SPOILER WARNING: Bioshock Infinite is a game that is best played when you have absolutely no idea what is going to happen when you do. Unfortunately a critical appraisal of Bioshock Infinite is impossible without at least mentioning some of the general plot themes and elements, so while there’s not going to be any major plot spoilers of the OMG ELIZABETH IS YOUR FATHER variety I can’t review the game while avoiding talking about what’s actually in it. If you want to remain completely unspoiled, a potted summary of my opinion about Bioshock Infinite would be pretty similar to what I thought of Spec Ops — not the best of games, but absolutely worth playing through at least once.
These days I tend to jot down a few notes immediately after finishing a game. It’s helpful to get my thoughts in order when I have a complete impression of what it was like and that impression is at its freshest; later, when I come to write whatever I write about it, not everything in my notes will get mentioned but it will at least be floating around in the back of my mind before I put metaphorical pen to digital paper. At the top of those notes is usually the thing about the game that I found most striking and which usually sets the tone of whatever review I end up writing about it. As it happens, the very first thing I wrote about Bioshock Infinite – just above “In medias res story” and “Potatoes in the toilet” — is the following sentence:
“Bioshock Infinite is hurt by being an FPS.”
This is possibly not the most original thought, but it’s something which was painfully apparent throughout my time with it. Irrational Games have crafted something special here; the world of Bioshock Infinite is a surreal, dreamlike environment of flying cities and shifting dimensions where nothing is what it seems. It takes what we think we know about the period the game is set in (just after the turn of the 20th century) and twists them in ways both obvious and subtle. You might be walking around a seaside boardwalk that’s ten thousand feet above ground level but there’s still something else wrong with the place that you can’t quite put your finger on, and after just a few minutes your overriding urge is to explore this strange new world and try to make sense of it all.
Except of course because this is an FPS your primary method of interaction with that world is to shoot its inhabitants in the face, and that’s pretty much all you can do. For all of Bioshock Infinite’s imagination the plot is presented to you through the decades old trope of scripted cutscenes within captive theatres, unfolding automatically once you hit a certain number of murder milestones; it doesn’t quite render the excellent world-building meaningless but it does do a great deal to hobble the game’s potential. Trying to tell this sort of story is distinctly at odds with the medium of a two-weapon ironsight shooter, and no matter how many extra gimmicks the game throws in (and there are a lot of them) it can’t ever expand its boundaries past the limitations inherent in the modern FPS genre.
Still, I have to review the game I’ve got, not the game I’d want, and as it stands Bioshock Infinite is far from terrible. It wastes no time with exposition or character backstory and simply thrusts you straight into the shoes of Booker DeWitt, a man on a mission to find and retrieve a certain girl – Elizabeth — to repay a debt he owes to an unknown party. Who that party is, who Elizabeth is and who Booker is are questions that occupy much of the game’s running time; this minimalist approach to exposition allows plenty of opportunity for shocking plot twists further along the line, just like the original Bioshock, but I’m honestly not sure whether I should be admiring the game for its willingness to experiment with narrative structure or hating it for deliberately leaving the player starved of information in an attempt to make itself seem cleverer than it actually is. It’s difficult to tell if it’s good writing when this pseudo-amnesia setup is used as a sort of universal plothole wallpapering device; things might make sense to Booker but they don’t make sense to you, and there’s no way of knowing if this is intentional or not. While I certainly acknowledge it was far from pointless and there was a payoff it damn near drove me up the wall at times. As premises go I suspect this one is rather Marmite: some people will love it, others will hate it, and neither group is wrong, or right. But then that’s the risk you take when you screw with narrative structure, I suppose.
Anyway, in his search for Elizabeth Booker is quickly transported to the floating steampunk city of Columbia. Where Rapture’s underwater dystopia was themed along the lines of Randian objectivism with an art deco face, Columbia focuses on religious fanaticism entwined with monopolistic capitalism, and I have to say I found its approach far more effective. This is probably because Bioshock Infinite rejects one of the more irritating design decisions of the original game and actually lets you mingle with the inhabitants of Columbia from time to time. Listening to the conversations of the indoctrinated populace is undeniably creepy, and it also allows you to see the evils of this society first hand instead of simply relating them through a series of voice journals. Bioshock’s visit to Rapture was post-disaster and it was hard to get a handle on what life there was actually like during the city’s peak. By contrast Columbia is still at the height of its power when Booker arrives and you get a good long look at how this civilization functions before everything – inevitably — goes straight to hell.
Booker’s arrival has been foretold by Columbia’s leader, the self-proclaimed Prophet, and Booker himself is soon discovered and hotly pursued by the city’s security forces. He finds Elizabeth easily enough and busts her out of the facility where she is being held, but it turns out that she’s a messianic figure to the population who will do anything to get her back. All this takes place in the first hour of play; the other seven are taken up by Booker and Elizabeth’s attempts to escape the city as it disintegrates around them. There’s plenty of weirdness later on in the game as both Booker and Elizabeth unravel their histories, but past that opening hour you’re thrust into a series of shooting galleries that are occasionally broken up by theme-park like segments where you get to stroll through the streets of Columbia and watch the city at work. While it is nice to get that opportunity, and it is undeniably effective as a scene-setter, Bioshock Infinite’s mechanical approach to showing you the city is a definite problem. These segments never quite escape the feeling that they are being staged for your benefit, especially since the majority of them are used in a strict formula that dictates you come back later when the civilian population has vanished into thin air and fight a bunch of bad guys. It’s not helped by the Unreal engine, either, which does a great job of rendering the fantastic environment of Columbia but then falls down completely when rendering actual people, giving them its trademark plasticky artificial sheen.
