Game Review: BioShock Infinite [PC/Xbox360/PS3]
This game was reviewed on PC, a retail copy was used. BioShock Infinite was released on the 26th of March.
If I had to guess what I would say is my game of the year is at the end of 2013, I don’t think it will be BioShock Infinite. I also do not believe any game is perfect; nothing I have ever played in over thirty years of gaming deserves a perfect score. Not in my opinion. I don’t say this to be controversial, but to reassure you that BioShock Infinite is a great game. I’m sure you will have checked the score already, so now you know that for me, that’s almost as good a score as I am willing to award.
Just before you grab a pitchfork and hurl a tirade of abuse in the comments below, hear me out.
I didn’t like the first BioShock, not when I tried it initially. I honestly can’t remember what it was, it’s possible that’s because it’s been almost seven years since it was released. A couple of months after my first try however, I went back to it after my friend called me a “circus freak” for not liking it.
Despite the severe nipple twisting that friend got, I am eternally grateful that he convinced me to try again. For my trouble I experienced one of my favourite moments in my gaming life time. I haven’t sat so slack jawed throughout a plot twist since The Sixth Sense back in 1999. The game itself was a fairly dark journey through a post utopian abyssal home, with a sprinkling of innovative combat mechanics.
I don’t use that word lightly, not at all. I don’t work for EA or Activision, so you know I am actually using it correctly. Innovation, not something that truly happens very much in gaming, despite gaming developers spewing it forth every time they release a game, where the only actual change is the number on the end of the name.
The last time I felt that strongly was after playing Half-Life and its superb sequel. That’s how much regard I have for BioShock. The second, well, I didn’t like it at all. It was developed by 2K and I think I only got about half way through it. As you could imagine, I was overjoyed to hear that Irrational Games was overseeing the third instalment.
I can only recall a handful of games that has as good an opening twenty minutes as BioShock Infinite; one I have already mentioned; God of War 3 is another. It mirrors the first game, literally. Instead of the decent in to Rapture, you are given a brief, delightful glimpse of Columbia. It’s a dream like moment as you drift down in to the city; the music that accompanies is perfect. It’s confusing, spectacular and breath taking all at the same time.
The games racist undertones hit you right away, toilets for “blacks and Irish”, hallways for “whites only”. It’s right in your face, which is stark contrast to the visually beautiful setting you are dropped in to.
A scene early on involves an interracial couple tied up, and you being offered the choice to throw a baseball at them, or not. That in itself is not the shocking part; moreover, people stand by, jeering and hurling abuse at them as if they were possessed. At the very least, it’s an eyebrow raiser. For me, it was a powerful way of showing that Irrational Games weren’t going to pull any punches, and they don’t.
The violence in BioShock Infinite is just as graphic. The sky hook, which you acquire early on, can be used to deliver brutal executions. Headshots from firearms can cleave heads clean off the torso. Even a couple of the vigors (Infinite’s version of the plasmid), such as the ‘murder of crows’, has a vicious set of animations.
However, what I found to be the most surprising part to this barrage of inequity was also one of the biggest differences between Infinite, and the original BioShock.
Entering the lighthouse in the original game, you are greeted by a large statue with a banner hung below it. It reads “No Gods or kings, only man”. Rapture was made to be a society free from such oppressions, away from capitalist countries and governments, with no religious influence.
BioShock Infinite on the other hand tells a very different story.
This is about as far removed from the idea of Rapture as it could possibly be. In this case, God and country being used as the moral imperative to ward off “undesirables”.
The point I am making here is that, you won’t find many games throwing this kind of religious influence in to wrong doing. It’s very bold to say the least and about as much proof as you need that Mr Levine and colleagues are here to etch something special in your memory.
The story, as I am sure you must have gathered from the plethora of marketing that came our way over the last few months, concerns a roguish type named Booker DeWitt. He is tasked with finding a certain girl and bringing her back to his benefactor. This brings us to what was the strongest point of the game, coupled with some of the weakest writing I have witnessed in the franchise; Elizabeth.
Elizabeth is a beautifully crafted character, the juxtaposition of her fragile, endearing nature with that of her reserved and immensely destructive powers is projected wonderfully. Courtnee Draper, who voices her, does a superb job, as does the motion capture actor (whose name escapes me).
Her almost childlike innocence and curiosity is intoxicating, and fuelled brilliantly by some well written AI which sees her inquisitively looking over things as you pass by, or appearing thoughtful as she leans against a wall.
Emotional connection in games is a hard thing to do, even harder to come by, but Elizabeth’s qualities will have you pandering to her every word and yearning to know about her almost God like powers.
Although this is where the story telling comes hurtling back down to Earth, the explanation for very focused points of the story are simply lazy. DeWitt asking Elizabeth how she is able to do these incredible things, is given an answer which is, at best, a mind numbingly poor way to progress the narrative.
