Anticipation and past legacy can often inflate audience expectations to stratospheric levels, where the only way is down, and the landing can be a killer. Delayed and revised, multiplayer added and removed, E3 demos shown and revised, controversial cover art revealed, and iteration after iteration showing slight changes in game-play, everyone has been waiting for Bioshock Infinite in various states of feverish expectancy. After the highly influential, highly regarded and highly imitated original game, way back in 2007, could Ken Levine and Irrational deliver something to sate the insatiable and inflated desires of the gaming populace?
Of course they could.
It gets off to a slow but assured start; slow not in a pejorative sense, because this introduction only serves to heighten the confidence that Levine and his team clearly have in their creation and the trust they have in the player’s patience and intelligence. The setting is early twentieth century USA, and all the player knows from the beginning is that they play a private investigator called Booker DeWitt, charged with infiltrating the floating city of Columbia, an American technological marvel that has broken off physically and politically from mainland USA. This floating metropolis is ruled with an almost theological iron fist by one Father Zachary Comstock. Booker’s task is to liberate a young woman called Elizabeth, in order to mysteriously ‘pay off the debt’, a phrase repeated throughout the story. Almost an invert of the descent to Rapture, yet retaining the entry into a lighthouse from Bioshock, the opening is dripping with significance, including an almost religious ascent to the flying city of Columbia that simply refuses to follow the current convention of throwing spectacle, action and movement at the player and engages them instead through slowly and deliberately building a sense of place, ending with a baptism and a leisurely stroll around Columbia.
Most of the discovery of this wondrous city is environmental, via overheard conversations, advertisements and posters and the city of Columbia, which like Rapture before it, is a character in and of itself, though tellingly, one fragmented in various floating islands. These represent different aspects of Columbia’s society – industry, law etc. Audio logs, scattered around the world haphazardly, make a return, and help to flesh out Columbia tremendously, and are well worth hunting out, not just for fleshing out the history of the city, but for picking out some highly relevant plot information – take the time to hunt out as much information as possible.
Just like its predecessors, Infinite has a striking art style. The same oddly cartoonish style persists, lending the proceeding a clearly otherworldly sense to the proceedings. This is clearly a game set in the same alternate world of Bioshock’s but crucially, the setting is one that enjoys a comfortable sense of smug accomplishment rather than the decay of the first game – Columbia is clearly yet to go through its revolution.
Whilst Bioshock 1 and 2 had heavy overtones of horror, Infinite wisely eschews these in favour of more action heavy set pieces, and enemies attack with not so much a sense of bodily and mental corruption than with the overriding sense of ideological misguidedness, indoctrination and with a political heft. Like Andrew Ryan from the original game, Comstock is a presence who may not always engage Booker directly, but is always there. His face and personality permeate the city of Columbia and trickle down to the ideal and viewpoints of the citizens you encounter. It’s a weighty, mature story. There are themes of racism, of nationalism, of the oppressive nature of religion and the misguided ideals of revolution. One early decision, known to myself through prior knowledge, still came as a shock, both physical and emotional, that with a quick snap, changes the tone, pace and urgency of the game on a sixpence.
Infinite is a game of these moments, of singular events that strike you with wonder and awe; and not one of these involves an explosion or building falling down. One of the earlier stop and stare events involves a barbershop quartet humming the Beach Boys’ ‘God Only Knows’ to a relaxed and significantly white crowd, one of the earliest and most significant nods to something not being quite right in the world of Columbia, creating a sense of displacement that continues throughout the game.
Despite the mystery fogging the players every move, the one constant is Irrational giving the player a cleverly and consistently maintained goal: Get Elizabeth, get her out of Columbia. It cleverly negates the sometimes aimless direction of other games in the genre, giving a masterful sense of pace. Yes, you may still need to get to A to destroy or switch on B or C, but this overriding goal of rescue and escape gives the game a momentum sorely missing from other games of the same ilk.
The relationship and interaction between Booker and Elizabeth drives the game, and is its very heart. Elizabeth herself is one of gaming’s most interesting recent creations. She cannot be killed, is independent and never gets in your way. In combat situations, she can create dimensional tears that drag useful objects into existence. Out of combat, she tosses you useful items such as health, salts and money. She is highly expressive, not just in the facial animations, but also in her physical actions during combat and during downtime. She leans back and sings to herself, skips in absent minded happiness and ducks behind cover in self-defence as appropriate.
