Time for a gaming confession: I’ve never played System Shock 2. It’s one of those titles from the glory days of PC gaming that passed me by entirely, like much of that era due to me being a poxy wee console baby. This meant I had no context whatsoever for all the comments about Bioshock being a spiritual successor, and as such I opted to play the more colourful, fancy-looking Infinite and tackled the series entirely out of order. Here’s what I thought of it.
Bioshock Infinite (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox 360, Xbox One]
Released Mar 2013 | Developed: Irrational Games | Published: 2K Games
Genre: FPS | HLTB: 12 hours
“Bring us the girl, and wipe away the debt.” So go the arc words that open up the game and follow Booker DeWitt throughout his time in the sky-bound city of Columbia. A deadbeat PI, Booker is hired to travel to the isolated city and spirit away Elizabeth, the daughter of the city’s cultist leader, Zachary Hale Comstock. And while the streets of Columbia are brightly lit and lined with smiling faces and glorious parades, it takes no time at all for things to go wrong.
Like Bioshock’s Rapture, Columbia is sick to the core. On the surface a beautiful shining utopia that floats among the clouds, it is quickly revealed to be a society that is deeply ill. Columbia is built on a backbone of theological conditioning as citizens are led to worship Comstock as an all-powerful Prophet, and on racial oppression as all the non-white, non-American souls lured there become trapped in slums and work that the wealthy upper class can live easily. It’s easy to see the criticism of modern America, but it is less well-structured than its equivalent message in Bioshock; Levine’s tearing down of Randian objectivism there is far more efficient and effective, but that doesn’t make Infinite any less of a piece of criticism. The cult of personality and racial stuff is very on-the-nose, but unfortunately it doesn’t commit entirely and ends up sitting in a kind of middling centre ground as it struggles to justify a widening array of targets to take on.
Infinite, you see, isn’t solely concerned with social commentary; it also all goes a little bit meta on us. As Booker and Elizabeth make their frantic escape through Columbia they’re constantly pestered by the Lutece twins, a brother and sister with eerily similar speech patterns and a penchant for showing up the oddest places and both seem to know just a little too much about our pair of protagonists. As Booker and his charge start to ask more questions, the Luteces do not supply a surfeit of answers; rather, it all starts to trend towards remarks and comments that prod at the inevitability of their actions and it feels a little too much like the Luteces are aware they are in a game, where events are prescribed and a linear story is unfolding along prebuilt rails. Like many games that try to tackle questions of agency and authority, particularly in one with more wild narrative concepts as Bioshock Infinite, it does all get a touch pretentious. By the end, it runs the risk of being a bit too interested in itself, but I’m loathe to say I didn’t enjoy it; it might be a wild and ostentatious ride, but damn if it isn’t a fun and well-told one.
It’s also a staggeringly violent game. A few years ago, back when buzzwords like ludonarrative dissonance were being bandied about, Infinite was occasionally at the centre of it, but I can’t see why. Infinite is a deeply violent game about a deeply violent man; Booker opens up about his role in massacres earlier in his career and admits he was a Pinkerton, deployed to stop striking workers by any means necessary. This brutality is innate to his character, and it shows; he dispatches enemies ruthlessly, and doesn’t bat an eye as they explode or collapse before him. His first thought on getting a hold of Columbia’s signature skyhooks, a whirring magnetic grappling device designed for travel, is to jam one in the head of an attacking police officer and take it for a spin.
The real protagonist though isn’t our sadistic player character but his charge, Elizabeth. At first wide-eyed and full of laughter as Booker busts her out of her imprisonment, her idealism soon gives way to a darker, sadder cynicism in the wake of the carnage Booker leaves. The more she experiences of Columbia’s hate-fuelled reality the harder her resolve becomes; far from becoming some broken bird she blossoms into one of the finest characters gaming has to offer. The dynamic between her and Booker is certainly interesting; what begins as a rescuer-rescued situation slowly morphs into a twisted and warped parent-child-esque team. Bookers swings between rescuer, only doing a job, and a surrogate father with whom Elizabeth struggles to maintain a difficult relationship; all the while Elizabeth comes to terms with herself and her place in Infinite’s universe and the broken Columbia she calls home. She is a magnificently constructed character, and if there ever was a reason to recommend playing Bioshock Infinite, she is it.
After all that, it seems a shame to talk about the relatively standard FPS gameplay. Some of it is a step down from previous Bioshock games; for example, Booker can only hold two guns at once, a worthless and annoying mechanic typical of modern shooters, and the actual range of guns is unfortunately unremarkable compared to some of the weirder options we could use in Rapture. Typical of these types of games, you’ll probably find a pair of guns that you’re comfortable with and those will see you through the entire game given the plentiful supply of ammo and ease with which they can be upgraded at vendors. Booker gets a melee attack courtesy of the skyhook, and it is this that offers something different to the Bioshock formula; the 2 previous games cultivated an oppressive, tense atmosphere, but Infinite is more swashbuckling and a lot of that comes from the way you can latch onto the skyrails around Columbia and swoop around them, firing wildly or leaping down to slap baddies across the face before reattaching to the rails like a demented bloody Spiderman.
Vigors are Infinite’s equivalent of Plasmids, powers that Booker can wield alongside his guns. There’s a decent spread of them in Infinite; some are familiar like being able to chuck fire or lightning with Devil’s Kiss and Shock Jockey (while the beloved ability to shoot bees out your fingers does not make a spectacular return, Murder of Crows allows you to achieve much the same result except with angry birds, and that is a win in my books). There are no really “out there” powers to use, but the ones that are there are satisfying to use; launching enemies into the air with Bucking Bronco or launching across the battlefields at lightning speed just to clock an enemy in the jaw with Charge became personal favourites in my latest playthrough. Like the guns, your Vigors can be upgraded, though mostly it’s stuff like making them cheaper or a bit more effective.
Naturally for a _shock game, exploration is highly encouraged. Each new area Booker visits in Columbia is vast, with plenty of wide-open spaces for hectic firefights, but equally that means there’s an awful lot of space for things to be hidden and squirreled away. Elizabeth is an expert at picking locks and keeping her well-stocked with the tools of her trade is key to having enough cash to get the best stuff in Columbia; as well as money and picks, upgrades for Booker such as new wearable Gear to give passive bonuses and the series’ typical voice logs recorded by all manner of characters to give lore and weight to the world are also sequestered away, waiting to be found by the intrepid player.
Infinite gets some flack from certain circles online, but personally I don’t share their opinions. It might not be as deliriously tense as Rapture, nor have quite as punchy gunplay as at least Bioshock 2, but it is by no means a bad or even mediocre game. What Infinite undoubtedly is, is far more accessible than its predecessors. It takes more cues from contemporary FPS games, and offers a more action-packed game but beneath that is some exceptionally strong writing that places it right up there next to the first game.
6/7 – EXCELLENT. Games with a touch of brilliance. It might only just miss out on being an absolute favourite, but you should definitely play this.