Bioshock Infinite: Pack it in, 2013. You peaked in March.
Every console generation, for me at least, carries with it a handful of vivid memories that stand out above the rest–experiences that remind me how great of a hobby video games can be even when so many executives and shady developers are out to prove otherwise. For the current cycle of consoles one such landmark moment came in 2007, after swimming through the flaming wreckage of an airplane to find a lighthouse. Greeted by a large red banner proclaiming “No gods or kings. Only man.”, and accompanied by a violin rendition of “Beyond the Sea”, my first trip to the decayed underwater paradise of Rapture is a moment I’ll never forget. Lots of great games have come and gone since, but for me nothing has ever lived up to the sense of wonder I felt playing through Bioshock for the first time. Bioshock 2 was better than its reputation, even if it did suffer from retread syndrome and detached, arbitrary multiplayer features. I enjoyed it, but it didn’t really recapture the magic. So I kept a cautious eye on the development and seemingly endless delays of the third entry in the series, hopeful but all too aware of how quickly the gaming industry can disappoint its fans.
I picked up Bioshock Infinite when it released on Tuesday, and around 5am on Thursday morning, I was sitting on the couch watching the credits roll through to the end. That is not to say this is a short game, by any means. It took me twenty hours, broken up into three play sessions. Certainly some of that can be attributed to the lack of a manual save system. Unlike most autosave-only games, this one does let you know exactly when the game last autosaved before you commit to quitting, but there was still a degree of that “just one more checkpoint” mentality going on for me. Mostly though, it’s because Ken Levine and the team at Irrational Games once again succeeded in hitching a deep and compelling story to a game that’s an amazing amount of fun to play.
No longer confined to the interesting but claustrophobic city of Rapture, Bioshock Infinite introduces players to Columbia, a sprawling city in the clouds with a wide variety of distinct locations. The series’ trademark 1940’s art deco look as been swapped out for a late 19th-century World’s Fair aesthetic, while still maintaining stylistic ties with the first two entries in the series. The shift also serves to distance in-game poster art and signage from fellow retro-future franchise Fallout and cover some territory that’s relatively fresh to video games. I could seriously talk about the art direction all day, from airship design to the decision to include snippets of the game’s backstory in several dozen Kinetoscope devices scattered around Columbia. I felt like I spent almost as much time just looking at things as I did progressing through the game, and I think a second playthrough would result in a very similar approach. Irrational did such a great job creating a world that felt lived in but abandoned with the original Bioshock, it was really great to see them manage a similar feat with a city that hasn’t yet fallen into disrepair. Oh, and one more thing before I stop gushing about the art: the color palette. Segueing from other recent games into Bioshock Infinite is how audiences must have felt when they saw The Wizard of Oz for the first time. Saying a game contains a dazzling array of colors shouldn’t be a rarity given the capabilities of modern consoles, but so many developers seem reticent to stray very far from brown, lest they sacrifice a precious modicum of grittiness. That’s not a problem here, and I just wanted to point out how much I appreciate it.
Beautiful character and environmental design only goes so far though, even the prettiest game is hard to get behind if it’s not fun to play. Luckily Irrational has you covered on that front as well, getting everything right that one could possibly hope for. I was hesitant, for instance, when I realized early on that Elizabeth, the game’s poster child, would likely act as companion to protagonist Booker DeWitt for the duration of the experience. Past escort mission nightmares set warning sirens off in my head, until a little pop-up assured me that there’s “No need to worry about Elizabeth in combat, she can take care of herself”. And not only does she avoid standing in front of bullets like any sensible sidekick, she actually makes herself useful by tossing out ammo and health occasionally during combat, and money when exploring. The very concept that a female companion in a video game can be emotionally engaging and instill a sense of responsibility in the player without being utterly useless and imperiled at every turn is something that game developers seem to have only discovered in the past year, so hopefully it’s a trend that continues. I was also worried about the skyline segments featured in all the preview trailers, presuming that they’d be on-rails shooting segments at best. Again I was relieved from the moment I first used one, latching on with my skyhook and finding it easy to control speed, reverse direction, and take aim at enemies all while traversing the networks of aerial rails found throughout Columbia. Add all that on top of a huge weapon selection and the usual interesting array of special powers (referred to now as “Vigors” rather than Plasmids, to fit the new aesthetic), and you’ve got a game that is fun to play at every turn. Firefights are engaging and fast-paced, and encourage the use of everything at your disposal, a nice break from the endless fields of waist-high cover littering other shooters.
While not every building is explorable there are still a lot of opportunities to poke around the less-traveled routes in Columbia, with a lot of collectibles that are very worth finding. Infusions let you upgrade your choice of health, shield, or salts (which power your Vigors). A wide variety of gear equippable to four different slots let you customize aspects of your character ranging from decreased reload times to a chance to set opponents on fire with melee attacks. The usual Bioshock audio diaries are present in the form of Voxophones (massive “portable” contraptions employing phonograph records), and are joined by the aforementioned Kinetoscopes, which show brief silent movies highlighting Columbia’s history. I scoured what seemed like every inch of the game and still came up a little short on all the collectible-related achievements, so for completionists it’s definitely something to shoot for.
I’m reluctant to delve into the story for the purposes of this review, since I myself tried so hard to avoid any and all spoilers leading up to the game, and felt richly rewarded for my efforts. I will say however that it delves pretty heavily into several topics such as religion, worker’s rights, and racism, so much so that some of the signage and graffiti is a little jarring at times. There aren’t very many games out there dealing with real-world topics in a way that is neither one-sided nor pandering, and Irrational wisely disposed of any arbitrary “good/evil” decision making so the player is free to think about the subject matter being presented without taking one side or another in the hopes of exclusive gear or an Achievement. Also disposed of for the sake of an intact story is any form of multiplayer or co-op. I realize there is an ever growing segment of players out there unable to enjoy a game unless they’re shouting into a headset, but every once in a while it’s nice to have that traditional single-player experience. Some things are better explored alone, and as much as I enjoy the occasional co-op session, I’m happy to see a game confident enough in its narrative and presentation to leave out that sort of thing.
There are always going to be little nitpicks about any game, even one I enjoyed as much as this. The game does sort of railroad towards the end as the story hits its climax, but that’s honestly something I’ve never seen avoided in any game trying to tell a real story, so I’m not sure that’s even a complaint. I’d like to be able to go back to previous areas so I didn’t have to replay the entire game in hopes of finding the five or so collectibles I missed the first time through, but the backtracking also would have detracted from the urgency of the narrative. I guess the best way to put it is that I can’t think of anything I’d want that there wasn’t a good reason to handle the way they did. As an experience there are few games from this generation that can compete, and fewer still that deliver so consistently on every level. In the end I can say with confidence that there are moments from my time in Columbia that will stand alongside that first descent into Rapture six years ago, and that’s the best compliment I think I could ever bestow upon a game.
Posted on March 29, 2013, in Reviews, Video Games and tagged Bioshock, Bioshock Infinite, Columbia, Irrational, Ken Levine, Kinetoscope, Plasmids, Rapture, Vigors. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.