Chances are you’ll have your own memories of 2007’s BioShock: the undersea kingdom of Rapture, with its savage inhabitants and long shadows. The Little Sisters and the Big Daddies. The absorbing plot, with its power-mad business magnates and weird experiments. It was a game so rich with ideas and beautiful design that its 2010 sequel could afford to revisit the same location and still find a compelling new story to tell.
BioShock Infinite – which sees the series back in the hands of Irrational Games and designer Ken Levine – is daring enough to leave Rapture far behind, delivering a shooter that feels like a BioShock game in terms of its FPS mechanics, but comes with a nightmarish atmosphere all of its own.
Whisking us back to 1912, the game introduces Booker DeWitt, a traumatised ex-soldier and former detective. He’s been given the task of finding a young woman, Elizabeth, who’s being held captive on a floating city called Columbia. Held aloft by balloons and unfathomable science, the flying island was created as a celebration of America’s status before a series of events led to its secession from the world below. Now ruled over by a white-bearded patriarch named Zachary Comstock, Columbia’s sun-drenched towers and bustling streets are but a thin veil for the darker undercurrents lurking beneath; its old values of patriotism and religious purity have decomposed into extremism and an obsession with racial purity, while a faction called the Vox Populi plans a violent uprising.
When DeWitt stumbles into this surreal landscape, it’s easy to share his sense of bewilderment. Xenophobic propaganda adorns just about every street wall. The city stretches off in every direction, a network of museums, civic buildings and factories, all connected by a railway system called the Skyline. There are statues to Comstock, George Washington and, more darkly, John Wilkes Booth glower down from plinths in parks and city squares.
Like its 2007 predecessor, BioShock Infinite gradually envelops the player in its world. It may be as long as an hour – depending on how long you spend wandering around, simply taking in Columbia’s sights – before you fire a single shot. Instead, the city’s mood and its history is gradually unspooled, building up the tension until the first confrontation inevitably comes.
Beautiful though the world Levine has designed is, it has to be said that Infinite‘s opening isn’t quite as electrifying as BioShock‘s. The introduction to Rapture was so minimal that it was easy to forget you were even playing a videogame. With Infinite, the sheer number of non-player characters, who mostly stand on the spot and perform a single motion over and over again, provide a constant reminder that the world you’re exploring is far from real.
Booker DeWitt’s habit of commenting on everything he sees in his gravelly hero’s drawl (“Just ’cause a city flies, don’t mean it hasn’t got its fair share of fools”) is another distraction, and a real departure from the (largely) silent protagonists of the earlier games. The overall effect, in Infinite’s opening 60 minutes, is of being gently led through one of those museums where the exhibits move and history lessons are piped in over loudspeakers.
Once beyond this introductory act, however, Infinite suddenly clicks into gear. In a dizzyingly abrupt encounter, you’re suddenly armed with a pistol and a grappling hook – the latter useful not only as a singularly effective melee weapon, but also as a means of moving between Columbia’s discrete areas. Behaving like a fusion of Bionic Commando’s grabbing arm and a rollercoaster ride, the grappling hook allows Booker to hitch a ride on the city’s Skylines, resulting in an exhilarating rush around its rail system. A steady aim and a timely button press allows Booker to launch himself from rail to rail, or attack an enemy on the ground with deadly effect.
As both a means of transport and a weapon, the grappling hook can completely change the complexion of a typical gun battle. One encounter in one of Columbia’s wide open spaces saw me pinned behind cover and low on ammo. But just when all seemed lost, a ride on the Skyline left me standing on higher ground, and a handily abandoned sniper rifle allowed me to gain the upper hand. It’s a great system, and folded almost seamlessly into the on-foot action; Booker can speed up or slow down his rate of travel, reverse direction, or simply hang from the rail and use his elevated position to take pot-shots at enemies. One can only imagine the kind of sweet chaos the system could have brought to a multiplayer death match.
Effective though the grappling hook is, it isn’t the finest of Infinite‘s many accomplishments. Instead, that accolade goes to Elizabeth, who serves as both the game’s MacGuffin and its narrative heart and soul. Locked up like Rapunzel somewhere in Columbia, Elizabeth’s a far more effective and nuanced character than the game’s trailers might have implied. Irrational’s staging of Booker’s first meeting with her is expertly set up, and far from being the stereotypical woman in distress we’ve seen in countless other videogames, she becomes an invaluable ally. She’ll lead you through Columbia’s sometimes perplexing map, pick locks, crack safes, and in the midst of a screaming fire-fight, throw you extra ammo and medikits.
