It is fitting that BioShock Infinite‘s development story up to this point has been if nothing else, a question to gamers worldwide. The Irrational darling has been through its fair share of turmoil as its numerous delays and goodbyes got tallied up on an almost monthly basis. On top of that, expectations for the next entry in one of gaming’s greats are higher than Columbia itself. It wouldn’t be the first time the gaming world would have seen a fractured development cycle tarnish something destined for greatness. This is not the case with BioShock Infinite. Irrational’s newest hit manages to smash all expectations thrown before it, featuring a varied, fleshed out cast of characters on top of some truly unique gameplay, and more depth than I’ve seen in most media, much less video games.
“Bring us the girl, and wipe away the debt.” This simple sentence is the foundation for BioShock Infinite. Your job appears simple enough, but once you’re dropped off to a familiar location, things get crazy in that special BioShock way. You, Booker DeWitt, are sent off to Columbia, a city in the sky that represents the ideals of religious zealot Zachary Comstock. On the surface, Columbia appears to be a living, breathing paradise. However, very soon after Booker’s arrival, the seedy underbelly of capitalism gone awry and extremism shows its ugly face. By the endgame, the player definitely have a greater understanding for even the littlest touches of the early narrative, as the city will quickly begin to fall into turmoil just as Booker starts peering around.
The narrative of BioShock Infinite surpasses that of almost any game I’ve ever played. Where Mass Effect excelled at opening up an entire galaxy of things to learn and people to meet, Infinite does the same within the confines of Columbia, which is a remarkable feat. The main narrative goes along at a decent pace, but you can’t get the most out of BioShock Infinite unless you are completely immersed in the world. Finding Columbias secrets was one of the most eye-opening and fascinating portions of the plot. Just when you think you’ve figured everything out, your perception of the game is completely turned upside-down, and by the end, you’ll be scratching your head and asking more questions than ever before. Not enough video games make gamers think as long and as hard as BioShock Infinite dares to do, and hopefully this trend will continue into the next generation of games.
While the narrative pushes onward, something else BioShock Infinite excels at is the gameplay. Early in the game, Booker receives the sky-hook, an essential piece of Columbian technology that lets him traverse the sky-rails of the city, while also letting him carve and bludgeon enemies to death. Utilizing the sky-rails is crucial for some of the late-game combat, and is more fun and refreshing than many modern shooters claim to be. The game features a somewhat limited variety of weapons, but you’ll find a nice rhythm going as you start putting magnums and shotguns in Booker’s arsenal.
Infinite’s gameplay is a huge change of pace from the claustrophobic and dreary combat that we’ve seen from the likes of Rapture, but BioShock Infinite definitely ups the ante in the open environments of Columbia. Shooting up baddies is fine and dandy, but the real meat of the gameplay comes in the form of vigors, the plasmid stand-in. Like in the original BioShock, combining these powers with the various amounts of weaponry makes for devastating outcomes, but collecting bottles to increase Booker’s vigor gauges are important for survival, as the game starts him off with very little. I tended to stick with Charge and Shock Jockey, but whether you stick with a certain pair is entirely up to how you like to play.
As BioShock Infinite pushes forward, the story is filled with so many racial and social epitaphs. Booker doesn’t have to stray far from his path very far to find the sub-human conditions Columbia forces among the “unworthy” (think non-American and non-white). The decision to give Booker his own story and personality in comparison to the original BioShock is a bold one, but definitely works in the game’s favor. There really hasn’t been quite a dynamic in video games as the duo of Booker and Elizabeth. Unlike most video games, where NPC’s are usually seen as a hinderance, Elizabeth is both essential to the gameplay and plot. Elizabeth is able to rip holes in the fabric of the universe, and while you’ll see the plot consequences of these actions, the combat aspects of her psychic prowess are the antithesis of traditional damsels in distress. This Disney-like quality of Elizabeth makes her one of the most unique heroines in video games to date. The intriguing characters don’t end with Elizabeth, either. BioShock Infinite is filled to the brim with unique characters with even crazier ambitions than Booker himself.
Columbia has so much to discover. From the hidden rooms of the oppressed minorities to the dozens upon dozens of audio logs, understanding BioShock Infinite at a more concrete level pretty much requires the player to poke around in some unsavory places. Every turn made is another beautiful aspect of Columbia just aching to be explored, and turns this nine hour rushed experience into an endlessly replayable scavenger hunt that clocks in around thirteen hours. And if Hard difficulty isn’t quite hard enough, beating the game (or entering the Konami Code at the main menu) unlocks ’1999 Mode’. The mode cranks the difficulty up another notch by making the reliance on money a larger factor. Also there’s no more magic green arrow to light your way, so you’ll have to trust your gut – just like you had to do in 1999 in a little game called System Shock 2.
A forgotten, but crucial aspect of BioShock Infinite is the amount of polish clearly seen throughout. Sure, many video games play and look good, great, and occasionally spectacular, but BioShock Infinite puts many other games to shame by fine-tuning every aspect of its story, gameplay, and aesthetic to a point where it is one of the strongest titles of this elongated game generation. There are some little things that could have been added, like a New Game+ mode. I get why it can’t happen, as major checkpoints in the game depend on some of the vigors Booker picks up at certain parts of the game. The subtraction of multiplayer is appreciated, as AAA games could definitely benefit from a larger focus on story and narrative.
It’s cliche to call video game worlds ‘living’ and ‘breathing’, but Irrational has come the closest to fully realizing gaming’s biggest pipe dream. Casting a light on some of America’s darkest ideals is risky business, but ultimately showcases the dangers of extremism in a way the original BioShock simply could not. Where Irrational goes from here is beyond anyone’s imagination, but they’ve set the bar sky high (had to say it) with BioShock Infinite.