Out of Rapture and into the air – how does BioShock: Infinite compare with the previous games?
From the beginning you can tell something isn’t quite right with BioShock Infinite. And, thankfully, that’s exactly how a BioShock game should be; as with Rapture, there’s something extremely unsettling about the city of Columbia – something other than the ahead-of-its-time quantum levitation keeping the city afloat and the humanoid automatons protecting the citizens.
Columbia may at first appear to be the opposite of Rapture: a religion-focused world in the sky, as opposed to a religion-shunning underwater city but it’s still very familiar if you’ve played BioShock before. Not that you’ll need to have even glanced at any of the previous instalments’ box art before – aside from some fan serving references, this is by all means a new story.
The city hasn’t fallen yet, though its populous seems equally deranged. Genetic manipulating powers – Vigors not Plasmids – exist up here too; characters are still bold, malevolent and enigmatic; this is a parallel of – not an opposite to – Rapture and this trope is played brilliantly throughout the game.
Areas of Columbia are just as memorable as the areas of Rapture – there’s the central Monument Island and the unique Hall of Heroes which stand out much like Arcadia or Fort Frolic do below the sea. Infinite proves that BioShock doesn’t need to focus on Rapture; it can be about anything it wants – even if that’s a floating city above the clouds.
Despite the resident’s delusions, you’re made aware from the get-go that Columbia isn’t anything like heaven; it’s every bit as hellish as Earth with racial and class segregation playing a big part in the game’s middle act, though these aspects don’t ever feel forced; even the centric Religious aspect is never overbearing, which was a great move on Irrational’s part.
It isn’t all about the city itself, however; the game’s main story is perhaps the most important tale from Columbia and focuses on Booker DeWitt, who is far more developed than the previous, silent BioShock protagonists.
BioShock impresses with its great use of lighting tricks and sense of scale, crafting a solid, believable world. But close up things suffer: on PS3 textures are low resolution and there are lip-syncing issues.
There’s the ability to unlock the vertical sync, something normally found in PC games, but this tends to just up the tearing to unbearable levels in busy areas.
This new-found vocalisation is used to great effect in Booker’s relationship with Elizabeth – the young woman he’s been sent to rescue in order to pay his debts. Elizabeth is as much a main character as our protagonist – she’s along for the entire ride and she’s about as perfect as companions get. Not only does the mystery surrounding her drive the game, but she’s also a genuinely useful; she’ll throw you items such as ammo and money when you’re in the midst of battle.
But that’s just the start of it – Elizabeth’s mysterious powers allow her to open windows to alternate dimensions – tears – which aid you in battle by unlocking supplies, turrets and even ways to traverse the battle or take cover. Each battle is meticulously designed with these tears in mind and it becomes a much more tactical affair than most shooters.
The whole combat system reflects this strategic approach, with Booker employing different guns and Vigors in battle, bound to the right and left triggers respectively. Although there’s a smaller collection of Vigors in comparison to BioShock’s Plasmids, they offer more tactical advantages with less of a focus on killing – that’s what the guns are for.
A few Vigors are similar to certain Plasmids, such as Shock Jockey and Possession, but there’s some fantastic new ones, such as Murder of Crows, where Booker can throw a vicious gang of crows at enemies and Undertow, which gives Booker the ability to control a tentacle in order to push enemies away or reel them in for close-ranged attacks.
There’s plenty of guns available and, although you’re only able to carry two at a time, there’s a lot of variety when it comes down to it, with Booker’s armoury including everything from a trusty pistol to a grenade-firing Volley Gun. There are a few upgrades for each gun too, including damage increase, a bigger clip size and faster reloading; these can be purchased from the vending machines strewn around Columbia, with variations housing ammo, health and even upgraded Vigors.
Another addition to the combat system is the Skyhook, a spinning, magnetised hook which can be used for melee combat or – more importantly – to quickly navigate around the battlefield using the Skylines. It’s even used to great effect outside of combat, where it’s the main way to get around with ease.