Infinite isn’t one-hundred percent great – believe it or not, there are negative aspects to the game. These deficiencies however, are like brushing dust off an expensive Armani suit, or your Lamborghini only having one cup holder, in that they are minor annoyances in an otherwise perfect game.
Firstly, the combat – and there is lots of shooting stuff. Bioshock’s weakest aspect was arguably it’s shooting mechanics and this, despite behind improved, continues in Infinite. To clarify, it is not bad; it just doesn’t reach the heights of other games, and the standards of other areas of the game itself, such as the art direction, music and writing. Shooting enemies still feels a little floaty and watery, although the fun of the vigours makes up for this.
These come in the form of decorative bottles that De Witt comes across during his journey through Columbia. Infinite’s analogues to the original’s plasmids, they are varied and immensely fun, giving the player freedom and choice to engage in encounters in a variety of ways. For example, you could use Bucking Bronco to vault your enemies into the air before shooting them for extra damage, use the area of effect Murder of Crows to stun them, or wash them away with Undertow. Each of these vigours has an alternate version, usually a trap, which can be created by holding down the vigour button before being released. They add depth, tactics and a sense of fun to proceedings, especially on the higher difficulties. The skylines, which allow Booker to travel around the city on monorail-like power cables, also give battles extra tactical edge, and are essential when trying to escape and gain an advantage over enemies.
Even on normal though, some engagements can be frustrating: Handymen, which combine the strength of the Big Daddies with the speed of the Big Sisters, without the true menace of either, are very frustrating to encounter. To counter this, death is very inconsequential, with the only penalty being a loss of money and some slight addition to existing enemy health, as you are revived by Elizabeth and allowed to simply continue as the battle rages. Essentially, like the previous games, some difficult encounters simple become a case of stubborn doggedness rather than skill.
And if I must be really picky, we are now at a stage where gamers are became increasingly disconnected from narrative and action. Despite the excellence of the writing, Booker is still shooting and killing and looting and scrounging and finding hot dogs in tills and money in trash cans. The best moments in Bioshock are explorative and when you are simply moving slowly, staying still and simply looking and listening.
On the flipside to this, the narrative more than makes up for any shortcoming in the actual game play. This is possibly the best written videogame ever. In terms of story, it is complex, richly layered and hugely satisfying. Without spoiling anything, the game takes twists and turns throughout – not huge twists and turns like the first game – but importantly, develops and delivers a final third that is conclusive and hugely satisfying. The end of the game is truly an impactful, put the controller down, get a stiff whisky and simply think moment. Like all good stories, the plot leaves you with as many questions as satisfying conclusions, and like many a good narrative, leaves you with sense of empty sadness that the story is over, and you will never experience it through fresh eyes again.
Yes, it’s that good. This is a title about story, narratives and writing your own memories. This is a game that begs to be replayed, but for different motivations than other recent efforts. There are no score attacks, grades or new game plus, just a burning desire to once again experience an accomplished narrative, this time from a position of authority and knowledge. Developers take note -here is a single player game, with no co op, and no leader boards, that clearly justifies a second play through, and is leaving this reviewer desperate to once again enter the world and experience more stories via DLC.
There is so much I haven’t even touched upon: Elizabeth’s protector and bodyguard, the Songbird; the sci-fi overtones, the introduction of ghosts; the mysterious Lutece twins that keep appearing out of thin air. The less you know the better, and the more time you take to drink in the world of Columbia, and pay attention to every little detail, the more you will take away from it.
Ultimately, Bioshock Infinite feels like a game that conceptually stretches the potential of this generation to its limits. You can feel the pull of the Irrational’s ambition being held back by the taught elastic of technological constraints, making it a shining example of a developer at the height of their powers, pushing boundaries and confidently showing off their abilities, offering gamers one of the best games of the generation. What they might be able to achieve in the next generation is immensely exciting. Whether that game takes place in this universe or another is another matter.
MLG Rating: 10/10 Format: Xbox 360 / PlayStation 3 / PC Release Date: 26/03/2013
Disclosure: Craig Hallam purchased a copy of Buioshock Infinite. The title was reviewed over the course of 1 week on an Xbox 360. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.