Name: Bioshock Infinite
Genre: First Person Shooter
Platform: PC (reviewed), Xbox 360, PS3
Price: £34.99 on Xbox 360 from Amazon
£34.99 on PS3 from Amazon
£27.99 on PC from Amazon
The wait is over, and boy was it worth it. Bioshock Infinite is finally here. Read our full review to find out just why we think it may well be the best game of this generation.
If this console generation has come to be defined by the first person shooter, then Bioshock Infinite has been given the unenviable task of defining that very genre. The original Bioshock, with its objectivist undertones, strove to hit new heights with gameplay-driven story telling, resulting in the broken underwater city of Rapture, one of the most evocative locations in gaming history. Bioshock Infinite, as the name suggests, sets its sights infinitely higher, both in terms of setting and in its attempts to push the gaming medium to ever-more stratospheric achievements. Much has been made of Infinite’s story and setting, but it’s only in experiencing it first-hand do you truly appreciate how breathtaking it is. A first-person shooter taking place in an alternate-history 1912, the action is set among the streets of the floating city of Columbia, a breakaway American “State” run by a religious zealot.
Not since Half-Life 2’s City 17 (or indeed the original Bioshock’s Rapture) has a gaming world been more fully realised. Balancing period details with the anachronistic steampunk technology that the game’s fiction allows for, it’s a city teetering on the edge of a class war, inhabited by airships and mechanical horses, barbershop quartets stealing songs from the future catalogue of the Beach Boys and dominated by towering monuments to the self-proclaimed prophet Zachary Hale Comstock, who runs the city as much through his future-gazing prophesies as his wielding of Columbia’s impressive military might. A twisted utopia, you’ll watch as the city goes from a peaceful settlement in the clouds to a war-torn urban nightmare, and play a part in the change.The game puts you in the shoes of Booker DeWitt, a down-and-out gun for hire who is troubled by his part in the Wounded Knee massacre of 1890, has done a stint as a strike-breaker with the Pinkertons, and is struggling to remain on top of crippling gambling debts. He’s offered the chance to wipe his slate clean if he’ll travel to Columbia and capture Elizabeth Comstock, Zachary’s mysteriously powerful daughter who is kept locked in a foreboding tower.
It’s no spoiler to share that a few short hours into Infinite Elizabeth becomes a near-constant companion to DeWitt. She is a revelation. Any gamer that’s ever struggled to work alongside an AI companion in a game before will delight in just how amazingly executed Elizabeth’s character is, from both a technical and narrative perspective. In a battle she’ll alway’s hide close by and never interferes with your movement, offering support through her special abilities (which we’ll detail in a second) and by keeping you supplied with a regular stream of ammunition and health kits. When exploring the world she’ll intelligently stop by details you’d otherwise perhaps miss, remarking believably on her surroundings and taking a load off on a nearby bench if you dally too long. What’s most impressive is how she has an uncanny ability to anticipate your moves; she’d regularly lead the way to my next destination, even when it was a detour of my own volition rather than one that would progress the story.All these points make for an enjoyable gaming experience, but what makes Elizabeth so memorable is her humanness. Her story is sad and touching (helped along by a deftly written script and excellent voice cast), and her interactions with the downtrodden inhabitants of Columbia endearing. She’s just a regular teenage girl at heart, albeit one pursued by a giant terrifying mechanical eagle, and her captivity means that she’s seeing Coumbia’s sights for the first time just as you are (though with a lot less cynicism than DeWitt). Through her interactions with you and the support she offers throughout the game, you’ll come to view her as a true ally and friend, and really notice the lack of her presence on the occasions when the game separates you from her.
Split into levels rather than an open-world setting, the game has far more forward momentum than previous Bioshock games. Though levels are expansive enough to encourage enjoyable exploration, they’re designed in such a way as to keep your progression continuing at a merry pace, with very little back-tracking required. As such, there’s no map here to check, just an optional glowing arrow to point you to the next area of plot progression, should you choose to follow it. It helps both in the pacing of the narrative and in giving Bioshock Infinite a pulpy, adventurous feel. Indeed, those expecting the darkness of Rapture will find moments of horror used more sparingly here, and as a result, often more effectively.Combat feels far tighter in Infinite than in previous Bioshock games too. There are dozens of weapons on offer, ranging from simple pistols to rifles, RPGs to arcing grenade launchers. Each feels punchy, and hit home on enemies with satisfyingly gruesome consequences. With Infinite’s level design accommodating wider, open battlefields, there’s far more room for tactical play than before, while gunplay also benefits from an Iron Sights view.
There’s also an increased verticality to the shootouts. Above the heads of the residents of Columbia are the Skylines, a tangle of cable-car like transportation routes. DeWitt is armed with a Skyhook, a magnetic, motorised pulley that plays the dual role of grisly melee weapon and Skyline zipline attachment. With it, you can leap high above enemies, darting with great velocity along the rollercoaster-like Skylines, picking off enemies from afar or hurtling down upon them for an impressive instant kill. It’s an exhilarating experience, and one quite unique to Infinite’s own brand of first-person shooting.Elizabeth plays her part too. As the game progresses, her ability to literally tear the fabric or reality apart comes to the fore, and you’re soon commanding her to conjure all manner of assistive items into existence. From cover positions to weapon racks, freight hooks to electricity-zapping Tesla coils, a well placed support item from Elizabeth can turn the tide of a heated battle.
