Reviews

BioShock Infinite

April 2, 2013, Author: Trent Pyro

BioShock was a game I wasn’t the slightest bit interested in when it came out. I’m not sure if I even had a 360 at the time. Even if I had, its curious mix of scary adventure and visceral, plasmid-assisted shooting would’ve likely been somewhere near the bottom of my ‘To Buy’ list, nestled under Gears of War and Fable.

However, after getting it from LoveFilm almost three years after it was released, I couldn’t believe what I’d missed out on. The richness of the world, the sheer quality of the storytelling; all without sacrificing one inch of satisfying gameplay. I was hooked.

The second game was disappointingly not developed by Irrational Games and it showed, being an admirable follow-up but failing to bring the same undeniable quality. As soon as I heard Irrational was developing BioShock Infinite I remained intently glued to the internet and our database thread, desperately hankering for another crumb from Ken Levine’s table.

Well, the wait is finally over and my God, was it worth it. I wrote a piece a few weeks ago about how this game was going to save the genre it sometimes awkwardly sat in. While I was maybe a little overzealous with that statement, I can safely say it’s gone quite a way towards fulfilling it…

Heads or tails?
BioShock Infinite takes the unorthodox step of being entirely unconnected with its predecessors, and is instantly better for it. A fresh experience from the off, it tells the tale of ex-Pinkerton agent Booker DeWitt, knee-deep in debt and forced to travel to the floating city-state of Columbia to ‘collect’ an unknown girl. By immediately giving you a shady objective, Irrational set Booker as a man who will save his own arse despite any moral obligations, and that makes him instantly more interesting than your average hero.

Columbia is a well-known independent state ran by the apparently prophetic Father Zachary Comstock, with a troubled past involving the Boxer Rebellions and an emancipation from the United States. Dumped at a lighthouse that will be familiar to BioShock veterans (although Ken Levine assures us it’s not that lighthouse), Booker quickly enters Columbia and this is where the story really kicks off.

To say it’s confusing, enthralling and constantly interesting is an understatement. Irrational have surpassed even their own lofty aspirations by weaving a tale that’s both repeatedly baffling and never anything less than excellent. It toys with alternate realities, perception of existence and timeless paradoxes with deft ability. Every character, every interaction and every twist feels perfectly placed and paced.

There’s not a dead line of dialogue, not a set-piece that doesn’t amaze or capture you and you really feel like you’re being looked after. In recent interviews Mr Levine has looked weary beyond his years, and after an hour with the game you can certainly see why.

You're introduction to Columbia is surreal to say the least...

Your introduction to Columbia is surreal to say the least.

The much-beloved dictator, saviour of his people; the revolutionary accused of killing his wife; the child protected in the glistening tower, defended by a terrifying monster; the heathen, the False Shepard, sent to steal her away and bring the whole thing tumbling down. It rings of Rapture in many ways but not so much that it ever feels like a retread. The underwater dystopia was a broken corpse of a place, a victim of its leaders’ lofty ambitions and its people’s blind obedience to his madness.

Columbia feels more like a functioning problem, with racism, segregation and chronic unfairness permeating its otherwise pleasant early 20th century society. Irrational are masters at creating a world and then breaking it with age, madness and humanity, and in this respect Columbia feels more than a worthy successor to Rapture. It’s never anything less than a joy to behold, and the way the casual acceptance of segregation and the constant deference to the will of Comstock gets under your skin is unbelievable.

You begin feeling like it’s a place that managed to retain something America has lost but quickly realise it’s just as dark, seedy and downright wrong as anywhere on the mainland. The anarchistic Vox Populi, a revolution against Comstock’s jackboot regime, are constantly ambiguous. Their influence on the lives of regular Columbian citizens is tangible everywhere.  A character in itself, the city is more than just a setting; it’s a being all of its own.

Key to the feeling of player care is Elizabeth, likely the most human game character in recent memory. Aside from her exceptional AI programming, animation and voice acting (I’ll get to that), she is written perfectly, her sweet but confident demeanour a breath of fresh air after the constant stream of hard-nosed SAS men and chirpy local militia we’ve spent most of our FPS time with of late.

Never a burden and a constant challenge to Booker’s wonky moral compass, she feels integral as soon as you meet her and remains that way for the duration. Her ability to open ‘tears’ in the fabric of reality begins as a neat trick developed by a lonely girl and morphs into a necessary skill that becomes more and more central to the plot as time goes on. Rarely has a supporting AI character felt so absolutely necessary and the game rejoices in her at every turn. More than simply a star all the other planets in the story orbit, Elizabeth is so well written you begin to feel for her and want to protect her as you would a real human being. It’s jarring, and absolutely brilliant.

