Is it wrong to be disappointed by ultra high expectations? Don’t get me wrong, BioShock Infinite is a true masterpiece, and you should step over your own mother to play it. BI is one of the most complete gaming experiences I’ve ever had through its combination of wicked environments, an incredible companion, compelling combat and powerful storytelling. I guess I’m just a little disappointed that it isn’t sheer perfection. When you’ve got a gaming experience this complete, it seems like the tiny little niggling flaws in the game pop out that much more. My experience in the first half of the game had me thinking that BI could very well be my first ever “10” score that I’ve given out in six years of writing for GamingExcellence, but alas, it’ll just have to be content with a very high score and a shoe-in nomination for game of the year instead.
In BI, you play as Booker deWitt, a former Pinkerton agent who is being given a chance to wipe away some significant debts by going to a floating city in the sky known as Columbia and bringing back a girl in jolly old 1912. “Bring us the girl, wipe away the debt,” we’re told as deWitt boards a boat to a isolated lighthouse that launches him into the sky and into the belly of Columbia. Before long, it becomes clear that not all is right in this city. Religious zealots rule with an iron fist, racist thought is vocalized constantly, there are whispers of a rebellious faction called the Vox Populi committing terrorist atrocities, and sinister undertones undermine the beautiful and colourful settings. When you finally make contact with Elizabeth, the girl who will wipe deWitt’s debts clean, it becomes clear that nothing in Columbia is what it seems, and escape will be anything but easy, even using Elizabeth’s powers to open “tears” to new worlds and time periods. The chase is soon on with the prophetic leader Zachary Comstock’s forces in hot pursuit in a social structure that is crumbling and imploding all around you.
I shant say anymore, because BI simply has one of the best stories in video game history. Hard hitting themes like religious adherence, the true nature of heroism, political and social commentaries, the nature of time and space, and even the pratfalls of blind patriotism are touched upon here in an intelligent and classy manner. Columbia is an intriguing setting that fits in well with the underwater aesthetics of the previous titles’ Rapture. It all culminates in a pulse-pounding conclusion with a mind-bending ending that will have you picking your jaw up the floor. Just make sure you take in every shred of the story that you find throughout the world through eavesdropping on conversations and picking up audio recordings throughout Columbia.
There are many changes to the BioShock formula for this instalment, but there’s more than enough here to ensure that this is a true BioShock experience beyond the thought provoking storyline. Plasmids have been replaced by vigors, which are a slew of new magical powers to play around with. New vigors include Murder of Crows, which launches crows to your enemies for a stun effect, the bullet-catching-and-returning Return to Sender, the water enhancing Undertow, and more. There are eight in all to play with, and there’s bound to be a magical power that catches your eye and suits your play style. My only complaint there is that the Murder of Crows vigor is rather overpowered for most of the conflicts you’ll find in the game.
Of course, being a shooter, you’re given a nice array of different weapons to wield, again allowing players to tailor the game to their own play style. While you’re generally wielding the normal pistols, shotguns, machine guns, sniper rifles and rocket launchers, they’re all made with a unique 1912 aesthetic that makes them feel unique. The gunplay mechanics are generally solid and most guns are plenty of fun to use. You also have access to a spinning hook arm that allows you to latch onto the sky rails all over Columbia and commit brutal melee kills. The sky line portions are especially compelling, as you can easily jump from rail to rail both in combat and traversing between areas. It’s a unique and fast-paced roller-coaster aspect to combat that I don’t think has been replicated in any other titles.
Both vigors and weapons can be upgraded at various creepy vending machines throughout the game. You can also upgrade your recharging shields, your overall health, and your magical power. The upgrade elements are not as prominent as in past titles, but given the more action-focused slant of the game, it's appropriate.
While previous BioShock titles featured eclectic monsters like insane splicers and the hulking Big Daddies, Columbia hasn’t yet been crushed under its own weight like Rapture was in the other games. Instead, between navigating actual populated areas with regular NPC characters, you’re generally fighting conscious human beings with killer AI. Enemy designs get more clever and unique beyond the introduction. My personal favourite was The Patriot, a chain-gun toting mechanized menace that spews religious slogans and dons Colonial flags as it attempts to riddle you with bullets. There’s also a giant mechanical bird known as the Songbird that is chasing you and Elizabeth down to take her back to her prison atop a giant tower.
