Bioshock Infinite is the spiritual successor to the original Bioshock. Infinite was first announced in 2010, but it has been in development since the first game was released. With Bioshock 2 in development, 2K gave Irrational Games the freedom to create a new setting and story separate from their previous creation. Irrational switched to using the Unreal 3 Engine (Bioshock 1 and 2 were built off of a heavily modified version of UE2 with some elements of UE3), but they had to replace many elements of the engine. Irrational had to create their own AI to make sure the AI partner did not feel like a giant escort mission. The developers also had to create their own lighting system. Additionally, they worked on animations as they are smoother and less buggy than UE3′s traditional animations. Paradises are hard to find, so let’s go into a lighthouse and try to discover one.
Setting: The floating city of Colombia is beautiful and incredibly well designed. Irrational introduces you to Colombia in a similar fashion to their introduction to Rapture in the first Bioshock, and it is just as effective here as it was in the first game. Where Columbia looks like a paradise, Rapture was beautiful in it’s darkness and destruction. Everything is bright, colorful, and happy, Columbia is the ideal world of the 1920s. No utopia is perfect and there are hints early on that not everything is as it seems. There is a lot of propaganda around and listening to the NPCs gives you a few clues as to what the city is really like. As the game progresses and you see more of Columbia, it becomes more and more apparent what the cost of “paradise” really is.
Story: It’s hard to talk about the story without getting into massive spoilers. The game starts off at kind of a slow pace, explaining very little to you. The story is very character focused, with the history of Columbia being explained through Voxophone recordings (the game’s version of audio recordings) and kinetoscope silent videos. The story of Infinite is simply brilliant. It’s not perfect, but the way it is told and how it all plays out is amazing.
The game is not afraid to tackle issues that we never see talked about in AAA games, there is sexism, racism, religious extremism, and many other touchy subjects that most developers would avoid. Infinite does not pull it’s punches on these issues either. This is all done to create a realistic world that feels like it fits into the 1920s. The story works because all of these social issues are present and it also shows us how far we have advanced as a society when it makes us feel uncomfortable. There have been a lot of people calling out Irrational for being sexist or racist, but the game never presents any of the -isms as being right; that is simply the way the world was at that time.
The original Bioshock was an exploration of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism taken to an extreme. However, in Bioshock Infinite, exceptionalism and xenophobia are central themes to the story. The ideals are central to the way Columbia functions and it’s very foundation. Columbia feels every bit of the 1920s and the story only adds to that.
Characters: Even the best told story can quickly fall apart if the characters involved are boring and poorly developed, and I think Bioshock Infinite’s greatest strength is the characters that fill the world. You play as Booker DeWitt, a man hired to retrieve a specific girl from Columbia. Very little is explained about Booker from the outset and as the game goes along you learn everything you need to know about him. Unlike Bioshock 1′s Jack, Booker is a real character with a voice and the ability to make his own decisions. Booker’s reaction to Columbia and it’s people feel real and no line is really without purpose. Everything Booker says adds to his character and slowly sheds light on the type of person he is. You very quickly learn that Booker is a violent man, that seems to enjoy what he has to do.
The girl that Booker has to get is named Elizabeth and she is every bit as detailed and interesting as Booker. Elizabeth has the power to open “tears” to other realities and bring in items or people from those tears. Her powers are central to the gameplay of Infinite once you have her. Elizabeth is entirely AI controlled and she feels like a real partner instead of a hindrance. During battle Elizabeth will find ammo for your weapons or you can have her open tears in the environment and bring in items to help you. The AI for Elizabeth is brilliant, never once did I feel like she got in the way. While exploring the world Elizabeth will give you money and point you to interesting side areas. Thankfully the game lacks any of the stupid “co-op moments” that most games feel like putting in when they add a second character.
Elizabeth herself is a sheltered woman, having been kept locked up all of her life. However, she is fully capable of living in the world. The game never makes Elizabeth seem stupid or ill-equipped, she is a very intelligent and strong woman. The game successfully manages to avoid putting her in any of the common female video game character roles. Elizabeth is also never relegated to any kind of fanservice role, which is a great thing. Forcing in fanservice elements would have greatly damaged the character.
The antagonist of the game is a man named Zachery Comstock, he rules Columbia and is called “The Prophet”. He isn’t Adrew Ryan, but Comstock makes a good foil for Booker and Elizabeth. Like with the main characters, Comstock is a deep character with his own rich history and great story. The rest of the primary cast is good, though no one manages to reach the same level as Bioshock’s Sander Cohen and thankfully no one falls apart as badly as Fontaine did.
Gameplay: Most of the UI elements are lifted straight from Bioshock 1 and they work just as well here. Infinite also has a version of plasmids called Vigors. Some of the vigors are similar to plasmids, but most of them feel different in various ways. I like the way the vigors are represented on Booker as well, they actually make his hand look different and some of them are really gross looking. I did not use vigors a lot during the game, but I didn’t use plasmids a ton in Bioshock 1 either. I always feel like I should save my vigors for when I really need them and instead rely on guns, tears, and melee.
