Lets start at the end 10/10. Amazing. Done. Sorted. Finished. As one of the most talked about games of the year so far it seemed a bit useless to play coy on this one, so I thought it was better to just cut to the chase. I loved Bioshock Infinite to the extent where I simply did not want it to end. As much as this summarizes my feelings about the game surprisingly well however, it does not seem fitting to simply leave the review at that.
So what was it about this trip to Columbia which left me so amorous? What made me what to sing my devotions to the heavens and cry out in praise? It is now time to once more kneel amongst the reeds and reflect upon the events of the past week.
So here it goes, I love …
The Story Line:
As we would expect from a Bioshock game the story line is not only amazingly captivating, but also deliciously sinister and spiced with more than a pinch of controversy. Welcome to Columbia, the year is 1912. Unbeknown to most of the population below, this city in the sky wakes up to yet another day. Created from the vision of Zachary Hale Comstock, this is a city of not only of great beauty but also of extreme devotion to the faith, scientific discovery and good old fashioned all American patriotism. These values have been brought together to form the basis of a new faith, which is presided over by the Prophet Comstock himself. Though life in the city at first seems Idilic, behind this glittering facade Columbia holds some disturbing truths. In order for some to live in luxury, others must work to exhaustion, and the racial divide within the population is shockingly evident. This blatant lack of equality has lead to the formation of the Vox Populi, an undercover militant group lead by Daisy Fitzroy who will do anything to overthrow Comstock and gain control of the city.
In the midst of this you play Booker DeWitt, a former Pinkerton Agent brought Columbia by the Lucite Twins to capture a mysterious girl called Elizabeth. Imprisoned at the centre of the City on Monument Island, Elizabeth has the power to open tears into other worlds, making her not only very unique but also highly dangerous. Having predicted Bookers attempts to rescue Elizabeth, Comstock will do anything to protect his ‘Precious Lamb’ from the so called ‘False Shepard’ and as a result she is watched over constantly by her fiercely protective winged guardian Songbird. With Songbird never far away and the balance of the city hanging by a thread, rescuing Elizabeth and bringing her back to New York was never going to be easy.
The Game World:
So lets begin our journey by talking a little about the game world. The city of Columbia is not so much a virtual feast for the eyes, as a royal banquet. This steam punk city in the sky is crammed full of both religious architecture and fiercely patriotic propaganda, giving it a surreal, church fate gone mad sort of image. The story line progression however means that the city transitions through various stages, and these changes mean that in a way you play through multiple versions of Columbia each as visually impressive as the last.
To my mind however, the true beauty of this game world lies in its working mechanics. The use of in game triggers is truly evident here, and my my is it clever. To walk around Columbia is to walk around a high budget theme park, where virtual motion sensors seem to trigger the game world into action. Though the world is constantly in motion, the main event whether it be the parade, the show, the conversation, or the presentation, will not truly begin until you get there. This allows you to truly explore freely, without the threat of missing something or taking the ‘wrong’ path. To put it simply this city feels truly alive, and such a detailed and imaginative setting provides a great basis for the events soon to take place.
Morals and Choices:
This strange new world that Comstock has created also provides a vibrant canvas on which to explore all sorts of controversial issues. To provide a blunt example in this game you can to all intensive purposes choose to be raciest. As strange as making such a choice within a game seems at first, I can see why such choices exist within this world. After all real life does have a habit of providing us with moral choices each and every day. In gaming as in life, without the option of being evil how can a gamer (or in fact a human being) ever truly class themselves as good? In order for the game to feel truly real it seems only fitting that we have the choice weather or not to probe the depths of human depravity. By making such choices we are acting not as a mere onlooker helpless to the wishes of the game, but as a conscious being central to the game world itself. This helps the game to feel more credible, and therefore more real. I use this one event as a mere example to understand the nature of this game. The truth is in Infinite no topic is considered off limits weather its inter-racial marriage, the laws of physics or praying to the founding fathers of the United States of America. In all honesty the fact that nothing seems off limits is one of this things I love most about this game. Other forms of media such as movies are forever exploring controversial topics, and for me it is about time that games pushed the limits of the story line and challenged players to think as well as shoot. This is one of the things that Ken Lervine and the team at Irrational do best, and once again they have not let us down.
Infinite also serves as a constant reminder that your choices, however insignificant have consequences. From the offset we are notably aware that the game takes note of your choices and uses them to influence what happens next. Some of these choices appear as insignificant as which broach to buy, and yet even these seem to hold undertones of symbolic significance. To give real time effects to these dilemmas occasionally your actions can prompt rewards. As well as the more blatant gifts of clothing or items, your reward can sometimes be emotional, such as simple as a compassionate word from a companion who may otherwise have branded you as brutal and forevermore looked at you through uncertain eyes. In this world just as in the real world however, good intentions do not always mean you are rewarded, and cruelty can have unexpected results.
