The original BioShock won critical praise for the incredible, immersive experience that it offered in a world under the sea. Bioshock Infinite offers the same depth of narrative, this time taking to the clouds to tell its story. While the game shares some of the imperfections of the original, it carries on the tradition of quality, and it is exceptionally enjoyable.
The protagonist of Infinite is Booker DeWitt, ex-army man turned private investigator with some obvious skeletons in his closet. When collectors come knocking the deal is simple; bring us the girl and the debt will be paid. The girl is Elizabeth, who has the unique ability to open tears in space. Booker must travel to Columbia, a utopian city in the sky in order to find and return her to his creditors.
The game plays in first person, with Booker carrying one of the many weapons in his right hand. His left hand is used for Vigors, drinkable tonics that grant the user supernatural abilities. Vigors will allow Booker to do things like throw fire or electricity at foes, or even summon a flock of crows to attack them. The mechanics will be instantly recognizable to anyone who played the original BioShock, as they are nearly identical. New to this entry is a rechargeable shield and a hooked arm called the skyhook, that Booker can use for melee attacks and gruesome executions.
For most of the experience Booker is accompanied by Elizabeth, and her unique ability impacts the gameplay, mostly in combat scenarios. She is able to reach into other dimensions and pull objects back into the world. Tears are visible in the world, and the objects inside can be seen in black and white. When directed, Elizabeth will pull the object through, whether it is a wall for cover, a turret gun for support or simply medical supplies. Only one tear at a time can be open, and managing them is a key to success.
The combat in the game isn’t great, but it’s serviceable enough to get through the story. As in the original, aiming down the sights is accomplished by clicking in the right thumbstick, which is cumbersome, but the auto aim assist balances it out. Holding down the left bumper will access all of the available Vigors, but the last two can also be quick switched by simply tapping the button. Between that and the ability to carry only two guns at once, it somewhat lead me to choosing two weapons and two abilities, and using them for the duration.
The main issue with the combat is that it is almost always some variety of combat arena. At certain points enemies appear, and progress is halted until they have all been eliminated. It makes the encounters feel more canned than organic. It also loses some impact due to the fact there is almost no penalty for death. Booker never really dies – Elizabeth revives him at the nearest checkpoint, and a small amount of money is lost. Enemies regain a portion of their health, but the defeated ones stay dead, meaning that with persistence anyone can brute force just about any encounter.
Columbia is a large, vibrant city, and while the path through the game is fairly linear, there are plenty of alternate areas to explore for optional side quests or wearable equipment, which grant various perks. Audio recordings are scattered around the environment, and help to give depth and background to the characters. Sky rails intertwine the city for navigation, and Booker can use his skyhook to grapple and glide along them, reaching new areas and setting up attacks on enemies.
It’s really impressive how well realized the world is, and at times I wanted to stop “playing” so I could simply wander around and take everything in. The level of detail and polish is remarkably excellent, and the overall presentation is well done. At any time, pressing up on the control pad displays the current objective with an arrow pointing the way, which helps to keep things moving. My only real issue was that tips for how to use items would re-appear every time I continued, and dismissing the same prompt over and over got irritating.
Hands down, Elizabeth is the best thing about the game. She has spent her life separated from the world, and her reactions, both to the violent acts around her and the religious and social norms of the time, feel real and genuine. Her face is very expressive, and instantly conveys her emotions. She is occasionally helpful in combat as well, and will seek out health and other items for Booker, along with pointing out sniper and other enemy locations.
Like Elizabeth, Columbia looks great and feels real. From the people to the buildings, everything reflects the feel of the city and its inhabitants. On a technical level the game is very pretty, and whether it’s the sunlight breaking through the clouds and lighting a statue or the horizon whizzing by as Booker rides along a sky rail, everything looks nice and runs smooth throughout.
The audio is another big winner here. As mentioned, Elizabeth is great, but Booker and the other characters are also very well voiced. The music in the game is a real treat, and it features modern songs done in the style of the early 1900’s. It’s so well done that I was looking around in a shop when I realized I knew the words to the song that was playing, and after a few seconds discovered it was “Tainted Love”. The music blends into the game perfectly, and discovering it was one of the more interesting surprises.
Bioshock Infinite is a really remarkable game. While the combat may get old at times the story never does, and I really don’t want to write anything about it, because discovering it was such a joy. Any complaints I had were immediately washed away by the game’s incredible ending, which is one of the best game endings I have ever experienced. It’s a well-polished, exceptional experience, and something that I would recommend to anyone.
Review copy of game provided by publisher. Primary play on Xbox 360.