Elizabeth by your side actually makes the game easier and more fun to play which does a lot to endear her to you. Elizabeth’s interactions with the player in the down time between fighting are incredibly well done; there is an almost constant conversation going on between her and Booker which helps to flesh out both their characters and remind you of the story. She provides some well needed perspective on the player’s murderous antics, questioning your actions at various points and grimacing whenever you perform one of the brutal melee finishers. The dialogue between the two characters is some of the most believable I’ve encountered in a game (credit should be given to the performances of voice actors Troy Baker and Courtnee Draper) and by the end I was quite invested in the relationship.
One of the things I enjoy most about playing video games is the ability to enter and explore a different world, and Bioshock Infinite definitely succeeds in allowing you to do this. Columbia is expertly realised, from the idyllic beaches of Battleship Bay to the industrial squalor of Finkton. However, the game is quite linear, and while there is opportunity to explore the different areas, you are mostly funnelled from one to the next. I really enjoyed the art style throughout the game, by eschewing hyper realism the developers manage to give the different areas of Columbia a real sense of personality. I also really enjoyed the water effects, during an early baptism scene the reflection of the surrounding area in the pools of water looks absolutely stunning. This attention to detail extends to the music and sound design; the soundtrack features a mix of original and licensed music, some of which is used to great effect (not wanting to spoil anything, I’ll just say that anyone playing the game should listen out for a great Beach Boys cover).
I now come to Bioshock Infinite’s strongest aspect, the story.The game delivers it in two main ways: through audio diaries called ‘voxophones’ scattered around Columbia which provide insight into past events and through dialogue. Thankfully, there are almost no cut scenes whatsoever, which gives the game an immediacy and momentum. Unfortunately I can’t really discuss what makes the story so great without spoiling the entire game but suffice it to say that there is a lot more to Booker’s mission than what first appears. It is also one of the rare games which has an ending that left me satisfied (albeit a bit confused until I thought it through a few times). The story also touches on a few themes which are notable from their absence from most games; the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, American Exceptionalism and racism to name a few. However, putting all of this aside, the real reason the story works is because of the relationship of Elizabeth and Booker. The realism and growth of this relationship is the thing that drives the player’s investment in the story and without it the whole story would fall apart.
To sum up, Bioshock Infinite is a very good game, it feels like the culmination of the work Ken Levine (the game’s creative director) and Irrational started with System Shock 2 and Bioshock. It was an ambitious project, but the end result – an engaging first-person shooter experience with an interesting story and sympathetic characters – is nothing short of brilliant. I do feel, however, that they have pushed this particular type of game to its limit and hope their next project will retain the great writing and world-building but with a fresh, new gameplay experience.