Review - BioShock Infinite

“Booker, are you afraid of God?” “No. I’m afraid of you.”

Irrational Games’ BioShock was the first game I ever bought for the current generation of consoles—purchased, in fact, a good three months before I even had an Xbox. Luckily, my floor in residence had no less than three 360s available for my use. The game still sits on my shelf, and let it be known that I’ve played through the entire thing no less than four times in the last five years. Just to make it clear how much I enjoyed BioShock, the only game I’ve replayed more than it is the GameCube remake of Resident Evil, which has been one of my all-time favourites going on a decade.

So understand me when I say the newest installment in Irrational’s franchise, BioShock Infinite, showed me just how broken, or at least seriously flawed, the first BioShock was in both design and storytelling. Infinite is not only a far better game, but an excellent one in and of itself, making up for any quibbles I might have with its gameplay with well-drawn characters and the sheer audacity of its story.

While the first BioShock was a satire of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist ideals set in a dystopian underwater city, Infinite’s setting is in many ways its opposite—quite literally, from a physical perspective, as its primary locale of Columbia is a flying city. Founded by religious zealot and self-professed prophet Zachary Hale Comstock in 1893, Columbia was meant to show off America’s growing prosperity. Following Comstock’s extreme methods used in quelling the Boxer Rebellion in 1899—he used the Columbia’s armament to roast the Chinese rebels alive, along with their unarmed women and children—the US government attempted to recall the flying city, only for it and its inhabitants to secede entirely from the union. By the time our protagonist, Booker DeWitt, is tasked with venturing up into Columbia, it seems no one but those who hired him has any memory of the floating fortress.

Booker DeWitt is a bastard. A lot of triple A games, especially those released in the last five years, have turned to using grizzled, morally ambiguous/oblivious (looking at you, Nathan Drake!) characters as player characters, but only a few have succeeded in that regard, chief among them Captain Martin Walker of Yager Development’s Spec Ops: The Line. Booker’s backstory reads like the events of The Line, albeit displaced a century. By the time we encounter him in the game’s main timeframe of 1912, he’s drowning his guilt in booze and in debt to some dangerous people. So when he’s given the opportunity to erase his debt by travelling to Columbia and retrieving a young woman who has been held captive there all her life, he doesn’t hesitate. One spectacular rocket flight later and he’s made contact with the floating city.

Columbia’s aesthetic, beautifully rendered and lit, is all boardwalks and cobblestone streets—or at least the part its ruling class, the Founders, wants you to see. Its rat-infested shantytown and a factory that looks like a robber baron’s wildest dream, both of which are populated almost entirely by Columbia’s lower class black, Irish, and non-WASP citizens, tell a very different story. An early scene sees Booker stumbling across the public shaming of an interracial couple, a moment that, even with my knowledge of the universe’s absolutely horrifying racial propaganda (pictured below), was still horrifying enough to make me do a double take. Unrest is already fomenting in Columbia by the time Booker shows up on the scene, and by the game’s halfway point he’s caught in a civil war between Comstock’s zealous Founders and Vox Populi, a citizen’s rebellion led by Daisy Fitroy, a black woman accused of murdering Comstock’s wife several years previous.

And in the middle of all this is Booker’s primary objective, Elizabeth. Like Rapunzel (in fact, the first portion of the game resembles a hyper-violent take on Disney’s Tangled), she has spent the vast majority of her life locked in a tower but is otherwise blissfully unaware of the scientific observation of her captors. Charming, witty, and especially handy with a lockpick—as she says, what else would a girl learn while locked up all those years?—she proves an able companion for Booker as they try to escape the increasingly turbulent Columbia. She also sorta kinda possesses the ability to open “tears,” rifts between parallel dimensions, a power that seems out of place at first but, like the presence of telekinesis in Looper, is ultimately a huge factor of the plot.

Both in narrative and gameplay, BioShock Infinite bears little resemblance to the game to which the franchise owes its name. There are a few obvious connections, of course, though I can’t list any of the former as it would spoil some huge endgame revelations, but gameplay-wise you use a combination of upgradeable period weapons and “vigors” (formerly BioShock’s Plasmids), genetically enhancing serums that give you a variety of powers from zapping enemies with electricity to distracting them with a murder of crows. Health, shields and other attributes can be upgraded and there are a variety of vending machines scattered about Columbia for you to purchase ammo, medical kits, etc. And the similarities basically end there.

