Review: BioShock Infinite

BioShockInfinite

Books such as Stephen King’s Dark Tower series and Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion have tackled ambitious narratives.  TV shows like Fringe and Doctor Who dabble with mind expanding adventures that offer a chance to sit back and ponder a whole bucket full of “what ifs”. Fictional works of entertainment that provide social commentary as well as a fun, ripping good yarn are common on screen and paper, but only once in a blue moon can the same truly be said about video games, especially first-person shooters.  Most of the time FPSs are nothing more than overly macho interactive military popcorn flicks. But every once in a while a game comes along to challenge our perceptions of what video games as a medium can offer. BioShock Infinite is one of these rare games.

I never finished the original BioShock.  I loved the idea the world of Rapture promised.  I was drawn to the idea that a society could isolate itself from the rest of the world and succeed without outside interference.  The moral dilemma the game presented was also very interesting.  Do you harvest the Little Sisters to increase your own power (and thus become a monster), or do you scrape by with the little bit of ADAM you can acquire without harvesting the lost souls of creepy little girls? However, two things ultimately kept me from completing that game: 1) The damp, dark confines of the underwater world mixed with Slicers and Big Daddies scared the hell out of me, and 2) I didn’t like how the combat mechanic worked. For some reason I had a hell of a time getting my brain to adjust to using Plasmids and weapons, but without wasting the scarce resources I had at my disposal.

I remember being skeptical about Infinite when the first reveal was made what now feels like ages ago.  Why did there need to be another BioShock? Weren’t the first two games enough?  If Infinite doesn’t have the same characters and take place within the same world, why even call it BioShock?  Seeing Booker and Elizabeth, the game’s two leading characters, work together to survive the perils of a floating city in the clouds began to sway me.  Bright colors, roller coaster-like rails to zip around on, and then hearing Ken Levine go on about American exceptionalism supplanted the idea that Infinite was going to be more than just a shooter.  My nagging suspicions and questions were replaced by a curiosity for a game that was promising to be more than a typical shooter.

Infinite starts at a strikingly similar locale to the original BioShock — a lighthouse. But instead of going under the water, Booker is sent up into the heavens.  What strikes me as a bit odd as I mull over the events of the story, is just how much the game has seemingly changed from when it was first teased and shown off. American exceptionalism remains a theme, but the antagonist seems to have morphed. Perhaps the trailers intentionally left out Comstock as a religious zealot, but it strikes me that a shift in theme and focus was made part of the way through the development of the game.  Infinite can get away with this shift because what is presented is done so with such an amazing level of nuance and detail that it is easy to overlook some of the missing pieces.

Booker’s initial goal in the game is to rescue a young woman name Elizabeth from the confines of Comstock. Throughout the city-nation of Columbia, propaganda posters tell a tale that the great city was built upon the future hopes of Elizabeth and her eventual ability to bring fire from the heavens to the sinners and non-believers.  Obviously Booker’s task of rescuing Elizabeth will be more than what it at first appears to be.  Once Elizabeth has been freed, players, through the eyes of Booker, begin to watch a smart young woman come to life as she discovers the many wonders the world has to offer after having been held prisoner for all of her life.  Her naivety is balanced carefully with a power that quickly provides an advantage for their escape from the floating world.  Elizabeth is not just a pretty face, but a means for offering a unique view of the world that Booker is only just learning of.  At the same time, she proves to be strong in the face of challenge yet fragile and innocent in such a way that, as circumstances which occur later in the game, provide an overwhelming emotional smack across the face and a full on punch in the gut.

Similar to the previous BioShocks, Infinite introduces pseudo-science magical powers called Vigors, which allow Booker to shoot a flock of crows at enemies, electrify, ignite or charge them, pull them closer with a water tentacle, or even possess them. Where I had previously had issues wrapping my head around Plasmids, Infinite offers a somewhat simpler approach such that the left hand shoots the Vigors and the right hand fires whatever weapon Booker is currently welding. A lot of fun can be had with the Vigors as each one offers two methods of attack. A light attack simply fires off the Vigor, while holding down the attack charges a trap ability that will only go off if an enemy walks near. Being able to mix and match Vigor powers also provides a unique combat experience. Possessing turrets lets the environment take care of most enemies, where as possessing an enemy offers additional firepower for a brief period before the possessed enemy takes his life with his own weapon (usually in a spectacularly gruesome fashion).

During combat, Vigors prove to be invaluable, yet as the story progresses, Elizabeth’s own abilities provide yet another powerful and handy weapon.  Elizabeth can tear open sections of the world to provide positions of cover or friendly turrets during many scenarios.  Elizabeth also searches for ammo, health, salt and money during combat and tosses them at Booker at just the right moment. Many times I found myself stuck in situations where I thought myself a goner, and if I were playing any other game I likely would have been.  But Elizabeth’s uncanny knack for finding a health kit or a salt vial at just the last second gives Booker that last little buff to outlast an enemy or to fire off one more Vigor blast to survive and continue the fight.  While I truly enjoyed Elizabeth’s help, it also seemed to be a bit unfairly balanced in my favor. Almost any time I went to use a vending machine and didn’t have enough money to buy an upgrade, Elizabeth would end up tossing a coin which brought my purse total up just enough to buy the upgrade. I’m not complaining, it just felt like she was helping me cheat my way through some areas.

