(Very Early) Sunday Game Review – Bioshock: Infinite

Friday, April 12, 2013


In which God only knows what I’d be without you…

         I can’t say I was ever in the camp of the skeptics when it came to Bioshock: Infinite. Ever since that world premiere video, three years ago, I’ve been totally on board with the direction the series is taking. I’ve always been on board with Columbia as a setting, and more importantly, with the idea of leaving the original Bioshock’s setting of Rapture behind. Rapture was an excellent, evocative place to put a game, but I was more than ready to lay it to rest even before Bioshock 2 rolled around. So, yeah, I’ve pretty much always been in the pro-Bioshock: Infinite camp, but I can understand the trepidation of other gamers.
It’s been a pretty dark year for the industry, between the unmitigated nightmare that was the MassEffect 3 ending (for my part, I liked both the original ending and the Extended Cut), the SimCity and Diablo III launch disasters, the Aliens:Colonial Marines controversy, etc. It’s become increasingly difficult for gamers to trust the hype machine, especially when it comes to a big AAA title like Bioshock: Infinite.

So, let me dispel this for you. Bioshock: Infinite is good. Like, really good. Like, early-contender-for-game-of-the-year-and-possible-early-contender-for-game-of-the-decade good.
             It not only matches its groundbreaking predecessor in every way, it surpasses it. In terms of story, design, writing, and all-around fun it makes every other game I’ve played lately look worse for the comparison. It is, without a doubt, the most engrossing, engaging, and satisfying gaming experience I’ve had since Red Dead Redemption.
Is it perfect? No, but what game is? I’ve beat it twice now, once on easy and once on hard, and I can’t wait to tear into it a third time. That’s the level of good we’re talking about.

Unlike its predecessor, which followed a character who was something of a cipher by design, Bioshock: Infinite follows a true character – Booker DeWitt, a jaded, drunken ex-soldier who participated at the Battle of Wounded Knee at the tender age of sixteen, and was kicked out of the Pinkertons for, get this, being too brutal in his methods. Booker’s got a bit of a problem: namely, the massive gambling debts he’s accrued over the years. However, two mysterious benefactors approach him with a simple proposition:
“Bring us the girl, and wipe away the debt.”
The girl, in this case, is the mysterious Elizabeth, who has been sequestered away in the impossible, flying city of Columbia. Booker has to break in, rescue her from her tower, and bring her back to New York unharmed. However, shortly after his arrival, a wrench gets thrown into his plan…namely, that the people of Columbia are violently devoted to their religion: a bizarre, deeply racist, jingoistic cult of personality which surrounds both the Founding Fathers and a supposed prophet by the name of Father Comstock.
Oh, and Elizabeth is being guarded by a hulking, unstoppable Steampunk bird-monster called Songbird. That’s important, too.

It’s (pun very intended) high-concept, yes, and Bioshock: Infinite can come off as pretentiously highfalutin at times. I didn’t mind as much as some other reviewers because I, too, am a writer with a literary background, and I eat this kind of crap up on the daily. The level of craftsmanship, love, and care that Ken Levine and his team put into this game is immediately evident. The musical choices deserve particular praise – the anachronistic covers of Beach Boys, Creedence Clearwater Revival, R.E.M., and Cyndi Lauper (among others) are wonderfully weird, even though there’s a perfectly reasonable excuse for their presence in this bizarro version of 1912.

While the setting is incredible, and Booker and Elizabeth in particular are richly drawn and wonderfully complex, all of that would hardly matter if the gameplay wasn’t up to snuff. Mercifully, however, the gameplay is really quite good. Far from being a pretty series of corridors with an interesting skybox (which Rapture unfortunately was), Columbia features sprawling shooting galleries that allow you to tackle your obstacles in a variety of ways. Combat feels visceral and rewarding, and although some of the guns feel pretty same-y (and the heavy weapons, like the Volley Gun and the RPG, were barely more than useless), they’re not the stars of the show.
Your Vigors – supernatural powers similar to the Plasmids from the original Bioshock – are all well-designed, finely balanced, and wickedly fun to use. Whether you’re catching enemy bullets and hurling them back with Shield, chain-stunning enemies with Lightning, or rocketing around the field like an overstimulated spider monkey with Charge, all the Vigors feel useful, and especially on a harder difficulty, I found myself using them all at different times.
Once you reach Elizabeth and begin your daring rescue, the game doesn’t devolve into a humdrum escort mission – quite the opposite, actually. From a purely gameplay standpoint, Elizabeth will no doubt go down in history as one of the most useful computer-controlled companions of all time. As you progress through Columbia, she’ll scrounge for extra health, ammo, and money for you. She stays out of the way of enemy fire and handily defends herself if an enemy gets too close. Also, she can tear open holes in the fabric of space/time and pull things through, like decoys to draw sniper fire, friendly robot turrets, extra health kits, etc. Oh, and she’s good at picking locks. Her interactions with Booker, too, are very well-written, and the game gives itself enough moments to slow down and give the two of them time to bond (no spoilers, but make sure to check out the basement of the bar in Shantytown.)

            Even if Bioshock: Infinite is a mostly linear experience, it shows off why that’s not always a bad thing. The levels, linear though they are, are massive, and filled with little nooks and crannies to explore. The game goes out of its way to reward you for exploring the levels with new pieces of gear, tons of money, or other upgrades. However, I found that discovering new audio recordings (called Voxophones) from the game’s motley cast of characters, or finding the little movie-boxes that fleshed out the setting, were rewards all on their own. The game manages to feel huge without losing focus, and I loved every second of exploring Columbia.
               
         So, yeah, if the last 1000 words weren’t an indication, I very much loved Bioshock: Infinite, even though it’s not perfect. The major enemies, or “Heavy Hitters”, while all very unique, were few in number, and a couple only show up once or twice. I would have liked to see more variety, especially more enemies who used Booker’s Vigors (only two of the eight Vigors are represented among the “Heavy Hitters”). Again, many of the guns feel same-y or outright useless. Also, the archaic save system is uncharacteristically terrible, as the game won’t let you save manually, and only AutoSaves at specific intervals in the story. It gets frustrating having to wait for the game to find a place to let you stop playing.
Finally, while I personally loved the hell out of the story, (and particularly the twist, which I feel rivals the now-legendary twist in the original Bioshock), I can see how some people would very quickly lose patience with it. The game makes less sense the less Voxophones you find, and players who don’t like obsessively picking through each level will come away feeling unsatisfied, I think. Myself, I loved the setting so much that I didn’t mind the backtracking.

                Despite all of that, Bioshock: Infinite is an incredible experience and I recommend it completely without reservation. Ten thumbs up. Go play this game.

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