Bioshock Infinite is something of a departure from the setting of the last two games in the series, swapping the underwater Dystopia of Rapture for the seemingly utopian Columbia, a floating city in the clouds.
Set in 1912, Irrational Games, gives us a glimpse of a past that never was, or one that might yet be.
Welcome to the fascinating and somewhat bizarre world of Bioshock Infinite.
Apart from sharing a few similar themes and gaming conceits, Bioshock Infinite has nothing to do with the previous two Bioshock games.
It is like a fresh start. New players can jump on board and enjoy the game just as much as seasoned fans. That’s not to say that there aren’t any winks for those familiar with the other games.
The game starts as Booker DeWitt, ex-Pinkerton detective, is being rowed towards a lighthouse by a very peculiar English couple.
The scene is very similar to the start of the first Bioshock game, where the protagonist happens upon a tower in the middle of the ocean before his decent to the city under the sea.
The Englishman hands Booker a box, again in a similar manner to the first game. In it is a pistol, photo of a girl with the name Elizabeth scratched on it and a note of the back that says “Bring to New York unharmed”, a postcard of statue and a key.
After reaching the top of the lighthouse, in sequence that mirrors Bioshock, Booker DeWitt ascends into the heavens coming to rest in the floating city of Columbia.
Whilst passed out as a result of a particularly rigorous baptism, we learn via a flashback Booker’s motive for visiting this city in the clouds.
“Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt”; the girl being the doe-eyed Elizabeth, imprisoned within the angelic-looking Statue of Columbia that towers over the city.
The moment when Booker first opens the door onto the streets of Columbia and adjusts his eyes to the sight before him is destined to before a classic gaming moment; one that is bound to have players pause just to take in the incredible vista.
Columbia is beautifully realised. The gleaming white buildings subtly shaded with ambient occlusion, looking almost real.
The game’s graphics are superb; the lighting in particular is phenomenal. It is possibly the most impressive-looking game environment I’ve ever seen.
With masses of detail in both the architecture and the citizens of the city, it feels real and alive. Adults converse, whilst children play. Huge zeppelins soar past as floating buildings surreally moor themselves against the parades
The citizens of Columbia, whilst well modelled, suffer from only limited amount of variations, the city having an unnatural amount of twins.
This repetition doesn’t stop at the people; I also noticed that many of Columbia’s buildings floating off in the background suffer the same cookie-cutter similarities.
Perhaps I’m being unfair, but these little thing s really stand out in a game that otherwise pays such incredible attention to detail.
The floating city Columbia was founded by the self-styled prophet Zackary Comstock as a representation of American Exceptionalism; the belief that America has a unique and special purpose to promote liberty and democracy across the world.
Whilst originally intended to be part of the 1893 World’s Fair, Comstock instead used Columbia as a weapons platform against the Chinese during the anti-foreigner and anti-Christian Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the 19th Century.
Appalled at Columbia’s unsanctioned actions, the United States ordered the city home. Comstock refused, declaring Columbia an independent entity.
As you’d expect all is not as it seems, with the perfect-looking society masking a city built on religious fanaticism, bigotry and racism. After about an hour of gameplay, Columbia exposes its dark underbelly.
The mysterious “AD” that Booker has branded on the back of his hand matches posters around the city that single him out as “the false shepherd” making him an enemy of Columbia.
These ominous looking posters are only one of many subtle hints as to what is really going on, scattered around the city. It really pays to look very carefully in order to uncover all that Bioshock Infinite has to offer.
Booker wins a raffle where the prize is throwing a baseball at a tethered couple, a white man and a black woman, whose union does fit with Columbia’s unsavoury ideals.
At this point Booker ceases to be a tourist. Just as he is about to throw the ball, either at the couple or the host, he is outed as the false shepherd and a battle with the city constabulary ensues.
What follows is a tale where Booker must rescue the girl, Elizabeth, get involved in a rebellion and confront his demons.
The plot managed to keep me emotionally engaged throughout. The game concludes with enough false endings to make Peter Jackson blush; the last twenty minutes has a little too much exposition with minimal interaction.
Nevertheless the ending is superb and promises some very juicy discussion over the intertubes in the coming months. One bit of advice: wait for the final scene after the credits!
The city of Columbia is without a doubt the stand out star of the show, but a special mention must go out to the character of Elizabeth, the girl in the tower. The developers have spared no expense in bringing to life Booker DeWitt’s constant companion.
Everything about the Elizabeth is a delight to watch, her subtle expressions, her initial nativity (I stood there for a minute or so just watching her dance with joy on the Battleship Bay boardwalk) and the development of her character right to the game’s conclusion.
Fully realised character arcs are something usually missing from video games. Video game protagonists, especially in first person shooters where they usually start out shooting and end up shooting, are rarely properly fleshed out.
But Elizabeth’s character fulfils the role of the game’s conscience perfectly as events take a toll on her.
As beautiful as the game looks on the Xbox 360, I’m sad to say the Microsoft’s baby is starting to look very tired-looking when compared to the wondrous visuals on the PC. We do so need those next-gen consoles.
Regardless of format, both the PC and Xbox 360 gameplay experience is identical. The game can even be played on a PC using an Xbox 360 controller in exactly the same manner as its console cousin.
It’s worth noting that on the PC version I found the default graphics settings to be a bit on the high side. It is worth spending some time getting the settings just right.
A lot of performance issues can be ironed out by lowering the graphics without any discernible difference in display quality. The PC texture settings range from very low, which equals awesome, to Ultra, which equals mind-blowing.
Columbia’s charm as a game environment starts to wain as the city plunges into paradoxical chaos; Elizabeth inadvertently changing the tide of a rebellion.
This is less the fault of the plot and more the fault of the designers for creating such a beautifully rendered city full of such exquisite detail, one that I could’ve spend hours just staring at it.
To see it all start to fall apart is, well …saddening.
Enough of that, though. How does the game play? Fans of previous Bioshocks will be familiar with some of the gameplay elements. As well as a full arsenal of weapons, found littering the game environment and on corpses, players can also take advantage of Vigors.
These potions, which work very similar to plasmids in the other Bioshock games, give Booker special offensive powers.
With names like Bucking Bronco and Possession, they were originally intended for much more benevolent tasks; check out the demonstrations and posters at the Columbia Raffle and Fair exhibits.
Vigors are fuelled by salt, which can be found in bottles and items scavenged from bodies and containers. It is also possible to upgrade Vigors using one of the many vending machines.
Vending machines can also be used to upgrade weapon abilities, as well as to buy ammo and health. It is also possible to equip Booker with gear, in the form of trousers, shirts and hats; all of which act as buffs enhancing skills and improving abilities.
These special abilities offer players the opportunity to customise Booker according to their play style.
As I’ve previously mentioned, Elizabeth accompanies Booker pretty much for the entire game. And she’s not just a pretty face, either.
Elizabeth has the ability to drag items and weapons through dimensional tears, at your command, which can radically alter the course of conflicts. This, and her timely resupply of ammo and health in the midst of battle, creates an interesting bond between the two characters.
Columbia has a rather unique freight system that Booker can also use as a mode of transport. The Skyline system works like a series of rollercoaster tracks across the city.
Using a device called a Skyhook, both Booker and Elizabeth can propel themselves along the tracks to get to out of reach places. It is also possible to change direction and leap from track to track by a sort of free-fall. It’s exhilarating stuff and makes for some interesting and kinetic combat situations.
Whilst I can’t abide torturously difficult gaming affairs, Bioshock Infinite’s way of handling player death, does make things a bit easy.
On dying Booker is resurrected losing some cash in the process, but that’s about it. It’s not a level restart or anything, opponents get a little health boost, but the dead ones stay dead.
The player’s persistence pretty much guarantees success. So instead of adapting, it is easier to go in hammer and tongs until you keel over and die…again. Rinse and repeat.
Bioshock Infinite isn’t alone in this regard though, it seems that medium difficulty is becoming the new easy.
All is not lost, though. Whilst I’d recommend that seasoned first-person shooter fans play Bioshock Infinite on the hard setting, after a play-though the more unforgiving 1999 mode unlocks.
Whilst not the nosebleed-inducing hardcore mode that I thought it would be, the 1999 mode does up the ante rather considerably.
All those upgrades, buffs and special abilities suddenly become a lot more relevant; some of them that felt a bit pointless in the first play-through finally become useful in the 1999 mode.
In-game soundtracks are, for the most part wasted on me. Bioshock Infinite does, however, manage to use music to excellent effect to the point that it is worth a mention.
From the haunting version of the Christian hymn “Will the Circle be Unbroken” as the sky-city of Columbia first comes into view to the subtle inclusion of a few mysteriously contemporary tunes to through us off guard, for instance the pipe organ rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and The Beach Boy’s “God Only Knows”, as reimagined by a barbershop quartet.
Bioshock Infinite is an intelligent and riveting tale of a girl imprisoned in a tower, inter-dimensional physics and a city in the clouds.
The game’s play on the more sinister side of Christianity is an interesting and rather bold move on the part of the developers; it is good to see video games maturing enough to take on heady subjects such as this.
Whilst the game doesn’t set out to offend anyone’s sensibilities, no doubt it will. The game looks amazing on PC and console alike. I’d go as far as to say that it is one of the most gorgeous-looking games I’ve ever played.
Bioshock Infinite is a must-play game and is in the shops now on Windows Pc, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
Lasting appeal: 8.5