Review: BioShock Infinite

Developer: Irrational Games | Year: 2013 | List Price: $19.99 | Buy from Amazon

cover_close-upDESIGN03I discovered last week during a Humble Bundle sale that, once upgraded to OS X Mountain Lion, my Mac almost exactly meets the minimum requirements to play BioShock Infinite. So I got it, but I was half-expecting it to crash and burn halfway through my adventure. It didn’t, and after 7 hours of running around Columbia (over 3 sittings), the adventure is over and the questions have all been (sort of) answered. Note: I’ve played BioShock, but not BioShock 2 (yet), so I can’t compare Infinite to the latter, but will certainly be comparing it to the original BioShock.

BioShock Infinite is the latest (and most likely the last) installment in the BioShock series (see my review of the first one here). The series is generally known for its interesting characters, creative setting, and plot twists. Infinite differs from the first two games in that you won’t be exploring Rapture, the underwater city; instead, this adventure is set in Columbia, a city that floats in the sky. Gone are the manic splicers of BioShock as well. You’ll be fighting the nationalistic religious zealot that run Columbia instead. BioShock Infinite looks alarmingly different when compared with the other BioShock games, but underneath the surface is the same BioShock formula. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, what BioShock Infinite does best is how it references the first game. I can’t go too deep into these parallels without spoiling the plot, but let’s just say Columbia and Rapture aren’t as different as they may seem at first.

A common complaint about Infinite is that it plays rather too much like a shooter. I am fully of this opinion. Unlike in the original BioShock, most of your enemies now have guns, meaning you can’t rush using only powers and melee like you could in the first game. Also, there’s a ton of enemies in some scenes, and unlike the tight corridors of Rapture, there’re huge environments to deal with in Columbia. This means you really need to use your guns a lot more. Infinite also adds regenerating shields and near-unlimited ammo in the form of Elizabeth (whom I’ll address later on), meaning the run-and-gun strategy is much more effective here. I played the original BioShock on Easy, because I wasn’t too familiar with the powers and weapons, and I stuck Infinite on Easy as well just because I was looking for the story. However, this time, I really felt like I’d’ve been fine on Normal. Easy was a lot easier than the original game’s Easy, and I never had to switch weapon or vigor once I found one I liked. I literally used the machine gun and ‘Murder of Crows’ vigor for 90% of the game, while the original BioShock, even on Easy, forced you to cycle through different weapons for different situations.

BioShock Infinite does switch between being really easy and hard though. This is because when Elizabeth is following you, she randomly tosses you health, salts, and ammo, making combat a breeze. When she isn’t there, ammo and healing is much more scarce, due to the fact that vending machines and enemy health and ammo drops seem to less common. Also, you can’t stock up on health kits like you used to be able to. This makes Infinite a lot more like a shooter, losing a lot of the strategy and tactic of the original. One thing I definitely appreciated is the ability to use iron-sights with the left trigger. As for the new powers, called ‘vigors’ instead of ‘plasmids’, they’re generally just as creative, but it’s not as imperative you use them anymore, since enemies generally stay away from you and it’s simply easier to just pick them off with your gun. Finally, there’s the addition of ‘skylines’ which’re like roller-coaster tracks you can use to move around and to attack in cool ways. I personally found them a little disorienting, though pulling off skyline strikes was strangely satisfying.

On to the story, which is the main reason you should play BioShock Infinite. If you’ve played the original, you already sort of know what to expect. You’re dropped into the world without much explanation as to what you’re doing or why you’re there, but soon pick up on backstory as you go and eventually find out the implications of all the events around you. The plot twist is, in my opinion, even better than the original BioShock’s and the characters, while not as unique, perhaps, as the citizens of Rapture, are effective thanks to great voice-acting and writing. Of particular interest is the Lutece twins, a mysterious duo of scientists who follow you around and always seem out of place wherever they go but who are responsible for some of the most witty banter I’ve ever heard in a video game.

