This review is SPOILER FREE.
Bring Us The Girl And Wipe Away The Debt
We finished playing BioShock Infinite, the latest installment in the BioShock franchise from its original creators Irrational Games, three days ago. Since then, we’ve not been able to stop thinking about it. Writing a review for it has been tricky. There are many things readers might consider spoilers and this is a game you really want to go into blind. Fear not, this review IS spoiler free and it is definitely a game you want to play. It simply HAS to be experienced. When this generation, the generation that has (arguably) gone on too long, is looked back on – BioShock Infinite has a strong chance of being viewed as its finest achievement.
Our story opens with Booker DeWitt arriving in the weird and wonderful city of Columbia – a floating city, built to show the “very best” of America – with the task of finding a girl named Elizabeth. Booker, an ex Pinkerton, is haunted by his past and, thanks to a love of drink and gambling, owes a lot of money to the wrong kind of people. Hired and given the instructions “Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt“, Booker soon realises the job isn’t as straight forward as he thought, and Elizabeth is no normal girl.
In many ways, BioShock Infinite is a refinement and evolution of the BioShock formula. It is a first-person shooter, based on weapons and supernatural powers (vigors, more on those later), that allows you to explore medium-sized hub-like areas as you progress through a narrative-driven story, with a small amount of choice here and there. Upgrades that affect your weapons, vigors and character health are available to purchase or collect in-game and everyone will see the same ending. So far, so FPS. So what makes it so special? Solid combat that gives you creativity and freedom, exacting detail in terms of world-building and design and, of course, the boundary pushing narrative and its star, Elizabeth.
Skies The Limit
BioShock veterans will find the combat to be a huge improvement over what has come before. While still not at the very top of the FPS pile, and it DOES take a few hours to warm up, the gunplay is satisfying in ways that you wont find elsewhere. It’s not just about firing your gun at wave after wave of enemy – once vigors, Sky Lines and Elizabeth (more on her later!) are added into the mix, shoot-outs become frantic battles, fought on a variety of levels. There are eight different vigors, each having unique properties – some will propel enemies into the air and hold them there for a few seconds, others allow you to fire a flock of crows to attack, The Birds-style, at anyone you point at. Brilliantly, each vigor has a second function that allows you to lay traps on the battlefield. Elizabeth also proves to be a huge boon on the battlefield. Using her own special abilities, she can call in myriad battlefield options – cover, friendly allies, ammo dumps – and even scavenges for items Booker can use.
We were worried about the Sky Lines from previews of the game but we didn’t need to be – they work like a dream. You can’t fall off them and they are an excellent tactic in battle; you can ride and shoot at the same time (even fight other users!) and you can dismount whenever you like, dropping on enemies from above for instant kills. While we were initially disoriented by the dizzying amount of options you have when engaging enemies, the mechanics mean that no two battles ever feel the same and you always feel a step beyond your opponents. A good job too, BioShock Infinite‘s enemy AI is aggressive and intelligent and come in a variety of shapes and sizes.
Elizabeth isn’t the annoyance many thought she would be, either. She never needs protecting, so the game never descends into a 12 hour escort mission. Instead, she’s the games main drive, a fully-fledged character with her own goals and motivations. As you play, you come to think of her as your partner, much like Alex Vance in the Half-Life series. Elizabeth is constantly moving, so you never have to wait for her, and is an accomplished lock-picker and code-breaker. She’s talkative too – she’ll often tell you about the sights you see and the areas you visit, which is another reason why BioShock Infinite is so compelling – Columbia and the way it’s designed.
Devil Is In The Detail
Columbia’s design is truly stunning. Each street, area and room tells its own story – from the furniture inside, to the people who inhabit it and to the pieces of collectible history scattered around. Built on the idea of “American Exceptionalism”, Columbia is bright and vibrant, decorated with towering statues and dominated by a beautiful blue sky-box. The level of detail is astounding. Propaganda and advertisements can be seen everywhere and we spent the first couple of hours wandering the streets, drinking in the sights and sounds. You’ll want to do this too, collectible audio-logs (80 Voxophones) are scattered around and are almost essential to understand the storyline. Sound design must get a mention here too; playing this game with surround sound or headphones is a must. Plenty of work has gone into the noises of Columbia; citizens gossip about the goings-on, the incidental music of the promenades and fairs are important to the plot, and the frantic period music when battles erupt gets the heart pounding. In all, it’s a master-class of world building which isn’t bettered anywhere else.
We wont go on too much about the storyline except to say it’s well worth the admittance fee. BioShock Infinite deals with race, religion, politics, love, relationships, science and destiny – and tackles many of them head-on. In fact, we were shocked by the bravery and frankness of it in many ways; it’s not often that you see the themes BioShock Infinite concerns itself with mentioned in TV or film and, for us, is a watershed moment in gaming story-telling. Yes, you play a man who shoots other men and shoots magic out of his hand (it IS a game after all) but it’s subject matters, while a little heavy-handed at times, shows maturity and treats the player with respect and intelligence.
Is it all perfect? No. There is too much of a reliance of collecting Voxophones to follow the story but, such is the joy at exploring Columbia, this isn’t too much of a trial. There are a couple of gameplay mechanics that don’t really go anywhere; there are a few optional side-quests that are basically “find a key for this chest” that seem like an afterthought or a left over from an earlier stage of development. Some of the vigors feel under-utilised too. You don’t receive a couple until late on in the game and some are underpowered compared to others. On Xbox 360 and PS3, the game suffers from muddy and blurry textures but the striking art-design more than makes up for this. There is also a tiresome section of the game that feels a little stretched, but thankfully this only lasts for 20 minutes of an otherwise superbly paced game.
BioShock Infinite is a game you need to play. As simple as that. It will be a game that will be discussed for many years to come and is a perfect marriage of strong gameplay, staggering design and art direction with a mature, adult narrative and startling conclusion. It is this generations swan-song and possibly its finest game. Play it. You’ll never forget it.
Dave Green. Would you kindly follow him on Twitter @davidpgreen83