Elizabeth is also possessed with the ability to open portals in space, allowing access to other dimensions. Initially, this could be taken as a simple plot device, but it also has a strategic use during shoot-outs; battlefields will often have several of these portals (or tears, as the game calls them) dotted around the map, which will show objects that exist in a reality other than your own. At the push of a button, Booker can direct Liz to open up a selected tear, magically whisking its contents into the current dimension; objects can range from bullet-proof cover, to boxes of medikits, to weapons, to friendly machine gun-toting drones, to grappling switch. It’s one of those ideas which sounds borderline nonsensical when typed, but makes perfect sense within the game itself, and like the grappling hook, provides all sorts of tactical alternatives to simply popping in and out of cover with a rifle.
Elizabeth’s enigmatic presence drives the entire game forward, giving focus to both its story and its action. Irrational have admitted that she’s a successor to Alyx from Half-Life 2 or Trip in Enslaved, but Elizabeth is arguably their equal.
The rest of the game’s shooter mechanics are recognisably BioShock, with a two-fisted approach to weapons: your left hand being used to launch Vigors (a series of paranormal abilities akin to the first game’s Plasmids), while the right can hold a selection of guns. Weapons include the usual selection of pistols, shotguns, rifles and machine guns, while Vigors provide variations on the various fire, electricity and water powers we’ve seen before – an ability to murder with crows is the most striking new addition. Other familiar BioShock trappings have been dressed up a little differently, too; Vigors require things called Salts rather than EVE, which can be found by rummaging in bins and boxes, or purchased from another series hallmark, the vending machine. Weapon and Vigor upgrades can also be purchased, while player abilities can be improved by finding various phials of potion or items of performance-enhancing clothing.
Enemies behave in a similarly deranged, flighty manner to the ones we first met in Rapture, though there’s a much broader variety of them. These range from rank-and-file lawmen, which can be brought down with a single melee strike, to heavily-armoured security personnel armed with RPGs. Standing in for the unforgettable Big Daddies is a range of formidable mechanised opponents: a George Washington automata wielding a hand-cranked machine gun; the hulking Handyman, a bullet-absorbing monstrosity with superhuman agility and strength. There are many more besides, including a vast, avian creature you may have seen in the game’s marketing materials, which we won’t spoil by mentioning in detail here.
Although there’s much about Infinite that inevitably recalls BioShock, it’s a much bigger, more ambitious game. Irrational has spent the best part of five years working on Infinite, and it shows; Columbia’s street corners and interiors are invested with a level of detail that is often remarkable, and after that opening hour mentioned earlier, its glittering sprawl continually changes, and coupled with a churning, chaotic narrative, evokes the atmosphere of a fever dream.
Offering a lengthy campaign for a first-person shooter, Infinite will easily last a dozen hours, even if you rush through the story without paying attention to the various side quests and other distractions – but Infinite isn’t a game you’ll want to rush through. Whether you’ll want to obsessively collect every voxophone or view every video will be down to your own personal taste, but there’s so much here to dwell on and return to once the ending has been reached; locked rooms to explore, stunning environments to revisit, and alternate outcomes to consider – we’re still wondering what would have happened had we made different choices in our first play through the game.
In a game that expands so much on the self-contained, relatively intimate scale of BioShock, it’s perhaps inevitable that not everything in the realm of Columbia is perfect. One segment in the middle of the game, which involves walking back and forth between three locations, is a moment where the pace really seems to drag, and there are times where the game appears to be kicking against the limitations of ageing PlayStation 3 hardware, with the odd jitter and low-resolution texture in evidence now and again.
But as both a successor to the earlier games in the series, and a story-driven shooter in its own right, BioShock Infinite is a remarkable achievement. It strikes the same balance between intelligence and bloodshed, low-key dread and pulse-quickening action. It creates a convincing virtual world, with its own horrifying yet convincing political system. It introduces a wonderful character in the shape of Elizabeth, who’s both a companion and an enigma. BioShock Infinite delivers all this, and wraps it in a story that is mind-bogglingly complicated yet entirely compelling.
Chances are, you’ll have your own memories of BioShock. And with BioShock Infinite, Irrational has created another shooter that, in its finest moments, is downright unforgettable.
BioShock Infinite is out on the 26th March for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC.