BioShock Infinite is a unique game. Not for the reasons you may think and presume. But for the simplicity in which it takes the medium of the videogame far beyond what our perceptions are. There is an obvious sense of nostalgia when first playing the game. The original BioShock came to us in late 2007, and was both a critical and financial success. Spearheaded once again by Ken Levine, at the helm, BioShock Infinite takes a more prominent step into complex narrative structure and storytelling than its predecessor. The genius is that it all makes sense. There is both shock and awe in the realisation that you are playing a game which is further ahead in storytelling, characterisation and emotional investment than recent games.
The narrative of BioShock Infinite mirrors the first BioShock in immense detail. You board a boat which takes you to a lighthouse, and from there your journey begins. But this time, instead of plummeting into the watery depths of Rapture; you ascend into the fantastical utopia of Columbia. In BioShock Infinite, the year is 1912 and you play as Booker DeWitt who is tasked with the mission to save a girl named Elizabeth from the confines of her towering prison in Columbia. Booker DeWitt is a former Pinkerton agent and has a history of violence, and now a debt which he wishes to pay back. The debt can only be paid by rescuing Elizabeth.
The only problem is that the flying-city is under the control of the religious zealot and “Prophet” Zachary Hale Comstock, who leads the Founders of Columbia, and seeks to protect Elizabeth from Booker. Booker is thought to be the “False Shepherd” who will lead Elizabeth astray. Standing in your way is not only Comstock, but also the mysterious bird-like mechanical creature known as Songbird whose sole duty is to keep Elizabeth locked away. That is not the only problem, there is a civil war happening between the Founders and the Vox Populi who fight the Founders for the right of the common man. The Vox Populi hardly fit into the idealised vision of Comstock’s Columbia. You are brought into the fray of this whole situation. However, the whole of Columbia is further endangered by the presence of tears in the fabric of space-time, which are all the result of Elizabeth’s power. She becomes essential to the fight and with your help you can make reality changing decisions with the aid of her powers, for better or worse. There is a strong narrative structure in BioShock Infinite, and the setting of the game is just as important.
As you take your first steps into the floating city of Columbia, it is immediately apparent that this is indeed a BioShock game. The atmosphere of the floating wondrous utopia is invigorating and is a breath of fresh air from the brown colourless reality modern games favour. The city is epic in its proportions and is lively with an immense colour palette that written words can’t really do justice to. The first character you truly meet in BioShock Infinite is the setting of the game. It is a city which consists of floating spires, hot air balloon blimps, Sky-Line rollercoaster rails and beautiful vistas. The floating city is populated by quintessential 1912 Americans, architecture from the period, music and a general atmosphere which speaks with great volume of the past. It represents American Exceptionalism at its peak, with iconic statues, mirroring the Statue of Liberty, appearing throughout the whole game. This reiterates the whole notion of American grandeur and exceptionalism that 1912 America epitomised. This in itself is a drastic change from the underwater setting of Rapture, which was inspired by the writings of Ayn Rand. Additionally, the expanded history, and the story behind events, of Columbia can be accessed through Voxophones (in-game recordings), film projectors and Kinetoscopes (early film watching devices).
However, BioShock Infinite does maintain some of the dark dystopian undercurrent from the original BioShock. As you progress through the game, there is a subversion of the idealised nature of the utopian qualities Columbia represents. The first layer is present in the game’s visual and sound designs which are fluid throughout BioShock Infinite. Locations throughout the game show the effects of the space-time tears, and the fall of a utopia into dystopian chaos, as you progress in the story. Using an idealised version of 1912 America and imbuing Columbia with this quality means that when the dystopian atmosphere is focussed, the darkness of the world is made more real.
The atmosphere which is present in the game comes down to the thematic choices made by Irrational Games which create a deeper subtext in the game. The Founders, with Comstock and his followers, represent the ruling class of supposed “Pure Blood” Americans with a belief in the given right to live in Columbia. The government in Columbia is one that implements religious hatred, racial segregation, jingoism, Nazism and xenophobia as policy, and by religious order of Comstock. This clearly shows the subversion of religion into totalitarian and theocratic rule which affects the lives of the people who make up the Vox Populi. They consist of black people, Irish people and all minorities of non-European descent from within the walls of the flying city.
