The original BioShock holds a place in nearly every gamer’s heart. It presented a reinvigoration of the medium, melding perfect storytelling with mature themes, addictive gameplay and a setting that will go down in history as one of the most immersive to ever be featured in a game. Even though the sequel couldn’t live up to the lofty expectations set for it, Rapture lived on in the minds of gamers, a dystopia of failed potential, a tomb for the most brilliant minds.
So now we’ve arrived at the long awaited third title in the series, BioShock Infinite. In a risky yet rewarding move, the developers have stepped away from the beloved Rapture and set their eyes to the sky. More specifically, the floating city of Columbia. Featuring a brighter environment and an entirely new cast of characters, it seemed a daunting task to try and reach the bar that BioShock set years ago.
But even with standards as impossibly high as that, BioShock Infinite surpasses them. As beloved as the original is, fans will push Rapture from their mind (at least temporarily) as they explore the streets of Columbia. Every element that made the series a smashing success is refined here, with new additions to the tried and true formula making everything feel totally new again.
Surprisingly, the story starts out simply enough. In 1912, Booker DeWitt, a disgraced soldier and detective, is sent to the floating city of Columbia to find a young girl named Elizabeth who has been trapped in a tower there for over a decade.
No details are given about those who sent him, and the history of Columbia is only slowly revealed as the game progresses. Things get complicated once Zachary Comstock, a religious fanatic who runs the city, hears of Booker’s arrival, branding him the False Prophet and setting the city against him.
Booker is also unaware of a war between the Founders (upper class citizens) and the Vox Populi (abused, mistreated working class citizens) that is slowly tearing the city apart. Throughout the narrative, both sides try to use Booker’s and Elizabeth’s considerable powers in their fight, although neither side is truly what they seem.
Once we meet Elizabeth, though, the game becomes drastically different for many reasons (most of which I’ll do my best not to spoil). Needless to say, she is vital to the happenings in Columbia, especially once we find out why she was locked away in the first place.
The plot in BioShock Infinite is a layered maze, one that puzzles and dazzles all at the same time. Every new character adds more details, presenting pieces that the player needs to actively place together if they hope to keep up. That’s not to say that the story is too intricate for the average gamer. Quite the opposite, really. It’s a refreshing exercise in assuming the player is intelligent enough to catch on to the commentary being presented.
I could write essays detailing Columbia and what it stands for, but it can be summed up in one word: exceptionalism. A city that worships the Founding Fathers over any other type of god, justice and democracy are the shining beacons that will lead its citizens to salvation, even if they fail to evoke either of the virtues on their own.
Not only is Columbia a floating allegory, but in terms of gameplay, it is beautifully detailed and just as realized and developed as Rapture was. Within the first hour, I had spent more time playing around a carnival and watching random civilians interact than actually progressing the story. This is a living city, and that we see it before it devolves into destruction and decay, rather than entering it after the fact, makes it that much easier to connect with the story.
Both Booker and Elizabeth are beautifully developed as people, following arcs that not only make sense but make them seem real. Starting as a doe-eyed stranger in a new world, Elizabeth’s outlook becomes more and more grim as she follows Booker through the dangers of Columbia. Not only do her expressions become more negative, but her proper attire becomes more and disheveled, bloody and tattered.
There are small details scattered throughout BioShock Infinite that characterize those who inhabit the world through subtle actions. Some of them are off the beaten path, but the exploration is rewarded with deeper character interaction and further immersion in the story and the struggles of the population. Despite following a largely linear path, there is ample opportunity for exploring the environment, and gamers would be missing out on some truly breathtaking moments if they ignored this urge. An arrow appears at the press of the button, showing where to head to reach the next objective, making it infinitely easier to wander as you please without accidentally triggering a new story mission.
Optional missions are also introduced this time around, although they play a very small role to the game. These missions are the only new additions that don’t fit quite so well into the game, but they never detract from the overall experience. Players will still find ways to fill in the story on their own, whether it’s through audio recordings (Voxophones) of various characters or short videos (Kinetoscopes) that detail the history of Columbia.
