A note before we start: If it sounds like we’re being a bit vague, it’s because we are. We felt it best to avoid mentioning anything other than the most basic of plot points or setting details, even when they overlap with gameplay mechanics, to preserve the surprise and wonder of your own exploration of BioShock Infinite.
In a genre littered by grey and tan shooters, BioShock Infinite (BI) is more than a breath of fresh air; It’s a VIP pass at the most expensive oxygen bar around. Donning the troubled past of the noir-styled, down on his luck PI Booker DeWitt, players are rocketed into the fascinating steampunk nation of Columbia, a flying clockwork city where images of the American founding fathers pose as the Holy Trinity to the God fearing populace circa 1912. And then it gets strange…
The world of Columbia is one of the single most original and beautiful worlds yet created for a video game. The color pallet practically explodes off the screen. From the red, white, and blue pageantry of Columbia, to the warm yellow-orange of the bright sunshine, to the gloriously overblown ‘god rays’ streaming through stained glass, Irrational Games creates their wholly original world using more colors than those forgotten by Call of Duty’s designers. More impressive, the color and atmosphere change and evolve throughout the game as it moves into the darker themes of racism, nationalism, fanaticism, and the characters’ own pasts. Much like an animated feature, the art is exaggerated just enough to keep it out of the ‘uncanny valley’ and prevent the title from looking dated in the years to come.
Likewise, the soundscape is a wonderful collage of subtle ambient orchestral scores, BioShock’s disharmonious violin-centric combat themes, and period music, along with a few exceptional surprises I won’t ruin here. Barks of your friends, foes, and the general populace are district, non-repetitive, and add yet another layer of flavor to BI’s strange new world. The only disappointment is the voice of Booker himself. He never quite feels entirely appropriate, no matter the circumstance, and is prone to chattering to himself (you) to the point of distraction in the early hours of the game. He gets the job done, but in a cast of stand out personalities, he’s definitely the weak link.
Veterans of BioShock 2 will be instantly at home with the combat and the wide variety of options it allows. BI features the same two-fisted zap-z-whack as its predecessor with firearms on the left button and magical powers (now called Vigors) on the right. Vigors can be used in two different ways. A short press of the button will create a ranged burst of fire or lighting while a long button press will create a landmine style trap on the ground for unwitting victims. A “gear” system allows players to add extra passive bonuses via collectable clothing, such as a hat that adds an elemental effect to melee strikes or gives a chance at extra ammo drops. Two additional wrinkles now add even more combat options than before. The first is the sky-lines, a network of criss-crossing tracks used to carry passengers and freight between Columbia’s floating buildings. Brandishing a hand-held hook, players can zip across these rails to rain munitions onto their foes below, reach higher ground, and execute aerial death-from-above styled melee strikes. Secondly, many areas are dotted with hotspots that allow you to instantly summon items like turrets, supply crates, or additional bits of cover but only one can be active at a time. Sadly, stealth powers from previous BioShock games do not make an appearance and BI’s enemies are an eagle-eyed lot in the large levels. A minor problem rears its head with the level design during combat. The architecture throughout the game has been designed for art and world building first and gameplay second. This will lead to some annoyances for wall-huggers or spastic acrobatics as it is not uncommon to get stuck by some bit of flash on the wall, stopped by low overhang just above your sight line, or get backed into a closed off doorway. It’s a minor annoyance, but one that occurs regularly and will lead to some frustrating deaths in BI’s hectic and challenging firefights. Fortunately, BioShock’s no load, instant respawn death system returns to take the sting out of these misfortunate events.
BioShock Infinite’s true victory lies in pacing. It harkens back to a time before the CoD-styled ALWAYS ON TO THE EXTREME rollercoaster rides that dominate most recent big-budget shooters. BI features numerous lengthy stretches of gameplay without immediate danger where the player is encouraged to explore and immerse themselves in the world. There are, of course, dramatic escapes and heroic rescues, but BI offers more than just these. Much more. You’ll move from striding sunny streets to slinking through creepy asylums to running from fireballs hurling zeppelins all in equal measure and without dealing with one scenario so long you’ll tire of it. Your AI companion will never yell at you to hurry up, there are no nagging messages about the objective you were issued 90 seconds ago, and no giant on-screen compass pointing you down the only path ahead. Players are encouraged to soak in the atmosphere and reflect on the journey itself. The experience is more akin to Half Life 2 than mainstream FPS in the past couple years. Those that wander too far are easily back on track with a quick tap of a button to display a temporary arrow in the game world pointing them in the correct direction; An elegant and unobtrusive solution.
Finally, there’s the story. I’m really going to tip-toe around this one It’s great. It’s new. It has a satisfying ending to the beefy 12ish hour adventure. And it has some really thoughtful, if not necessarily deep, comments to make. Veterans of BioShock’s “Would You Kindly” will be alert and see most of the twists from a mile off, but it doesn’t lessen the impact of seeing them presented and, foresight or not, the ending is a strange and powerful piece that will leave you staring slack-jawed at the screen, immediately craving a second run through. It also helps that BI’s plot is, for lack of a better term, bat sh*t insane (and I mean that in the best possible way). Worth noting is that no previous knowledge of the BioShock franchise is required to enjoy this all new tale, but those who wished to experience the downfall of Andrew Ryan’s underwater utopia for themselves will find their wishes granted, after a fashion, with Columbia’s story. While this title shares some themes and mechanics with its progenitors, it is a whole new story in an entirely different world.
BioShock Infinite is, quite simply, a must-play for anyone who enjoys a single-player FPS. Beautiful style, great storytelling, and action-packed, option-rich combat combine to make BI a sure-in for game of the year. The attention to detail make the impossible flying city of Columbia even more believable than virtual worlds set in real locations and the original plot makes FPS gaming (finally!) feel new again. This isn’t another spastic twitch fest designed for coked-up adrenaline junkies. It’s a game for real people and the designers aren’t afraid to give players credit as being such. As with previous BioShock games, Infinite brazenly shrugs off what a mass-market shooter is today, both in concept and content, and emerges all the better for it. You’ve never seen anything like it and you will never forget it.
BioShock Infinite is available now for Windows PCs, Xbox 360, and PS3 for $60. It has been rated M for mature by the ESRB for “Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Language, Mild Sexual Themes, Use of Alcohol and Tobacco”. Reviewed on Windows 7 PC.
Reviewer Rating 5/5 – A Much Needed Shock to the System