This opposition is presented through propaganda posters, graffiti and other forms of hatred littered across Columbia. People involving themselves in unsanctioned relationships with other minorities are immediately chastised as heretics by Comstock and his followers. It is for this, and many reasons, that the Vox Populi fights an endless war against Comstock’s forces. But the Vox Populi are blinded by hatred and so the lines between good and evil become increasingly hard to define, as you progress in the game. What is apparent in BioShock Infinite, is that there is a stronger commentary on racism and the influence of religion than in the original BioShock. This is all tied up in the quantum physics conundrum of Elizabeth’s power. At the core of BioShock Infinite’s experience, is the relationship between Booker and Elizabeth and this defines much of the game.
Booker is a veteran with wartime experience, and a past full of violence. Elizabeth is a counterpoint to this, starting out the game with youthful naivety and slowly maturing throughout the game. They both come together for different reasons. Elizabeth wants to escape the confines of her cage and leave Columbia. Booker wants to pay back his debt to an unknown contractor. During the game, he faces an emotional crisis over the atrocities he committed as a Pinkerton agent and soldier. At the core, both characters help each other to come to terms with the “reality” of their situations. Booker wants to help Elizabeth, and Elizabeth wants to help Booker deal with who he is. The game focuses on the central idea that the choices you make can have adverse effects on everything, and the possibilities and outcomes are in no way finite. The outcomes are endless with Elizabeth’s power. Elizabeth is vital as the driving force of their relationship, and in propelling the narrative of the game forward as a whole. With this dynamic, the experience for each player playing BioShock Infinite may be varied. Nonetheless, it is a central element of BioShock Infinite’s design.
In terms of gameplay mechanics, BioShock Infinite has a solid design which is enjoyable and has depth, with a RPG influence. This is where the game differs from the original BioShock. Booker is able to move around Columbia and its various locations by means of the Sky-Line rail system which makes up part of Columbia’s transport system. Booker is equipped with a grappling hook device, called the Sky-Hook, which he can use to slide along the Sky-Line at breakneck speeds, and make his way speedily through various levels of a location. This new addition allows Booker to take advantage of enemies in an environment, to attack, counter and dodge enemy attacks. Enemies can use the Sky-Line as well. Consequently, you have to be aware of this all the time and be careful when flying along the Sky-Lines at speed.
There is the return of a huge variety of weapons to tickle your fancy with a selection of shotguns, grenade launchers, RPGs, carbine rifles, pistols, handguns and various other weapons. All of the guns handle satisfactorily, and each weapon is suited to different combat scenarios. So you will find yourself chopping and changing it up as you play the game, as you are limited to holding two weapons. Weapons can be upgraded by purchasing enhancements from one of the robotised kiosks scattered around Columbia.
Instead of plasmids, you have vigors in BioShock Infinite which grant Booker the ability to manipulate electricity, fire, wind, crows and many more abilities. They are useful in conjunction with environmental factors within a given level. Vigors require the use of a magic energy called Salt, which replaces EVE from the original game. There are two functions to each of the vigors. The first function of a vigor is the ranged attack of the power that incurs less damage than the second function, but can be dispensed at enemies at a faster pace and greater distance. The second function requires you to power up a vigor and release the power, which will cause a more potent version of the vigor to be released in the form of a trap. You could be fighting a crowd of enemies and choose to use the shock-powered vigor. If you power up the shock-powered vigor, you can release shock traps that explode on contact with a group of enemies. This becomes very useful in crowd control combat situations. All of the vigors can be upgraded by purchasing vigor power upgrades from a robotised kiosk, much like the ones used for weapons. Yet once an upgrade is bought, it is permanent and you can’t change your upgrade path at a later stage. The same applies to weapon upgrades. This gives greater finality to the decisions you make.
The inclusion of passive gear that you can equip Booker with, is a welcome addition. Gear can be found by picking locks, which Elizabeth is adept at, and this becomes an incentive to explore levels to the fullest extent. You can gather resources like ammo and money easily by exploring a level. As a result, optional missions have greater incentive. You can collect various hats, shirts, pants and such which have stat effects that vary from setting enemies alight through a melee attack, to regenerating health by killing enemies. This is all indispensable in the heat of battle when you’re under pressure from enemy attacks.