Morals aside for a minute lets talk about the gameplay. Though the story may be taking you somewhere entirely new, the gameplay itself feels comfortingly familiar. Its kind of like wearing a faithful old leather boot. Having been pre-shaped by years of wear it feels comfortable and familiar, allowing you to make your new journey without the stress of getting used to something entirely new. In this way Infinite has taken some of the best elements of the gameplay from the past two Bioshock games and put them to work in this brave new world. The combat is reminiscent of original Bioshock with Vigors in one hand, and firearms in the other. Fortunately the switchover between guns and Vigors is also instantaneous, meaning that you can attack enemies with your full arsenal seamlessly.
As for the weapons themselves it is evident that the right to bear arms is held sacred within Columbia, as the guns available to you within the city are as plentiful as they are diverse. The game works on a ‘make use of what you can find’ basis and during your sky high adventure you can pick up everything from a simple Pistol to a Machine Gun, RPG, Burst Gun, Hand Cannon, Shot Gun, and more. Each of these guns has its own unique quirks which makes the weaponry not only more believable, but also adds a welcome element of strategy to the experience. Although the Pistol may be steady, it had limited ammo capacity. As we may expect the Shotgun has amazing power, but also a huge amount of recoil. The Machine Gun, well that has a tendency to ride up quite dramatically. The re-load times must also be considered, as once again there is great variation here. Despite an ample supply of guns, in true Bioshock form both your health and your ammo are limited to what you can hold. Though in some areas ammo is plentiful, as you progress through the game there will be points where the pickings are slimmer. At such times it is usually wise to go old school Bioshock and mix in some skull smashing melee attacks to save your fire power.
In addition to your guns you have Vigors. Invented by Jeremiah Fink, Vigors are tonics which give the drinker amazing powers, lets face it similar to the Plasmids from the original Bioshock games. There are 8 Vigors to collect within Columbia including Devils Kiss, Murder of Crows, Return to Sender, Shock Jockey, Bucking Bronco, Undertow, Charge and Possession. In order to use these Vigors you must keep well stocked in Salts, a substance which can be found around the city in the form of food, in bottles and sold in vending machines. As well as allowing you to attack directly, many of the Vigors can be upgraded in order to allow you to set cunning traps, take down multiple enemies and increase the damage done. Though many of these Vigors were strongly reminiscent of the Plasmids we had seen before, they played a really enjoyable role in the gameplay and were great fun to experiment with.
If you are unfortunate enough to die in combat, which I did a lot, Elizabeth will use her medical know how to keep you clinging to the edge of life. In these cases a small amount of money will be taken (we assume to pay for medicine?) and in return you will be brought back into the game with a limited amount of health and a reduced amount of ammo. This quick re-spawn was yet another thing that was great about this game. If you want a challenge you can set the gameplay to a harder mode and limit the re-spawn, but if you just want to have fun playing the game you will rarely feel trapped. Though this is a very forgiving system, it is not entirely without cost. Die multiple times and you may start to notice that items such as weapons and health often do not re-spawn. In addition to this your enemies will also have regained a small amount of heath, leading to the strong possibility of Booker having to batter to death a room of Vox extremists with nothing but a Sky Hook and luck on his side.
While we are talking about shooting things, the city of Columbia provides a unique battle ground for all types of combat. Supported by a network of balloons, the various platforms that make up Columbia are prone to bobbing up and down as the city moves making this a fickle and unforgiving arena. This movement of the platforms combined with moving enemies, airships swooping in for the attack, deadly accurate turrets and enemies dropping in via the Sky Lines above make for some interesting target practice to say the least. Booker must soon master his Sky-Hook, weapons and Vigors in order to survive.
As well as the weapons and Vigors there are a range of other items that can be picked up around the city for added benefits. Scavenged food and drink will replenish your health bar, and certain found items will even contribute to your Salts intake. Infusions are a particularly valuable find as they can be used to add much needed extra capacity to your health bar, shield bar or Salts intake bar. Gear provides you with further opportunities to upgrade your abilities. Concealed within hidden packages around the city, this clothing can provide surprising benefits. Looking for a hat which gives you a 70% chance of setting your enemies on fire during melee combat? Maybe some Electric trousers to shock and stun your foes? If so then this is the gear for you. Though food and Salts are relatively easy to find, both of these premium items are often hidden and will probably require you to stray from your main path in order to find them. Despite the extra mileage picking up these upgrades is well worth the walk, as their effects are permanent and can provide great boosts that can prove invaluable in the later stages of the game.