Much of the gameplay of BioShock Infinite remains unchanged, but there are enough new variables thrown in to keep the winning formula fresh for years to come. Plasmids are now called Vigors, and a few new powers are added to the basic list, such as being able to reel in enemies with a tunnel of water or suspending a large group in the air, making them easier to pick off. While one hand is dedicated to Vigors, the other is used for gunplay, presenting a wide variety of weapons both conventional and unheard of. Dual wielding the two is as insanely fun as it always has been, bringing new and more powerful combinations to the table.
Extra benefits are provided through the new gear system, which grants players the ability to wear four different types of clothing with various benefits in battle. One piece of clothing may grant extra damage with each successive kill, while another grants you with health for each melee kill. These pieces of gear, along with upgraded weapons and Vigor powers, give Booker the upper hand as he fights through Columbia.
A new Skyline rail system connects much of the floating system, and a nifty hand tool allows Booker and Elizabeth to ride the rails, either for transportation or to gain an upper hand in battle. Any help is necessary, as the difficulty curve is a bit erratic as the game continues. After being faced with incompetent police forces during the opening hours, the introduction of mechanized Patriots, robots in the form of our Founding Fathers, is a welcome challenge. However, once the Handymen make an appearance, the game becomes much more difficult. Although none of the new enemies are as frightening or mystifying as the Big Daddies, the Handymen are still monsters that are easy to sympathize with. Death is handled in a way that isn’t frustrating too, encouraging different fighting techniques without too much risk.
Elizabeth, aside from anchoring much of the story, is a useful asset in battle, never getting in the way and actually helping out greatly. She’ll toss Booker ammo, health or salts (which are necessary to use vigors) to keep him going, as well as opening rifts to other worlds that bring through various assets. These rifts could either bring in a large box of medical kits or a gun-toting Patriot to aid your fight. They add a whole new dimension to fights, making each confrontation a delight.
As much fun as combat is, this is a game that is driven primarily by plot, with combat only serving to further the story. Because of that, replayability becomes a bit of an issue since there are large stretches that are mainly focused on storytelling rather than combat. It’s definitely worth replaying to find any collectibles missed the first time through, but these stretches of pure plot are sure to turn off a handful of players from a second run through.
With that being said, the story presented in BioShock Infinite is absolutely brilliant. Events are compelling enough to push the action forward, and the characters are all believable in their motivations. Most of them are multi-faceted, just as flawed as anybody else is and never falling into stereotype. Comstock is a perfect example of this, presenting his many layers through audio recordings and details revealed through other story elements.
There are a few characters that could have been developed further, especially Daisy Fitzroy, the leader of the Vox Populi. Her decisions lead to a revolution that turns a whole city into a warzone, yet we never really delve as deep into her mind as we could. The same goes for Songbird, a gargantuan metallic bird-like creature that is trying to reclaim Elizabeth and take her back to her tower. Having been her guard since birth, the relationship between the two could have been explored even further.
The only gripes that are to be had with BioShock Infinite are small asides at best. You can only carry two guns at a time, and only two Vigors can be made ready for gameplay at a time. There are eight total, and it’s easy enough to bring them up during combat and switch them in and out, but it would have been nice to have had a way to switch through them all without having to stop the flow of combat. Voxophone recordings are heavily silenced when other characters are talking, and they all tend to wait until you hit play to start a dialogue, meaning you’ll miss quite a few recordings the first time you try to listen. Luckily, there are transcripts of each in the menu, so this is hardly a problem.
It’s honestly difficult to find anything to hate in BioShock Infinite because everything works, plain and simple. Fans of the original will be more than pleased with the change of scenery, and newcomers will have a blast playing through one of the best games of this generation. It is impossible to overstate just how amazing this game is, blending art with gameplay that never becomes tedious.
Simply put, BioShock Infinite is a masterpiece, a modern classic that will stay with gamers for years to come. The poignant story is pushed forward with breathless gunplay, and unforgettable characters populate this magnificent city in the sky. If you consider yourself any kind of gamer, then do yourself a favor and play this game. In the argument for games as works of art, the industry has a new golden standard.
This review is based on the PS3 version of the game.