This paves the way for colossal battles with multiple routes and some brilliant strategic gameplay – these moments are Infinite’s combat at its best – even though it’s not open world, the areas are massive and create that illusion; this is also reflected in the exploration – there’s not a full world to explore but you can stray off the beaten path at points.
The combat’s superb, the world is incredible and the characters are great but there’s no denying BioShock’s heart lies with the story. Infinite features a wonderfully crafted narrative, focusing on Elizabeth, Booker and the tears to alternate dimensions. While there are a few issues with pacing at points and some parts feel quite similar, it’s ultimately a really tight plot which spans an impressive ten hours.
When all is said and done, there’s a fantastic payoff, although – no spoilers – the conclusion feels as though its trying too hard to one-up BioShock (and, oh yes, it does) and it almost takes away from the impact that it has, which is still absolutely fantastic in its own right.
It’s clear that Infinite wasn’t developed – at least at first – with PlayStation Move in the forefront of Irrational’s combined mind, but the support for it is there and, well, it works.
There’s a few oddities, however, such as the zoom on the sniper zooming the whole screen rather than looking down the scope. It makes sense with the way Move works: the gun in your right hand and the sub controller for Vigors and movement in your left, but it still doesn’t feel right. Melee is also a bit disjointed, as you have to swing the controller, which ends up spinning the screen around.
In the end, it’s really up to how you prefer playing – without PlayStation Move, you’ll get a solid first person shooting system but with it, you’re getting an almost arcade-like experience.
Not everything is spelled out for you; there are still questions left unanswered for players to mull over, though various subtleties in subsequent playthroughs will make you appreciate the story even more, making things click in a way that only BioShock can offer.
All in all, Infinite’s story plays its cards very well throughout and there’s a few clever surprises along the way. The backstory of Columbia is also fleshed out by Voxophones – audio recordings which you can find with a little bit of exploring – these are extremely interesting and tie everything together without the need of it getting in the way of the plot at hand.
It’s easy to see a lot of time and care has been put into every part of Infinite and the sound design reflects this entirely; there’s original music, which is absolutely incredible and use of existing music which reflects the time period extremely well. In fact, sound is the driving force of the game at times when both the music and sounds are used to great effect. All of this, along with the series’ renowned voice acting makes for something very pleasing to the ears.
BioShock Infinite, unfortunately, shows that the PS3 is an aging machine; textures are poor at times and text or graphics on signs in particular can be extremely low resolution. It’s a colourful, brilliantly designed world with a lot going for it, however; Columbia’s one of the best designed cities in any game and your first glimpse of the land above the skies is truly awe-inspiring.
The only place Columbia really falters is with its characters: while a certain character channels Sander Cohen marvelously, there’s no one who matches the charisma and maliciousness of Atlas; Comstock’s religious motives feel more grounded and don’t match up to Ryan’s own ideals; even the Songbird, which shares a very similar concept, doesn’t feel as fleshed out as the Big Daddy.
All is forgiven as instead we have Elizabeth; the shining saviour of Infinite – nothing in the previous games can even come close to having her along for the ride; she’s more real than any video game character before her, thanks to some brilliant AI and writing.
Oh, and the name, Infinite? That’s got an important meaning too – it’s perhaps the most important of all – and, like the rest of the game, it’s all very clever.
While Infinite’s narrative is a less lonely yet far more puzzling affair than BioShock’s, I would be inclined to say that it loses some of the complexity and brilliance with the characters.
And then I remember the lighthouse at the very start; I remember Elizabeth with all of her mystery; I remember the world of Columbia with all of its intricacy; I remember the way the narrative pushes you through, as if you’re putting a puzzle together; I remember the euphonic sound design; I remember Comstock, the Luteces and the rest of the brilliant cast.
And then I realise aside from some superficial issues, there’s really nothing wrong with the game at all – it’s better than BioShock ever was; it’s fully realised and complete. It’s so, so near perfect and the first words Booker hear when he steps into the land of Columbia reflect my thoughts entirely:
“It’s heaven – or as close as we’ll see until judgement day.”
Game reviewed from PS3 debug (but marked for review) code supplied by the publisher’s PR company. A patch is available on day one, but it’s not clear what is changed upon installation.