Developers – Irrational Games, 2K Marin, Human Head Studios, Darkside Game Studios
Publisher – 2K Games
Platforms – PC, PS3, X360
Normally when it comes to sequels I like to compare them to the original game. Some may say that’s unfair, but I think it’s the best way to see how much effort a developer has put into a new game. Effort doesn’t necessarily mean change, because change isn’t always good (and I’ll expand on that in my upcoming Dead Space 3 review), but can instead be how much like the original the sequel is in atmosphere and theme while still bringing new features to the table. Bioshock Infinite is very different to the original 2 Bioshock games, so much so that comparing them becomes a little difficult, but from what I’ve seen and experienced this difference is a good thing in Infinite’s case.
Aside from the obvious difference of a Sky City Columbia setting versus a Sea City Rapture setting, Infinite is a much more concentrated and story-focused game. The major cause of this change is the companion that follows you around for the better part of the game: Elizabeth. I’ll go into more detail about her later; for now you just need to know that character development is a huge part of what makes this game great (and also why I wasn’t satisfied by the ending, but you won’t hear much about that in this review).
So far I’ve done a lot of talking without really saying anything, so let’s get into some more concrete stuff. The protagonist this time round is Booker Dewitt, who presents an immediate change from the original games’ unnamed heroes, firstly in that he has a name and secondly in that he begins the game on the negative end of the karma scale. Dewitt is just an ordinary guy with a debt to pay, and he isn’t afraid to rough people up to get what he wants. To this end he is sent to the aforementioned sky city of Columbia to retrieve an unknown girl with whom he can pay what he owes. It’s really no spoiler that this girl is Elizabeth, but I’m not going to expand on the pair’s wacky adventures past their meeting except to say that they are opposed by Elizabeth’s father and the leader of Columbia: Zachary Comstock.
The second change I want to talk about involves Columbia itself. While Rapture had a very limited background (entrepreneur doesn’t like rules, builds sea city, it goes to hell), Columbia at least feels like it has a lot more depth to it. Its people have almost been brainwashed into worshipping Comstock and following his ideals, which means that most of the background information hidden throughout the game relates in some way to Comstock or his city, as well as the inhabitants themselves. These tidbits are mostly presented in the form of audio logs (an excellent feature carried on from the previous two Bioshocks) known as voxophones, and it always impresses me how much the developers manage to convey in the recordings they hold. There are also these weird View-Master type contraptions new to infinite that really fall short in information delivery, but do manage to give you a feeling for the kind of propaganda Comstock uses to keep his people in line.
I think it’s about time to discuss what really makes this game different, and that’s Elizabeth. A massive part of what makes Infinite interesting and enjoyable are the interactions between Booker and Elizabeth, and the change they cause in each other. Elizabeth’s growth as a character is especially noticeable, as she has been locked up for most of her life and isolated from the outside world, but Booker’s changes in thought patterns are no less important. Apart from plot-related roles, Elizabeth also represents possibly the best escortee a game has included in recent memory. Whereas most games with escort aspects make gamers groan with frustration, Bioshock’s take on the feature is refreshing and even welcome. On top of being unkillable (and the game explicitly mentions that you shouldn’t worry about her during firefights), Elizabeth will find money, ammo, health and salt (the equivalent of mana/eve) for you during your travels; I can’t even count how many times she helped me out of a tight situation, and cash is always useful. There’s another feature that allows you to call in mechanical allies with Elizabeth’s help (which I’m not going to go into too much), but they’re next to useless and are usually immediately destroyed. I would say that more games need to have an Elizabeth in them, but the uniqueness of the concept is what makes it special in my opinion.
The second unique combat feature is the inclusion of skylines, rail-like structures connecting the floating buildings of Columbia. Apart from being a lot of fun to play around on, they’re incredibly useful for making quick escapes or executing drive-by attacks on unsuspecting enemies or even stomping enemy faces Mario-style (that last one’s not quite how the skyline-strike works, but it’s certainly how I felt when doing it). The physics behind their use are questionable at best, but I’m not about to poke holes in what is really an incredibly novel and entertaining game mechanic. Plasmids make a return under the new guise of “Vigors”, and have a variety of new and entertaining flavours. They’re just as, if not more useful than the Plasmids of old, though I’ll leave it to you to discover what they do. As in the original games good gun-work will eliminate the need to use your supernatural powers but it’s always fun to show them off. There are also a number of new guns to whet your teeth on, but though they certainly get the job done none of them are particularly noteworthy. You can only hold two of them at a time, which is an unfortunate change from the herculean strength that allowed you to carry every weapon simultaneously in the first two games.