You’ll find yourself under continual pressure during many enemy encounters. As such, it is very helpful that Elizabeth plays such a prominent role in combat, as she can use her ability to make tears in space-time to great effect. Elizabeth can interact with tears within an environment, and can pull in objects such as rocket turrets, air assault vehicles, cover, medical supplies, weapons and ammunition to your aid. She also scouts across the environment in search of vials of Salt to replenish your Salt gauge, and health packs to restore your health when needed. She is active throughout combat and doesn’t hinder you in any way, like other A.I. companions may have in other games.
The enemy classes in BioShock Infinite are nothing to scoff at. You will come face-to-face with enemies from both the Founders and the Vox Populi. Enemy classes include basic foot soldiers that are easy to dismiss with basic gunplay. In more difficult situations, you battle enemies who are imbued with a certain vigor like the ability to shoot crows at you. These enemies are much harder to kill and make up much of the hordes you face in BioShock Infinite.
Some of the enemies have airships from which they can board certain environments, and can assault you with rockets and grenades from these vantage points. In such circumstances, you have to be adept at using the Sky-Lines to their fullest potential and take out these enemies in record time. You do have defensive capabilities such as a shield, which can be upgraded by collecting vials from across Columbia. But these have to be dedicated to either health, your shield or your Salt gauge. Your decisions, in regards to what stats should be increased, depends solely on your play-style.
Excluding the basic enemy types, there are more specialised ones you have to fight during the course of the game. Most notably, there are the larger enemies created by the Founders, known as “Heavy Hitters”. These include Handymen which are huge half-man robotic monsters, equipped with human heads and hearts encased in metal bodies with large hands. Handymen can jump great distances and impart great damage. They take a large deal of damage before they fall at your hands. The other type of enemy are Motorized Patriots who like Handymen are huge in scale, but are fully robotic and fashioned in the image of George Washington. They have large machine guns and take much damage to be rid of. Other enemies included are the Boys of Silence that act as a security system in Columbia, and Sirens who can resurrect defeated foes as their own forces. But these enemy types only feature much later in the game. Dealing with these more difficult enemies requires strategy and makes the game challenging. Overall, the gameplay design is well implemented and everything fits perfectly together.
In the visuals department, BioShock Infinite is a sight to behold. This is especially evident in the stylised design of the world and characters, and the palette choice is evocative and draws you into the world. Everything in Columbia is well detailed and there is a sense of a wonder as you make your way through the various levels in the floating city. All the elements have a place in Columbia’s design and nothing feels wasted. Architecture is grand and is of the period that the game is sent in. The grandiose nature of Columbia and what it represents is captured incredibly well by the team at Irrational Games. BioShock Infinite is a visual delight of note.
In terms of audio design, BioShock Infinite is impressive. There is music everywhere in Columbia from the common store to an ordinary house you may be looting for weapons and ammunition. The music never stops and is appropriately chosen, and makes you feels as if you are there in person. The voice acting is immensely believable, particularly in the case of the two main characters, in Booker and Elizabeth. The voice actors convey the emotional volatility of the disaster that Booker and Elizabeth find themselves in. You feel their pain, and you connect to them as humans. Booker breaks away from the shackles of the trope of the silent protagonist that has become so commonplace in first person shooters. Elizabeth breathes fresh air into the role as a companion to Booker on their journey through Columbia. This of itself is the mark of tremendous game, one which connects to you as a human and makes you feel for the characters, and their plight. This is game design at its finest. There were no noticeable flaws, besides one or two odd bugs in the game. No game is immune to this. This is proof enough of the rigorous efforts by the team at Irrational Games to develop a quality game.
BioShock Infinite is an achievement. It is an ode to what can be done with videogames as a medium. When playing the game, you feel connected to the characters, their story, their reasons for what they do and the consequences of their actions. There is never a dull moment to be had. The game is gripping from start to finish. At the heart of the game is the relationship between Booker and Elizabeth, surrounded by the subtext of the perils of an idealised utopia and religious zealousness. BioShock Infinite is a quality game and is worthy of the price asked. This is a once in a lifetime experience and you’d be doing yourself a disservice by not playing it.