“Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt.”
This simple phrase that drives you through the floating world of Bioshock Infinite has as many meanings as its title implies. For a while, it seemed as if this game would never be released. Or, if it would, it would not be to the quality that we were hoping for. Infinite suffered through development hell in the same way that many games do, yet after months of delay, personnel switches, and leagues of scrapped content, the newest title from the mind of Kevin Levine and 2K’s Irrational Games has finally gone gold. It’s not unusual for a blockbuster title to garner the attention (or ire) of so many gamers and publications, but Bioshock Infinite was billed as the real sequel to the 2007 masterpiece that was the original Bioshock.
With such a high pedigree, it almost seemed that Infinite was destined to live in the shadow of its predecessor, a game which many thought was the true standout of our generation and unlikely to be equaled in its immersiveness, inventiveness, and incredible art direction and storytelling. I am ecstatic to say that Bioshock Infinite, with all its issues during production and impossibly high expectations, somehow manages to take its own wings and soar above the bar of standards created by any games previously, including the original Bioshock. It’s simply a game that cannot be missed.
From the outset, the presentation of Infinite is astounding. Much like the original Bioshock, you’re taken from a lighthouse to an impossibly constructed and impossibly beautiful city via an automated transport, except this time the city in question, Columbia, is floating thousands of feet in the air instead of settled deep at the ocean floor. It is worth a special mention that Columbia is absolutely beautiful. The art direction coalesces with the technical design in such a magnificent way that each time you turn a street corner or look into the wide, sweeping vistas, you’re almost guaranteed to gasp wide-eyed in awe.
From the early 20th century styled brick buildings to steampunk-inspired industrial districts, every bit of Infinite is dripping with style, care, and polish. Columbia is not just a setting, it is a breathing, living place. You’ll be treated to suspiciously familiar musical numbers playing through phonographs and citizens humming their favorite hymns as you pass by them on the street, and the old standby sound effects like the health pack clip from System Shock and Bioshock also make a nostalgic return.
One of the largest changes from the previous titles, besides the location, is the protagonist. Unlike Jack or Subject Delta, our less-than-heroic protagonist Booker DeWitt is given a voice and personality and the results exceed expectations. We’re able to audibly hear Booker’s insight and motivations as well as his interactions with the people and environment around him and it pays off in dividends. DeWitt is given only one objective: find an imprisoned girl named Elizabeth in Columbia and bring her back to New York City to finally erase his years of gambling debt. Booker DeWitt is not a perfect man. In fact, it’s very quickly discovered that he’s not even a particularly good one.
An ex-Pinkerton agent and U.S. soldier present during the “battle” of Wounded Knee, DeWitt has been constantly wracked with debt and depression for most of his life and it was finally catching up to him until he received his way out. “Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt,” was the only choice he had remaining, and he accepted the ultimatum in the hopes of finally recapturing what life he had left. Booker is capable, daring, and willing to do what it takes to complete his objectives, but also relatable enough as an everyman through his speech and mannerisms for the player to feel connected with him.
The other main character of the journey is Elizabeth, the “princess in the tower” of Bioshock Infinite. She is wholly removed from the poor choices of Booker’s life and she displays a childlike innocence when interacting with every detail of Columbia, from its most wondrous to its most morose. Once you find her and she joins you on your quest through Columbia, you’ll discover that she is much more than just a damsel in distress. Elizabeth never once feels like a tacked-on companion or a game-long escort target. Instead, she actively assists you during the game, tossing you supplies or picking locks as necessary. She also has access to the mysterious ability to open “tears” in reality, bringing things not yet seen or heard from time and space into reality.
Her character – that of the innocent, wide-eyed doe – is what makes Booker and the player so protective of her and causes her mere presence to be such a powerful motivator to carry on. Elizabeth scrambles for cover, frantically brings you back from the brink of death when your health meter depletes (a cool in-universe way to revive you from ‘dying’), and even gasps in terror when she sees you use a particularly gruesome execution move on an enemy. Don’t expect this young girl persona to stick around forever, though; she learns, grows, and advances as a character throughout Infinite from a defenseless girl into a capable woman. Elizabeth, perhaps even more than Booker, is the main character in this tale.
The world Booker and Elizabeth are thrust into is at once utterly alien and entirely familiar. Led by the Columbians’ beloved prophet Zachary Comstock, Columbia was modeled as a floating standard bearer of turn-of-the-century America and it shines through at every moment. From the stars and stripes adorning every brick-laid general store, to children playing baseball in the street, to the enormous floating statues of America’s Founding Fathers, Columbia is in every way a testament to American nationalism taken up to eleven.
However, for its wonderfully ear-pleasing barbershop quartets, innocent, giggling women in bonnets gossiping around a park bench, and “Top of the mornin’ to ya” shop owners, Columbia also hosts a bevy of less-than-desirable traits, but only by our modern standards. The people of Columbia believe in their superiority in every way — technology, morals, and especially race and religion.
Fanatical religious dedication, extreme American Exceptionalism, and class and racial superiority are but a few of the extremely adult themes that rear their heads in Infinite. These issues are rarely touched on in such a meaningful way in any type of media without a bit of trepidation, but Infinite presents them without any qualms. It doesn’t shove the issues down your throat, but instead presents them all in such a way as to be foreboding, immediate, and unfortunately relatable.
While not directly presented as a current political commentary, it’s undoubtedly not by accident that many of the tougher topics seen in Columbia are still relevant to Americans today. Racism, exceptionalism, and perceived superiority are all still very real in the world of 2013 and Infinite draws the player to take a hard look at just how these unfortunate realities impact not just Booker, Elizabeth, and the citizens of Columbia, but also the real world and their everyday lives.
