I can’t stop thinking about BioShock: Infinite. It was a deeply flawed experience, one with mechanics which utterly contradicted its story, lacking the elegance of the original BioShock but, nonetheless, I can’t stop thinking about it. The perfect scores this game has received are silly, this game is full of glaring flaws, but it is nonetheless one of the most intense, fascinating and immersive gaming experiences which I have ever enjoyed.
BioShock: Infinite leaves Rapture under the water and brings us instead into the floating sky city of Columbia. Just as Rapture was an extreme reflection of deep sickness in American culture, as is Columbia. Where Rapture was founded on an economic basis, a reflection of Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy, Columbia reflects the American proclivity for veneration of its own past and deification of the founding fathers. Columbia isn’t all stars and stripes and statues of George Washington , but hides an uglier side. Columbia is a city built on white supremacy, superficially beautiful yet fundamentally sick at its core. Columbia had been launched in 1901, at first a pride of America, but later rejected by the US government following a brutal slaughter of Chinese civilians during the Boxer Rebellion. The leader of Columbia, the Messianic Zachary Comstock, seceded from the Union and took his city into the sky.
BioShock: Infinite picks up in 1912, with the player taking on the role of Booker DeWitt, a war veteran and Pinkerton agent and summoned to Columbia with the message to ‘retrieve the girl and wipe away the debt.’ It’s not long before DeWitt is identified as the ‘false shepherd’ by Comstock, and he begins a desperate fight against his forces. Soon DeWitt meets Elizabeth, a young woman held in isolation in a tower for most of her life, protected by the mysterious ‘Songbird.’ Elizabeth has the ability to open ‘tears’ into parallel universes, with questions regarding quantum science playing a key role in the plot. Together Booker and Elizabeth fight their way through Columbia to find a way back to the surface, becoming drawn into the civil conflict between the ‘Founders’ and the ‘Vox Populi’, a revolutionary group seeking to overthrow Comstock’s corrupt state.
Columbia is gorgeous, packed with the wonderful detail that made Rapture so great a location. BioShock: Infinite is packed with detail and effort; it’s not difficult to see why this game took so long to develop. Despite all this, Columbia doesn’t quite hold together as a location as well as Rapture did. Rapture, as a fallen city, actually felt like a living ecosystem. The Big Daddies and Little Sisters roamed independently of the player, with an believable hierarchy forming in the city. Columbia isn’t quite as believable as a location, with the more linear gameplay approach making certain areas feel more like shooting galleries than a functioning location. The best moments in Columbia are the quiet ones, the moments when you’re not firing a gun, where we can play carnival games and listen to barbershop quartets, but the second the shooting starts the illusion begins to fall apart. That said, Columbia only suffers by comparison to Rapture, a comparison which is inevitable. If this was the first BioShock game Columbia would be hailed as a revolutionary setting, but next to Rapture it suffers. There are some decent sized levels to explore, but they’re not nearly as open as those in the original BioShock and the game suffers for it. Rapture was very much the star of the original BioShock, and I expected the star of this game to be Columbia, but that isn’t the case. The star of the game is something much more human; Elizabeth.
I had some fear that BioShock: Infinite could end up being one big escort quest, but that isn’t the case at all. Elizabeth is never anything but useful, throwing you health, ammo and cash when it’s needed and opening tears to bring in otherworldly assistance. She’s also an incredibly likeable character, with her relationship with Booker (who, unlike Jack from BioShock, talks) forming the crux of the story. Although Columbia may not hold together as well as Rapture, the actual plot of BioShock: Infinite is much better. BioShock had some fascinating and vivid characters, like Andrew Ryan and Sander Cohen, but it lacked a human element for that variety of emotional investment. BioShock: Infinite is a much more human story, with Elizabeth emerging as the absolute star.
