There isn’t much to be said about the original BioShock that hasn’t been said already, including words like “defining” and “masterful.” It’s with those massive shoes to fill that BioShock Infinite entered the limelight, a new game at the tail end of this console generation trying to prove that the current hardware can still manage to wow. And with Irrational Games at the helm, “wow” it does.
BioShock Infinite isn’t technically a sequel, but it’s close. The game takes place not in the underwater city of in Rapture, but in the airborne city of Columbia floating high above the rest of the world. The game still takes place in a bygone era (sort of, although I won’t go into spoilers) and it still uses bionic-style upgrades to complement traditional weapons (they’re called vigors this time rather than plasmids). As a result, the core gameplay mechanics are largely intact, with some added polish and balancing that lets BioShock Infinite hold its own among modern shooters even as it focuses as much on storytelling as it does on shooting. Likewise, the pseudo-historical setting is crafted with such care that it’s easy to suspend your disbelief and get lost in the setting.
In traditional fashion, the game starts with Booker, the protagonist, thrust into a foreign land with no idea what’s going on and even less of an arsenal at his disposal. In the early stages he doesn’t need an arsenal, as the first level is more about setting the stage and posing questions that will be answered as the game goes on. Eventually, though, Booker has the need for guns and, shortly thereafter, such “supernatural” vigor abilities as throwing balls of flame or electricity from his hands, sending man-eating crows to devour his foes, or bowling them down with gusts of wind. Each of these abilities, along with the guns, can be upgraded using Silver Eagle coins found in the game. Money’s not so scarce that it’s hard to buy upgrade, although some of the level three and four upgrades do require saving up a pretty sum.
The purpose for upgrading weapons and vigors in BioShock Infinite is to protect Elizabeth, a mysterious damsel in distress from increasingly powerful enemies. Sent to bring Elizabeth back to some people who want her, Booker breaks Elizabeth free from her awkwardly idol-like confines and puts himself in grave danger by doing so. For much of the game this danger is an acceptable price to pay, because Elizabeth is Booker’s ticket to redemption (you won’t learn what he’s seeking redemption for until the final cut scenes). As the game progresses, though, you’ll develop ties to Elizabeth as well as strong feelings about the merits and faults of various entities in Columbia, thus making your protection almost a morality play.
In spite of the impression that much of BioShock Infinite would unfold via above-ground rails, the majority of the gameplay actually takes place in what seem like very terrestrial locations. A few key areas rely on the roller coaster-like rails, giving players the chance to hop from track to track while shooting enemies from above – but I was frankly hoping there would be more of these segments. Fast-paced and fun, these airborne sections are one of the things that differentiate BioShock Infinite from other shooters, and they can pose some nice twitch-like gameplay. I suppose it’s a testament to the game as a whole that it’s a ton of fun without more of these sections, but I still would’ve liked to see them more often. Maybe some DLC missions will include new airborne escapades.
The ambience of Columbia is second only to the first BioShock, and it amazes me to see just how well a game developer can capture and communicate the essence of a completely imagined world. From the perfect (and at times perfectly confounding) soundtrack to the environmental signage and period-inspired costumes, BioShock Infinite provides a lesson in how to help consumers willingly suspend their disbelief. If there’s one hiccup, it’s that there only seem to be about six to eight different enemy types, and they’re all clones. It feels an awful lot like the Covenant classes in Halo, only in BioShock Infinite they don’t get different armor. It’s just kind of wash, rinse and repeat with the same faces and uniforms. In the grand scheme of things this isn’t a horrible sin, but considering the care that went into creating a unique world in every other aspect, seeing the same NPC character models over and over is somewhat of a letdown.
In terms of overall length and plot, BioShock Infinite doesn’t drone on at all (e.g. no “Library” vibe), although once you finish the game you’ll wish that Irrational Games had shared certain key revelations a little earlier so you could process them a bit better. Several friends and I have spent time discussing the ending and “what it means” well after having completed the game, and although that’s certainly quite an achievement for most games, I still would’ve liked to have digested everything a bit more during the final two missions or so rather than what amounts to a single ridiculously long interactive cut scene. If Irrational and some Hollywood studio can get together for a movie of this, I’ll be the first one in line. And yes, I suppose that gives Irrational some story elements to explore via DLC.
BioShock Infinite isn’t the best game I’ve played, but it’s easily among the top 10, and it’s kept me talking and thinking longer than most of the others in that Letterman-esque list. Funny…the first BioShock did the same, and it’s also in my top 10. Nobody creates a sense of place like Irrational Games, and BioShock Infinite proves that its predecessor wasn’t a fluke. These guys know how to tell a story, they know how to balance gameplay, and they know how to get you (and keep you) thinking. As a result, BioShock Infinite has carved its own place as one of the best games of this console generation, and a fantastic capstone for this hardware cycle’s pantheon of memorable and marquee games.
Buy BioShock Infinite from Amazon.com by clicking this link: BioShock Infinite at Amazon.
Platform reviewed: Xbox 360
— Eric Pitt