Is it worth the effort? Read on to find out
Originally posted at SquareGo
It’s hard to write enough about Bioshock Infinite in 600 words, there’s so much to say, even explaining the world is a lengthy process. It’s a game that comes laden with so much expectation, so much pedigree that it was all but proclaimed a classic even before it was released. After all, how could the people at Irrational Games, who made the utterly essential Bioshock, go wrong?
The original Bioshock was a brilliant re-imagination of the Classic PC RPG-shooter System Shock 2, plundering the structure and concept and reworking it from a Space-based sci-fi horror into the vividly beautiful underwater city of Rapture. The story also incorporated a clever deconstruction of Objectivism. The second game, made by 2K wiht help from Arkane Studios, reversed the philosophy into a Ultra-communist ideal. This third instalment, back in the hands of Irrational Games, takes the series in different direction. Into Columbia, a city in the clouds.
Columbia, is in every sense the opposite of Rapture, even the opening of the game works as a neatly crafted inversion of the original Bioshock’s brilliant introitus. All open skies and vast distances, kissed with a warm evening sun dappling over the late 19th Century architecture. Irrational have made the most out of the 1912 setting to fill the game with a unflinching portrayal of racist post civil-war resentment and a paranoiac religious fervency running undercurrent throughout. This is a city that is both literally and metaphorically a proud white on top of a subdued dark foundation, built upon slave labour and hypocrisy that shines through in every facet, from posters to the snippets of conversation heard all around.
The player takes the role of Booker T. Dewitt: ex-soldier, former Pinkerton Detective, compulsive gambler and alcoholic. Dewitt arrives in Columbia with a photo of a girl and the promise that returning her to New York will see him clear of all his debts. Booker is a man with a dark past, one which returns to haunt him, through both familiar faces in the city and strange anachronistic flashbacks to his office. However Dewitt isn’t really the main character of Bioshock Infinite, that place falls to Elizabeth “The Lamb”, daughter of Zachary Comstock, the zealous Prophet behind the building of Columbia.
Elizabeth represents a contrast to Dewitt, the optimism to his pessimism, a naïve ingénue to his weary war hero, but also an intelligent dreamer with strange abilities compared to his pork and beans gunman of destruction. Their uneven and often rocky alliance provides much of the exposition, humour and heart of the game. She’s a companion and assistant, much like Alyx Vance from Half Life 2. Surprisingly so at times, even down to unlocking doors and acting as an emotional mirror for every occasion. She also has the ability to manipulate quantum physics, allowing her to “pull” fragments of parallel universes into Columbia or open tears in reality to see glimpses of other times and places.
Other aspects of the game have barely changed since Bioshock, such as the world-building, told through ‘voxophone’ logs, and the two-type shooter style; with ‘salt’-powered Vigors replacing the Plasmids of Rapture, differing in name alone. Whilst Elizabeth also adds to the combat by tossing Dewitt ammo, salts and healthkits sporadically when needed. To some this may seem a little unnecessary with the established series quirk of death not being a permanent hindrance. Leading to a rinse-repeat style of attrition to the battles and boss fights that can grow wearisome on higher difficulties.
That’s not to say the combat is bad. At best it’s sublime, as Dewitt can latch onto speed-rails, leap to the decks of flying craft to battle the enemies there, or snipe from vast distances. It makes for grand set pieces but it’s in smaller indoor areas the game really excells, allowing the one-two-punch vigor and gun combination to work in tandem with Elizabeth’s tear-based help to customise the battlefield to suit the player. It’s a novel method of widening the versatility of the game and adds to tactical decision-making in action.
The trouble is that while it’s a damn good game, it’s not a great game. Despite the action mechanics being refined to the smoother more adaptable settings, it’s still a clunky shooter, as wide areas are too big for the feel of the engine, which is suited to closer quarters. The journey through the game hits an awkward balance of being a few hours too long for the content, making some sections drag on while the story wanders between the vague and the needlessly complex. At one stage almost literally throwing away a massive chunk of the narrative, and including an ending that relies on players having picked up on some fairly vague clues and having found enough voxophone recordings to make sense of many unexplained plot turns. The story also shifts focus from a wide critique of many things to a more conventional narrative in a cack-handed fumble and the resulting tonal shift feels downright clumsy. Not to mention that there are more than a few bugs, invisible walls and other techy problems that can arise during play.
It’s an event game, and due to the pedigree, the production value and the themes and issues arising from the plot and content, many have already lauded Bioshock Infinite as a near perfect game. It’s not. The fact is it’s a grand romp, pretty, well performed, and in the round a thoroughly entertaining experience. Just don’t expect it to change the landscape of your gaming experience forever.