Booker himself is an odd mix of gruff brute and guilt-ridden washout, and becomes more fun to play as the game goes on. He’s a man of few words but what he does say always has impact and it’s a testament to the writing that he feels as much a character as his female companion, despite likely having around half the lines. As his past and story unfolds, mainly through sheepish admittance to Elizabeth, you being to pity and almost feel sorry for him; that is, until he wipes out another 15 men and feels zero remorse. Far from the standard ‘broken soul dark hero’ bullshit, Booker is more complex than he first appears and the way the game slowly peels back the layers is fantastic.

To recount the entire plot would be to spoil something that a number of very dedicated people have spent years of their lives crafting, and would ruin the surprise for everyone. The fact that almost none of the gameplay footage released prior to the game featured scenes that are actually in the game is a testament to Irrational’s commitment to preserving the surprise and sanctity of a good story. We’ve become so used to developers showing us the best bits of a game before we even get to play it, desperate to hook us, terrified that we’ll lose interest.

Irrational knew they had a good thing going and were so good at what they do that they managed to create entirely separate, almost ‘example’ scenes that did the job of getting us interested but didn’t feel missing from the plot one bit. The ending is likely one of the best you’ll ever experience and brings all the tendrils beautifully together in a crashing finale that literally leaves the series with so many options you have no idea where it will go next.

Veni, vidi, vigor!
Anyone familiar with BioShock will once again welcome its regular rhythm of gunplay crossed with superpowers. This time around it leans a little more to the shooter side, with the new vigors replacing plasmids and taking more of a support role. As ever, how much you actually use them is up to your play style, but in my experience they played second fiddle to the often overwhelming combat.

That’s not to say it isn’t good. There’s nothing like sending a group of hapless goons skyward with Bucking Bronco before sprinting up and blasting them into the next life with a shotgun. Or possessing a turret and watching as your enemies shit themselves, distracted by the new threat, before laying down some electrical Shock Jockey traps and finishing off the stragglers as they gyrate with voltage. Infinite artfully retains the series’ ability to give players a wealth of options and make every fight a matter of deciding the best course of action.

Unfortunately, the vigors feel a little less necessary overall than the plasmids of old. This obviously depends on play style, but generally I found many of them to only be useful in specific situations, with little wiggle room. The Shock Jockey is good for stunning things, the Bronco for keeping groups occupied and powerless, Devil’s Kiss for causing fiery havoc, Murder of Crows for distracting clusters of enemies. I went through the entire game using Bucking Bronco and only switching to another vigor when the occasion called for it. Maybe that’s the way they were designed, but that doesn’t stop some of them feeling like underpowered afterthoughts.

The equippable gear, while useful, also feels like an unnecessary addition. I barely changed mine throughout the game and although this may again be a way of offering choice, I found most of it to be useless to me.

The Vigors can make you feel like a God at times...

The vigors can make you feel like a God at times.

Elizabeth lends a hand, too, in a number of refreshing ways. Far from being a damsel in distress, she skillfully avoids the fire and attention of enemies and darts around finding ammo, health and ‘salt’, Infinite’s version of EVE. A quick tap of X and Booker spins round, catching the thrown item and quickly snapping back to combat. It’s satisfying and cool, giving you the impression that Liz (yes, you feel that familiar with her) is a complete asset in combat.

She can also use her ability to rip objects and items into your reality through tears, spawning everything from cover to weapons at the drop of a hat. While this first seems a bit like cheating, the difficulty level soon rockets to the degree that you’ll be thanking her out loud as you desperately sprint for that just-spawned box of health kits.

She’ll also point out objects in the world, including the lock-picks she needs to open many of the secret areas around Columbia. Most of the stat-enhancing elixirs, as well as some of the more meaty weapons are often hidden in these rooms, and the severe lack of lock-picks forces you to make careful decisions about which you open.

The mixture of combat and storytelling is pitch-perfect and you’ll never feel like you’re getting too much of either one. If you’re expecting a CoD-style romp through an endless shooting gallery, however, you’re looking at the wrong game. Combat happens, regularly, but never at the expense of the story, and Irrational are confident enough to give you lengthy periods of gun-free gameplay to sink your teeth into. Elizabeth is an absolute joy to have around and never will you wish her to leave, to the point that during the brief moments she does you’re desperately wishing for her to come back.

In fact, herein lies a possible flaw. Yes, there are flaws. While I personally found Elizabeth charming and wonderful, if for some reason you find her irritating and unlikeable then you’re in for a hard time. She talks, a lot, and feels the need to constantly interact with the world around her. If that sounds like it would put you off then maybe this isn’t the game for you, but relying so much on the player wanting Liz around was a bold move. In my opinion it’s paid dividends but a friend of mine disliked her, criticising her constant jabbering and flitting around. To me, that’s what sets Irrational apart from the crowd though; their unwavering commitment to doing something different.