Just as the first Bioshock had super-human Plasmid powers, Infinite has Vigors, run off your supply of Salts. Finding Vigors gives DeWitt the ability to wield massively destructive powers (and, in a nice touch, make the flesh on his hands disgustingly take on attributes of the powers he wields too). Vigors range from the ability to shoot lightning shocks from your finger tips to commanding a murder of crows to slow down enemies, fling flaming balls from your palms, or possess foes to momentarily do your bidding, and more. Each can also be laid as a trap, activated as enemies pass them by. They all look great and are a blast to use, and knowing which is most appropriate for your current situation is key to overcoming difficult fights.
Enemy AI isn’t ground breaking, but they’ve got enough sense to know when to take cover and when to rush you. The real challenge comes when Infinite throws a variety of differing enemies at you at once. While the main thrust of the grunts are gun-wielding Comstock forces or those of the opposing Vox Populi rebel faction, Infinite has quite the menagerie of inventive enemy designs to complement them. There’s the mechanical Founding Father wind-up robots, armed with rail guns; creepy Crows who disappear and reappear in a swirl of feathers; the disarmingly sad half-human, half robotic gorilla strongmen otherwise known as the Handymen; the aggressive and combustive Firemen, who are about are far removed from Fireman Sam as you could possibly be. And then there’s the monstrous Songbird, Elizabeth’s aggressive, towering mechanical ward, an ever-present threat throughout the adventure.Though by no means an RPG, there are light levelling mechanics to play with too. Checking containers for loot such as ammunition, health, Salts and cash, you can trade any Silver Eagle currency you have at weapons, Vigor and items vending machines (each complete with a creepy robotic salesman touting its wares). Weapons can be upgraded to feature improved damage-dealing capabilities, less recoil or larger ammunition capacities, amongst other modifications. Vigors too can have their damage levels boosted, as well as power-specific upgrades that may see effects chain to nearby enemies or reduce the Salt-costs of power use.
Other items that can be found as you progress include “Gear” and “Infusions”. Gear packs work like Bioshock’s Tonics, allowing DeWitt to pop on up to four items of clothing, each offering different benefits. One may add a flaming strike to melee attacks, others may make shooting from a Skyline more accurate. Infusions offer one-use permanent upgrades to DeWitt’s shields, health or overall Salt-capacities.Gear and Infusions are often found as rewards for completing Bioshock Infinite’s optional side-quests. They’re generally not all that taxing, but do offer the chance to see even more of the enthralling Columbia, as well as unearth the elusive “Voxphone” audio diaries that further flesh out character backstories and the details of the game world. Side quests are almost uniformly exploration based, tasking you to pick up on a clue to hidden treasures hinted at in a Voxphone diary, or unearthing a codex decoder to reveal a secret Vox rebel stash. If you’ve gathered enough lockpicks on your travels, you can also request that Elizabeth unlocks a few doors or safes littered around Columbia – her years trapped in the tower were not idle as she proves herself to be a budding Houdini when it comes to locks.
Visually, the game is stunningly inventive, revelling in small details that make the world come alive. Characters have a caricature-style look, exaggerating their features but never dehumanising their superb deliveries (though some NPC likenesses are overused a little too often). Each environment is a joy to explore for the same reason, with impossible structures and machinery designed with a consistency and coherence to the rules of the world and time period as to make them believable. There’s a much wider colour palette than what’s usually on offer from the world of first-person shooters too, with cheery “Fourth of July” scenes giving way to dank industrial gloom.
It’s worth noting just how great Infinite sounds too. Each character is voiced with real passion, each gun packing an explosive blast, each arrival of the Songbird punctuated by a menacing squall. The soundtrack is superb too, with a host of modern songs given covered in a ragtime style. Just as ingenious is how the game explains away this seemingly anachronistic detail.We played Bioshock Infinite on a high-spec PC, and though the console versions hold their own given the ageing hardware they’re stuck with, it’s clear that this is the way the game is intended to be played. So close to the sun in a city drifting through the sky, the developers at Irrational Games have made great use of Direct X 11 lighting and particle effects, with Ultra settings offering PC-only features like Contact Hardening Shadows, High Definition Ambient Occlusion and Diffusion Depth of Field. It’s beautiful throughout, even catching the eye of my non-gaming girlfriend.
Though there’s no multiplayer mode on offer, Infinite’s 13-15 hour length feels just about right. It’s a generously rich game as a single player experience, and one that you’ll likely want to revisit once the games twisty-turny narrative comes to an end. We’re a little way into our second playthrough now, having unlocked the game’s ridiculously hard “1999” mode which removes any navigational hints and is far more punishing in both combat difficulty and penalties when dying. Seeing all the game’s storyline twists click into place a second time, knowing just what’s left to come, shows just how expertly crafted and complex a tale it is.
Bioshock Infinite is everything we dreamed it would be and more. Another bold step forward for world building and storytelling in games, it’s the sort of adventure we wish we could experience for the first time again. In any other game Columbia would be the deserved star of the show, much like Rapture was in the original Bioshock. But it’s Elizabeth that we keep coming back to. She’s a masterclass in gaming design, helping envelope the player in the world and story crafted by Irrational Games, a feat that can be attributed to scarce few other gaming characters, if any. Bioshock Infinite is simply astounding, one of those rare game’s that manages to elevate itself above the usual constraints of the medium and one that’s as close to perfect as you’re ever going to find.
By Gerald Lynch | March 27th, 2013