My memories of the first Bioshock are rosy. I loved the setting and marveled at the underwater vistas, shivered as pipes would burst and break sending chest-high water to meet me, as I cowered in fear from the hulking, brutal Big Daddies. However, deeper reflection exposes the game’s flimsy combat. Enemies don’t do a very good job of taking cover from your gunfire, and you can only use either your plasmid or your gun at any given time. 2K Marin’s Bioshock 2 fixed the latter problem, but introduced a mostly forgettable plot. Five years in the making, Bioshock Infinite has finally been released to the masses. Made by the same studio behind the original Bioshock, has the passage of time and experience resulted in a better game?
Easily, Yes: Bioshock Infinite is a game that’s been polished to a fine sheen.
Utopia In The Sky
Bioshock Infinite takes place in the year 1912, set in a floating city known as Columbia. The city was originally developed by America as a showcase for the World’s Fair. But the city’s inhabitants, led by a quasi-religious figure by the name of Zachary Comstock, defiantly seceded from the United States. It is there that you, Booker DeWitt, have to rescue a mysterious girl named Elizabeth and bring her back to New York. Doing so will pay back a massive debt DeWitt owes to some mysterious figures.
Columbia is simply beautiful. Rapture, the city under the sea that the original Bioshock took place in, was more limiting as a setting. It was either indoors, with limited lighting, or in tubes surrounded by water. Columbia’s most salient feature is its sky. It’s rendered with an unbelievable shade of blue, sometimes punctuated with clouds. The sun will occasionally peek through, resulting in a totally believable “god ray” effect I spent several minutes just stopping and staring at. You’ll see everything from the ritzy banks and shops of Columbia, to its poor, downtrodden underbelly. This makes it sound like much of the areas are portrayed similarly to the original Bioshock, where it seems like each area has its own mini-story and its own cast of characters, but each individual area doesn’t bleed into the next one: They stand alone in Bioshock Infinite.
The world of Columbia is set in the ideal of American Exceptionalism, but taken to severe extremes. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin are prayed to as gods, and Columbia is seen as the last bastion against the foreign hordes. To drive this home, the people that rule Columbia are known as the Founders, a name obviously meant to invoke the Founding Fathers. Anyone who is Irish or isn’t White is seen as a second class citizen. There are segregated bathrooms, numerous propaganda, and audio recordings that reinforce the idea that the White American is the “chosen race.” I am not old enough to remember a time when segregation was politically mandated, so the efforts the game takes to show class differences seems like it could’ve potentially created a caricature of a society that existed several decades ago. But I came out of this experience believing that this sky-bound society could actually exist, and I am able to do that thanks to the effective depiction of said setting in the game. Being put in a world set 100 years ago allows the mind to wander and take a few leaps. But hearing people state that God wanted the Black man to work and toil with the White man leading him grounds your thinking and makes the mood especially unsettling, as that same “logic” was in fact used in America in the 18th and 19th centuries to justify slavery.
Fighting against these forces are the rebels of the Vox Populi (Voice of the People, in Latin), a subversive group that seeks to overthrow the leadership of Columbia. Led by Comstock’s former scullery maid Daisy Fitzroy, the Vox are demonized by the Founders as a violent, bloodthirsty mob through the propaganda that they distribute. The Vox Populi, seeing what the Founders are doing to the underclasses, want to overthrow Comstock and install a new sense of justice in Columbia. However, as is the case with rebel groups, some parts of the Vox Populi do turn into violent, bloodthirsty mobs. The question the Vox pose to the player is, “Do the ends justify the means?”
As Booker DeWitt, you’ll encounter both of these groups. But the game never paints them as completely right or completely wrong. Screwed up and dysfunctional? Certainly. There are those with good intentions and bad intentions. Bioshock Infinite doesn’t try to make your moral decisions for you, or even attempt to frame the answer.
A Polished Gun
The phrase “intense combat” might not be associated with the original Bioshock, but Bioshock Infinite has this in spades. Enemies will try to flank you or wait for you to reload. You’re only able to carry two weapons at a time, so running out of ammo is a real possibility. Every fight can go poorly if you don’t plan.