Bioshock Infinite is also a video game, though, not just a pretty locale and an involving story. Some games are content to give a great story and skimp on gameplay while others give enjoyable combat while having no real narrative to speak of. For this title, Irrational Games wasn’t content to simply rest on their laurels. Infinite boasts a frantic, fast-paced, and decision-based combat… at least on higher difficulties. I cannot recommend enough playing Infinite on hard mode. Easy and Medium are just far too mindless while hard will make you switch up your tactics on the fly to deal with ruthless enemies that don’t just fall over with a single bullet. Infinite’s combat is similar to the previous Bioshock titles in that you have firearms in one hand and powers in another, here called Vigors instead of Plasmids.
Despite the name, they work identically to their predecessors. You can shoot lightning from your fingertips, float enemies helplessly in midair, conjure a magnetic shield, or use a number of other abilities to give you the upper hand in combat. Switching between them is done with the number keys for PC and a radial menu for the consoles. Some Vigors are better than others in certain situations or against certain enemies, but a couple of them seem almost entirely useless or redundant.
Weapon variety is rather vanilla, especially compared to Bioshock 2. You have access to pistols, machine guns, shotguns, and a few heavier weapons like rocket launchers, but ammo type switching from the previous Bioshock titles is mysteriously absent and you can only carry two weapons at once. Weapon ammo is also extremely limited and you’ll likely go through a lot of ammo dealing with some of the heavier-armored enemies, but enemies will drop their weapons and ammo as pick ups to replenish your own supply. Additionally, upgrade stations allow improvement to weapon damage and recoil, a necessity if playing on hard.
Without a doubt, one of the most exciting additions to combat in Infinite are the skylines. Using a ‘skyhook’, a magnetized, hand-mounted gear, Booker is able to latch himself onto the floating transport rails in Columbia to quickly travel from one location to another; this allows him to gain a tactical advantage against grounded enemies, with the ability to shoot while riding on a skyline or even jump from it to perform a devastating melee strike. The exhilarating sense of speed and the sheer ‘cool factor’ of battles involving the skylines quickly became some of my favorite portions of the game.
They allow Booker to reach new sniping platforms, survey enemy locations and supplies, perform hit-and-run attacks, or make quick escapes when baddies start to surround you. It’s a mechanic that, for how fun and unique it is, would normally be relegated to a cheap gimmick or fast-travel system in other games. Infinite uses it as one of the core mechanics in its combat and it pays off in spades.
Elizabeth also has an important role in combat. She can, at the player’s command, summon in extra ammunition, new platforms, and even machine gun turrets with her time-space altering “tear” ability. She’ll also scavenge the battlefield during your numerous gunfights and throw the player supplies when they’re needed. Don’t be surprised to have Elizabeth call for you to catch a medical kit and save your life just as the last little bit of red is about to be drained from your health bar. Elizabeth is far more than just a passive onlooker to your combat: she becomes an essential commodity, integral to your survival in fights and her useful but simple boosts to your battle effectiveness makes her that much more endearing that she already is.
Graphical fidelity on the PC version of the game isn’t exceptional – this isn’t Crysis or Battlefield – but it does have a laundry list of modern technologies incorporated into its visuals. Infinite is powered by Unreal Engine 3, as are many, many games, but it is perhaps the first game using the engine to actually look like a modern title instead of having the telltale UE3 signs like muddy, slow-loading textures.
The addition of high resolution textures, high quality shadows and lighting, ambient occlusion, adaptive depth of field and a bevy of other DirectX 11-exclusive technologies in the PC version is a testament to Irrational Games’ worthwhile attempts to make Infinite beautiful not just artistically, but technically as well. There are also options for field of view, although it may not be wide enough for some users and can be remedied with a romp into the .ini files. A roundabout fix, but at least the ability is there.
Perhaps the most impressive portion of the PC port is the scalability of the game on multiple hardware configurations. While I have a rather good gaming PC and can run the game at 1920×1080 with nearly everything at its maximum settings, the game can also run well on mid-range machines with an acceptable frame rate while keeping most of the less taxing graphical bells and whistles to a higher setting. It’s worth noting that Infinite does use some of the smoke and mirrors that other games do, most notably lower-quality skyboxes obscured with bloom and blur while looking out into the skies of Columbia and lowering texture detail for faraway surfaces, but the instances of these detracting from the visuals are few and far between.
If I had to find major criticisms for the game, which I must admit is very difficult, it would have to be a few technical glitches that served to immediately destroy my immersion and interrupt gameplay. Scripted sequences failing to load and character models falling through the ground are a couple of issues I experienced, and both of them took me out of what would have otherwise been an amazing moment. The good part is, these happened extremely rarely and there were plenty more of those amazing moments to go around, so I never felt as though one of those issues ruined the entire game.
The combat and story elements lead you through a campaign that takes increasingly sharper turns to the weird in the final third of the game. It took me about 12 hours to finishing the campaign, and the last few hours of Infinite will demand your attention – not just because you have to pay attention to understand just what the hell is going on, but because you’ll want to find out just how this insane ride ends. Bioshock Infinite’s ending might displease or even anger some players, but it wraps up the story rather nicely, though not entirely airtight. Despite how prepared you may be for the classic Bioshock twist, you’ll never be able to see what’s coming in Infinite until it’s already upon you.
Despite any minor drawbacks or grievances, Bioshock Infinite is an adventure that deserves your attention, your time, and your money. It’s not quite a red-letter day for the medium like the original Bioshock was, but that’s not to say the experience itself isn’t its equal, and it certainly has less technical issues than the previous franchise entries. Infinite is not a perfect game, but for all the games I’ve played over all the years I’ve been playing them, I personally don’t believe that any other title has come quite as close.