Bioshock Infinite has an incredibly tough act to follow. Regarded by many as this generation’s finest first person shooter, the original Bioshock is an almost perfect culmination of philosophical, social and historical explorations interwoven with gratifying combat and visual majesty. Rapture was unlike anything seen before in videogames, finding that difficult balance between the familiar and the alien. You’ve never been to it, but it’s not impossible to imagine it existing either.
But while Bioshock sunk to the darkest depths, Bioshock: Infinite aims to – as Woody from Toy Story would proclaim – reach for the skies. Set in 1912, Zachary Comstock has created his own utopia in the form of Columbia: a floating city that is beautiful and grandiose in its scope and scale. Peel back the layers however and its propensity for oppression becomes evident. ‘The Prophet’, as Comstock is regularly referred to, has crafted a society that reveres the founders of America as Gods. Through Columbia, and thus removing himself from the “sodom below”, his ideal vision has become a reality: a pure American nation in which the white man rules without compromise.
Unlike Rapture, which from the beginning painted a picture of a utopia collapsed under its own idealism, Columbia at first feels like nothing short of paradise. The bold and untainted aesthetics give Columbia a vibe that is reminiscent to something from a Disney movie; it seems too good to be true, which of course it is. With every step you take new revelations unravel and Columbia reveals its despotic filth. Posters, voxophones (audio logs) and kinetographs slowly expose the player to Columbia’s injurious obsession with challenging and contested subjects such as nationality, patriotism, religion and race.
But what’s your reason for visiting this unknown quantity in the first place? As Booker Dewitt the player is tasked with freeing a young woman named Elizabeth, returning her to the creditors he’s indebted to. Given that she’s been imprisoned for some 12 years and is protected by Songbird, a mechanical flying behemoth, things aren’t going to be straightforward.
This however only marks the beginning of a fascinating journey, as Elizabeth accompanies you for some 90 percent of the game. Relations are initially strained as Booker and Elizabeth struggle to connect, but over time she becomes your only friend and you’ll grow to care for her in a way that is unheard of for AI characters. She is the centerpiece of Bioshock Infinite and the game’s greatest achievement because she is so believable and tragic; it’s impossible not to be affected by her predicament.
As a gameplay mechanic Elizabeth works exceptionally well, again something unheard of in most games for an AI companion. Not once did she obstruct me in combat, or get caught in the environment ala Fallout: New Vegas. This must have been an incredible undertaking for the team at Irrational Games, but kudos to them for creating an accompanying AI character that is not only convincing but actually functions as intended. Elizabeth is even knowledgeable enough to aid you in combat when vitals are running short, throwing you a medkit when low on health or salts when your vigors are nearly depleted for example. Elizabeth does run out of supplies to assist you with as well however, so you can’t solely rely on her to save you from impending doom.
Speaking of vigors, these are Infinite’s answer to Bioshock’s plasmids. While some are copies of the first game’s offerings such as electricity, there are some new additions worthy of mention, including the ‘return to sender’ which projects bullets back at your enemies, and ‘possession’, a personal favourite that allows you to seize certain adversaries and weapons to fight your corner for a limited period of time. It’s always fun to experiment with the capabilities of each vigor, and while each player will naturally have their own preferred types they are all extremely well balanced, allowing for numerous opportunities to experiment without any one particular vigor feeling overpowered or an obvious choice.
Firearms run the gamut from a pistol to an RPG, all of which feel substantial. It is a bit frustrating however that the weapons are generic and far from inventive aside from antediluvian aesthetics. Carrying only two weapons at a time for some may also be an annoyance, but it can serve to encourage the player to use other weapons that are scattered on the battlefield and not become too comfortable with any particular firearm. This of course means upgrading becomes a balancing act and less focused, but it offers greater variety in the action. It’s understandably disappointing to those who like to craft their own specific style, but it doesn’t detract enough from what is all round excellent and far more involving combat than the original Bioshock.
It’s not just in the decision to restrict the firearms you can carry at a time where Bioshock: Infinite has shook things up either. The skylines that make up a component of Columbia’s physical infrastructure present distinctive traversal opportunity and a verticality that isn’t present the first game; thus allows for more tactical options in firefights. Zipping around the skylines can be disorientating at times but in general they are used to good effect and supplement overall more frenetic encounters, even becoming essential against more formidable foes.