Columbia is a richly designed world that has a highly polished surface but also a dark and morally questionable under belly.  In addition to questions of religious tests of faith, Infinite also pushes the boundaries of social and racial themes.  While there is plenty of chaff and debris in the world, Infinite also has random gift boxes located throughout the world that provide additional bonuses to combat.  One of my favorite gear bonuses sends a flaming shock wave out from Booker whenever he lands on the ground after flinging around on the rail system.  Nothing is quite as satisfying as zooming along, targeting one enemy in a group, landing on him for a kill and hearing two or three others scream in searing pain as they burn.  For all the beauty and nuance the game offers, there is also an almost grotesque level of detail to bloody melee kills, burning bodies and the disturbing, bubbling ghastliness whenever Booker ingests a new vigor.

I’m at odds with Infinite in certain ways.  If you are looking for simply a first-person shooter, the game can be played as such by rushing through and avoiding all of the wonder that is Columbia. The game offers some environmental puzzles, which usually involve finding a lever, as well as cipher puzzles that require finding a code book in a different area of a level, which at times pads the game with a lot of backtracking.  The cipher puzzles typically only offer a new piece of gear which can be equipped or an infusion potion which the player can use to extend health, shield or salt, the power source for Vigors.  Other times the ciphers reveal a hidden Voxophone recording that will offer a deeper glimpse into the history of the game world.

In gaming I prefer story over action every time, and Infinite tells one hell of a narrative. But what frustrates me is the fact that a large portion of the best story revelations are hidden in Voxophone recordings that are more often than not hidden away like a squirrel’s winter cache.  There are 80 Voxophones in the game.  I’ve played close to 30 hours so far and I still haven’t found two of the recordings, which leaves me with this sinking feeling that I am missing the complete experience. Having to spend extra time just to scour every level to make sure that I found every last recording seems like a wasted opportunity.  Not including an indication of how many recordings are still undiscovered in each area seems like a bad design choice. Why offer additional, relevant story material without providing a clear means of knowing for sure whether everything has been found before moving to the next chapter?

Highlighting this missed opportunity is Songbird, an odd mix of Big Daddy, Batman and a pigeon, who is the protector of Elizabeth.  Early trailers gave the impression that Songbird would be a truly menacing opponent.  Posters placed throughout Columbia also leave the impression that Songbird will stop at nothing to get Elizabeth back. There are clear moments in the game when Songbird could strike Booker down with ease, but stops short because Elizabeth pleads for mercy.  Why isn’t this explained better?  Booker asks Elizabeth what her relationship with the creature is and her reply is that she’d rather not discuss it, yet actions later prove that she has a deep, caring relationship with the creature. Or maybe the game does offer an explanation but I simply missed the Voxophone recording explaining it all.  This is what drives me nuts.

Further frustration sets in during the game’s final act, starting with a mini-boss battle where a spirit summons aggressive zombies to attack Booker and Elizabeth.  One of these battles I don’t mind, but having the same battle occur three times back to back is an exercise in repetition.  Narratively, the encounter makes sense, but requiring the exact same frustrating strategy for each battle seems a bit short sighted. Then there is this horde mode style, defend your ship’s power core battle.  I must have replayed that encounter close to 10 times in order to continue forward with the story. I don’t understand why final boss scenarios have to push the boundaries of what prior combat engagements within the game have been established as.  I’ve devoured and enjoyed the first 90% of the game, don’t make the last 10% overly difficult and so unbalanced that NOT completing the game almost feels like a better option.

Thankfully I managed to struggle through the last portion of the game to see just how mind blowing the ending is.  For all that I’ve mentioned above, BioShock Infinite lives up to the title. By the end, I was gut punched with a wave of emotion I didn’t think a game could ever offer (way more so than even Journey) and then had to sit and ponder everything I had previously considered as fact about what I had played. You will need to tolerate certain foibles, but overall the flaws are completely overshadowed by how masterfully the narrative themes and ideas are presented from beginning to end.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Phenomenal visual style and presentation
+ Fantastic voice work for all characters
+ Fun and unique rail combat
+ Music weaves an additional layer of magic to the game
+ Thought provoking social commentary
+ No tacked-on multiplayer

Cons:
– Frustrating, repetitive combat encounters toward the end
– Some themes or plot points don’t seem to be tied up by the end
– Too often story gems are hidden in abstract areas of a level

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PC, also available for PS3 and Xbox 360
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: Irrational Games
Release Date: 3/26/2013
Genre: FPS
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.