The conversations between the player character, Booker, and Elizabeth, the mysterious girl he rescues, are also extremely entertaining. Their constant back-and-forth risks threatening the lonely, eerie BioShock feel at times, but the reward is some of the best characterisation in a game I’ve ever played. Thanks to excellent voice work from Courtnee Draper and Troy Baker, Elizabeth is remarkably un-annoying for someone you’ll hear talk throughout, and Booker is one of the coolest protagonists in gaming history. BioShock Infinite’s story is a very personal one, and this works in its favour, delivering one of the best videogame ending sequences in a while.

It’d be a travesty to talk about BioShock Infinite without mentioning its soundtrack, because it’s absolutely superb. The anachronistic music really fits in with the overall tone of the world, especially since it actually plays a part in the story. Though the game is set in 1912, you’ll hear the likes of ‘God Only Knows’ by the Beach Boys and ‘Girls Just Want To Have Fun’ arranged as if they were composed at the time. The choral work is also really great at some key points in the narrative. There’s just so much to hear if you pay attention to your surroundings, adding to the overall charm of Columbia, and the anachronism of the music adds to the intrigue of the setting.

I wasn’t really sure what to think going into Infinite. In fact, I rather disliked the game for most of it, because the original game was just so good! But all that changed when I saw the ending. Of course, I’d been steeling myself for it and I couldn’t see how it could surpass BioShock’s bombshell, but I really feel it did, and it put the entire rest of the game in a whole new light. I’m actually excited to revisit parts of the game to see if I can pick up on foreshadowing (and maybe try a harder difficulty level!) BioShock Infinite is truly a special game, and is the kind of game to show to a non-gamer when you’re trying to explain what games can do from a narrative standpoint.

Design: 10/10 Much like Rapture, Columbia a really colourful and intriguing setting to explore. It captures the staples of turn-of-the-century America while still adding the creativity BioShock games are known for. The story is one of the best-told in recent gaming memory, with a twist that’ll surprise even the most eagle-eyed.

Visuals: 9/10 BioShock Infinite uses the same rounded, cartoonish art style of the other games of the franchise, which makes the game look great even if the graphics aren’t the most realistic around. The use of light works well, giving the game an almost deceptive optimistic feel.

Sound: 10/10 The sheer variety of old-timey tracks you’ll hear merits praise, but what’s even better is that you may have to stray off the beaten path to find some of them, since they’re usually played by in-game objects. Voice acting is excellent, with standout performances from Troy Baker and Courtnee Draper.

Gameplay: 7/10 If there’s one place BioShock Infinite fails, it’s here. The shooting mechanics are solid, but nothing’s outstanding. The vigors don’t add much to the precedent set by BioShock’s plasmids, and battles feel too frantic at times. Also difficulty doesn’t work in a neat curve, instead it has peaks and valleys. Also skylines are rather love-or-hate, as they offer cool opportunities for combat, but are a little unwieldy and disorienting.

Value: 9/10 BioShock Infinite is rather short, but it also has one of the most satisfying stories I’ve ever seen in a game. I beat the game in only 7 hours, but I also rushed a lot and played on Easy. There’s not a whole lot of replayability, unless you want to collect the 80+ voxophones that really flesh out the story. And the game is only $10 or so used or on sale, so I’d say it’s a must play!

Total: 45/50 (A)

List Price: $19.99 | Buy from Amazon

I’ve now got a hankering to play BioShock 2, which I’d skipped, as well as the Burial At Sea DLC for Infinite. I’ll get those in a heartbeat if they ever go on sale. Right now I’m biding my time in anticipation of Shovel Knight‘s Vita release, whereupon I’ll play the game yet again (I already own the 3DS and PC/Mac versions) and collect some trophies!

Until then, check out the rest of our video game stuff here, and see an always-up-to-date ranking of my favourite computer games of all time!

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