A contentious decision in Bioshock was the implementation of vita chambers that essentially removed any penalty or consequence for dying. While you do lose money and enemies regain some health with each resurrection this time around, it still essentially renders you invincible and removes much of the tension from encounters. Knowing you will be revived all the time can allow the player to be complacent and somewhat uncaring in their attitude towards progression which is one of the very few missteps Bioshock: Infinite makes. This issue can be circumvented somewhat once the 1999 mode has been unlocked. Should you have no money when you die on 1999 mode you won’t be revived and death is permanent, meaning you’ll have to reload the previous checkpoint. Implementing this in all the modes would have been a nice blend between providing ample support to overcome the odds and giving death enough significance to warrant skill and tactical acuity, but sadly it isn’t to be.
Pacing between the frenetic combat and more serene moments is generally excellent; rarely do you find yourself wanting for a sudden change of pace to curtail any monotony. The middle portion of the game perhaps feels a little bloated with too much back-tracking and could have been truncated by an hour or two, but it’s hardly damaging and is just a minor gripe in an otherwise very well constructed game that should take anywhere between twelve and twenty hours to complete, depending on difficulty and the player’s tendency to look in every nook and cranny.
The PC version of Bioshock: Infinite is more than a cut and paste port, utilising some advanced DirectX 11features, but while extra technical bells and whistles are welcomed Bioshock games have always been more about art. In this regard Columbia is one of the most unique environments ever created in gaming. It’s a strange and beautiful place that oozes charm as much as dread, with bold use of colours emphasising the scale of the environments which are much vaster compared to the confined hallways of Bioshock. It’s a real indulgence to be able to explore such an exceptional setting in which the environmental details serve as a great mechanic to tell the complex and involving narrative. Columbia is a big departure from the dark and claustrophobic worlds Irrational Games are used to creating and as a first attempt of breaking away from their comfort zone Columbia is resounding success.
The audio however goes one step further and is simply ingenious. The first moments arriving in the city are particularly moving; with violin strings evoking the awe and wonder that is Columbia. In other moments there are some remarkable compositions that are both baffling and inspired. Going into specifics will spoil the experience and joy of discovery, so to the player I say clean out those and tune in ears because you will hear something that you’ll, how should I put it, recognise. Cryptic I know, but I can’t say any more.
Voice acting is also worthy of praise as it brings the characters to life, giving them a sense of meaning and purpose the player can relate to. Elizabeth in particular is so convincing that she feels like a real person, largely thanks to an unbelievable performance from Courtnee Draper. Her efforts in tandem with striking animation and a tight script make Elizabeth more than just another companion; she will stick in the mind for a very long after the end credits roll.
Performance-wise Bioshock Infinite isn’t flawless. Despite using some advanced rendering technologies, Biochock Infinite isn’t as technologically sophisticated as a Crysis 3 or Battlefield 3. Using Unreal Engine 3, Bioshock Infinite should be offering a largely unblemished gameplay experience, but while playable frame rates are always achievable even at the highest settings at 1080p on mid range graphics cards, the game has a tendency to suddenly drop from a smooth 60frames per second down towards the 30s and low 40s, even when the engine seemingly isn’t being taxed, suggesting either a CPU bottleneck or an unoptimised engine for the platform.
Vsync is also an issue: once the game dips below 60fps (even if you’re sitting at 59fps) the game locks to 30fps, making the experience somewhat jarring and inconsistent. Nvidia graphics card owners have the luxury of adaptive vsync so can extract the full performance with vsync engaging when frame rates exceed 60fps. AMD users are out of luck at present, as even third party programs such as RadeonPro aren’t currently compatible to allow for frame rate caps for a more reliable and stable experience. I fully expect AMD to remedy performance issues to an extent in there next driver update, but until then AMD users should play with vsync disengaged to allow for the highest playable frame rates, even if screen tear is an annoyance.
With it being so soon after its release, it’s difficult to say whether Bioshock Infinite will stand the test of time that its predecessor has. While the inevitably of Ken Levine constructing another masterwork brings with it an element of ‘it’s been done before’, which could ever so slightly sully this watershed moment in gaming history, Bioshock: Infinite is an expertly crafted piece of entertainment that foregoes traditional gaming conventions and extracts the most from what the medium can offer. Adding verticality and more strategic components to the gameplay make Bioshock: Infinite a ludicrous amount of fun to play. Add to this a deeply poignant and challenging narrative and you have one of the greatest gaming experiences of the past 10 years. Bioshock: Infinite stands proud at the summit among the best company in the industry.