I haven’t gotten into Elizabeth yet, but make no mistake, Elizabeth is one of the most compelling and tragic figures in the history of video games. She is like a Disney princess combined with Ripley from Aliens. Watching her transform from an innocent sweetheart with a sunny disposition and an aptitude for dancing to a jaded and damaged soul is one of the most heartbreaking character arcs I’ve experienced in a game. Fortunately, while Elizabeth accompanies you for the majority of the journey, she never gets in the way, and happens to be a big help in combat. Think more Alyx Vance in Half-Life 2 than any of the other dimwits you’ve had to guide through countless escort missions in the past. Aside from being the game’s central plot device through her ability to open tears in space and time, Elizabeth will help point out goodies in the environment you might have missed, she’ll pick locks for you, and keep you stocked with health, salts (the game’s version of mana), ammo and money throughout the game and in combat. I would be interested to see what the future holds for the character, and it would be a shame if this is her only appearance. I think I’m in love.
What may disappoint some players is that for all intents and purposes, the moral choice systems of the first two titles have been given the axe for this one. This choice allows for some more in depth storytelling, at the expense of multiple endings. I personally didn’t mind the lack of the binary choices for a good or evil ending. BI still carries plenty of replayability in the same way a movie like Looper or Fight Club do, based purely on the strength of the revelations at the end. Seeing how all the pieces fit a second time is a pure joy, just don’t expect to see a different ending the second time around. Some players may also lament the loss of multiplayer from BioShock 2, but I’m glad they focused on a strong single player campaign instead of a pointless multiplayer mode.
The only real weaknesses aside from those disappointed that they can change the outcome through their actions are some really frustrating battles in the home stretch. Normally, when you die, Elizabeth will resurrect you and toss you back into the fray, which gives your enemies some health back and drains some cash from your account. Some battles towards the throw you back into areas with absolutely no cover, meaning that you’re just going to die over and over again through the battle of attrition. The boss that you have to fight three separate times who resurrects a dozen enemies faster than you can take them out can also kiss both sides of my butt. The final confrontation is also a slightly disappointing tower defence mission that I found rather frustrating. By the way, don’t play on normal, there’s absolutely no challenge involved on any difficulty below hard. Once you beat the game you’ll unlock 1999 mode, which is where the real challenge in the game lies.
There are also a few weird video game-isms that can shatter the immersion from time to time. The game encourages exploration and resource hoarding, but it just gets weird when you’re constantly getting health by scarfing down any food you find. While I'm at it, why does everyone record their every thought on vinyl voxphones, why aren't your enemies aren’t using vigors against you, and why are the enemies so aware of my position? There is a bit of suspension of disbelief required for some of the goofier elements.
If you’ve got a fairly high-end PC like the one I played Infinite on, you are in for one heck of a visual treat. BioShock Infinite looks like something Pixar would put together if they wanted to create an R-rated cartoon. I think the slightly cartoony visuals add more punch than if Irrational had gone for a more realistic approach into the uncanny valley. The graphics are bright and colourful, the backgrounds are jam-packed with little details, and faces are incredibly expressive in the same way that Woody and Buzz Lightyear were in Toy Story. The varied enemy designs and the smoking effects from the vigors also help add to an incredible visual package that is accented by stunning art design. Lighting effects are also some of the most convincing I’ve ever seen. The PC version also benefits from a high-res texture pack that takes the install to 15 GB across three DVDs.
Sound is also a marvel in Infinite. The voice-acting is truly impeccable, especially from Booker and Elizabeth. That unique feeling you get from a BioShock game as you’re gunning down enemies while frightening propaganda blares in your ears is well accounted for in this instalment. For the eagle-eared, there are also 1912-style covers of popular songs like ‘Tainted Love,’ ‘Shiny Happy People,’ ‘Fortunate Son,’ and ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun,’ sprinkled in for phenomenal effect. The orchestral score is also excellent, especially the screeching violin whenever you kill and enemy or the awesome woosh sound when Elizabeth tosses you money. The guns also sound really punchy and powerful.
So in the end, it’s a shame that BioShock Infinite stumbles JUST shy of perfection, because this is a true gaming masterpiece. With this release, the BioShock franchise hasn’t just established itself as a premier franchise in gaming to come out of this generation, but also one of the most important. It’s rare for a video game to intelligently tackle hard issues and force players to look at their own beliefs, and BioShock Infinite does that better than almost any other in this medium. This is an absolute must play.