Replay Value: 9.5
Heading into the release of Bioshock Infinite, I had my reservations. The game had been delayed a few times, there were plenty of documented internal shake-ups at developer Irrational Games, and the current industry trend of speeding up and dumbing down was concerning. Dead Space 3 and Crysis 3 both suffered from the latter issue, by the way. I still had faith in Irrational boss Ken Levine and I still loved Bioshock. But what if…? Oh, it was just too depressing to consider but given the evidence, I had to consider.
Thankfully, blissfully, my reservations were not justified. Bioshock Infinite is one of the best games you will ever play, this generation or any other generation. Those who know me – and know that I haven’t even handed out a 9 or higher in 2013 until now – understand the importance of that statement.
Although it’s true that a monster PC will provide you with the single most amazing view of the expansive, colorful, ingeniously designed city of Columbia, the console version remains spectacular. Previous entries in the series didn’t have this much richness, detail or depth of hue and shade. The design is absolutely second-to-none and the character creation for allies, NPCs and enemies is some of the most accomplished I’ve ever seen. The scope and breadth of your environment always takes your breath away and this compelling virtual world is always, always enlivening and invigorating. It’s just a wonderfully fantastical vision.
The audio is excellent as well, as we’re continually treated to crisp, resounding special effects, a diverse and beautifully implemented score, and top-tier voice performances. Bioshock has always thrived on atmosphere and ambiance and the latest iteration is certainly no exception, as the combination of the highly detailed visual presentation and amazing sound orchestration leads to a heady experience. The sounds of a diseased city are intoxicating. The voices, the background effects, the horrific sounds generated by particularly intimidating foes; it’s all amazing. Super high production values the whole way ‘round and my only caveat is a very minor audio balancing issue.
You play as Booker, who at the start of his harrowing yet singular adventure is fired straight up into the sky, where he arrives at Columbia. The setting is 1912 but as fans of the series know, the themes involve a sort of futuristic past; i.e., it’s based on a very slanted, dystopian piece of American history. Obviously, this is why we have a metropolis floating among the clouds in the year 1912, where you see the Columbian flag flying everywhere, along with architectural and environmental examples of the United States around the turn of the 20th century. And clearly, despite the technological advances, all is not well in what was once an ideal world.
Racial tensions have erupted as those whose skin is not of the “correct” color are shunned and even enslaved by the control-oriented government. But that’s hardly the only difficult and controversial topic you will encounter in this politically charged game. There are mystical and even philosophical puzzles to figure out, such as the brand on Booker’s hand. This brand doesn’t go over well in Columbia, as it’s believed to be the mark of the false messiah. Hence, right from the start, you are not welcome in the city, and you’re immediately labeled a menace to good society. Your only option is to run but again, that’s only the surface of this multilayered storyline.
For instance, while you start your adventure on the run, you reasonably begin to experience that which all ostracized individuals begin to feel: You start to get sick and tired of running and you begin to harbor ideas that center on vengeance. But isn’t that merely lowering yourself to the level of your oppressors? It’s yet another intriguing literary branch that keeps you thinking and immersed throughout the entirety of this extremely well-told story. It doesn’t help that Father Comstock, a total religious nut and self-proclaimed prophet, runs the show. If Comstock reminds franchise followers of Rapture’s Andrew Ryan, that’s because the two antagonists are similar.
Then things get even more interesting when you happen upon your AI partner for the game, the much-publicized Elizabeth. She has otherworldly abilities and she begins to develop a complicated relationship with Booker, who she assists in a variety of ways. In addition to prompting questions about the main character, Elizabeth generates a whole new slew of questions: What’s the deal with her ability to open up rips in the space-time continuum? What are we looking at when she does that? The mystery surrounding Elizabeth is great, as is her appreciated assistance. Don’t think for a second this feels like “Adventures in Babysitting,” because that’s really not accurate. And thank God for that because I loathe babysitting in games.