The sole exception to this rule is — rather unsurprisingly – Elizabeth. Since you spend most of the game in her company a vast amount of time and effort has gone into making her seem as lifelike as possible, and I’m happy to say it has (mostly) paid off. Her animation and voice acting are top-notch, and while I’ve heard of crossed wires somewhere causing her to run into the player I’ve never seen it myself. Elizabeth has been made distinctly unobtrusive to the player, following you intelligently and even running ahead of you on occasion; this pathfinding magic is doubtless aided by some sneaky out-of-sight teleportation but I’m fine with that. She helps out during fights, occasionally throwing you health packs and ammo when you’re low on either, and she can also pick the locks of certain rooms hiding unspecified goodies1. Baddies won’t shoot at her during combat, instead focusing all of their attention of you. Bioshock Infinite has deliberately excised every single one of the infuriating things about escort quests — which is a wise move since the entire game is basically one long escort quest — and so having Elizabeth along for the ride is nothing but a great boost to the gameplay.
And to be quite honest it’s a sorely needed one. If you take Elizabeth out of the mix there’s very little about Bioshock Infinite’s gameplay that hasn’t been done a hundred times before, and in many cases done better. It’s a distinctly average shooter, with the Vigors (Infinite’s version of Plasmids) doing little to spice things up since they’re so situational. The series’ ubiquitous vending machines and passive upgrades – this time in the form of magical clothing – are present and correct but aside from the shotgun2 the weapons are a tragically uninspiring bunch: pistol, rifle, sniper rifle, machine gun, grenade launcher, blah blah blah. There are times when you’d be forgiven for thinking you were playing a not-particularly-good World War Two shooter from six or seven years back, since the weapons and enemies are basically identical. The so-called Heavy Hitter minibosses don’t help either thanks to being pitched too far towards the Really Fucking Irritating end of the spectrum; in order to put a Handyman down you have to fire off your entire stock of machine gun ammo, fire off your entire stock of carbine ammo, find a vending machine, buy some more and then repeat the process. Finally because this is Bioshock you can’t quicksave, but that’s okay because you can’t die either; you just respawn at the nearest checkpoint with your enemies slightly healed and everything else just as you left it.
The one genuinely fun addition the game makes to the FPS formula are the skylines. These are convoluted systems of aerial rails that make a circuit of combat zones; Booker can attach himself to them simply by looking up and jumping at them, and he’ll then proceed to hurtle around them at a terrifying pace providing the opportunity for driveby shotgunnings, flying kick dismounts and so on. The added mobility the skylines provide are key to breaking the monotony of the game’s combat – which usually involves creeping out of cover until you can see and headshot a single baddie, and then repeating for however many baddies are in the area – and is often necessary when fighting quick and tough enemies like Handymen. The nice thing about them is that they’re a two way street; your enemies can all use skylines as well, so if you use them to reach a seemingly-unassailable sniping perch you’ll often turn around while reloading to discover that they’ve simply followed you up there. They’re also a nice conceit for spawning new waves of bad guys – who will arrive by skyline instead of spilling out of a tiny closet en masse – as well as giving you the chance to do yet more sightseeing when you’re using them to move from one area to another.
I mentioned them in passing earlier, but the environment design in Infinite really is fantastic. I think this is at least partly because the start of the game opts for a Technicolor palette that isn’t usually seen outside of 1950s movies; the colours are strong and vibrant and leap right out of the screen. Just staring into the blue sky in the opening sequence is mesmirising, not to mention adding substantially to the game’s dreamlike quality, and exploring is – at least to start with – kind of like playing a darker version of the Wizard of Oz[1.No, not that one.] where the cheerful tones just add to the sinister nature of the game. Unfortunately it can’t keep the stunning quality up all the way through and the end of the game gives way to slightly too many war-torn ruins, but I’d say that even without its story Bioshock Infinite would probably be worth picking up cheap for the gorgeous visual design of the levels alone, even if that visual design is inconsistent and the levels end up with a rather incoherent, disconnected feel overall. It’s just a shame that they’re mainly used as nothing more than a backdrop for a series of repetitive and bland gunfights, really.
I think I’ve said everything I can about Bioshock Infinite without starting to edge into major spoiler territory. As an FPS it is almost perfectly mediocre, breaking almost no new ground and resolutely playing it safe, and I have serious doubts as to the game’s replay value when so much of what you do in it is rinse-and-repeat shooting. Fortunately that’s not the only card the game has to play, and while the level of imagination it displays in creating its world and its story sits rather at odds with the monotony of the gunplay it’s still worth playing for those alone. I mean, I’ve been complaining for years that modern shooters tend to be rather dark (or brown), depressing and unoriginal affairs, so I feel a bit bad castigating Bioshock Infinite when it provides exactly what I’ve been looking for all this time, even if the world they’ve ended up building here is an awful fit for the FPS genre in general. So I think I’ll give Bioshock Infinite a cautious thumbs up, if only in the hope that it’ll stimulate the creative glands of other developers who can maybe provide some decent gameplay to match. Play it for the sumptuous visuals. Play it for the omnipresent sense of wonder entwined with a constant uneasy feeling that something isn’t quite right. Try to overlook the unfortunate interludes where you mechanistically shoot a bunch of dudes in the face. Enjoy Bioshock Infinite for its strengths, and ignore its weaknesses, and I think you’ll find it an experience well worth the asking price.
- There are also plot doors that she has to pick which are an excuse for the player to take a breather while listening to a bit of expository dialogue, not to mention a fine opportunity for Irrational to load the next part of the level in the background. ↩
- The shotgun is just a regular shotgun, but I like it because hitting someone with a blast from it at close range bowls them over and gives the thing a real sense of power. ↩