The mechanics aren’t perfect either, with certain things that seemed so necessary in all the pre-release guff actually turning out to be cool options. The Skyline system, for example, is nothing more than a neat tool for getting around and a useful tool in combat. Leaping down and smashing a goon off an airship is undeniably cool, but often leaves you exposed and can be needlessly tricky to pull off.

The wealth of weapons, again an attempt to give us more options, will quickly be reduced to two you find the most useful as that’s the maximum you can carry. For me it was always the shotgun and the carbine; it’ll likely be different for you but overkill weapons such as the volley gun or RPG serve little purpose other than to bring down the game’s special enemies every so often.

Diversifying from the previous game’s Big Daddies, these new Heavy Hitters are indeed interesting and initially terrifying, but fail to instil the same level of pant-wetting dread as their diving-suit-clad predecessors. While Big Daddies lumbered around, docile until provoked, Heavy Hitters simply kick down doors and instantly start taking you apart. They’re scary in the same way Juggernauts are scary; they can kill you quicker and therefore you’re more scared of dying.

The Motorized Patriots jog around with their mini-guns spouting bastardised Washington quotes; the Handymen leap around like enraged gorillas; the Sirens irritate more than anything by bringing goons back from the dead in their droves; and the Boys of Silence only bring the inevitable outbreak of conflict forward a few seconds. None of them are bad by any means, but considering the way they were essentially touted as four new replacements for the Big Daddies they’re more than a bit disappointing.

Songbird, however, is not. From the moment you meet him you hope to God you don’t meet him again, yet you know it’s inevitable that you will. You have something he wants and he has all the sky above and around Columbia to hunt for it. He’s the real successor to the Big Daddies, instilling that same sense of dread because he’s not always around. You never know when he’ll pop up, and although the moments he does are scripted they’re still jarringly scary. If you only left Elizabeth he would leave you be, but you know you can’t do that.

Welcome to Columbia
BioShock Infinite looks stunning. I mean literally astonishing. Every single frame is gorgeous, from the eye-watering vistas of Columbia’s exterior locations to the grimy confines of its underbelly. Irrational have really outdone themselves this time and I genuinely believe we’re seeing every ounce of power squeezed viciously out of our aging consoles.

Columbia itself is awesome to behold. Its various areas are all startlingly unique and yet retain a theme, making the place feel just as real as Rapture. From the steam-choked egotism of Finkton to the sick patriotism of Battleship Bay, the imprints of a team that genuinely care about creating a memorable world are all over this beautiful place. You know when you play a game and you walk up to every little thing because you’re just not sure if it can be touched? You know when a world pulls you in so much that you think ‘I can’t wait to go back’ as if you’ve been there on holiday? That’s Columbia.

This is NOT a promo shot. This is a sight you experience mere minutes into the game.

This is NOT a promo shot. This is a sight you experience mere minutes into the game.

Elizabeth, again, is wonderfully rendered. Her cute, childlike frame gives way to a strong woman and her power and fragility is felt through her every movement. She’ll react in fear and skitter off scared, get angry at Booker and sulk for two hours, and daintily skip over to a locked door eager at the chance to show off her skills. Strangely, her cloistered existence and her desire to be free shows in her eyes every time you catch her looking out over a balcony, and that’s genuinely amazing. A big part of her charm is her animation, and the team at Irrational have done a stellar job at bringing her to life.

Everything else, from the Heavy Hitters to the poor, sick minorities rotting tragically in the Shanty Town, is rendered in glorious detail, and the entire thing runs like a dream. I experienced pop-in, slowdown and frame rate droppage so rarely I can’t actually recall a specific instance as I write this. If this game was a car it’d be so clean you’d be able to see your face in it.

God only knows where I’d be without you…
The general sound effects in Infinite are brilliant, lending the world realism and tone and blah blah blah. We know the guns sound good and the ‘woosh’ the vigors give off makes them feel ever more powerful, but what really sets this game apart is the voice-acting and music.

Getting an industry veteran and an experienced screen star to play the two leads was a stroke of genius on Levine’s part, and it shows. Troy Baker effortlessly makes Booker more than just your average thug and brings his enormous voice-acting experience to the role with gusto and professionalism. His off-mic friendship with Elizabeth’s voice actor, Courtney Draper, shows in every conversation the two characters have and makes their exchanges some of the most human I’ve ever experienced. It’s up there with Monkey and Trip from Enslaved; that’s how good it is.

