If you’re going to try and bring a first person shooter into the video game market these days, you’re going to need to bring something pretty damn special with it. You have the well-oiled Call of Duty machine which has dominated the shooter landscape for years now and hot on its heels are games like Halo and Farcry that are perfecting the subtle balance between addictive multiplayer and tense single player action. No, you need to bring something that really sets it apart from the crowd. You need a beautiful landscape, characters who are not only memorable but that also instill genuine empathy in you, scenes of memorable content which are not just focused on action but on creating memories that will stay with you and – above all else – a good (near fantastic) story. Bioshock Infinite has these in spadefuls and has some to spare.
Don’t get me wrong though, readers. Bioshock Infinite is by no means the bastion of video game salvation that many writers and critics have claimed it to be; it has a few issues which I’ll get to soon enough but right now I need to impress upon you just how influential Irrational Games has been with their latest episode in the Bioshock series.
Set apart from the previous Bioshock games (in a different time, place and society), you take control of Booker DeWitt – a ‘fixer’ of sorts who is sent in to calm worker uprisings in factories and plantations. The whole game has a southern American twang to it – that facade of peaceful living and clean country air which hides an underbelly of racism, bigotry and zealotry which will make you shudder. You are sent to a strange lighthouse with a simple mission: “Bring us the girl, and wipe away the debt.” This simple sentence drives you forward into the unknown to discover its meaning. What girl? What kind of debt? Who is this “us”? All of these questions offer you just the right amount of bait needed to play the game through to the next unfolding moment as you find yourself traveling to a giant floating city named Columbia. You walk through crowds of people living their lives as you make your way towards Monument Island where you need to find this girl to “wipe away the debt”. You speak to passersby, watch a giant floating parade glide past and even get involved in a carnival game or two as the game takes you gently by the hand and leads you through this floating utopia to your next stepping stone…
The daughter of Colombia’s near-deified leader (Zachary Comstock), Elizabeth has been sealed away in a luxurious tower on Monument Island for most of her life for reasons unknown and – despite not fully knowing or trusting you – Elizabeth joins you as you offer her a means of escape from her incarceration. When you first meet Elizabeth, it’s hard not to believe that her voice actress (Courtnee Draper) had also been imprisoned for many years; the subtle quivers in her voice and the simply magnificent facial capture gives players a sense of duty to lead and protect Elizabeth regardless of their own agenda. The naive willingness that she displays as she blindly follows you – an armed stranger – through the city makes you feel slightly uneasy as you know your mission is to trade her for a debt. The horror on her face and the fright in her voice that you experience as you are ambushed- this is a situation that we, as gamers, expect AI companions to be conditioned to so Elizabeth’s fright and grim acceptance takes you off guard.
Sadly, I cannot reveal much about Bioshock Infinite‘s story – through which you encounter giant robotic statues of the American Founding Fathers, hordes of dangerous revolutionaries and an overbearing giant metallic bird creature who is forever stalking you – without spoiling the sublime plot but, rest assured, coming from the prestigious stock of the previous Bioshock titles, Irrational Games has outdone themselves in regards to the story. On more than one occasion, you will discover that hunting for diary recordings of key characters and learning the history of Columbia will enrapture you far more than the combat and action.
Speaking of combat and action, I think it’s about time I start noticing those flaws I mentioned earlier. The only issue I could really highlight with the combat would be that it’s sometimes very easy to read. Set piece battles play out as though heavily scripted; scenarios never come as a surprise because you start to recognize the different choke points from which enemies will pour. That’s not to say that the combat is bad per say – just predictable – but there are a few times when you wish you could simply skip a fight to get to the next story point.
The combat is spiced up a touch with the inclusion of Vigors – Columbia’s version of Plasmids. These can be found or, if you happen to miss one, purchased later in the game from one of the many talking vending machines. The Vigors give you the ability to toy with the environment as you see fit; from being able to launch your enemies high into the air to collecting damage inflicted by enemies and throwing it back at them, there’s not much that you can’t do. These abilities are joined by the usual suspects of Fire and Lightning which both offer some truly inventive environmental kill situations, and you can upgrade these skills from the aforementioned talkative vending machines. Personally though, I never found much use for some of them. For example, the ‘Charge’ ability – which sees you speed towards a single enemy and slam into them, sending them flying backwards – simply became a hindrance later in the game as the last thing I wanted to do was launch myself into the middle of a firefight for the sake of eliminating one bad guy.
So you work your way through Columbia, Elizabeth in tow offering sometimes witty observations about your actions and past. You start to depend on her involvement in battles and her ability to pick locks and, in the brief time that you spend apart from her (that’s not a spoiler, I promise), you begin to realize how much she is a part of the mission that you’re striving towards. Then it hits you. Booker DeWitt is not the protagonist of Bioshock Infinite. He never was. You’re simply playing a willing sidekick in Elizabeth’s story. She is the character needed to progress through the story. She is the one who drags your unconscious body to the checkpoint and revives you if you fall in battle. She is the one who passes you ammo and health mid-fight to keep you sustained. As the player, you’re simply the helpful bodyguard, blasting away obstructions with all the poise and grace of a sledgehammer to the kneecaps.
Bioshock Infinite will leave you changed after you know everything there is to know and play through the story end-to-end. You won’t play through it straight away; you’ll wait a while and think on what happened during the game at certain points. Remember cutscenes and conversations differently and analyse them. It’s the mark of a truly great story – be it from a book, movie or video game. It’s a partnership, an unspoken bond between the storyteller and the recipient. You each leave a little bit of yourself with the other with the telling. It’s something that Bioshock games do well and it’s something that Bioshock Infinite does with exceptional grace.
A note on 1999 Mode
Now, I’m all for video games having harder difficulty settings (you’re reading the words of a man who actually enjoys Dark Souls) so, if you’re looking for more of a challenge, Irrational has included a mode especially for you. The trick is that – unlike normal playthroughs where if you die you lose a bit of money and the enemies gain a bit of their health back – with 1999 Mode, if you die you usually end up losing all of your money – forcing you back to the main menu. Naturally the enemies are tougher and Elizabeth doesn’t seem quite so eager to throw ammo at your face but, by and large, it’s that little extra push that some gamers will fall for. It’s the Brass Balls of Infinite and it’s a welcome pleasure.
2K Games provided Slimgamer.com with a review copy of Bioshock Infinite.
This review is based on a complete playthrough on Normal Mode – collection over 60 of the diary recordings and playing on 1999 Mode up to the Hall of Heroes.