As soon as the credits started rolling at the end of BioShock Infinite, I scooped my jaw up from the floor and jumped on my laptop to start emailing my co-workers here at PSU. Just about everyone on our team was already knee deep in the story, and while I was careful not to spoil anything, I couldn’t keep my excitement quiet any longer. I think I jokingly cursed the development team for making a game that was "so damn incredible."
Nothing prepared me, however, for what I would experience in the finale. I promise not to spoil anything in this review–I won’t even come close, promise–but I still can’t wrap my head around that ending. It will likely go down as one of those controversial finales with some believing it was wretched and others claiming brilliance. And still others–like me–will think it was great, but it was brought together with the familiar "God did it" explanation. No, the explanation is not God did it, it’s just an example of how storytellers sometimes force rationale of things that didn’t really make sense earlier by offering an even more contrived explanation at the end.
Getting us to think hard about the stories in our games is an accomplishment, and if that’s how we judge success, BioShock Infinite knocks it out of the park. But my real words of praise for this expansive and epic title is that it’s the only game I’ve reviewed (now more than 100) that both left me incredibly satisfied but instantly wanting more content, DLC, or anything to bring me back to that city in the sky.
That rush from the ending was only one small feeling that BioShock Infinite created. At the beginning that city in the sky left me in awe and wonder. By the end I was terrified by the corruption of man and society’s contortion of religion and God. I was angry when reminded of the intense and pervasive racism in the early 1900s in America. I was euphoric exploring the city, basking in the game’s vibrant palette and brilliant, warm lighting. I was mesmerized by the vast details used to create a sense of place.
Irrational Games put so much love and care into Columbia that its efforts bleed out of every location and section of the city, propaganda poster, snippet of historic video, drop of confetti, and phrase of dialogue from the city’s residents. All of this is only a taste of what I experienced playing BioShock Infinite. Every gamer will experience something slightly different, and that only adds to the magic enclosed in that little game disc.
Regardless of what the game makes you think or feel, you’ll experience it through the eyes of Booker DeWitt. He is an investigator with a slightly shady background. To clear up his debt, he must travel to the floating city and bring back a woman named Elizabeth. Once on Columbia, you are greeted with one of the most breathtaking, most awe-inspiring opening in gaming history. Soft white light elegantly shines through colored stained glass while white-robed men gently smile as they greet you.
You quickly learn Columbia is beautiful on the outside, but disgustingly ugly only slightly deeper. It’s a "white" city in every sense of the word. From the towering marble statues of Father Comstock–a religious prophet and city leader–to the population of residents so white they seem to haunt the streets, Columbia is a clean white city. It’s also founded on racism and anyone not fitting that pure white background is demonized, enslaved, tortured, or killed. Columbia is founded on the idea that America simply wasn’t America enough and so it left the country’s jurisdiction.
If you played the original BioShock, you know exactly what to expect from Infinite: an extremely rich atmosphere, fun and easy-to-learn combat, plenty of places to loot weapons and ammo, clever superpowers, interesting characters, and a twisting plot with more holes than a slice of Swiss cheese.
By rescuing Elizabeth, helping her escape from her towering cell, exploring the beaches and streets of Columbia, and ultimately fleeing the mysteriously floating steampunk city, you embark on the ultimate escort quest. Elizabeth is the quintessential victim in BioShock Infinite. Early on she hopelessly plays the damsel in distress, but as she gains confidence she helps Booker by opening locked doors or chests, tossing him ammo or health packs in the heat of a battle, and opening tears to a mysterious world (or worlds? or different times?).
She rarely gets in the way. On a few occasions, she refused to follow me as I entered an elevator. Upon pushing the button in the elevator to leave, she instantly appeared at my side for an important storytelling moment. These flaws where Elizabeth doesn’t keep up or refuses to follow you are extremely rare, but it’s jarring when it happens because the game is otherwise extremely smooth and precise. Elizabeth does a brilliant job of staying out of your way, too. During combat she always finds a place to hide and you are never responsible for defending her.
Throughout the campaign, Elizabeth, and your relationship with her, evolve and transform. This evolution has direct impact on both gameplay and the story. You truly realize how valuable she is during the few situations where Elizabeth is not at your side.
Exploring the city and helping Elizabeth flee her captors is your ultimate mission, but during the process you’ll twist and turn through the city’s underbelly and even engage in a revolution. You’ll see the slums caused by racism and you’ll uncover more of Elizabeth’s mysterious past and her seemingly magical powers.
