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Review: BioShock Infinite

I’ve always loved the idea of being the white knight that saves the day and rescues the princess. I’m not sure why exactly. Maybe it’s the fortune, fame and honour. Or maybe it’s just because all princesses are rather good looking with rich, endearing parents. I’ve never seen a post-kiss fat, ugly toad / troll beast being called a princess before. If I did happen upon such a creature I’d immediately write a short but sincere apology letter to the dragon, fiend or shadowy monster holding the princess captive, apologising for disrupting his Sunday and killing 183 of his minions and then promptly returning the princess to her tower prison.

You play Booker DeWitt, an investigator. In BioShock Infinite you have to find the girl – not exactly rescue her – and get her out of Columbia and back to New York. She’s also not a princess but does live in a tower and unlike most stereotypes definitely isn’t helpless and fragile. Gamers don’t like babysitting missions which is something Ken Levine (lead designer) knows all too well. Part of the design specification for this game is having the perfect artificial intelligence companion – something he stressed in his presentation at E3 in 2011 and Elizabeth delivers on his promise to the letter.

Developer: Irrational Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Platforms: 360 / PC / PS3
Website: bioshockinfinite.com

Now for the hard part – not only must this AI companion stay out of your way and the way of the enemy but should also help you. That’s no easy task. Elizabeth is the best companion in any game ever and not only does she tick all those technical boxes, but she’s so much more. When she’s gone you will miss her – she’s critical to the whole story and your progression through it. You will learn to see the world around you through her eyes and question yourself and your actions in the process. Elizabeth is easily the most important step forward for computer-controlled companions ever. She’s not just a pretty face; Elizabeth is useful in a number of ways. She will explore new areas as you do and will sometimes find money for you or point out hidden secrets (lock-picking kits or other achievement related items). She’s also a lock-picking expert and can open doors which lead to secret areas or to move the story along from one area to the next.

In combat Elizabeth needs no protection and will take cover so you won’t find her standing in the middle of a gun battle looking for coins for example. She’ll throw health packs at you and ammunition and also, as a new party trick, open “tears”. Elizabeth has a special talent for opening tears (portals) to other places in time and space. In the game these tears are represented by what looks like a tear in the fabric of reality or black and white fuzzy images of what that particular tear will bring into the reality you’re currently playing in. Options here include weapon racks, boxes of health and ammunition and other interesting features such as tesla coils, automated weapons and even your very own patrolling sentries. The tears play an important part in the story but we won’t go into that here.

To those of you who’ve seen the trailers and have been intrigued by Elizabeth, eager to discover who she is and how she fits into this fantastical world: you’re in for a real treat that you won’t ever forget.

Rapturous

It’s not often you get baptised in a game. After a hairy trip up into the clouds (where the city of Columbia “floats”) this act of baptism is where you’ll stop gaping at the environment and wondering what the hell this place is all about, and rudely have some purpose injected into your playing. You’ll need a nudge in the right direction often because Columbia is a vividly imagined place like nothing you’ve seen in a game before. It floats not using balloons and rockets, but rather quantum mechanics.

The setting is 1912 and the theme is loosely based around the American idealism where religious authoritarian-flavoured values are drummed into children and everyone pretends to exists in a dreamy state of idyllic perfection. The arcades where children are supposed to be entertained only contain games that enforce these values. On the surface it seems like a great place to exist; but of course it’s only skin deep. Scratch a little here and there, and you’ll discover problems. Things that seem off are the occasional glimpses of the Vox Populi (voice of the people), a rebel group with different values that’s always a threat. Disturbingly, racism is alive and well in Columbia and it’s been a long time since we’ve seen a “whites only” sign on a bathroom door.  There is unease everywhere and it feels that at any second this deadly combination could explode.

The city of Columbia is in the clouds, which limits where you can go – but instead of dark corridors, restrictive doors or the threat of crushing water looming outside, it feels free and open. The only invisible wall in Columbia is the threat of falling to your death. The game world is ridiculously detailed and you’ll often explore entire areas that seem to have no real purpose in the game other than elaborate set decoration. These hallways and alleys and flower beds are of course great places to hide secrets and bits of material that enforce the overall setting and theme. There are very straight paths through the game, but rushing through it is a mistake and you’re going to miss a thousand little important things. Columbia was built to be explored and not exploring will rob you of the experience and magic the game is working hard to pull off.

Columbia is also a world of propaganda, and it’s so powerful that it will start affecting you as the player – humming along to the little tunes and singing the catch phrases designed to brainwash the citizens of Columbia. It’s so well done it’s frightening and getting too drawn into the world may even leave a permanent mark on you. The bad guy lurking behind everything is Zachary Comstock (or The Prophet as he is known throughout Columbia). He is the father of the city and everyone “must” be grateful to him for their perfect way of life. The city and world create a deep experience and it’s not often that you will find such a well-crafted place to explore and play. Most games have a handful of scenic set-pieces where you stand and gap at the world in which you’re playing. In BioShock Infinite these moments represent a large chunk of the game.

One other innovation in getting around this city in the sky is the skyline system. Early on in the game you’re given a “skyhook”, which allows you to leap up and ride different skylines that circle many parts of Columbia. The pace is frantic and fun, and is a bit like riding a rollercoaster. Dismounting and switching rails is all a simple matter of a button press and it doesn’t take long for you to get proficient enough to be able to dismount and kill an enemy while turning mid-jump to find the next rail that’ll get you out of the danger area. It’s another innovation in travelling around a game world that’s new and different and is also smartly limited so you can’t just go anywhere. The only misstep here is the knowledge that when you see skylines you know there’s a fight coming: they’re staged to suit the situation and not simply just everywhere for you to get around.

