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BioShock Infinite (PC) artwork

BioShock Infinite (PC) review

"I'm used to BioShock games tucking their most important characters away in other rooms, so seeing Irrational put so much effort into someone who's at the very forefront from the get-go works wonders to make me feel more connected to the story's happenings. Booker may be the hero, and he's no slacker in the character development field himself, but Infinite is Elizabeth's show."

BioShock Infinite asset

One of my deep, dark secrets as a video game critic is that I was never overly fond of the first two BioShock games. They're absolutely the industry standard for production design, I'll grant you, but it always felt to me as if that was their only purpose. Even the admittedly dazzling setting, the underwater city of Rapture, underlined the enclosed, showroom-like nature of the series, with the games' most magnificent sights always separated from the player by a thick wall of glass. Look, but don't touch. And then look several more times as you run back and forth on arbitrary fetch quests.

I don't know how fans are reacting to BioShock Infinite. Perhaps its new setting, streamlined combat and boldly abstruse story aren't to their liking (though, considering how much hostility the last game got simply for rehashing the same formula, that would make for a mighty double standard). What I do know is that this is the BioShock game I've always wanted to play, a swift, beautiful shooter that engages me in ways no other medium could.

It opens, rather cheekily, with a sequence that mirrors the original BioShocks's intro in a number of ways. You're in the middle of the ocean with very little knowledge of your character's motivations, you come across a mysterious lighthouse, and you're taken, via a small vessel, to a dystopian land hidden from the outside world. This time, however, instead of being plunged into the ocean, you're launched into the sky and touch down on the flying city of Columbia. While its residents are arguably every bit as sinister as Andrew Ryan's Splicers, they're driven not by insanity, but by something arguably even scarier: religious fanaticism, all at the command of a enigmatic figure named Father Comstock.

Infinite certainly has a lot to say about how much power one man can wield with nothing more than charisma, and its social commentary stretches far beyond that, but that's all for later. Booker DeWitt the first BioShock protagonist to talk, and man does he talk a lot is here on one simple instruction: "Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt." After being baptized, forced to humiliate a pair of minorities at a town fair and then being labeled a "false shepherd" by Comstock himself, Booker climbs a tower and finds the girl in question. Her name is Elizabeth.

BioShock Infinite asset

Let me tell you about Elizabeth. She is the best supporting character in a video game since a young lady in a leather jacket pulled you from the rooftops of City 17. Animated to perfection and voiced enthusiastically by Courtnee Draper, Elizabeth is fascinating, energetic and an integral component of both the story and the design. All of Infinite's most interesting driving points relate to Elizabeth: her fear of Comstock, her growing affection for Booker despite his ulterior motives, her desire to see the outside world, and her bizarre relationship with the terrifying creature that protects her. I'm used to BioShock games tucking their most important characters away in other rooms, so seeing Irrational put so much effort into someone who's at the very forefront from the get-go works wonders to make me feel more connected to the story's happenings. Booker may be the hero, and he's no slacker in the character development field himself, but Infinite is Elizabeth's show.

She's also one of the few video game sidekicks who's never a liability, as the game flat-out tells you that Elizabeth can take care of herself, and that you don't need to worry about protecting her. Irrational avoided the lazy choice of simply making her an extra gun, too. While you're busy mowing down Comstock's Founders and the other groups that want you dead Columbia is at war with itself, by the way Elizabeth scrounges around for extra ammo and health kits that she tosses to you in the heat of battle. She also has the unique ability to open "tears," making objects from other realities appear out of thin air. This adds a degree of unpredictability to each encounter, and the fact that she can only open one tear at a time balances things nicely. I once summoned a gun turret behind a line of enemy soldiers only to realize I'd just removed the cover I was using, forcing me to hoof it in a panic.

For a while, Elizabeth's power is simply a neat little combat novelty. Then it starts to play into the plot. That's where things get weird. And that's where I stop talking.

