BioShock Infinite is one of those ‘event’ games, where the pedigree of the developers, the ceaseless hype and the relative thematic boldness of its narrative can spin the unwary games writer into a critical daze and a few too many visits to the superlative drawer. Gaming critics are always chasing the next high, the next title that can be crowned as a ‘game changer’ or defining moment of a generation; wanting to say “we were there” when another game is added to the canon of a still-developing medium. It can be a misleading urge.
Between them, Ken Levine and his Irrational team can claim to have influenced Thief: The Dark Project, System Shock 2 and, of course, the original BioShock. In-keeping with the nature of that back catalogue, BioShock Infinite is a game of laudable ambition that does its damnedest to edge back many of the boundaries of the FPS genre it confines itself within. But in doing so it both exposes and submits to some of those same restrictive conventions.
Like BioShock before it, Infinite is the tale of a man brought to a fantastical city for purposes that only become fully clear with time. Despite sharing the name and a fair amount of stylistic nods (such as a propensity for characterful vending machines,) the first two titles in the series have no bearing on this one. It’s quite possible to jump into Infinite as your first BioShock game.
You are Booker DeWitt, former strike-busting Pinkerton and guilt-ridden participant in the massacre of Wounded Knee. The first of several breezy and enigmatic conversations with a pair of scientific siblings informs you that you are in deep, debt-related trouble. But it’s a spot of bother that can all be forgotten if you retrieve a certain girl named Elizabeth for your unnamed creditors.
Problem is, Elizabeth is locked up in a floating sky-city established by cultish zealot Zachary Comstock, and guarded by a gigantic, semi-mechanical jailor called the Songbird. Welcome to Columbia, where the year is 1912 … sort of.
Much has already been written about the splendid artistic realisation of Columbia’s cloud-tinged streets, and it’s all well placed praise. Like any contemporary FPS, BioShock Infinite is no stranger to the occasional set-piece event that removes control from the player, but the greatest ‘set-pieces’ are the city’s locations themselves; be that a simple (for a floating city) marketplace crossroads, ludicrous artificial pleasure beach or propaganda-tainted exhibit about the Boxer Rebellion. Colour, tone, atmosphere and (especially) music are all used to magnificent effect.
These areas don’t just look terrific, they serve as smart pieces of visual exposition. During your first few moments wandering the streets of Columbia (an opening every bit as vivid in 2013 as Half-Life’s tram ride was back in 1998,) you’re stopped by a passing parade outlining a brief, instructive history of the city. Scattered viewing stations loaded with crackling black and white film footage and short lines of overheard conversation from the local population help to fill in further blanks. It’s an introduction that plays directly to the great strengths of videogame storytelling; visual information and the agency of the player as a curious observer.
That agency, though, doesn’t extend to being allowed to really explore much off the guided path. There’s a little backtracking to perform optional side-quests (for which the reward is usually cash, or an item of combat-aiding gear) and some areas that offer more open spaces, but freedom of movement has, if anything, been reduced in scale when compared with BioShock’s interiors. There is, though, still cause to root through every office and alleyway. As in the two previous games (and System Shock 2,) discovered audio diaries flesh out further parts of the story.
Thematically, that story touches on regret, guilt, oppression and religion. Comstock’s Columbia is a city founded on the literal deification of a trio of modern America’s Founding Fathers; a twisted place, where racist, xenophobic attitudes are legitimised by its leader’s quasi-religious prophecy, and a brutal, industrialised underbelly keeps the surface serene.
As a result, one of the game’s so-called ‘heavy hitter’ adversaries is a mechanised version of George Washington adorned with American flags in the shape of angelic wings. It’s a enemy perfectly in-keeping with the title’s portrayal of Columbia, and a tremendous piece of artistic design. But the way this Patriot machine fits into the game’s world is a lot more interesting than the reality of fighting it.
In battle, the Patriot trundles around, closing the distance and cranking out bullets towards your face. That’s fine, and pretty much what you’d expect from an FPS. But like so many violent encounters in the game it feels almost apologetic. “Sorry to take you away from looking at and hearing about all this other cool stuff for a moment,” the game often seems to be saying. “You probably need to shoot some more guys now.” Moments of peaceful mingling with citizens are as fragile an illusion as Columbia’s ‘paradise,’ where a careless wander into a restricted area or stolen stick of candy floss will cause an entire neighbourhood to rise against you in furious anger.