Speaking of guns and melee, Bioshock Infinite is very violent. The violence can be over-the-top at times, but it’s all part of the world and part of Booker’s character. You have a rather nasty melee weapon called the SkyHook that lets you ride along on rails called Skylines. The SkyHook has a spinning blade on it that is also used in melee finishers. The finishers are brutal and bloody, though it never feels like the game is saying this is a good thing. Everything about the extreme violence is meant to make you feel a little uncomfortable. Now, I am overselling the violence a little as many games are much worse but here it has an impact due to how it is presented.
I played through the game on Hard and I think that is where most people should start. I’m usually a person that plays games simply for the story, but I liked the challenge of Hard mode. There were points where I was getting really frustrated, but it provided a nice sense of accomplishment when the battle was over. I actually think the lack of a death penalty helped that feeling a bit. When you die you come right back and only lose some money and enemies regain a little health. On Easy or Normal that would feel really cheap, but on Hard I liked it. The game lacks a save feature (not a fan) and if I had to go back to checkpoints every time I died I probably would have very quickly abandoned Hard mode. The game does have a difficulty above Hard, called 1999 mode. Normally it is unlocked by beating the game but you can enter the Konami Code at the menu to unlock it right away. 1999 mode is supposed to be balanced in the style of games like System Shock 2, where your choices of what you buy and how you play have impact.
Textures: This isn’t necessarily a major issue, but I hate UE3′s normal low-res textures. Bioshock Infinite is filled with them. Character models and weapon models are good and most of the game world looks great, but while taking the time to explore, the low-res textures are pretty apparent to me. There was only a few times where I took specific notice of them however, and they never took me out of the experience. I really hope the next console cycle brings much higher-res textures because I am really sick and tired of UE3.
It’s hard for me to find good ways to qualify my enjoyment of a game like this without getting into heavy spoilers. I was insanely hyped up for the original Bioshock to the point where I read everything on it and watched every video that Irrational released. I wanted to soak up everything prior to release. Bioshock 1 left me both happy and disappointed equally. It had a beautiful world and engaging gameplay with a great villain in Adrew Ryan. Bioshock 1 also had a terrible end game. Everything after the game’s twist felt cliche, rushed, and generally poorly told. The end of the game was equally disappointing with a downright crap end boss and endings that never really felt like they properly closed out Jack’s story.
The 2k Marin developed sequel fell flat for me. I wasn’t interested in seeing Rapture again and Sofia Lamb never really felt like she fit right. She was supposed to be this important person in Rapture, but she was never mentioned in the first game and she came out of nowhere. I was exited for Bioshock Inifinite, it sounded like Irrational understood some of the mistakes of Bioshock 1. Irrational was creating this brand new world and distancing themselves from Rapture. The long wait allowed me to put it in the back of my mind and Irrational’s long silences helped me keep my hype down. I went on a media blackout regarding the game as well, not watching any videos or reading articles about Bioshock Infinite. I went into Infinite only knowing a little about the game and it managed to surprise me. I love good and well told stories, they are rare to find in a video game. It is also rare to see a game deal with touchy subjects, especially big games.
One of the biggest things that always disappoints me about the Assassin’s Creed series is how little attention they pay to what the world was like in the eras they inhabit. It serves to make a lot of it feel very artificial and “game-y”. Too much of the AC world is romanticized and Infinite does not do that. Too many developers and publishers are too afraid to offend people that they shy away from social issues, but in order for gaming to advance as an art form we need to move away from that and embrace the quite commonly tragic and brutal nature of our history. We need games that explore big issues and explore them without saying “This game was developed by a team of multinational people of all different creeds and religions” or whatever the AC games beat you over the head with when you boot them up.
Developers have to take risks with their storytelling and understand that sometimes you need to take the chance of offending people in order to deal with social issues. Bioshock Infinite’s story and gameplay are not comfortable, it’s a violent world set in an era where racism, sexism, homophobia, and religious extremism were all accepted as the norm. Those issues still exist in many ways today, but in that era it was more blunt and obvious. This is something I feel strongly about and I wish we had more people in the industry like Ken Levine and publishers like 2K, which allow studios to explore all of these issues in a mature fashion.
I can nitpick some parts of the story, the characters, the gameplay, and other things but none of my nitpicks detract from my feelings on the game and what I experienced while playing it. I have never given a game a “perfect” score before and I am going to make Bioshock Infinite the first game to receive that honor. It’s a score I never really expected to give as it’s something I wanted to reserve for something really special and amazing. I think Infinite fits the bill. It’s not an “innovative” game and nothing it does is “revolutionary”, but in terms of character and story I do believe the game is special and unique. I have spent nearly a week thinking about this review and trying to digest my thoughts on the game, this isn’t a conclusion I’ve come to easily. Bioshock Infinite is a game that I believe other developers should look towards in terms of how to tell a story with sensitive issues in a mature manner. The game is something special that we don’t see very often. Gamers should go into Bioshock Infinite with an open mind and understand that we need to explore sensitive issues in order for gaming to advance not only as an art form, but also as apart of society.
Bioshock Infinite Review by Derangel