So how does it all look? Let’s start with the good and move downwards from there. Columbia as a whole looks wonderful, like the kind of flying city you may have fantasized about while growing up. Your vigor powers look great, and the changes they wreak on your flesh when first consumed range from horrifying to just plain cool. You can tell that a ridiculous amount of work has been put into Elizabeth’s look and animation (with motion-capture being used to add that extra feel of realism), and it definitely pays off. On the surface everything looks amazing, almost as if trying to distract you from looking too closely. As soon as you do take that closer look though, things start to lose their lustre. Strangely enough this is most apparent in the starting moments of the game. Character models are reused almost shamelessly; I’m pretty sure I saw somewhere between 5 and 10 of the same model within the first 5 minutes of being in Columbia, many of which were in the same crowd of people. Close up some of the textures look absolutely horrid (once they’ve actually loaded, that is), and there is no excuse for it in a triple-A title like Bioshock. It’s a shame really, because most of the game looks gorgeous.
As far as the audio aspect of the game goes…well, if you haven’t realised by now I don’t pay a lot of attention to that part. Unless a game does a spectacular job in this department (or a horrific one), I simply don’t take note. What I can tell you is that the voice acting is excellent on all accounts.
We’re finally up to what I’m going to affectionately dub “The Gripe Section”. There’s very little I can criticize about Bioshock Infinite and in the end it boils down to two things (three, including the graphical fumbles I mentioned earlier). The first concerns Songbird, a mechanical guardian whose purpose is to look after Elizabeth, which essentially means returning her to Comstock’s loving embrace. My gripe with Songbird is that, for being the antagonist’s major trump card and even the character made into a statue for the collector’s edition of the game, he really doesn’t play a big part at all. You see him four, maybe five times throughout your playthrough, and while he does his best to remove Booker from the equation of life his efforts are all shown via cinematic events meaning he never poses any significant threat to the player themselves. I guess what I’m trying to say is that there is a huge discrepancy between Songbird’s intended impact, and how he actually comes across to the player. Songbird was never a factor I considered important to the story, kind of like the Great Uncle or Aunt you’ve only seen twice in your life – you know they exist, but they’re never going to mean anything to you in the grand scheme of things. To their credit the developers did their best to reverse my opinion in the later stages of the game, but it was far too late to try pushing a new character into the spotlight.
The second gripe is where I think you’ll start hearing different opinions. I’ve left it till the end of the review because, well, it’s all about the ending. I appreciate that endings are difficult to do right, and Infinite’s ending certainly isn’t the worst I’ve seen, but I think it breaks a few unwritten rules and doesn’t allow the game to finish in a way that is satisfying. In order to avoid spoilers I can’t say much about the ending itself, but there are a few points I would like to mention (and if anyone wants to discuss the ending further, feel free to do so in the comments with spoiler tags). For a story that mostly keeps its feet on the ground (ha ha) Bioshock ends way up in the air with some fairly radical concepts being thrown at the player. Don’t get me wrong, complex endings aren’t necessarily a thing to avoid, but Infinite rapidly rolls out a whole bunch of new facts in the last 20 minutes or so of gameplay and never gives the player time to digest it all. While I enjoy plot twists that make me re-examine previous events to see if they are consistent with what has just been revealed (see Sharin no Kuni), the breadcrumbs left throughout this particular game are not sufficient to justify its ending. Also, in my opinion, some of the actions and attitudes taken during the ending sequences run completely contrary to how the character really would have acted, making it feel like the character development during the second half of the game was completely irrelevant.
Summary – Bioshock Infinite was my favourite Bioshock so far. It introduces the series to stronger story elements without sacrificing its entertaining gameplay, and any game with a partner like Elizabeth is worth playing. Excellence is well within Bioshock Infinite’s grasp, but a few relatively small faults like graphical inequalities and its clumsy ending stop it from realizing its full potential.
Plot/Characters – 9/10
Gameplay – 9/10
Audio/Visual – 8.5/10
OVERALL SCORE – 9/10 – Great
Trailer for the interested parties:
Nice review! I agree, this was my favorite Bioshock. I think this entry took the series to a whole another level. Will you be playing the “Burial at Sea” DLC?
Definitely! Whether i’ll review it isn’t quite so certain though. In the mean time another blogger, Solidbatman, has just written up a review for it here: http://solidbatman1.wordpress.com/2013/11/14/bioshock-infinite-burial-at-sea-episode-1-review/