“Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt…”
This one phrase motivates and haunts Booker DeWitt during his adventure in Columbia, the floating setting of BioShock Infinite.
I went into this game with no expectations than the desire to return to one of my favorite game series. I came away with a rewarding experience that cements the BioShock franchise as an enduring series and provides the intelligent narrative that BioShock 2 severely lacked.
Systems: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC [Reviewed]
Developer: Irrational Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Release: March 26th, 2013
BioShock Infinite takes place in a completely different world than the previous two games in the series. Booker, the game’s protagonist, is hired to infiltrate the floating utopia and retrieve Elizabeth as a means of paying off his heavy gambling debts. Like the narrative of BioShock and the excellent Minerva’s Den DLC for BioShock 2, the truth of the adventure is hidden from the protagonist and gamer. This review will avoid spoilers but I will say that Irrational Games still managed to surprise me with the twists and avoided rehashing the big reveals of the game’s predecessors.
While Rapture does not exist in this setting Columbia serves as the perfect contrast. Gone are the leaky pipes and splicers of Andrew Ryan’s dystopia, replaced with the heavenly skylines and wholesome folks of Zachary Comstock’s vision of America. While first-hand experience with Jack’s or Subject Delta’s time in Rapture is not required to enjoy DeWitt’s outing it helps to further reinforce the comparisons and contracts between the two worlds. Plasmids and gene tonics are replaced with vigors and gears (clothing that gives passive buffs), the Handyman fills the void of the Big Daddy, and Voxophones stand-in for the audio diaries of Rapture.
Not every component of Columbia fills the same purpose as it’s Rapture counterpart. Handymen serve as enforcers of the leadership as opposed to protectors. Vigors are seen by the people as a novelty instead of a way of life. The similarities between the two settings helps the player to settle in while allowing them to explore new concepts unique to this entry in the series. Unlike plasmids the vigors can all be charged and used to set traps that will allow you to combine effects. Powers and weapons are upgradable but the player can only carry two weapons at a time. BioShock Infinite emphasizes strategy instead of overwhelming might.
Instead of a remote benefactor accompanying you by radio communication BioShock Infinite instead gives you one of the greatest AI companions in gaming history; Elizabeth, the very girl you are sent to liberate. This game could have easily turned into the worst escort quest ever, but the design of the gameplay in regards to Elizabeth emphasizes fun over hardship. At no point in the game is she ever a burden. When combat starts she takes cover while providing you with ammo or creative defensive and offensive strategies via her abilities. The enemies never target her nor can she be damaged and the narrative accounts for this by the fact that the whole of the city is after you to recover her safely from your clutches. The rare moments where she is separated from you by the story will make you long for not only the combat advantage she provides but the personality she adds to the journey.
Graphically the game is beautiful. For the purpose of this review I played through the console and PC release with screencaps taken from the PC version on the highest settings. While the console editions look and play great there is no comparison to the game on a high end PC. I grew up playing consoles and will probably be buried with my vast collection of controllers but I must admit that using a keyboard and mouse is the preferred way of playing this game. It’s rare to find a cross-platform title these days where the keyboard feels more natural then an Xbox controller due to the focus on appealing to the console crowd.
The NSFW aspect of this games comes in form of combat gore and philosophical views. Your adversaries will be left broken and bloodied as your attacks result in decapitations and mutilations aplenty. The very first vigor you receive in the game, once upgraded, results in human adversaries violently committing suicide after turning on their friends. BioShock 1 and 2 did not feature gore on this level and I feel that it was added to stand as a contrast to the pious design and morals of Columbia. Seeing this level of violence being visited upon the citizens helps to flesh out that Booker DeWitt is not your traditional do-gooder protagonist but a man that is comfortable with the dark side of war and human nature.
I was not expecting the aspect of slavery and bigotry that is present in the game but it’s presence makes sense due to the time period that the game uses for a setting and it drives the internal conflict of the city. While the war in Rapture centered around the downtrodden supporters of Atlas versus the bourgeoisie under Ryan; the story of Columbia centers around the Founders, a political group in Columbia, versus the Vox Populi which is lead by former slave Daisy Fitzroy and consists of the oppressed labor force of the city. The concept of class warfare seems to be a concept integral to the BioShock franchise regardless of the setting.
My only real gripe with the game (besides the fact that it ends) is that none of the enemies really come off as iconic as far as their presentation or respective encounters. Compared to the Splicers of Rapture the citizens of Columbia feel rather mundane. The heavy hitter enemies appear too often and too early (with the exception of the handyman) to feel significant. The nature of a battle versus a Handyman or Motorized Patriot lack the aspect of planning that would go into an encounter with a Big Daddy. In battles in which they appear you will spend your time just trying to run-and-gun them to death or destroy them with overwhelming firepower as they approach you without pause. The Songbird proved to be a huge disappointment. It was billed originally as Booker’s constant antagonist throughout the game akin to Nemesis from RE3 or the original concept of the Big Sister in BioShock 2. While it does constantly pursue you throughout the game your encounters are limited to scripted events that never allow you to engage it directly in combat in order to preserve the concept of it being a foe that Booker cannot beat by any means. For an NPC with such an interesting design and important role in the narrative I am hoping that the planned DLC expansions give you more of a chance to interact with the Songbird directly.
BioShock Infinite was more than worth the wait. The narrative was very fulfilling and lived up to the hype. With three planned DLC in the pipeline and the promise of a new playable character with them, my attention span should be able to hold out until the eventual 4th game in the series.
Sex appeal is lacking in this game unless you’re a fan of the church lady look. It should be no surprise that the world of Columbia, built off pious Christian and 1930s American principles, is devoid of sin and debauchery. Elizabeth is a digital beauty in addition to being the best AI companion in gaming history yet the developers avoid showing off any skin with her. In the interest of avoiding spoilers, let me just say that by the end of the game the lack of any type of physical attraction or innuendo between Booker and Elizabeth is well justified and appropriate.