Intelligent use of your Vigors (Bioshock Infinite’s version of Plasmids) is often the only way to survive. Vigors are supernatural powers you can unleash to give you an added edge in battle, which you gain by drinking some peculiar beverages called Tonics. Unlike the original Bioshock, you can have both a Vigor and a gun out and at the ready at the same time. From the very beginning, you’ll have a Possession Vigor which can be used to take control of machines. During my playthrough of the game, this was my preferred Vigor, and I upgraded it to be more efficient on my Salts (Bioshock Infinite’s version of Eve, Salts are the fuel for your Vigors) and to make it usable on humans who would then fight for me. Once the effect wore off, these formerly possessed humans would kill themselves. Why waste the ammo on hardened rocket-launcher wielders when you can have them work for you and kill them all with the same Vigor? There are also Vigors to push and pull enemies, even off of the heights of Columbia, and ones that knock enemies into the air, where they will float and take extra damage. There are a total of eight Vigors, and you can switch between them with the numeric keys. On consoles, a radial menu can be brought up to switch out your Vigors. You can quick-switch between two Vigors during combat for ease of use, but you always have access to all Vigors you’ve found. Switching between two Vigors quickly is also important because there are special combos you can use. For example, if you use the Charge Vigor while someone is on fire from your Devil’s Kiss Vigor, they will explode. There is also the addition of Skylines, which are aerial rail lines along which you can travel, but these are only used to either travel between disparate areas or to get to cover in a battle. You can shoot and fire Vigors from the Skylines and also leap off them and do severe damage to a single enemy.
You’ll also find Gear throughout your adventure. Gear are clothes you can wear that have different effects, such as increasing the amount of ammo in a clip, or setting people on fire with your melee attack. You can acquire gear for either your head, torso, legs, or feet. Like older Bioshock games, you can upgrade your character as you see fit. You’ll run across Infusions throughout your adventure, which can be used to upgrade the capacity of your health, salt, or shield gauges. Each Infusion can be used only once, and it’s impossible to increase all three gauges to their maximum in a single playthrough, so you’ll have to make careful decisions. Likewise, each weapon you come across can be upgraded up to four times, but you’ll never have enough money to purchase every single upgrade. Vigors can also be upgraded twice, but upgrades are very expensive; I only bought 5 Vigor upgrades in my entire playthrough.
Unlike older Bioshock games, hacking has been removed. You can’t hack vending machines to get deals or hack turrets or robots to turn them to your side. You can use Possession, as I said above, to turn machines to your side, but using it on a vending machine merely makes it spit out some money for you to pick up. Personally, I can live without hacking. With the improved combat this game presents, I feel like hacking sequences would interrupt the flow of the game. In its place, you can find lockpicks strewn about Columbia, which Elizabeth can use to unlock doors, which can lead to great bounty or hidden audio recordings.
There’s one other addition to combat that might prove controversial. A few minutes into the game, you’ll be given a shield. The shield takes damage before health, and recharges back up to full if you stay out of the line of fire for long enough. This is in line with many modern shooters, but I wonder how appropriate it is for Bioshock Infinite. There’s certainly enough health items strewn about where the shield could have just been added to the health gauge as additional health. I feel like this is a concession to try to make this game more palatable to modern shooter fans. Worry not, though: On the Hard difficulty, you can still get wiped out.
Simply put, the combat is fun and varied and it’s everything I wanted combat in Bioshock to be. If you’re an experienced FPS player, I’d highly recommend that you select the Hard difficulty setting. I found that even on Hard, I was able to defeat most challenges with a nominal amount of strategy. I would be remiss if I did not mention 1999 mode, an additional difficulty made available after you beat the game (or if you put in the Konami code at the title screen). 1999 mode is extremely difficult, and I found myself dead before I had even made it through the first 10 enemies. You take an extreme amount of damage, and the resources you find are more scarce. In addition, you will be unable to change your difficulty in the game and will have fewer player respawn points. Worse, if you die and you have absolutely no money left, the game sends you back to the main menu. All I can say is, good luck.
As an aside, while I played primarily on my PC at home, I had a chance to play with the PlayStation Move which Bioshock Infinite supports on the PlayStation 3. I found it very difficult to aim precisely, as my cursor was as jittery as my hand. If you are curious, the game does utilize a dead zone which means that you’ll have to move the aiming cursor to the edges of the screen to turn. This also means you can aim at various onscreen targets without changing your perspective. In short, it plays like an FPS on the Wii. I’m sure you can adjust the deadzone, but I didn’t try it; the jittery aim was enough for me to put the Move controller down after only a few minutes.
The Citizens of Columbia
The player’s character in Bioshock, who is named Jack, never spoke a single word. Booker DeWitt, on the other hand, has a lot to say to the villains he encounters, the people he runs into in Columbia, and to Elizabeth. He has clear motivations, and he often questions himself and those around him. He has a defined history as a combatant at Wounded Knee and as a Pinkerton agent. In the first moments of the game, or at least when combat starts, this very fact made me feel extremely guilty about killing the guards who were attacking me. I haven’t felt that way about a game in a long time.
Within a few hours of starting Bioshock Infinite, you’ll meet Elizabeth. Elizabeth has been on Columbia her entire adult life, imprisoned in a tower by her captor, a robotic entity known as Songbird. Once you free Elizabeth from captivity, she will be by your side most of the time. Rather than a blank-staring NPC who turns to you and makes some quip from time to time, Elizabeth will lean against a wall or post while you explore an area, peer around and under tables and chairs, or inquisitively look at various things in the environment. She’ll also throw additional cash your way from time to time and she’ll even point out lockpicks lying around that you might otherwise miss. During combat, Elizabeth is completely invulnerable. She will aid you with health, salts, or ammo if you are running low, though she won’t continuously do this. She’ll also be the one reviving you if you should die… for a fee.