Invigorating

The fact that there’s a civil war brewing produces more than enough rank-and-file bad guys to shoot at in this game. Calling it a shooter is a disservice to the brilliant story and adventure you’re on, but calling it an adventure is a disservice to the stunning array of ways you’re able to kill things. It’s no Call of Duty shooting gallery, but instead expects a rather sensible use of violence to achieve your goals. Along your travels you will come across some inventive mechanical enemies that take a lot to bring down. The two different factions have their own look and feel, and you always know who you’re fighting based purely on their looks.

I’d definitely recommend playing this game on hard if you’re an FPS veteran, however, or the fighting bits will seem overly easy. Once you’ve completed the game a “1999” difficulty mode is unlocked that puts everything into hardcore overdrive. Some of the bigger battle areas almost feel like they’ve been geared for the harder settings as you’ll find way more health and ammunition than you’ll ever need. Still, the combat is fun because of all the toys you’ve got to play with. Favourites like shotguns and machine guns are the obvious choices. There is a sniper rifle which is really essential if you have some aiming skill. And of course there are a few weapons that don’t fit into the traditional holes. The weapons all have a unique look and feel but do mostly come straight out of any first-person shooter-developer’s guide.

Where the game does present something different (but not entirely new to the BioShock universe) is with the Vigors. The “Murder of Crows” Vigor is the one most advertised for this game and using it sets a vicious murder of crows on your enemies, distracting them so you can take them out at your leisure. Each Vigor uses a little bit of salt which you can replenish by eating and drinking or by just picking up salt left lying around the city in blue bottles. Some of the more inventive Vigors include Bucking Bronco, where enemies are flung helplessly into the air, and Possession, which allows you to temporarily get enemy soldiers or mechanical enemies to join your side. Think of them as magic spells that, when used with the guns and skylines, make you feel utterly devastating.

Of course all these offensive and defensive abilities can be upgraded, so your Devil’s Kiss Vigor upgrade releases more fireballs; or you can buy an upgrade for your gun, upping its ammunition capacity. Explore enough and you’ll also find clothing upgrades and infusions that increase your salt, health or shield capacity. There is plenty to think about in any combat situation but the game has a way of introducing things at a careful pace so by the time you’re fully loaded up on all Vigors and weapons you’ll be sniping bad guys while on a skyline after you’ve just laid a fireball trap. It’s all very effortless and fun.

Dimwitt & Duke

The cloud city of Columbia is full of statues, glowing backgrounds and dramatic lighting. Not only do the level designers and graphic artists get the most out of the Unreal Engine in terms of visual oomph, but the level of detail is equally remarkable. The game world offers up realistic looking areas, from rundown shanty towns to a massive mansion, and each part of Columbia functions and looks the part. There is always an expectation for “better, faster, more” with technologically-obsessed gamers these days and BioShock Infinite ticks all those not-so-important boxes flawlessly.

Technical marvels aside, the real game is in the story and the characters – who are voiced by Troy Baker (Booker DeWitt) and Courtnee Draper (Elizabeth). There’s real emotion here, things you will care about and an end game that will leave you scratching your head wondering what just happened. All of this would fall flat if not for the people making the game real. You can increase the resolution, add lens flare and god rays until your computer coughs up blood – but put a flat emotionless actor behind the scenes and all the horsepower is for nothing. Infinite will take you on a carefully crafted journey and is something all gamers need to play.

The question of multiplayer is answered simply: there is no multiplayer, and that’s not a bad thing. Thank the gaming gods that there are still developers out there that are making art and not worrying about experience and kill streaks. We have enough of those games and they do a good enough job that Infinite doesn’t need to try and cram in any needless multiplayer functionality just for the sake of it.

There isn’t much you can fault BioShock Infinite on that’s important. The exhaustive exploration isn’t for everyone but it is optional. The game is bewildering if you’re not paying attention, and if you’re left scratching your head after the credits start rolling, you’re simply going to have to replay it – which isn’t such a bad thing. It’s a little on the short side and I’d be interested to see a speed run. With a fair amount of time spent exploring it took me around 16 hours to finish it, and I’m sure I looked everywhere – although I still somehow missed a few secrets. It also doesn’t leave you feeling entirely satisfied at the end, instead forcing you to uncomfortably wonder what the hell just happened.

In a world where gamers are demanding something different and new and fresh we now have BioShock Infinite. It’s the kind of game that if it were a movie it would sweep away all the Oscars and make hundreds of millions at the box office. This game is driving gaming forward in new and many directions, giving us characters that we actually care about and people we want to see dead. When games start tugging on your emotions and give you a sense of wonder at what you’ve just experienced, then those games should be lifted up high and praised. It’s just a pity we don’t get stunning experiences like this every few months, but must wait years. It is, to put it plainly, a must-play game.

  • http://www.facebook.com/pages/Wesley-Fick/184346154999538 Wesley Fick

    Totally sweet. I can’t wait for my Songbird to arrive.

  • Nico Gouws

    Did not have the money for this will wait untill I can afford…sad panda but awesome article…

  • Wallie

    WANT IT NOW NOW NOW NOW!!!!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/zvanzyl13 Zane van Zyl

    so. AMPED

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