Game Review: Bioshock: Infinite

Bioshock Infinite, Cover ArtReviewed on Playstation 3, Official Website

Rated “M” for Mature

A spiritual follow-up to 2007’s critical darling Bioshock, this first person shooter replaces the story of the original while maintaining many of its gameplay mechanics and flair for drama.  As usual, I will keep story spoilers to an absolute minimum.

Also as usual, I’m late to the table for this one. Of course the minor pride I felt in saving money at the bargain bin was tempered when, less than a week later, it was announced as a free title on PlayStation Plus. Honestly, if you own a PlayStation console and have still not subscribed to Plus, you’re absolutely insane. My only complaint with the service is that they keep giving away insanely great titles moments after I buy them.

Where Bioshock, set in 1960 in the underwater city of Rapture, was constructed around Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy, “Infinite”, set in 1912 and in the flying city of Columbia, explores themes of American Exceptionalism. The alternate reality presented mines events like the Civil War, the Wounded Knee Massacre and the Chinese Boxer Rebellion as inspiration.

A Bit of Religious Hypocrisy

Before entering Columbia proper, at the very beginning of the story, the game forces Booker to accept a baptism into the religion of Columbia. In context of the story this makes perfect sense. The people that run Columbia are absolutely certain of their own divinity and moral certainty. Only they know the truth and they’re not interested in anybody that doesn’t agree with them. More broadly the game deeply examines themes of sin, redemption and rebirth and baptism features strongly as a metaphor for these things.

However some people, reportedly, were so upset at this that they demanded their money back. It was, they claimed, an affront to their faith to be forced to accept this fictional, digital baptism. They couldn’t in good conscious accept it and move on to all of the violence and willful bloodshed that they were promised.

The game does not force the player to be baptized. It forces the character of Booker DeWitt to be baptized. Nearly all games ask the player to direct take on the role of a character and this one is no different. Your personal beliefs may color the choices you make within the parameters of the game, but they then become the character’s choices, not yours.

More to the point: baptism is a deal breaker in a first person shooter? Booker is a rogue. He steals from any container he can open, he lies to suit his needs and he drink to excess. That’s at least three or four of the commandments broken right there. He also murders literally hundreds of people.

I would support anybody that elected not to play a game because it violated some deeply held belief, religious or not. Claiming that pushing the “Baptize Booker” button is sacrilege but pulling the “kill everybody bloodily” trigger isn’t is just sad, cherry-picking hypocrisy wrapped in false martyr’s clothes.

Significant plot elements rely upon an acquaintance with the concepts of quantum mechanics and the many-worlds interpretation. Many references are hidden (and some are not so hidden) throughout the story that explain the anachronistic existence of modern songs or technology. There are even thinly disguised references to the universe of the first game for sharp-eyed fans. Religious zealotry, racism and the manipulation of the masses are also well represented.

While the game can certainly be enjoyed purely for its innovative combat and fluid mechanics the depth of the story and settings absolutely reward intellectual curiosity on the source material. This is absolutely a “Thinking Man’s Shooter”. One that kicks some serious ass.

Yes, Serious Ass

Combat is fast, cinematic and, with the inclusion of the roller coaster-like skylines, extremely multi-dimensional. The weapon selection is standard for the genre. You’ll get a weak, but fast, pistol; a slow but powerful (at short range) shotgun; several machine guns; a sniper rifle; a rocket launcher and so forth. The proven balance of this defacto standard weapon set, across literally dozens of games, speaks to why the “Bioshock” team spent their ingenuity elsewhere.

As with the previous games, “Infinite” also features semi-magical attack powers, called “vigors” here, which are dual-wielded with your firearm of choice. Most of these feature multiple uses and environmental enhancements, such as the electrical “Shock Jockey” which deals critical damage to enemies standing in water. Many of them also feature a “charged” mode that can be used to create stationary traps for those looking for more strategic game play.

Normal difficulty is well-tuned. There are challenging sections but nothing unduly frustrating. I never did get a feel for how to elegantly beat the imposing Handymen, but was able to muddle past them well enough. Like the previous games there is a punishing,  sadistic difficulty mode available if you’re up for it.

Friends In a Strange Places

Early in the game you you meet your companion and ward, Elizabeth. She’s vibrant, intelligent and surprisingly helpful during your adventure. During combat she’ll scrounge ammunition and other equipment. She can also, incidentally, tear holes in time and space and can drag various helpful items into the world on command. While exploring she’ll help you to figure out  problems and find the occasional coin or two. She is every bit as impressive as a companion as HalfLife’s Alyx Vance, and there is no higher praise.

Unlike the decaying, dying Rapture from Bioshock, Columbia is a vibrant, living city. Civilians will scatter once fighting starts, but there are many areas where you can simply mingle and enjoy the small-talk. The city is gorgeous and richly appointed. The light, smart narration from Elizabeth helps draw attention to many of the details without feeling forced.

Yes, the story does pull some strings to forge an emotional bond between Booker and Elizabeth, but it’s nothing unexpected. The game drops Bioshock’s pretense of morality choices and this allows Booker to become a much more fully realized. From a character standpoint the game feels much more like a third-person adventure game.

The Way Games Should be Done

Every single technical aspect of the game is tuned to perfection. The animation and graphics, the audio and Foley effects and the level-design. It all works perfectly. This is all backed by some of the best creative work in gaming. The acting, writing and score are all, for lack of a better word, perfect.

It’s incredibly difficult to find something, anything, to criticize. The final battle was a little trite, perhaps, but unlike the previous games, we do get an actual, meaningful ending. The pacing might be a little off in places, I suppose, but only a very little. Those Handymen were a pain in the ass, but I’m having trouble blaming the game for that.

The game epitomizes that wonderful blend of kick-ass action and thought-provoking story-telling that is the trademark of Irrational Games. The critical success of the game was happily matched by strong sales across all platforms. This makes Ken Levine’s recent announcement that the studio would be closing to allow for a new creative direction – and the chances of a comparable sequel – all the more bittersweet. Don’t miss this game: it’s the last work of a team of people at the absolutely top of their craft.

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