And you’ll need all the help Elizabeth offers when you face what Irrational calls their “Heavy Hitters.” The original Bioshock had the iconic Big Daddies as the centerpieces for its difficult battles, but Bioshock Infinite has no-one opponent that stands out as its “showcase.” In addition to the random fodder you’ll face, there are a few unique opponents. The Fireman wields the Devil’s Kiss Vigor, allowing him to throw exploding fireballs at you. The Crow carries a coffin on his back and can turn into an invulnerable mass of crows. The Motorized Patriot is a robot made to look like George Washington who can take and deal a large amount of damage. There’s the hulking Handyman, who can leap great lengths and smash you into pieces. Near the end you’ll encounter the Boys of Silence, who are harmless by themselves, but should they spot you, they’ll alert everyone nearby to your presence. And finally, there’s also a boss fight against an opponent known as the Siren, who can raise the dead to fight against you, which I found to easily be the hardest fight in the game.
Booker and Elizabeth will banter back and forth, have discussions about his past, and dig deeper into the mystery of Elizabeth and Columbia, but her very existence, her organic nature, makes her the most compelling external character in any game I have ever played. The voice actors for both characters play their parts to the hilt, with Elizabeth’s naivete contrasting perfectly with Booker’s confused morality.
Being that this is the third Bioshock game, you’ll likely want to know whether or not you need to play the original Bioshock, or Bioshock 2 before you start Bioshock Infinite. The answer is no. First of all, Irrational Games had nothing to do with Bioshock 2, so for all intents and purposes, that game is not part of the timeline here. There’s also nothing going on in this game that you would need to play Bioshock in order to understand. There is nothing in the original Bioshock that is “required reading” for Bioshock Infinite.
If you have played the original Bioshock however, you will notice some similarities. You’ll hear and see things that are familiar, in one way or another. Some of the themes of the game will feel like they are from the original Bioshock, although some might feel transposed or jumbled in some way. In short, playing Bioshock will enrich your experience with Bioshock Infinite.
That being said, you will likely start this game with expectations, especially considering the first few minutes of the game. I have been trying to avoid spoilers like crazy, both in this review and amongst the rest of Gamer Horizon’s staff. I have to be very careful of how I word these next few paragraphs, but there are things I need to bring up that are points of contention.
I question the point of the setting of Columbia, of the American Exceptionalism, and the jingoism. You will eventually get to a point in the game where many of the mysteries of the game will be answered. Some of the smaller answers are hidden in the Voxophone recordings, but the biggest answers come in the final hour of the game. These answers, if thought about, lead to more questions. And then there’s the ending. I’ve been going back and forth on it. I don’t know if I like it, but even if I don’t like it, should it affect my review score? My immediate reaction was that it was pretentious, that other games had done similar themes better. If that were the case, why can’t I stop thinking about it? Why can’t I wait until the rest of our crew here at Gamer Horizon finished it so I can talk to them about it? My conclusion is that it’s because the ending is well done. It’s very well done, in fact, and quite thorough. I can’t fault it just because I wanted something to go one way and not the other. I don’t get to dictate the narrative.
Ultimately, Bioshock Infinite is a supremely polished experience. It goes beyond the conventions of its genre even moreso than the original Bioshock and, more importantly, it sticks out in my mind and continues to do so days after I’ve completed it. It may not have met some of my expectations in terms of the setting and its thematic elements, but it clearly excels in so many different areas that the things that it nailed right, in and of themselves, make my complaints sound trivial. Therefore, while no game can technically be perfect, I feel that Bioshock Infinite is truly a masterpiece that everyone who plays games needs to experience.
Ted played through Bioshock Infinite on PC, and played a little bit on PlayStation 3 so he could evaluate PlayStation Move. He played on Hard difficulty, and had both the regular Steam pre-order bonus, and the Season Pass pre-order bonus, which meant he had early damage upgrades for pistol and machine gun, a full set of gear, 500 extra coins, 5 extra lockpicks, and 5 extra infusions at the start of the game. 2K Games did not provide Ted a review copy of the game.
The specs of Ted’s PC are as follows:
- Intel Core i7 920 (2.67 GHZ)
- 12 GB of RAM
- Regular Hard Drive (Not SSD)
- Radeon 7850
- Windows 7 64-bit
+ Great, inventive combat
+ Elizabeth is a natural and realistic companion
+ Dynamic, unexpected plot has you desperate to continue to see what’s next
+ Not beat over the head with morality, allowed to make your own decisions
+ Environments feel large and explorable without feeling tedious
+ Soundtrack feels appropriate for the time and the mood
-Overall cohesiveness of theme
Available on: PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Version Reviewed: PC