A man, a tower, a girl. The story happens over and over, in a thousand different forms, and though years of media hype, screenshots, and demos may have made the world of BioShock Infinite feel like a fairy tale that you already know by heart, it will surprise you and challenge you in ways that you will not know if you are ready for until it has become too late.
GAME NAME: BioShock Infinite
DEVELOPER(S): Irrational Games, 2K Marin, Human Head Studios
PUBLISHER(S): 2K Games
PLATFORM(S): PC, PS3, Xbox 360
GENRE(S): FPS, Action, Adventure
RELEASE DATE(S): March 26, 2013
In BioShock Infinite, you take the role of Booker DeWitt, a hero of the Battle of Wounded Knee who has apparently racked up quite a bit of gambling debt in peacetime. He has been given an out to repay his debt, though–travel to the city of Columbia, and bring a girl there named Elizabeth back to New York City. Simple enough, until Booker learns abruptly that Columbia is a floating city hidden in the clouds, and on the verge of a civil war between the down-trodden minority workers and the citizens loyal to the city’s religious zealot of a founder, Zachary Hale Comstock. With no way to go but forward, Booker fights his way through the ensuing chaos, using every trick he can come up with to find Elizabeth and escape Columbia.
If you have ever played a BioShock game before, then you know how to play BioShock Infinite. Left-trigger powers, right-trigger weapons, button-press to search objects and pick up items and money, the latter of which is spent in vending machines to mod said powers and weapons. Some new additions to the controls include a button for quick-access melee attacks (instead of having to change over to it in your inventory) and a “hint” button that will overlay the direction to your next objective, in case you get yourself turned around in Columbia‘s exacting detail and inviting side-areas.
Gameplay wise, some additional tweaks have been made. Joining every other shooter on the planet, BioShock Infinite adds a Halo-style, avoid-damage-to-recharge shield to the mix. Also new (or rather, replacing the Tonics of earlier games) is Gear, which you can equip to either a hat, shirt, pants, or boots slot to tweak your gameplay, granting bonuses such as faster shield recharge or larger ammunition clips. Your powers, called Vigors this time around, all have multiple uses, giving you a variety of direct damage, grapples, and traps to decide on your own style of combat and take advantage accordingly.
Of course, I would be remiss to talk about the gameplay without mentioning Elizabeth, your dimensional tearing companion. Elizabeth joins you early in the game, and somehow has the ability to open “tears”, windows into other dimensions. To put it bluntly, you will want her to find a way to join you in every game, not just this one. She will spontaneously present you with health, ammunition, and other goodies she finds (often when you need them most), and has the ability to open tears around Columbia, granting you assistance in the way of cover, weapons, and auto-turrets, further widening your options in combat. Between the assortment of firearms, the quick-escape/death-from-above offering skylines, Vigors, and Elizabeth, joining all the pieces together make for some truly spectacular feeling battles.
On the down side of Elizabeth, she ends up becoming her own one-woman uncanny valley. Her art design makes her look like a Disney princess and her character models are better articulated than your higher-end action figures–as an in-game character, she is a triumph and something the entire Irrational team should be proud of. The hitch comes in how starkly different this makes her appear than the rest of the game. From a design perspective, her eyes are twice the size of any other resident of Columbia, and animation-wise when Elizabeth delicately rolls her neck and shoulders in exhaustion one moment and generic vanquished enemy #397 tumbles end-over-end like a string-clipped marionette the next, the contrast is apparent and off-putting.
In fact, I found the details to be a double-edged sword throughout BioShock Infinite. Impeccable attention is paid to the thematic and narrative details throughout, and it makes the flat-out gamey parts stand out all the more. Columbia is a deep and intricately imagined world, so any time something is explained away with a single line or two (“must be magnetized!”) it feels like the unsaid sub-text is, “Don’t worry; it’s just a game,” and that attitude just does not jive with the care that has been taken to cultivate other pieces of the world. In an environment that screams at you to pay attention to the details, having any of them handled sloppily will create a obvious speed bump, and they kept yanking me out of the story–live by the details, die by the details.
For instance, Elizabeth can pick locks, but you have to pick up the lock picks for her. Elizabeth will let you know when she sees lock picks nearby, but despite her being able to hand you health, money, salts, and weapons, she cannot collect the lock picks for you, leaving me on more than one occasion to get tired of not seeing the lock pick she was badgering me about and just moving on. At one point, Elizabeth and Booker had a conversation about how he was in Columbia because he came for her, and had to return her to erase his debt, and she became quiet and submitting to this reality, only to literally, in the next scene, have her find out for seemingly the first time that he is delivering her to repay his debt, causing her to lose her mind at the betrayal, and conk him in the head, as though the previous conversation had never happened. It also seemed the citizens of Columbia rarely partake of Vigors, if the relatively few Vigor-powered enemies you come across are any representation, yet you will constantly run across whole crates of Vigor bottles littered on the ground, leaving you to wonder where they were all going. I realize that these all sound like very petty, nit-picky things to point out, but when you constantly urge a player to keep looking for the details, you had better make sure all your details are dead on.
I did have some performance issues with the game–for those interested, I will mention I tend to review games on an old, refurbished Xbox 360 that has been disconnected from the internet, because not everyone is online for patches and not everyone has new hardware, and if a game works on that box it will work anywhere. Despite installing it on the hard disc I still found the game slowing down and the load screens bothersome, and quite a bit of object and texture pop-in occurring. Least forgivable, was in the middle of one combat, I charged brazenly into a room of enemies (I used the battering-ram like Charge Vigor a lot), only to have the entire game freeze for a few seconds and flash the word “Loading…” across the screen while the game tried to figure out how to react. Mid-combat. Ugh.
I realize that it sounds like I am down on BioShock Infinite, despite the relatively good score at the top of the page, but in reality it is quite good. I, personally, had some issues with the ending of the story, but A) they have more to do with personal preference than any fault of delivery and B) I cannot go into detail without getting spoiler-tastic with my review, so maybe we will save that rant for another day. Most of the technical problems can be fixed with little patching tweaks, and despite the attention to detail highlighting the moments of inattention to detail, the low moments are vastly outnumbered by the high. The opening text of BioShock Infinite says one will often manufacture their own memories when crossing dimensions, and you will find little-to-no problem editing your own memories to hide the foibles and appreciate the larger excellence of the game.