There are rare occasions in my life where a piece of media leaves such a lingering impression on me. Such is the case with Bioshock Infinite. So much so, that I took a two week respite from gaming just so it would marinate (as Derrick would say) longer in my psyche; for an avid gamer like me, that’s a lifetime. Maybe that’s a bit dramatic, but Bioshock infinite is as close to gaming perfection as we’ve seen in years. With a cast of memorable characters, villains and enemies; a world chock full of personality; a thought-provoking sci-fi story; and solid, dynamic gameplay, Bioshock Infinite is an achievement in gaming. It’s an experience typified not by its disparate parts (e.g. gameplay, visuals, characters, story), but by the way it combines these elements to craft an unforgettable gaming experience.
Bioshock Infinite, from a chronological perspective takes place before the events of the original Bioshock and Bioshock 2. You assume the role of Booker DeWitt, a detective and war veteran who appears jaded with the world and his own existence. The game begins as you’re quite aggressively thrust into the city of Columbia – the “flying city” upon which the events of the story unfolds. He has agreed to the somewhat ambiguous, somewhat direct terms that motivate his actions during the game: “Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt.” The girl whom they are referring to is Elizabeth, the female protagonist in the game who is held captive in Columbia. However, less clear is the debt itself, which you will come to understand as you proceed through the game to its conclusion.
The intro echoes the original Bioshock in providing a glimpse of the city at large, with the appropriate propaganda foreshadowing the prevailing archetypes, values and beliefs of the city and its denizens. Colombia is a bright, beautiful city. The game isn’t going for photo-realistic visuals so don’t expect to be nearly as impressed as you were when you played the first title six years ago. That being said, the world is well-drawn, cleverly built, colorful, and much more alive than the original. Columbia is rife with character: French-Parisian style buildings and structures float ominously in the air; NPCs populate the common areas, giving the city a more organic atmosphere; the endless sky in the background gives a grandiose feeling to it all. Where the first two games were a test for claustrophobics, Bioshock Infinite will make agoraphobics uneasy with its large, open areas and vistas looking out over an endless sky.
Gameplay in Bioshock Infinite isn’t a major departure from its predecessors, but its evolution into a more multifaceted experience is evident. In terms of combat, the gunplay is solid, with a variety of weapons – from pistols to chain guns – each with their own strengths and weaknesses depending on who and what you use them on. Speaking of, enemies come in a variety of forms from your standard gun-toting enemy to the more dangerous handy man, a half-human, half-machine abomination that can easily overwhelm you. A nice variety of enemies will keep you on your toes and encourage you to try the assortment weapons you come across. The Sky-hook, a new addition to the Bioshock universe, allows players to latch onto rails and “zipline” through Columbia and adds additional depth to the combat. It’s exhilarating, and as someone who grew up in Southern California around numerous amusement parks, quite nostalgic in simulating the thrill of rollercoasters. The game plays rather competently as a shooter; remove the vigors and you’d still have a strong, first-person shooter on your hands – although I would suggest turning off auto-aim as it is quite generous.
Speaking of, Vigors in Bioshock Infinite take the form of Plasmids from the original, imbuing you with a variety of abilities that add to your combat repertoire. These include the ability to turn turrets and enemies into allies, shoot fireballs from your hands, shoot electricity, or fire crows at enemies for distraction. The effectiveness of these vigors vary across situations and enemies, so be sure to manage vigors accordingly. They also become nearly vital in taking down stronger foes; using them effectively greatly increases your life expectancy during these encounters.
You’ll notice various gear scattered throughout Columbia. Similar to tonics in the original Bioshock, equipping these can modify Booker’s abilities in a variety of ways, allowing you to personalize the gameplay experience according to your particular play style. More of a run and gunner? You can equip gear that increases your ammo and decreases reload times. Prefer to play like a Sith Lord? You can equip gear that upgrades certain vigors for added area effect, such as chain lightning. Gear drops – with the exception of a few – are completely random. You can’t predict what gear you’ll receive based on where it was found, which adds a bit of chance in its acquisition. This may be slightly annoying to some, as acquired gear – gear that you intend to keep- can be lost in between checkpoints should you meet an early demise.
