The first BioShock was definitely a critical darling. Garnering mostly positive reviews, the shooter managed to say quite a bit while still being fun. Although suffering from a few questionable design decisions near its finale, the game was still sitting well above its contemporaries. BioShock Infinite, a spiritual successor to the original, tried to build on this core idea of first-person storytelling. Not only did Irrational Games succeed in this attempt, but it far exceeded my expectation.
Infinite opens with players taking the role of one Booker DeWitt, a former soldier and veteran of the Battle of Wounded Knee. Not much is known about his past, but within a few minutes we know he doesn’t have the cleanest record. DeWitt has been tasked with infiltrating Columbia, a city in the sky heavily influenced by the idea of American exceptionalism prevalent during the early 1900s. Once there, he must find Elizabeth, a woman he knows nothing about, but must retrieve to pay off debts from his past. For fear of spoilers, I won’t dig further into the plot. However, something needs to be said about the world Irrational created.
Once traversing the various zeppelins and floating city blocs of Columbia, Infinite gives you time to drink up the atmosphere. Unlike locales from previous BioShock games, Columbia is still very much alive. It’s a vibrant metropolis, full of steampunk flourishes which make it simultaneously familiar and alien. Much of the decor is directly inspired by the time period Infinite riffs off, but unbelievable additions like the Skyline transit system take the overall design just far enough into the fantastic. Mix this brilliant art direction with a decent PC, and some of the vistas are downright jaw-dropping.
Combat feels like a natural progression of the original BioShock. Offensive abilities revolve around the interplay between vigors and gunplay, with vigors being Infinite’s version of plasmids. Limitations are implemented, with players only able to have two of each equipped at any one given time, but this never felt like it hindered my ability. Experimentation is encouraged, with vigors ranging from simple grenades to varying types of crowd control.
Certain vigors mix better with certain weapons, but most importantly, the game is always nudging you to try something new. I personally had a lot of fun with the Shock Jockey vigor, which eventually let me paralyze entire rooms of enemies. Then it was simply a matter of nonchalantly picking each one off with my upgraded Carbine. Undertow also worked well with this combo, as it let me push and pull enemies, allowing me to control the pace of most fights.
In lieu of having one iconic enemy akin to BioShock’s Big Daddy, Infinite confronts the player with a number of different styles of larger enemies. Some encourage the use of traps, some brute force, while others like the Handyman simply force the player to constantly be on the move. Death mechanics are very forgiving, but this helps during an inital playthrough by allowing you to make mistakes. Even though I was always limited to two weapons and vigors, the constant mix-and-match style always kept me engaged.
Accentuating every major event in Infinite is a bombastic orchestrated soundtrack. Shrill string instruments accompany most major encounters, while slower moments allow the music to blend into the background. It all plays well with the overall sense of cohesion, and rarely did any track seem out of place. On top of this, the occasional barbershop quartet or phonograph add flavor to the already rich atmosphere of Columbia. But none of this was too surprising. What did surprise me was the story.
Thematically, Infinite approaches some topics that other big-budget games are simply afraid to take on effectively. Considering the core conceit of the world Irrational created, that of a revivalist religious movement of the early 1900s, certain taboo subjects could have easily been glossed over. But they were confronted exactly how they needed to be: in an intelligent and truthful manner. Infinite doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to difficult topics like race and prejudice. It may only be a single aspect of the story, but the honesty regarding the period is extremely refreshing.
Not to mention what Infinite says about player agency in general. It’s no surprise to fans of the series that Ken Levine and his cohorts at Irrational like to mess with player’s expectations. Infinite is no different. Story is woven skillfully together with certain actions the player makes, eventually leading to some profound statements about the act of playing video games itself. The game has such depth, and packs more information into each tiny crevice, that it puts much of its competition to shame. Anyone trying to pin down Infinite’s message to a single beat is completely missing the point. The story of BioShock Infinite is trying to say a multitude of things, and not only does Irrational do this effectively, it’s done in a fantastically creative world.
There are a few points near Infinite’s finale which do drag on a bit long. Unique aspects of later fights end up being used repeatedly in a very short amount of time, making some of the later fights somewhat tedious. These hiccups never come close to ruining the experience, but nonetheless stand out when compared to the majority of Infinite.
The scant few flaws found within BioShock Infinite are by no means justification to skip it. Rarely is a game capable of packing so much into a 10-15 hour experience, while still maintaining a level of consistency. The world of Infinite is full of wondrous sights, interesting characters, and more than enough intrigue to keep you playing. Combine this with slick combat and a surprisingly layered story, and the end result is absolutely staggering.
BioShock Infinite was developed by Irrational Games and published by 2K Games. A PC copy was purchased by the editor for reviewing purposes.