By: Michael Dao
Bioshock Infinite is the third game in the Bioshock franchise. The first was a critical and financial success, known for its unique setting in the underwater city of Rapture, and was considered to be one of the finest examples of storytelling in modern interactive media. The second title, Bioshock 2, brought us back to the city of Rapture 10 years after the events of the first game. The second game was received rather well, although without the universal acclaim that it successor had enjoyed. Many cited the return to the same setting or Rapture lent a feeling of deja vu to the title. So, we are finally brought to Bioshock Infinite, the latest addition to the series. It is difficult to call it a sequel, as the game takes place in 1912, four or so decades before the events of the original Bioshock, and knowledge of the events that transpired in the first game are not necessary. In fact, there are only cursory references to the first title. A player can safely play Bioshock Infinite without having played any of the previous games and not miss out on anything. That is definitely a good thing, because Bioshock Infinite is a whirlwind of a title, and making someone play through two predecessors in order to really enjoy this title would be cruel and unusual punishment and should be outlawed by the United Nations. Yes, it is that worthwhile of an experience.
The thing about follow-on games in a franchise is that they inevitably draw comparisons to their predecessors, and Irrational Games probably had that in mind when they announced that the setting for Bioshock Infinite would take place in the flying city of Columbia, a sort of steampunk American city in the year of 1912. The visuals and architecture of Columbia are astounding, and really do manage to give the player a sense that Columbia isn’t a flying island with buildings on it, but a real flying city made up of multiple parts. Politics and social issues have always been a part of the message of Bioshock, and the setting of the game does bring to light some portions of American history that were not, so to speak, our finest hour. A very apt description of Columbia found on the internet was that it was a “city full of magic and racism.” Also present to a disconcerting level was the degree in which American Exceptionalism, the idea that the United States of America had some sort of special destiny, that it was a “city upon a hill,” was displayed in the game. However, one could argue that it was historically accurate if one looked at the attitudes of Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt.
The next big point that separates Bioshock Infinite from its contemporaries is the presence of Elizabeth. The premise of the game is that the player takes on the role of Booker DeWitt, a former Pinkerton employee turned private eye who has managed to rack up some substantial debts. In order to clear these debts, a man has hired DeWitt to travel to the city of Columbia and to kidnap Elizabeth and bring her back to New York City. Elizabeth is your companion for most of the game, and may be the best thing that has happened to shooters since sliced bread. Escort quests in almost any genre of video game are usually incredibly painful. Proper pathing for artificial intelligences are never 100 percent foolproof, and they often do something stupid that gets them killed. Elizabeth, however, is never a hindrance. She will dutifully follow Booker around, and when necessary, supply him with much needed goods, such as ammo and health. In fact, it can probably be said that the game really is about Elizabeth and how she has the worst escort quest ever – taking care of Booker. She becomes such an integral part of the experience that the times where the player is forced to be without her, the experience becomes quite markedly different.
The game plays like a competent shooter with a veritable buttload of wrinkles. The weapons are interesting and different enough to accomodate various playstyles. There are achievements attached to acquiring a certain number of kills with each weapon, so switching it up is encouraged. Unique to the Bioshock universe are what are called vigors, though the lay would probably just call them magic spells. The right trigger and right shoulder button control weapons firing and selection, while the left trigger and shoulder are used to cast these vigors, which range from a magnetic shield that allows the player to collect bullets and then shoot them back at their foes to the ability to possess an enemy combatant and then make them fight against their compadres. Since Columbia is a flying city, the third dimension is added into the mix with the use of a rail system. Separate parts of the city are linked together via this system of rails in the sky. Booker can use a hook to swing from the rails with one hand, and with a gun in the other. The rails make him quite mobile, and also gives him the opportunity to perform aerial takedowns on threats beneath him. The final wrinkle here is Elizabeth’s ability to open tears in reality. Certain locations on the map have tears in reality that Elizabeth can open on command. Using these tears, the player can either have health or certain weapons spawn. They can also spawn in cover for their use, or even friendly turrets or units. All of these gameplay concepts are introduced slowly, to acclimate the player, but it isn’t long until an absolute blast is had going through a tough battle, using every tool Booker has at his disposal, opening rifts while shooting at foes, hanging on a rail sliding, finally leaping down to dispatch an enemy.
The most special thing about Bioshock Infinite is the narrative. Going into serious detail with it is to invite spoilers, so we will only discuss it in general terms. The storytelling in Bioshock Infinite is mildly flawed. Plotwise, things move at a glacial place for the first three fourths to four fifths of the game. Motivations for characters sometimes don’t flesh out during this time, but then in the very last bit of Infinite, they resolve and everything at the beginning is supposed to retroactively make sense. The pacing of the story just seems off a lot of the time. The plot itself does have some holes to it, and certain plot points are easily predictable, but it’s still enjoyable. What it absolutely excels at, however, is its ability to evoke an emotional response from the player. If you’re able to suspend disbelief and just accept that Booker and Elizabeth are growing an extremely strong bond together in such a short period of time, there are moments in the game that invoke a wide range of emotions, from making you sick to your stomach to flat out anger, and finally, complete shock.
That’s the reason someone who like shooters and believes in video games as an interactive medium should play Bioshock Infinite. It does have its flaws. The plot can be weak at times, and the level of violence can be a bit disturbing for those that do not normally play shooters. Ken Levine has truly shown us what kind of an emotional response can be evoked by a video game. The ending left me speechless, and will be one that sticks with me for a very long time, and it wasn’t even the content of the ending, it was just how it was done. Everything about this game, the engineering, the presentation, was built to hit gamers feelings, and it was successful, but it does have its issues. First are the plot points discussed earlier. Second is the excessive violence in the game. Chris Plante has already written an excellent editorial about how the level of violence in Bioshock Infinite has actually limited its audience, and finally the game is difficult. Novice gamers or those looking for a more story driven experience will find it difficult to complete even on the easiest setting. Most people will be able to play Bioshock Infinite and have a great twelve to fifteen hours with it, but sadly, not all.
Bioshock Infinite is currently available for the XBox 360, PS3 and PC via Steam. The copy reviewed was the XBox 360 version.