Time and again, the things I was most interested in are passed over for poetic and sometimes technical sounding jargon. Using a couple of big words does not a good explanation make. I can’t claim any attachment to the vague way in which a lot of the plot is revealed, or not in some cases. It’s poor writing, plain and simple.
Rapture was literally dripping with atmosphere. Awful puns aside, the story of the city’s downfall was told by way of people you encountered and situations that arose. It was everywhere you looked; even the voice recordings were more personal to the people that were there, not necessarily the main characters, just people telling their stories in a way that gave you a glimpse of life within Rapture. After a couple of hours there, you were almost drowning (last one I promise) in backstory.
This disparity is something that hinders immersion in BioShock Infinite. The recordings you find are, for the most part, directed at more central characters – the city itself decays into a hollow theatre because of it. It’s not that there is no connection with the story, but it’s just aimed toward the characters. You can argue either side of that quarrel; I just like to feel invested in the place I am exploring, not just the people who walk through it.
This irksome lack of quality in parts of the story doesn’t render the game unplayable though, far from it. Elizabeth easily holds your attention throughout, and the character portrayal in general is thought provoking to say the least.
As for the promise Ken Levine made about the ending (don’t worry I won’t spoil anything), I don’t think what he said was delivered. I’m sure opinion will wildly differentiate with that statement however.
“So I can’t tell whether people will like it or not, I can tell you it is absolutely different to anything you’ve seen in a videogame”
The combat in BioShock Infinite is a tighter, more streamlined version of the original game, but there isn’t anything really new here. There are a couple of different vigors, but most are a rehash of old ones. There is a much smaller choice this time around – eight to collect in all – and they can all be upgraded to a more powerful version, allowing for greater crowd control.
On PC each of them are bound to the number pad, making it very easy to switch between them. Once you do get the hang of which to use in certain situations, the combat really shows its strengths. There are also pieces of ‘gear’ that can be picked up, with any four usable at any one time. This allows you to enhance your play style simply by pausing the game and swapping them.
Environmental hazards are back as well and are still interactive with the vigors. Where things get a little different is when Elizabeth starts to use her powers. Tears become available a couple of hours in, and you have a choice of a few items to bring through to your world to use. The choices are usually no brainers, selecting between a huge armoured robot with a chain gun and a piece of inanimate cover is not so much the head scratcher, but they can be switched between at any point and also reused.
It keeps things fast paced and makes sure you have your eyes on the environment for help. I would have liked to see this used in a bigger variety of ways to be honest, as the choices don’t really change and you will have seen everything you can pull through within the next hour. The manipulation of the environment could have been a much larger part of the game.
The other new addition is the use of the sky hook. Most of the outside locations (and some of the inside ones) have a sky rail for you to jump on and swoop about. The mechanic has to be taken with a pinch of salt, as Booker seems to jump about fifty feet in the air, and sometimes falls a huge distance to catch on to the rail. That’s not to mention that you can reload whilst riding along. It’s possible Booker has another arm somewhere that he doesn’t talk about.
If you can look past his unexplained Captain America style agility, a phantom limb and incredibly durable arm sockets, it’s a real hoot. The parts that do have this particular mechanic are by far my favourite. The transition from ground to rail is silky smooth and as with the tears, it adds another layer of depth to the combat.
The decision to have only two usable weapons at any one time is an interesting one. I can’t honestly decide if it’s a good idea, but usually I would rather have the option to carry more.
I stated earlier that Elizabeth had some especially good AI projecting her innately delicate persona through the game world. The enemy AI isn’t quite on par with that, but it is smart and responsive to the player. It’s certainly as good as anything out there. I find if I don’t notice enemy AI, that’s because it’s doing what it should, and doing it well.
I’ve mentioned a collection of things in this review that bothered me about BioShock Infinite, but for the life of me, I can’t help but really enjoy it. Despite some lethargic plot points and a few oddities here and there, it still finishes with a great revelation and some of the most interesting and endearing characters I have ever come across in any game, ever.
The only thing holding this back from being on par with the likes of the aforementioned Half-Life 1 & 2 is simply details. Details which would have transformed an inert floating boardwalk into a bustling vibrant metropolis in the clouds. Details that would adequately articulate a deficient pocket of intelligence into a palatable, memorable story. Small but imperative details.
“Bring us the girl, and wipe away the debt. That was the deal. The details elude me now, but the details, wouldn’t change a God damn thing”. ~Booker DeWitt
With all due respect Mr DeWitt, I grudgingly disagree.
That’s all that comes between BioShock Infinite being one of the best games I have ever played. As it stands, it is simply an excellent edition to a great franchise. It just about bumps its virtual head on the bar, but doesn’t quite raise it.
There is though, a great adventure awaiting you in Columbia, and some wonderful personalities to get to know. So get going. That debt won’t wipe itself away.