The iconic Bioshock vending machines also make a welcome return. These creepy mechanized merchants placed around the city will supply you with everything from Vigors and weapon upgrades to general supplies such as salts, health packs and ammo. Though much more animated than their cousins from Rapture, these creepy mannequins shout the value of their wares out over the city in voices reminiscent of the Iconic Circus of Values machines we all know and love. A confession here. Their wildly flailing arms meant that more than once I took them for an enemy during combat. Yes, I spent several minutes wildly shooting at a vending machine before realizing that everyone was in fact, dead. The tricky devils.
Emotive, compassionate and curious, for me Elizabeth marks a great step forward in companion Ai’s. So what is it about her that is so special? Well for me it was her ability to react to your actions, adding to your experience without getting in the way or demanding too much attention. Finally! A companion character that doesn’t need to be taken care of all of the time! Though integral to both the story line and the gameplay itself, her independent nature means that she is neither overly vulnerable nor annoying. Throughout the game she strikes a great balance between finding ways to help you out when you need it, and keeping out of the way when you are busy. As you explore the city Elizabeth will chat to you pointing out useful objects, picking locks for you and even throwing you the odd shiny silver coin now and again. When things start to heat up combat wise however, her behavior automatically changes to fit the situation. This adaptive behavior makes her appear not only more realistic, but also makes her more genuinely likable.
Elizabeth not only acts as your tour guide, but is also your new best friend during combat. During combat Elizabeth has two main roles, supplying you with useful found objects and creating tears. While you are fighting for your life Elizabeth will scout the area and try to supply you with medical packs, salts, ammo, basically whatever you are lacking. When she has found something you need she will call out to you, at which point you will be given the choice weather or not to reach out and catch what she has to offer. Though these hand outs can often be life savers, it pays to be a bit cautious. For the second it takes to catch the supplies your back is turned, and it is always a risk to turn your back on your enemies in the city Columbia. Then there are the tears. Using her ability to create tears, Elizabeth is able to pull useful objects through from other worlds. These objects can be anything from medical kits, to turrets, additional cover, weapons and ammo. Though you usually have to make a choice between what you want her to bring in for you, her help can often mean the difference between life and death making Elizabeth a valuable companion in all situations.
Alongside her role in the gameplay Elizabeth also plays a vital role in the progression of the story line and in the development of Booker as a character. Though for fear of spoilers I will not go into the story in depth (despite how much I really, really want to discuss the ending right now!) the presence of Elizabeth does allow Booker to voice to this thoughts without unnaturally talking to himself. This allows us to better understand his thought processes, learn more about his past and overall just relate to him better.
The Bad Guys:
One thing Bioshock has always been known for is unique and inventive baddies. Though this game has a lot of human on human combat, Columbia also has its fair share of more unique inhabitants all of which have a Steam-Punk, Bio-Mechanical look to match the city. These include but are not limited to the Handyman, Motorized Patriots, Boys of Silence and Firemen. Out of all of the new additions I personally found the Motorised Patriots the most creepy. The Handyman may be larger and more powerful, but there was something about the way the Patriots moved that made me uneasy. It is as if they are little to fast for their size, and their scurrying footsteps combined with their loud patriotic vocals made them seem even more unnatural.
Though in an open arena the Patriots were easy enough to deal with, there was more than one occasion where having turned my back for a second to catch something from Elizabeth I would find one had crept right up to me. Yes, I admit it. At these times I screamed like a little girl, but hey having a mechanized George Washington right up in your grill is scary… Anyway Turrets and gun ships also make many appearances, alongside a whole host of pro-Comstock Peace makers and Vox Populi rebels. To summarize everyone in Columbia seems to hate you at some point, and there are always willing bad guys waiting to have their turn at taking down the False Shepard.
The Sky-Lines provided Columbia with one of its most unique features. Originally built as a method of transporting freight around the city, the Sky-Hook allows you to use these overhead rails to your advantage. This fast and furious roller-coaster ride allows you not only to navigate your way around the city quickly, but also provides and interesting arena for mid air combat. Though holding on to the rail limits you to one handed combat (taking your Vigors out of the equation) the Sky-Lines make it possible to rain down bullets from above whilst cruising by on the rails. Personally I found riding the Sky-Lines disorienting enough, and mastering combat whilst soaring above the city something notably more difficult to grasp. The constant motion combined with the twists and turns of the track make identifying targets tricky, and though there are tools to help you lock on and change direction it can still be a bit stomach churning. Luckily for me Sky-Line combat is not essential as you can choose to simply dismount to a platform and take out your enemies with the usual combination of Vigors and rage. I have to admit though, weather you get on with the Sky-Line combat or not its still one hell of a ride, and one that you wont find anywhere else!
