Release Date 3/25/2013
Developer Irrational Games
Publisher 2K Games
Platforms Xbox 360 (Reviewed), PS3, PC
Genre Action Adventure
BioShock Infinite is a title that manages to be both a huge leap forward for gaming and a continuation of some of the medium’s most unfortunate trends. Know first off that the former trumps the latter enough that you should play this game. Its handling of storytelling and characterization is exceptional to the point of being revolutionary. It’s just that the gameplay comes nowhere near reaching the same heights.
The game takes place in 1912 in the floating city of Columbia. You control Booker DeWitt, a gruff type with a dark, murderous past. To settle a debt, you’ve been tasked with retrieving a girl named Elizabeth who is kept locked away at the top of a tower somewhere in the city. However, getting to her and getting her out of Columbia proves difficult as the city’s founder and self-proclaimed prophet, Zachary Hale Comstock, is the one who imprisoned Elizabeth and he’s more than willing to pit all of Columbia’s forces against you in order to stop you.
Columbia is an absolutely gorgeous setting. A technologically advanced 1912 metropolis is a completely inventive and unique environment for all of gaming and the developers should be commended for abandoning the dark, murkiness of the average first person shooter (not to mention the previous BioShock games) to create this bright and vibrant world. The first time you properly view the city and witness all of the buildings and sections of land bobbing up and down in midair is absolutely awe-inspiring.
The different areas in the game are staggeringly detailed and each has its own look, giving your adventure a real sense of progression. The areas you witness early on, with their greenery, piercing blue skies and cheery cotton candy vendors are those of the rich. These contrast sharply with what you’ll see later, when you enter the lower level slums, filled with burning barrels, trash and downtrodden characters. As events progress, things get more heated and the graphics ramp up accordingly, with some incredible, animated backgrounds depicting massive amounts of destruction.
True, outside of the important characters, NPCs are all made up from the same few models (many of whom have somewhat odd, alien faces), but the character most often onscreen is Elizabeth, who is so incredibly emotive she seems real. There’s also a degree to which the perfection of the world almost makes it too pretty. Everything is so pristine and perfect that at times it feels like some imaginary candyland that looked like I could bite into it. Regardless, this is undeniably one of the best looking games of this generation.
Much of the audio design is impressive as well. NPCs carry on conversations, old-timey sounding music wafts from radios and phonographs and certain bits of audio are cleverly inserted to provide clues about the nature of the world and its happenings. Non-ambient music is mostly used during fight sequences and your actions (like if you blow somebody’s head off) are often punctuated with an extra stab of strings or a bang on a drum. However, the music still gets repetitious. If there’s more than one fight theme, they are largely indistinguishable from each another, being entirely atonal violins and clattering percussion. It’s all minimalist stuff that sounds a lot like the composer took quite a few notes from Jonny Greenwood’s soundtrack for There Will Be Blood and like the music in that film, it manages to set you on edge, but that doesn’t keep it from getting old after a while.
Another problem with the audio design is that, once Booker teams up with Elizabeth, they have quite a few conversations with each other and frequently, the other audio in the game overpowers them. Worse, you can sometimes trigger a new conversation before an old one has finished, cutting off the first one entirely and losing whatever information it might have contained. Even if this stuff isn’t always hugely important to the story, it’s dialogue that deepens Elizabeth’s character and her relationship with Booker. And you’ll probably want to hear it.
The area in which Infinite soars is its characterization. Simply put, Elizabeth is one of the best female characters in gaming, if not one of gaming’s best characters, period. Her dialogue, her varied animations and facial expressions and her voice acting all add up to a character who becomes the reason you want to continue the game. She’s smart, resourceful, interesting and occasionally moody. She just seems real and having her around for so much of Infinite elevates the game from being a standard FPS to a much more intriguing story about these two people. Booker is a much simpler, standard game character type, all grizzled and not wanting to get entrenched in the politics of the world, just wanting to clear his debt. However, though he has a lot less to say, he begins to soften up, in a nice bit of symmetry, along with the player. As you become more attached to Elizabeth, you want to help her and not disappoint or upset her. And you come to realize Booker’s right there along with you.
The story Elizabeth and Booker find themselves wrapped up in is also incredibly admirable and above and beyond what most games accomplish. It’s complex, engaging and frequently smart enough to not show all its cards at once (if ever). Like a lot of good art, it doesn’t feel the need to provide absolute answers to everything (though there are many pick-uppable audio recordings to be found that help flesh things out). Most importantly, the story is smart enough to carefully set up things early that payoff later. This is, of course, a standard approach to storytelling in other media, but not one that games typically have a handle on, especially not with a story this complex. There are times the plot takes a few small leaps to work or things get a little too convoluted and slightly off the rails, but this is by and large a narrative triumph.