On a some other levels however, the plot of BioShock Infinite fails to live up to its predecessors. Comstock never feels as viable an antagonist than Ryan did, with the most interesting characters receiving relatively little air time in the story. BioShock: Infinite is one of those games that isn’t about what you think it is, and the sheer scale and ambition of the plot as it begins to unravel towards the end is staggering. This game plays with big ideas, and best of all pulls it off. I’ve played a lot of games lately which have been as ambitious as this, but not quite made it, but BioShock: Infinite does, with gusto. I honestly feel that the final act of BioShock: Infinite will mark a turning point in gaming history, weaving a tale which is unabashedly complicated, yet still adheres to a rigid internal logic. You may not necessarily understand what’s going on, but all the information you need is there, the game doesn’t patronise by putting all the pieces together for you.
Booker is armed with the standard array of firearms, with the introduction of plasmid-esque Vigors giving this game that unique BioShock feel. One of the most fun gameplay mechanics is the way that Booker can latch onto ‘sky rails’, which rocket him around the sky from which he can rain fire down on his foes, or leap from above in a deadly attack. This is incredibly exhilarating, and gives the battles a mobile, fast paced edge which the original BioShock lacked. This is a game which rewards flexibility and quick thinking, with a quick jump onto a sky rail or well chosen Vigor often being the only thing that can pull you back from death. This means that the tactical edge of the original is pretty much nonexistent however, giving the battles a somewhat mindless feel which seems at odd with the actual mechanics. These battles don’t suit the mature story being told elsewhere, with the cartoonishly ridiculous violence not gelling at all with the story being told. Don’t get me wrong, BioShock: Infinite’s shooting is often a lot of fun, particularly when sky rails are involved, but it’s also fairly uninspired, with the basic mechanics just feeling slightly off.
BioShock: Infinite isn’t a long game by any stretch, but it’s also got a lot of meat on its bones. Wherever possible it’s worth straying from the beaten path, with the best reward being ‘voxophones’, audio diaries basically, which often illuminate some of the more opaque elements of the plot. It’s also worth it to scour for ‘infusions’, which boost Booker’s stats, or ‘gear’, items of clothing which give Booker new abilities. Although these levels are still much more linear than Rapture’s, exploration is rewarded, and it’s always worth doing so.
BioShock: Infinite is a stunning looking game; Columbia is gorgeous, marrying superficial beauty with a clear sickness underneath. Elizabeth is a marvel, possibly the most ‘human’ gaming companion which I’ve ever seen. Her facial expressions are subtle, but expressive, and she moves in a way which truly reflects her personality and charm. The major characters generally all look good, but the minor NPCs which populate Columbia have possibly some of the most hideous gaming faces which I’ve ever seen. Seriously, they approach Oblivion levels of horrible. Thankfully, the voice acting is pretty much all excellent. I was particularly impressed by Courtnee Draper’s performance as Elizabeth, as well as Troy Baker’s performance as Booker. Booker at first seems to be your standard ‘world weary wise cracking stoic gruff voiced badass’, but as the character grows Baker does a great job at wearing the transition. I was incredibly impressed by Kimbery Brooks as Daisy Fitzroy, the leader of the Vox Populi. I was less impressed by the voice performance for Comstock, which lacked the charming eloquence of Andrew Ryan. Andrew Ryan was such a great character because there was something persuasive about his objectivist arguments, but Comstock lacks this, never really managing to come through as much more than a crazy old racist. This game has some great music as well, with the highlights coming from bizarre covers of contemporary songs, such as a barbershop version of ‘God Only Knows’ by The Beach Boys and a fairground cover of ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’ by Cyndi Lauper. Don’t worry about how they’re playing these tunes in 1912 either, there is an explanation and it’s pretty fascinating.
I went back and watched some of the early ‘gameplay’ videos for BioShock: Infinite, and it looks like a different game. This was a shooter that lived up to the other elements of the game, stunning in its ambitious open ended scale; clearly, too ambitious. BioShock: Infinite feels like a watered down version of the game which we were shown, and I can’t help but feel that we were rather deceived.
So, there are a lot of criticisms up there. Honestly? Ignore them. BioShock: Infinite is a game which must be played, something which transcends it’s many flaws to become something truly wonderful. Does it have the same impact as the original? I don’t quite think so, but that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be played. It’s an FPS in which the shooting doesn’t really work, and yet it’s still an utterly stunning overall experience. Seriously, everyone should play this game, I cannot recommend it enough.