The feeling persists throughout that BioShock Infinite is a game somewhat at odds with itself; one whose ambitions are restricted by its own chosen genre.
The combat is by no means poor, or underdeveloped. It’s just weak-er when held against the strength of the world creation. Truly outstanding games find a way for their mechanics to incorporate and reflect their main themes (as in System Shock 2’s focus on survival, or the bleak stoicism of Dark Souls,) and BioShock Infinite never quite manages to forge this kind of link.
Yet there’s still plenty of enjoyment to be had with combining the effects of its plasmid-equivalent ‘Vigor’ powers with the unfortunate souls sent to stop you. If you’ve longed for the game that would let you assault someone with a flock of crows and then set those crows on fire, Infinite is finally here for you.
Higher difficulty levels demand a certain amount of tactical awareness, both with regard to ammo conservation and crowd-control of foes. While enemy AI is broadly straightforward (those with ranged weapons hang back, while melee-equipped folks rush in,) it does still have some neat tricks. Several of the more open combat arenas are overlooked by ‘Sky-Lines,’ the means by which freight (and, in emergencies, people) traverse the city. Hooking on and off these gives Booker a height and speed advantage, and enables (when combined with the right kind of gear,) some pretty devastating area attacks from the skies. Handymen, Infinite’s Big Daddy-esque mini-bosses, can put a jolt in these strategies by electrifying the lines.
Sadly, the need for more advanced tactics on higher difficulties is just a consequence of enemies having larger health bars and increased damage, not some kind of step up in their behaviour. In other areas too, the game puts a little too much faith in genre conventions. There’s a somewhat grueling late-game boss fight that has to be performed three times (aren’t they always?) and an over-reliance on ‘waves of enemies’ for its final act. Though to its credit, a more ‘obvious’ boss fight is rightly avoided.
The most successful link between BioShock Infinite’s more nuanced storytelling side and its all-out chaotic action is, by far, Elizabeth. From the moment at which you liberate her from imprisonment, she becomes an (almost) ever-present companion. In combat, she offers support in the form of periodic ammo, health and Vigor-replenishing salts. Outside of fights she’s the fulcrum for the narrative, much more so than the city of Columbia itself.
When the game veers away from its path of political unrest in an airbourne city towards even more fantastical, quantum-tinged ideas, Elizabeth is the constant presence that keeps the player (if not always the story) focused. Irrational has done fine work making her a convincing and welcome ally, steering clear of any sort of ‘escort quest’ nonsense (she can’t die) and having her race ahead of you to look at and point out periodic items of interest or interact with NPCs. She’ll also gasp in horror at some of the player’s grimmer melee executions.
Sure, it’s all pulling from a pool of potential scripted events, and you’ll occasionally catch her doing some freaky teleporting antics to helpfully appear near you with a health kit, but in terms of ‘companion AI’ she’s a sizeable step forward. As an actual character she’s eerily reminiscent of Disney’s Belle (imprisonment by circumstance, love of books, desire to reach Paris,) even down to the hairstyle. Convincing motion capture and Courtnee Draper’s warm voice acting give her a great degree of life, but there remains something slightly strange about her being so different in appearance from every other woman in the game.
There will be discussion galore about the game’s ending (no spoilers here, fear not,) and that’s quite as it should be. BioShock Infinite is a game that scoops up a lot of narrative cards yet still manages to slot and arrange most of them into a convincing structure; even if it does risk leaving things on uneven foundations by dispensing with one of the more interesting ones (Columbia’s political struggle) for the title’s final third.
Its conclusion is not so much a twist (as has been suggested,) but an arrangement of pieces of information that the player has already been shown. This also provides a degree of impetus to replay the whole thing, this time with an eye to picking out further foreshadowing of events.
There’s little doubt that Columbia will go down as one of the all-time great videogame settings, and the tangles woven by the game’s ending will prompt continued theories, arguments and debates about the strength (or otherwise) of its plotting. Though it sometimes struggles to reconcile its genre-constrained combat with its lofty storytelling goals, BioShock Infinite exhibits ambition and a boldness of theme rarely seen in FPS titles. In terms of marrying location and theme to the mechanics of gameplay System Shock 2 is still the pick of the Shock titles, but Infinite provides spectacle and wonder in abundance.