Technically, this game is a first-person shooter that features role-playing elements. And granted, I will say that Bioshock Infinite moves faster and features more all-out firefights than either of the previous two entries, and that could be an example of “faster and dumber.” I have to wonder if that is indeed why such sequences exist in greater number. That being said, they’re so ridiculously well done and the combat is always so enticing that you really don’t care. You only care about succeeding by experimenting with your increasingly bad-ass powers called Vigors. These are essentially the Plasmids of the past and they’re the equivalent of magic skills.
Electricity is always fun, as it can weaken enemies and even allow you to charge into them at supernatural speed. But as you might expect, given the variety of Vigors available, combining these crazy abilities is the crux of the gameplay’s depth. It’s just so satisfying to combine two of your favorite Vigor skills and watch the ensuing fallout on the battlefield. Speaking of the battlefield and the surrounding environment, you often travel by way of the Skyline railway system that connects most of Columbia. Using a hook to fly along those rails sounds potentially problematic but in truth, this is a beautifully implemented mechanic and lots of fun to boot.
Elizabeth plays a very large role. She can help out by giving you a health pack, or she can access those space-time rips and grab hovering security turrets. It works really well and as I said above, Elizabeth isn’t one of those annoying partners that gets underfoot all the time. In fact, she’s almost never in the way; she directs you, unlocks doors, and can be extremely helpful during tense combat situations. You definitely need her, too, because when you die, she revives you. But unlike most games where there is virtually no penalty for death, you definitely don’t want to die often here. When you do, enemies get a little health back and you lose some money.
The control is almost perfect and there are only a few small snafus to talk about. I have yet to see the flawless AI partner system, for instance. This is about as close as we’re going to get (before the next generation gets here, anyway) and that’s amazingly impressive, but it isn’t perfect. It is actually possible to accidentally leave Elizabeth behind during certain situations, which can cause problems. But I think you really have to try to do this; it only happened when I was going out of my way to try to break the game. It’s just one of those things most critics do, you know. Using the Skyline isn’t 100%, either, as jumping off and leaping on doesn’t always feel exactly right. I also think it's just a tad overdone.
One of the best parts of Bioshock has always been the diligence with which you must tackle these quests. You have to patiently scavenge corpses for money and items because nothing is especially cheap. You also have to make crucial decisions concerning the advancement of your character; you may regret acting rashly toward the end of the game. And because of this, this production resists the “faster and dumber” trend. Think about it— There may be more action-packed segments but you still have to approach the entire adventure with the same tact, strategy and attention you did before. Running and gunning is a bad idea and that’s good.
It’s your environment that will grab you from the outset and never let go. The story works to keep you emotionally invested in the unfolding of the narrative, and the evolving bond between Booker and Elizabeth is a great addition to the main plot. No matter where you go or what you do, you’re amazed at your dystopian surroundings. Good games keep you coming back for more, but truly elite titles make you dream about your actions in these highly involving and believable worlds. You don’t just play them for the sake of playing; you play them because they touch most every important aspect of entertainment, from the visual to the auditory to the literary.
Bioshock Infinite is an immensely creative triumph. At various times during this adventure, you will experience completely different emotions and you will face distinctly different situations. In addition to this fantastic variety and diversity, you get a story that is mysterious and satisfying on all counts. Factor in rock solid control, unbelievable design from top to bottom, the joy of powerful experimentation, and an unparalleled atmosphere, and you’ve got one mammoth achievement. The AI isn’t entirely perfect and the Skyline system doesn’t always work flawlessly but these are minor complaints. If you haven’t already guessed— Play it. Now. Not later…now.
The Good: Highly detailed, very alluring visual presentation. Great effects and voice acting. Overall, a beautiful, amazingly immersive atmosphere. Top-notch control. Excellent story and pacing. Awesome powers encourage you to experiment. AI ally is possibly the best ever. The spiritual core of Bioshock is maintained.
The Bad: Skyline control isn’t perfect. A few very minor miscues.
The Ugly: “This game is so ridiculously mind-blowing, the word ‘ugly’ ceases to exist.”