Infinite is a noticeably more linear game than its predecessor. While some areas require a bit of backtracking here and there, the level design feels more streamlined than in BioShock. But, somewhat paradoxically, the lack of level complexity actually serves to make the designer’s gameplay goals less overt. In many ways, the first BioShock was a series of fetch quests—find a set of bathysphere keys here, assemble an air purification compound so you can open the door to another area there, and so on. While I had always been aware of this, even if just on a subconscious level, Infinite’s more linear gameplay actually makes the first game’s design flaws more apparent. It also lets you interact, or at least walk right up to, the non-violent non-playable characters, whereas BioShock kept them segregated through bulletproof glass (seriously, they did that in, like, every area).

With this simplicity comes a slight trade off: as Booker and Elizabeth are more focused on progressing from one area to another, there’s really not as much reason to linger, and thus far less of a focus on altering one’s environment. In BioShock, machine gun turrets, security cameras, vending machines and health dispensers could all be hacked to serve your needs. Infinite’s Possession vigor allows you to briefly assume control of turrets and opponents, but the effect is far more on-the-fly and not nearly as satisfying. For that matter, there’s really less of an emphasis on vigors in Infinite than on Plasmids in BioShock. A grand total of eight can be found throughout the game and I really only used three of them during both of my play-throughs.

But on the whole, combat is so much more fun. Compared to the claustrophobic corridors of the first game, Infinite wonderfully uses open air set pieces that can be tackled from a variety of directions—or heights, for that matter; the monorail-esque SkyLines, intended for freight shipment in the game’s universe, can be used as a means of travelling quickly from one point of the battlefield to another, and let me tell you, using your SkyHook to accelerate to top speed and launch yourself at a hapless enemy is immensely satisfying.

And the game is just better paced than the first. BioShock had a great twist, which I won’t spoil because I’m not a jerk, but it was dropped on you roughly two thirds of the way through, and everything afterward felt like the first two acts but without the preceding sense of mystery. I’m not going to give Infinite absolute top marks for structure—the middle act is admittedly padded, with a fetch quest or two that felt too much like the first game—but it had a proper rising action, climax and dénouement as any good story does.

Regardless, the story and character development were enough to make me practically forget anything that might have irked me about the actual playable framework of the game. Together, designer Ken Levine and voice actors Troy Baker and Courtnee Draper have crafted a story and characters that, at least to me, feel on par with a movie or television show. Booker and Elizabeth’s dialogue is natural and actually damned interesting, likely thanks to the almost unprecedented level of input Baker and Draper were allowed to have with their characters, leading to a beautiful, spontaneous moment in the game’s middle act that I won’t reveal, save for that it involves a guitar and an orange.

Hell, Elizabeth’s designers deserve an award. When not actively following you from one location to another, she wanders about, examining the odds and ends, nooks and crannies throughout your environment, leaning up against a wall or sitting on a bench if tired, and crossing her arms if she’s in a foul mood. It’s all motion capture and scripted events, I know, but it went a long way to making her feel like an actual character and not some NPC blindly following you from one objective to another. Doesn’t hurt that you don’t have to spend the game protecting her (coughResidentEvil4cough)

…you know I didn’t mean that, RE4. Come back to me, please!

There’s also the matter of the ending, which I’m not so dickish as to talk about here. But it’s the best part of the whole experience and really unlike anything I’ve seen in a big budget game previously. It’s big, ballsy, and mind blowing, enough so that I wanted to restart the game the moment I first beat it. For those in the know, or wanting to be in the know, I’ll probably be talking about it along with some other ballsy gaming moments sometime this month, so keep an eye out.

So, um, please give BioShock Infinite a shot. You don’t have to have played either of the first two BioShock games to appreciate it, and the ending alone is worth seeing the whole thing through start to finish. It’s just an incredibly polished piece of work and Ken Levine, Troy Baker, Courtnee Draper, composer Garry Schyman et al should all be proud of their work. Excellent damn job.

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