‘Is it someone new?’ Four words. Four seemingly innocuous words that, to the average gamer, mean very little. Yet to hardcore fans of the BioShock series these will be the first things you attach yourself to as you are welcomed to the flying city of Columbia by a shady looking priest. Swapping sea for sky, Ken Levine and his talented squad of developers (Irrational Games, 2K Marin) return to BioShock to deliver arguably this gaming generations’ final swan-song. Are 2K’s lofty ambitions fully realised in Infinite, or is this a game that flies too close to the proverbial sun that once set in Rapture little over six years ago…?
The year is 1912. The mission is simple: Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt. We open on a small rowing boat manned by the strangest couple you’re ever likely to meet in a videogame. Rain lashes down on a cold and weary Booker DeWitt – a former government agent – as he ascends his way to the lantern room of the worlds’ most religious lighthouse (does this all sound vaguely familiar…?) One thing inevitably always leads to another and Booker is soon sky-rocketed to the floating air-city of Columbia in another iconic opening sequence that would make even Andrew Ryan applaud its artistic merit. Suddenly the mission is not so simple – the girl, Elizabeth, is hot property and yourself, Booker, is branded an anti-christ in a city where literally nobody sleeps. Let carnage ensue! Yes, Infinite’s set-up is simple enough, however after the first couple of hours the narrative seriously takes some fantastic twists and turns throughout the course of the 15-hour-or-so campaign.
To put it simply, Booker is an astounding protagonist and a great diversion for the series which has already seen its fair share of mute heroes. He’s smart, dryly funny and pretty tormented; a smörgåsbord of likeable and dislikable qualities that ultimately make him one of the most intriguing characters I’ve seen this year. In respect to the entire game, the writing team have achieved something special in genuinely treating the gamer like an adult from start to finish. There’s no dumb dialogue – in fact I was honestly surprised at just how straight-up mature the script was. Columbia is a hyper-religious hive of conflicting factions set during the growth of American; nailing the endless amounts of religious waffle in a convincing and believable way is a harder job than it actually sounds. Equally the narrative rewards concentration and intelligence – it tries to not spell anything out too blatantly. During one moment early in the game, Booker observes Elizabeth as she stares longingly at a picture of the Eiffel tower. This isn’t referred to again until much later on in the game when Booker uses that as a bargaining tool, saying: “If you come with me now we can take that Airship and go to Paris!” It’s a subtle bit of storytelling well told – a praise that the guys at 2K and Irrational are probably sick of hearing by now..
Gameplay wise, the set-up is relatively identical to that of its predecessor. The term ‘Plasmid’ is swapped in favour of ‘Vigors’, ‘EVE’ is replaced by ‘Salt’ and Bathysphere’s are replaced by fantastic rollercoaster-like sky-rails that Booker can traverse with his new grappling device (a device which is to Infinite what the wrench was to BioShock.) Where Infinite manages to push the envelope is through its use of vast, constantly changing environments (and I’m not just talking about blimp-supported buildings!) Everyone has a story to tell in Columbia and you can literally spend hours just roaming the streets, approaching citizens at random just to hear their comments. Some convincing and well-directed voice acting almost renders the idea of the audio diaries useless here but fortunately they’re mainly positioned in areas where there’s hardly anyone around so that way two layers of dialogue don’t ever overlap. At the push of a button a handy arrow and objective reminder will appear to show you which direction you need to go – a neat addition for casual gamers but with a game like BioShock Infinite I have to stress it’s worth playing without the help. Half the fun is in the exploring the little side-paths and areas, collecting the loot, absorbing the decor and extending the story even further through the use of the vox pops. I spent the entire game smelling the roses in every corner of every map and not once did I feel I was wasting my time. Am I sad? Who knows. Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow? Who knows.
Vigors are as entertaining to use here as they’ve ever been in the previous two BioShock romps. My favourite is undoubtedly ‘Posession’ (which is coincidentally the first and most important Vigor you get in the game) which allows you to turn man and machine to fight on your side with the option of upgrading – adding suicidal damage into the mix. Or indeed there’s the ‘Bucking Bronco’, a Vigor which launches your opponents in the air for you to aim and fire at like fish in a barrel. My only criticism with the handling of Vigors is you can only hotkey two at any one time and the occurence of salt required to replenish your bar is severely unbalanced. I believe in BioShock you could purchase and stock up on EVE and keep replenishing yourself throughout a fight. Here you can’t carry any salt with you, so once you’ve used your Vigor a few times in a battle you’ll need to quickly loot and get searching (avoiding your enemies fire as you go) to find some salt. Occasionally this is where Elizabeth comes in handy – as she can source ammunition and salt for you when times get hard. Speaking of Elizabeth…
…On the stage, they say the key to being a great actor is to be constantly doing something at all times. Not only must you be doing something, you must seem as if you have a good reason to be doing the thing you’re doing so that it doesn’t seem forced. Elizabeth is a testament to that 100%. With state of the art AI, Elizabeth doesn’t ever just trundle behind you like a real-life shadow – she surveys the area, she gets excited about things, she spots interesting items that you may have missed and throws it to you in a smooth gesture This is the first time I’ve ever seen something quite like that in a game and it’s truly breathtaking – it’s immersive, it’s realistic and it just makes sense.