The actors often recorded parts together, simultaneously, to feed off each other’s emotions, and Ken Levine allowed them to change lines whenever they felt the script didn’t align with their characters enough. This fluidity, which I expect runs through Irrational like a river of creative juice, has allowed the voice-acting to flourish in a way that is rarely seen. Every other character, from the idealistic Vox Populi leader Daisy Fitzroy to the crazed Comstock himself, is acted with the expected level of quality. Not once does a single voice fail to further the sense of immersion promised by the other elements of this fantastic game.

The music is both odd and amazing at the same time. Likely due to the multiverse-toying nature of the setting, songs written decades after 1912 are heard regularly and used wonderfully. An early performance of the Beach Boys’ ‘God Only Knows’ by a fantastic barbershop quartet is just a small example of the masterful use of popular music in Infinite. A bar playing a jazz version of ‘Tainted Love’ and a joyous surprise for any Southern blues rock fans later in the game lends Columbia a regular sense of oddity that falls perfectly in line with its decor and themes.

The original music is brilliant too, evoking both Twelve Monkeys’ jarring tones and Hans Zimmer’s fantastic Sherlock Holmes score in equal measure. Perfectly blended with the action on-screen, combat brings attacked strings and leaping tones that artfully come to close as the last enemy falls. Aside from the familiar music, Columbia is lent an eerie tone with the music often disappearing and the sound design rising to paint an aural landscape to accompany the exemplary visual one.

A lone quest
Just a little fist quietly raised here for the lack of any multiplayer. Irrational tried to find a way of doing it that would both fit in with the mood of Columbia and do something other than the standard Deathmatch template. They couldn’t come up with anything good enough, so they just left it out. My hat is vigorously tipped to them for having the courage to present a purely single-player experience in a time when multiplayer is almost a requirement, especially when it comes to first-person shooters. Good on you guys.

Extra! Extra!
BioShock Infinite was released with two special editions, the most rewarding of which being the Ultimate Songbird Edition. I did an unboxing video on release day which you can watch by clicking the image below but if you can’t be bothered to listen to me enthuse about it for ten minutes (you really should, the stuff looks lovely), then here’s a quick rundown.

Check out the awesome new picture link!

Check out the awesome new picture link!

Along with the game you get the star of the show: a huge Songbird statue. With a wingspan of just under ten inches and a level of detail usually reserved for limited-run collectibles, it’s a masterpiece of the highest quality. It’s the best piece of collectors edition stuff I’ve ever received and that’s coming from a long-time purchaser of gaming tat. You also get a solidly-made keyring in the shape of the Murder of Crows vigor bottle, a tiny little Handyman piece for the upcoming BioShock Infinite board game, a beautifully presented art book in the guise of a Columbia Customs and Excise ledger, and a lithograph of a Columbian poster.

Rounding off the package nicely is a slug of DLC encompassing some neat Booker and Liz costumes for your Avatar, the awesome soundtrack and a few bits of neat gear. I got mine for £110 and it was worth every penny. Seriously, watch this video if you don’t believe me; it’ll make you want to scour eBay and take out a loan to buy one.

Stand tall for the beast of America
BioShock Infinite is not only a fantastic game but a testament to the fact that the first-person shooter is alive and well. The genre began as a way to immerse the player further into the game world and has morphed into a horribly exploited form often used to bring glorified shooting galleries to the masses. Before I played this game I was genuinely concerned that a genre that has been present almost since the very inception of our favourite pastime had seen its day, and that the only solution was to leave it to the CoD fans and move on. Not so.

What Irrational have done is not only ground-breaking but positively life-affirming. Every second spent in Columbia is a joy, whether it’s blowing heads off the fanatical Comstock followers or experiencing a touching moment of doubt alone with Elizabeth, they’ve taken storytelling and immersion to the forefront and made it relevant again. I came away confident that as long as Irrational continue to make games we will always have that feeling we got the first time we were allowed to see the world through the eyes of our protagonist.

If you think I’m being overzealous, then maybe I am, but that’s what a BioShock game does to you; it makes you excited. It makes you want to go out and tell everyone how awesome gaming is and how they can’t possibly exist in 2013 without it in their life. It makes you want to wave it in the face of all the naysayers and uptight detractors who think the hobby we love is just an excuse for angry children to blow up other angry children. It would show them that games can tell stories that are just as engrossing, emotional and personally affecting than any movie or book. In fact, they’re even more effective because you’re actually directly involved.

So do it. Grab the nearest person you know who thinks games are pointless follies of entertainment fit only for the lowest common denominator, and see if after just half an hour of watching you play BioShock Infinite they don’t want to see Booker succeed and Elizabeth get her freedom. See if they don’t change their minds. For only the willfully ignorant or the gleefully stupid can fail to see the pure example of gaming excellence and storytelling prowess that Irrational have given us.

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