What I will say is that BioShock's reputation for stellar production values has lent the team at Irrational a detail-obsessed mindset, and that one of their most effective decisions to date is to infuse bafflingly contemporary pop songs into Infinite's 1912 setting. Hearing a beggar woman on the streets of a war-torn shanty town singing a gospel version of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son" will be remembered, at least by me, as one of the most poignant and unsettling moments in any video game this year. Even before the game's science fiction elements are blatantly thrust into play, it's easy to tell that there's something wrong with this place beyond what's on the surface. As the story goes more and more off the rails, you have to trust Irrational to know where they're going with this. As far as I'm concerned, they did. Let's just say that it's a good thing the credits are so long, as Infinite's jaw-dropping, exposition-heavy and absolutely daft conclusion will give you a lot to process. There won't be a lot of middle ground here; either you'll bite or you won't. Personally, I was absolutely floored.

BioShock Infinite asset

I think the plot's detractors and there'll be plenty of them will mark down Infinite's fast-moving second half for a lack of focus. I disagree, but I will say that the game's attempts to address more issues than its predecessors and in a more straightforward manner may be too much for some people. Religious zealotry, racism, nationalism, the idea of an extremist solution to an extremist problem being every bit as malevolent... Infinite brings up some very uncomfortable topics and often hurries players along before they have time to fully parse what they've been shown.

Make no mistake: Infinite is zippier than its predecessors, and I wouldn't call that a bad thing. I mentioned earlier that one of my bigger issues with the first two BioShock games was their meandering style of level design, as even the prettiest environments lose their luster when you're forced to trek back and forth across them ad nauseum. Infinite isn't completely absolved of this wait till you see the degree of fetch-questing it takes just to get the gate to Comstock's house open but for the most part, the game, in stark contrast to the last two, moves like a bolt of lightning. Yet at the same time, it's still distinctly a BioShock game, with players afforded plenty of opportunity to break free of restraints and soak in the atmosphere. Some of the juiciest tidbits of information are hidden away on audio logs and in places where players have to actually go looking for them. Your enjoyment and understanding of the story may very well depend on how much you're willing to invest in it.

If there's a flaw in Infinite's presentation, it's only comparative. There's a reason they had to stick a generic-looking brown-haired fellow on the cover, and it's because, for as gorgeous as Infinite is, it's also somewhat bereft of imagery as iconic as the menacing Big Daddies. Their replacements, the new Handymen, are certainly thrilling to fight, but they're also somewhat silly-looking and have no real reason to exist other than to give us something big and powerful to shoot at. The narrow focus in Rapture's visual style is something I'm willing to sacrifice, however, in the name of narrative immediacy, character development and genuine spectacle, all of which Infinite offers in plentiful supply.

BioShock Infinite asset

I think I've made my point that Infinite is story-driven in the best way possible, but it still leaves the question of whether or not, as a first-person shooter, it's any fun to play. Well, its predecessors didn't reinvent the wheel in that regard and this one doesn't, either, but its emphasis on large-scale scenarios and the new limitations on combat a shield system, the two-weapon inventory, a sharp reduction of the series' RPG elements had me seeking out unconventional tactics far more often, either through Booker's telekinetic powers or Elizabeth's tear abilities. I was prepared to criticize the game for still not issuing harsh enough penalties for death, but then I can't deny that I was always on the edge of my seat whenever a Handyman was shaking the screen. Infinite may not be terribly deep, but it sure is intense.

If I can bestow Infinite with any other praise, it's that Columbia feels so much more organic than Rapture ever did. One of the inherent problems with setting a game in an underwater city is that you're essentially building a set of rooms with giant display cases. The flying city of Columbia, on the other hand, not only gives you a tremendous amount of breathing room, but it opens the doors for new levels of exploration and travel via a grappling hook that allows Booker to swing from hooks and zip about on skylines. Infinite's newfound focus on platforming and three-dimensionality makes it very difficult to imagine ever playing another BioShock game in another setting, and that's what a great sequel should do: make its predecessors look like practice runs.

That really is what Infinite does. BioShock was already held by many as the golden standard for interactive storytelling, and that the folks at Irrational have managed to trump themselves on nearly every level with stunning vistas, an intellectually stimulating narrative and a supporting character comparable to Alyx Vance and Princess Farah speaks volumes for the potential of both the franchise and the industry as a whole. Infinite is not only a fine game, but one of the new poster children for the medium's artistic values. I don't retract what I've said about the first two titles, but it's a relief that the BioShock name finally inspires in me the same sense of awestruck wonder that it has bestowed upon nearly everyone else for all these years.

Suskie's avatar
Freelance review by Mike Suskie (March 29, 2013)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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