Infinite has this fortunate ability to even succeed when really it should miss. Graphics are a mixed bag. The vistas, character facial recognition and constant shifting environments all look incredible and genuinely go toe-to-toe with some of the best graphics I’ve seen this generation. Contrarily to that, close-up textures, ‘generic’ enemies and the look of the weapons are all underwhelming and fairly blotchy. While this is the most hit-and-miss part of the game, on the whole the graphics are just as impressive as BioShock’s were back in 2007 (although I do wish for a few moments you’d be allowed to run underneath a waterfall and experience that gorgeous trickle of water down your lens.) Some surrealist moments in dialogue (most notably at the very beginning when the strange couple drop you off at the lighthouse) would normally remove me from the game as they’re so bizarre, however here it all adds a dreamlike quality to the proceedings. It makes you question whether or not you’re on the same page as everybody else, exaggerating the feeling of outsiderness and isolation despite the fact the whole game takes place in an expansive, heavily populated environment. When a game can take a miss-step but still have that be interpreted as being a good step forward, then you know it’s doing something right.
As BioShock before had a lot to say on social structure, censorship and freedom – this one deals heavily with the notions of race, religion and exceptionalism and tackles them head on without fear. The attitude of turn-of-the-century America is in full swing here, right down to the subtle (and not so subtle) racist comments littered throughout the game. The majority of black characters are usually found in the bathrooms scrubbing the floors – shy, apologetic and friendly. It’s an astute observation lifted from any successful blacksploitation movie and it really has a significant impact when seeing it play out the way it does in-game. You’re even given an option early-on during a fascinating section of the game where a mixed-race couple are presented to a crowd charged with the crime of… well, being a mixed-race couple. Here you can either join in (i.e – throw something at them) or oppose (i.e – throw something at the racist ringleader who handed you the object). To me, that decision was a no-brainer but I have always been curious since that incident to see what actually would have happened had I opted to be racist… Nailing 1912 American culture isn’t the only thing that should be celebrated though, in its own unique BioShock way there is still a blend of contemporary ideology implemented throughout the experience. During a moment on a beach I approached two different groups of people. The first group discussed how impressive a floating beach was and how far ‘modern technology’ had come to allow it to exist. The second was a group of women – the leader of the pack took a look at me and said something along the lines of “Look at him girls, I bet we could find him a nice pair of trunks.” Then the rest of her group giggled. Here, the first comment was undoubtedly contemporary (if a little futuristic) whereas the second was, to my mind at least, a well-observed comment about that type of female behaviour in 1912 America. Referring to trunks was probably as lude as women could get in social situations. Oh how times have changed…
A final note must go to the Soundtrack and, in particular, composer Gary Schyman. It can be unsettling, uplifting, and completely motivating (quite often at the same time!) and when it’s not doing those things it’s making you jump with fright or prompting you to sing-a-long with joy. Whenever you murder someone in the absolute dramatic height of the battle a sound effect seems to play as if a piano has just landed on the ground after being dropped from a 20-story building. It’s happens regularly enough to feel over-used but whenever that noise plays it never fails to give me the willies. On a contrasting note, early on in the game I thought I was going crazy because all I could think about for some reason was this one ‘Beach Boys’ song. I turn a corner and suddenly there’s a Barbershop quartet singing ‘God Only Knows’ in acapella to a crowd at a fate. It’s multi-layered music in a multi-layered universe telling a universal story that many can engage with. That’s an achievement.
The original BioShock will forever be in my top 10 best-games list of all time. It was a mammoth achievement in the videogame industry; the story it told was timeless and some of the debates raised by its various themes have even prompted me to go beyond the game and invest time in various types of relevant literature (most notably Ayn Rand – which was probably a big mistake). Well today BioShock can take one step down in my list of great games, because Infinite delivers on every single level. It improves on the formula and then takes you on a whirlwind ride to realms you barely thought possible. It doesn’t always hit its mark, the middle section can feel padded and the lack of ‘horror’ is definitely missed but from a narrative perspective this is a fantastic interpretation of the historical events that took place at the turn of the 19th century. It improves on so many genre clichés (most impressively here with the importance of your AI companion) and there’s even detail in the form of a neat, non-intrusive tutorial (the concept being you can play some fun carnival games whilst also being able to familiarise yourself with the various types of weapons and Vigors throughout the game.) It’s such an impressive package i’d be hard pressed to to tout this as anything but a ‘must own’ game. Some heavy themes may not be to everyones tastes but if you’re a fan of games for more than just killing people and blowing things up then this is definitely one you need to check out.
What do you think of BioShock Infinite? Is it the game you’ve been waiting for? Did it not deliver? Let us know in the comments below.