Your Sky-Hook not only provides you with access to other otherwise unreachable areas of the city, but also with the ultimate tool for close range melee assassinations. In true Bioshock style when it comes to close range combat the Sky-Hook is your best friend, allowing you either to simply beat your enemies on the head or to perform a series of gory, face shredding finishing moves on command. The Sky-Hook also has a dismount function, where upon launching yourself from a Sky-Line you will hit your enemy with extreme force often providing an instant kill.
In the quest for perfection it seems only wise to look for any possible faults, and though this game is close to perfect in my eyes I confess there was one thing which bugged me about Columbia. The idea of a city suspended above the clouds brings one world to my mind. Vertigo. Though the scripted parts of the game did give reference to the fear of Booker falling off of the edge of the world, during the actual gameplay this fear was not always capitalized on. In many circumstances to fall off of the edge of Columbia prompted nothing more than a broken shield and an instant re-spawn, which seemed a shame. Though this did feel a little like an opportunity missed, I did not feel it warranted a whole point to be taken off the overall score. After all this is just me being unnecessarily picky, and this really is a great game.
Something I really loved about this game was that it paid homage to the original Bioshock and the city of Rapture. It was not a large, grand reference which made me smile here. Instead it was the smaller aspects, the token objects, sights and sounds cropping up amongst the general gameplay which I enjoyed the most. Though we are on a different journey here I was really happy to see these references were included not only to pay homage to a classic game and add yet more mystery to the storyline, but also to bring a smile to the faces of the loyal fans who have waited so long for this. If you missed these smaller references I encourage you to play through again. See if you can spot the wrench!
The use of Audio is often key in creating a believable game world, and this world is no exception. Once again much of the story is not told via text or dialogue, but instead via forgotten audio recordings and silent movie viewers. If you have never played a Bioshock game listen closely, don’t ignore these recordings, play every last one! Though the dialogue will give you the bare bones of what is happening, a lot of the detail is stored on these ‘Voixophones’ and their existence helps to create the creepy atmosphere that we all know and love. The silent movie viewers dotted around the city also help to shed light on events. These windows into the past not only help to re-enforce the theme of the game, but also give you a tantalizing glimpse at the shady past of Columbia which should not be missed.
It is clear that great effort has been put into creating an uneasy feeling within the game world, as if elements of your surroundings just don’t fit. The music playing around the city is a perfect example of this. Though it may be instantly familiar to us, doesn’t it seem strange that in 1912 a Barbour shop Quartet would be singing an acapella version of ‘God only Knows’ on a floating city in the sky? In fact throughout the game twisted versions of popular music have been mixed in with the sounds of the city, leading us to question weather all here is quite what it seems. It is this creativity and attention to detail which for me makes this game truly great. By making you work to discover the secrets of the city the game encourages you to think about your surroundings and puzzle things out, challenging you in more than just combat.
With all of the above stated, some will undoubtedly look at this game and feel an overwhelming need to compare it to the original Bioshock and judge this game unfavorably. Did the city of Columbia inspire the same feelings of fear that Rapture did? Were the Handymen and Vox Populi as frightening as the Big Daddies and the Splicers? Which was better, Plasmids or Vigors? Though many such questions crossed my own mind I am a great believer in the power of knowing when it is time to move on. Thought I loved the references to Rapture in the gameplay, paying homage to something and trying to replicate it in its entirety remain two very different things. As much as I will always love the original Bioshock game by turning away from the past and taking a new route we have gained a game which is worthy of judgement in its own right, and judged on its own merits alone we have here something which is truly awe inspiring.
+ The story line is unique, creative and gripping
+ Elizabeth marks a new era of companion Ai’s
+ The combat is not only smooth and well thought out but also greatly enjoyable
+ The most creative and beautiful game world so far this year
- Falling off of edge of the world could maybe have inspired more vertigo at times
To conclude I will refer back to the introduction. 10/10. Amazing. Done. Sorted. Finished. If you have not yet played this I suggest you go out, find a copy and get right to it. Not only is this game a visual masterpiece, it has great gameplay and a no holds barred killer story line which cannot fail to have you gripped. This is easily the most enjoyable game I have played so far this year, and even as I finish typing this I cannot wait to see which strange new world Ken Lervine and the team at Irrational will dream up next.
Until next time,
Bioshock Infinite is out now for PS3, xBox 360 and PC
Irrational Games, 2K Games