BioShock Infinite begs you to explore its beautiful city and well crafted levels. You’ll see shops gently floating through the sky, eventually linking with other floating plazas to allow patrons to buy fruits or toys. If Rapture in BioShock allowed players to explore its claustrophobic pipes and tight levels, Columbia in Infinite gives players a more open world before its ultimate fall from grace.
The idea of space is prevalent throughout the game, especially in combat. Battlefields are large with plenty of room for players to decide how to approach each situation. The enemy A.I. isn’t anything special–in fact, it’s probably one of the weaker parts of the game–but you have plenty of options at your disposal. For example, you can ask Elizabeth to create tears to reveal a strategic advantage–health pacs, weapons, cover, and most useful, turrets. It all works really well and since Elizabeth can only create one tear at a time, you have to be careful about how you approach each battle. It feels a little out of place that she can randomly creates weapons and such. If you enter a new area and see these tears, it’s pretty clear you’ll have battle there–if not right away, then eventually.
Just like the original BioShock, Infinite gives players the chance to acquire unique abilities through Vigors. Vigors are equivalent to BioShock’s Plasmids. You grab these abilities by drinking gorgeously crafted bottles filled with Vigors that grant different abilities. They may allow you to charge into enemies, knocking them back. Or, they may allow you to shoot crows at enemies, ripping their faces to shreds. All the Vigors have at least two variations depending on how long you hold and press the button. You can toss a fire-like grenade or hold the button to create something more like a fiery trap. There are a ton of combinations, too. One of my favorite things to do was to drop a crow’s nest, and once the murder of crows attacks the enemies, I shoot some fire at the whole mess to create some flaming birds. Killer!
Weapons stay relatively true to the story’s era. You can equip pistols, shotguns, machine guns, grenade launchers, and other similar weapons. If you are anything like me, you’ll figure out your favorite weapons and upgrade them accordingly. Similar to BioShock, you can upgrade your weapons and Vigors at vending machines. It costs plenty of cash so be sure to explore every little nook and cranny of each level to find as much money as possible. You will scavenge for ammo, health pacs, and salts (which replenish your Vigor abilities) during battles, and Elizabeth will frequently toss you goodies during battles. By the second half of the game I pretty much stuck to a few Vigor abilities coupled with a shotgun and machine gun.
Combat is made more interesting through Columbia’s skyline rail system. Early on in the game you grab this hook that serves you both during melee combat and riding the skyline. It’s magnetic so you can easily grab onto the rails and ride it like an inverted rollercoaster. It’s a blast to use the rails to escape a barrage of gun fire, drop onto Comstock’s gunships, dismantle those enemies, and ride the rails back to deal with more baddies. There were a few times that I couldn’t quite grab the rail when I needed, which ultimately led to my death. Luckily you never really die as Elizabeth finds a way to revive you for a small coin penalty. Once you get the hang of riding the skyline rails, it’s a joy to explore the city from the air and even more fun to leap onto enemies and dismantle them in one blow.
The enemies are fairly varied and some definitely offer a challenge. The mechanical George Washington enemies serve up quite the punch and clever players should look for their weak spots instead of wasting mounds of ammo to barely penetrate their metal exterior. Other enemies are equipped with the same Vigors as Booker and strategy again is key. Use one of your Vigors to tame a mechanical Washington and make him your ally. He’ll turn against other enemies like the baddies that hide behind cover while spraying RPGs in your face. There is a strategy to every battle.
Combat and gameplay are almost icing on the cake for BioShock Infinite. That may sound odd since this is a videogame after all. It is a fun experience, but you may not notice how much fun you are having if you are deeply engaged in the story and atmosphere. It is a shame then that there are a few plot holes really stand out and the ending–as incredible as it is–only adds more confusion.
BioShock Infinite didn’t have the same impact on me as the original BioShock. That is, perhaps, to be expected for a sequel–especially a sequel that stands nearly completely on its own. However, BioShock Infinite is one of the only truly complete gaming experiences. It hits every beat just right and left me actually caring about the characters, intrigued by the mysterious city, and perplexed by the convoluted story. I can’t wait to revisit Columbia and, more importantly, talk with someone about the ending and all those important plot points. You will too once you experience the epic adventure in BioShock Infinite.