Infusion bottles are also littered throughout Columbia as well, although to a much less frequent degree than gear. However, picking up one of these allows you to permanently boost your health, shields, or salts (energy for vigors). But choose wisely (especially on harder difficulties) as the effects are permanent and these pick-ups are rare.
For a large part of the game you’ll be joined by Elizabeth, the very girl that Booker needs to clear his debt. She seems to have a connection to a guardian called the songbird, a huge birdlike monstrosity that raised and protected her and which looms as a menacing presence as you move through the game with Elizabeth. However, as she joins you on your journey, you’ll find little need to protect her; she is well-equipped to take care of herself. In fact, she becomes an important ally during the game, tossing you health, salts, and even money when you most need it. Elizabeth also has a more powerful gift: the ability to create tears to alternate universes. This means access to weapons, ammo, mosquitos (flying machine gun turrets), medical kits, and even motorized patriots (gun-toting robots in the likeness of America’s founding fathers)that otherwise wouldn’t exist.
The characters you meet throughout the game are quite distinct and substantive, each having their own set of idiosyncrasies and relevance to the world. However it is the relationship you develop with Elizabeth that becomes the most powerful driver in the game. Both the exposition and her in-game assistance during combat encounters augment your emotional investment in Elizabeth. There are many little moments in the game where Booker and Elizabeth enjoy a healthy repartee. Her innocence, book smarts and charm are a great foil to Booker’s less honorable and more tortured existence. Your progressive understanding of the in-game events and the motivations of the people around you coincide with Elizabeth’s slow loss of innocence as her previously sheltered life come face-to-face with the stark realities of the city and its depravity. As Booker, you can’t help but feel somewhat responsible for her disenchantment.
Just like in most relationships, as you get used to someone’s presence, their impact on you becomes less obvious until they’re gone. Bioshock Infinite exploits that complacency. One particular moment late in the game, If found myself separated from Elizabeth and I immediately felt this loss; it was profound enough that I felt this obligation and urgency to find her – forgoing my original intent to explore each area thoroughly. I found myself genuinely worried that I’d never have her by my side again. In even more effective fashion than the recent reboot of Prince of Persia, classic titles like ICO, and even Journey; Bioshock Infinite succeeds in vesting you emotionally into a game by leveraging the power of in-game relationships.
Bioshock Infinte’s success can also be attributed to the way the story and world unfolds to the player. I was driven to push through each level for those moments of exposition that peel back another layer of the story and world, revealing something intriguing, but leaving more for later. Elizabeth’s manipulation of tears and your exploration of these alternate realities begin to play a more significant role in the story. During respites between combat engagements, your brain wrestles with the narrative, exploring different possibilities of what’s to come; the heat of combat grounds you back into the reality of the situation. The interplay between the deeper, existential thinking while exploring Columbia and the “on-your-toes” quick thinking required in the moment-to-moment gameplay works well to keep players engaged throughout the experience.
While Elizabeth is large influence, the world itself is full of character and its mythos is strong. As you progress through layers of the story and delve deeper into the city, the characters slowly reveal themselves in a variety of compelling ways. The interplay between the in-game events and the spoken narrative through the voxophones (similar to audio diaries in the original) offers a variety of character perspectives of the same situation. The voxophones added additional depth to the various main characters in the game, more thoroughly fleshing out their individual motivations, beliefs, and intentions.
Parallels to Rapture and the original Bioshock can easily be made, but these similarities are not without some relevance to the story itself. Where players witnessed the foundations of a purely objectivistic society crumble under the weight of ideology in the original Bioshock; in Bioshock Infinite, players witness the effects of extreme patriotism and the effect of ethno-centrism on a city and its inhabitants. Beyond that, even deeper are the connections made within the context of quantum mechanics and the idea of multiple universes. But that’s a conversation well above my academic pay grade. While the atmosphere of the original Bioshock is hard to beat, the themes explored in Bioshock Infinite are appropriately dark, thought-provoking and relevant, staying true to series roots. Few games have lit that inquisitive fire compelling me to look more introspectively and view the world from a different lens.
Bioshock Infinite is one of the most engaging and thought-provoking titles I have had the privilege of experiencing in a long time. With a story so compelling and rich, a city rife with personality and interesting characters, and gameplay that encourages exploration and experimentation, it stands as one of the best gaming experiences of this generation. Be sure to spend some time with your head in the clouds.