There’s always a simple, recurring theme present when a typical video game fighting sequence is triggered and BioShock Infinite initially feels no different. My feisty female cohort, Elizabeth, takes cover and warns of the impending fire fight – no problem I think to myself. Although this time things are different. Before I know it I’m gliding around an air-rail built as transit for a city in the sky; opening up rifts to alternate dimensions and forced to dwell over difficult issues such as racism and religious implication. BioShock Infinite, as it happens, is not your average video game.
Game: BioShock Infinite
Developer: Irrational Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Irrational Games’ new take on the series differs from the previous BioShock games by removing you from the underwater metropolis of Rapture and placing you in 1912, Columbia – a floating city conceived by self-proclaimed religious leader, Zachary Comstock. Columbia is the airbrushed and beautiful to Rapture’s dark and eerie, but underneath lies a city that is still as dystopian as it is superficially idealistic. Within minutes of stepping into protagonist Booker DeWitt’s shoes you’ll begin to see its cancerous cracks; a sectarian white community, revolting factions and class segregation.
Although these issues might drive the world around the debt-ridden DeWitt, your mission is predominantly simple: ‘Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt’. Unfortunately, Elizabeth happens to be Comstock’s daughter – a girl confined to being a lab rat since she was a child through fear of her ability to open dimensional doorways or ‘tears’. The relationship between Elizabeth and DeWitt works well. They’re interdependent yet distant; never too trusting and always questioning each other. In many ways it creates an emotional detachment for the player, but sits right in a world where both characters’ acceptance of reality is slowly being altered.
Your initial experience in game will be one of salivating over every building and area, whilst soaking in a very familiar atmosphere – Bioshock’s early twentieth century feel is still evident through its synonymous sound design and use of bold, vivid colour. Infact, the fantastical idea of a balloon-supported Columbia is made largely acceptable through the game’s visuals even inspite of the apparent impossibility of it all. A barbershop quartet serenades from atop a hovering airship, people gossip in the streets and propaganda adorns every wall cluing you in on Columbia’s lore. Bar a few rough textures, the presentation is not only technically excellent, but also offers a great deal of conceptual design and intrigue that’ll constantly lure you away from your task at hand.
Thankfully, underneath all the dialogue and pretty pixels lies some well crafted shooting mechanics. It’s a step up from previous iterations that had seen them slightly less effective to make room for ‘plasmids’ – bottled super powers that give the player off-hand magical attacks. In Infinite they’re called ‘vigors’, but work in a similar, albeit simplified, way. For example, DeWitt can fling fire, deathly crows and water or simply lay them as ground-traps which are useful versus more formidable enemies. None of it hampers the actual shooting this time round, though. Gunplay is smooth, polished and one shot head kills are insanely satisfying.
Despite only being allowed to equip two weapons at a time, there is a good assortment to choose between the standard bunch of upgradable automatics, grenade launchers, shotguns and sniper rifles. Enemies also come in a number of shapes and sizes from cleaver-wielding henchmen, fire bombing madmen and giant handed bot-suit stompers that do their utmost to crush you at every given opportunity. With vigors, selecting the right one to compliment your weapon can make life ultimately easier, but if you’re like me you’ll probably find a combination that suits pretty early in the game; the possession vigor and sniper rifle helped me fulfil my potential as a sneaky little scaredy-cat throughout.
The nostalgic BioShock clinks and dings when gathering items and using vending machines is ever present but you won’t find as much to explore and find as you might have in Rapture. BioShock Infinite manifests the illusion of sprawling, open areas but in truth the whole game feels like a tighter, more streamlined version of older titles which won’t please everyone. What the faux-openness does offer, however, is the inclusion of a new addition to the series: the skyhook – a spinning hook that grabs onto high-speed traversable skylines strewn throughout the city. It also makes a pretty vicious melee weapon that initiates some violence that almost takes you by surprise early on.
Elizabeth is pretty smart. You’ll never need to babysit her, but you’ll miss her in her few absences thanks to the regular assistance with ammo, health and opening dimensional tears at request she offers. Doing so allows you to pull in a turret or bot that will fight on your side during the battle, for example. You can even pull up structures for you to take cover behind or extra hooks to traverse. Combined with the skylines, vigors and fast-paced shooting, combat can be just as strategic as it is pure mayhem – it’s nothing like anything you’ll have played in a shooter before. It’s completely enthralling.
Multiplayer is absent this time round; neither a good or bad thing. However, you do get the feeling that it was a casualty of production time. The same might be said of omissions from early gameplay and trailers along with the main game length which comes in at around twelve hours if you’re not interested in playing through a second time. 1999 difficulty mode does offer some come back, but with low ammo/health availability and with a cost tied to respawning, it’s certainly not for the light hearted.
Older fans of the series might find plenty to dislike about the slightly trimmed gameplay and despite promising more, Columbia is perhaps more linear than Rapture ever was when you boil it down. However, there’s not many games that are as genuinely fun to play and offer so much to ponder over at the same time. Irrational Games have created a vision that’s so meticulous in its imagining of the surroundings and main characters that despite any negatives, come the ending, you’ll ultimately be captivated.
Great stories are defined by their ability to have you lose yourself in them, at times be provoked by them, but always and without doubt their ability to stay with you long after you’ve invested yourself in them. Video games rarely achieve a depth of fiction that demands discussion in the same way a great movie or tv series might, especially whilst delivering you into a seemingly impossible landscape that you don’t ever feel the need to question. BioShock Infinite breaks that convention, and does it in style.