It’s just too bad that BioShock Infinite is a game. And one that suffers from a problem many new titles do: it doesn’t really seem to want you to play it. The story is fantastic, but the actual gameplay is lackluster. The enemy AI isn’t particularly smart or fun to deal with; if combat is challenging at all, it’s simply because there’s a lot of guys around in huge environments and it’s hard to tell from where you’re getting shot at. The enemies have a mob mentality and dispatching them generally boils down to repeated headshots and, in close quarters, savage beatings. The game’s other main mechanic are vigors, powers you earn sporadically that allow you to set people aflame, electrocute them or send them flying into the air amongst other things. However, combat is so simplistic and dying impossible (Elizabeth just revives you and you lose a bit of cash) that I frequently forgot to use vigors at all. The most useful vigor is possession, which allows you to possess people and machines so that you have temporary allies and this is the first vigor you obtain in the game, making most of the others feel even more inconsequential.
But Infinite has a lot of gameplay ideas that feel underused. There are shops everywhere to buy health, ammo and salts (which power your vigors). But these things are so liberally scattered around the environment that you never need to buy anything. (There are also weapon and vigor upgrade shops and the former type, at least, is useful.) Further solidifying how Infinite really doesn’t want you to die, Elizabeth also finds health, ammo and salts to toss to you during combat. There are also the skylines, rails you can glide along using an item you receive in the game’s opening called a skyhook. Though riding on skylines makes for an exhilarating showcase of the scenery as it rushes by you, its function in gameplay is less solid. You can have shootouts while gliding, but they never feel as cool as they’re probably supposed to and you’re more likely to dismount eventually, since it’s a lot easier to shoot people when you’re not zooming across a rail. There’s also no real challenge to riding a skyline, making it a bit underwhelming. You just hit a button to hook onto it and then only have control over turning around or how fast you’re going.
The lack of challenge is problematic throughout. Knowing how minimal the consequences were on “Medium” difficulty, I didn’t take fighting seriously at all and still managed to do fairly well. I did try turning the difficulty up to “Hard” but, again, the fighting isn’t all that fun and this just padded out what was already a pretty boring experience. The actual gameplay really comes down to a series of searching the environment for ammo, items and health restoring food (for some reason, you’ll frequently find hot dogs inside people’s desks), followed by chore-like battles. Technically speaking, the game has a fair amount of replayability with three difficulty levels from the outset and a much harder “1999 Mode” that unlocks once you play through once. However, the joy of the experience lies in its story, which always remains effectively the same.
In its further failings as a game, Infinite is frequently telling you what to do and reminding you how to play. I was in the final act and windows were still popping up to inform me that Elizabeth might throw me stuff during battle. You are constantly being directed by objectives (which are usually as simple as “go to the next place”) and there’s even a button you can press at any time that shoots out a little arrow showing you where to go next. This gives the whole game a feeling like you’re at an amusement park. You walk around, you see some of the sights, NPCs put on a little play for you, you ride a skyrail, but everything is strictly controlled and very little of what you do actually matters. You can repeatedly bludgeon innocents to death and get away with it; you’ll alert the authorities, yes, but once you kill a few of them, the area clears out and you’re left to explore and plunder to your heart’s content. It’s true that one of the game’s major themes is that of choice or rather the illusion of it, so there’s a chance that the entire thing is a meta-commentary on the nature of game design in general. But that doesn’t excuse my boredom.
Lastly, I have to question the game’s use of violence. Though I assume the game is deliberately attempting a contrast between the serene beauty of its world versus the ugly brutality of its combat, the violence is so extreme that it detracts from how I feel the characters should be acting. The skyhook doubles as your melee weapon and has these absolutely ridiculous finishing moves that let you choke people and fling them, burst their heads or carve relentlessly into their faces. It’s such intensely graphically violent stuff that, if my murdering of commoners didn’t bother her (and it didn’t), I felt that my use of the skyhook should’ve demonstrated to Elizabeth that I was a violent psychopath she should have nothing to do with.
BioShock Infinite really feels like two different games in one. There’s the one game that tells an incredibly engaging story about Elizabeth and Booker learning about their lives and the city of Columbia and then there’s this intensely violent, unspectacular FPS. The game’s strengths lie in its rejection of gaming conventions. Its colorful setting is about as far as it gets from standard video game (especially FPS) environments. Rather than being ham fisted or nonexistent, its story is complex, carefully plotted and comfortable with leaving the player occasionally bewildered. Most impressive, avoiding the one dimensional, overly sexualized female characters that plague video games, Irrational Games anchors their story around a strong, well rounded young woman. The character of Elizabeth and the tale that unfolds around and because of her is quite literally what makes BioShock Infinite worth playing. It’s just too bad the gameplay isn’t more unconventional too.
Den of Geek Rating: