'BioShock Infinite' - review: A place beyond the clouds

Thursday, 28 March 2013 11:14 AM Written by 

“BioShock Infinite” may bear the name of the series and share some of the basic gameplay mechanics of its predecessor, but that’s where its label as “a sequel” should end.The game is a standalone masterpiece that, in many ways, is a direct opposite of “BioShock.”

 

The comparisons stretch beyond the literal and symbolic locations of Rapture being in the depths of the planet and Columbia floating above the clouds. The central themes of the two games act as two sides of the same coin. “Bioshock” conveyed the feeling of crippling isolation, while “Infinite” promotes the strong sense of companionship in Booker and Elizabeth. But at its heart, “BioShock” is a demonstration of sociological pitfalls, while the world in “Infinite” could be a case study in humanity and psychology. Both games convey their respective messages subtly in a believable, well-crafted artistic vision that is a rare find in entertainment media. Both should be considered mainstays in any video game collection.

 

The year is 1912. Booker DeWitt is a private investigator who is told by a stranger to “bring us the girl, and wipe away the debt.” Kept in the dark about the details of the girl’s captivity, Booker is thrust into the cogs of the floating city Columbia. Upon entering, he’s baptised in cleansing waters by the city’s prominent religious community. The religion follows the Columbia’s founder: the prophet Zachary Comstock. From there, Booker begins his journey of exploration and discovery to locate the captive Elizabeth and bring her back to his world.

 

The juxtaposition of our introductions to Rapture and Columbia is clear. In Rapture, someone is ready to take your life after your first step from the Bathysphere. The people of Columbia are warm and welcoming. The first 20 minutes makes it appear to be a genuine utopia. But of course, further progression uncovers a rotting core that plagues the city, and “Infinite” isn’t bashful in tackling the social issues that haunt America’s past.

 

 

There’s a campaign in Columbia to promote ethnic cleansing. It’s evident from eavesdropping on conversations, observing art, and reading the newspapers. Columbia’s leaders and residents own slaves and abuse minorities, seeing them as plagues on the community. There’s even an organization that worships John Wilkes Booth. It’s a demonstration of the time period in which the game depicts, but it illustrates that crafting a utopia can’t erase the flaws in humanity or the nature of the historical moment.

 

Class warfare is another example that Columbia is fraying at the seams. The powerful prophet Comstock and numerous other robber barons of Columbia keep their vast riches while the city’s workers starve. A revolution is near, and is led by the Vox Populi (Latin for “voice of the people”); a rebel force whose sole aim is to bring down the powers that be of Columbia and take control of the city.

 

“Infinite” tackles America’s dark history by exploring these uncomfortable truths, venturing into new territory for video games. Somehow it nails it on the medium's first try. Don’t expect glorification. “Infinite” handles them appropriately like cancers.


“Infinite’s” story acts as a looking glass to a social experiment in the first act, then promptly shifts to thought-provoking science fiction for the remainder of the game. Once Elizabeth joins Booker as a sidekick, it’s discovered that she has the unique power to open portals to alternate dimensions; a skill that acts as the catalyst for the basic moral of the game’s ending. It may seem like this is needlessly shoehorned into a realistic narrative, but it became believable when I remembered that “Infinite” has always been built on a foundation of science fiction. I became so immersed in the believable world of human characters and their sociological hurdles that I forgot that I was on a floating city and was able to conjure mystical powers from my hands. This is a credit to Irrational Games. They’ve crafted an unrealistic world and made it as believable as anything found on this planet.

 

 

There’s so much to say about “Infinite” that has nothing to do with the actual gameplay, but good gameplay is still essential. Fortunately, “Infinite” keeps what worked in “BioShock,” while also tweaking the formula. Dual-wielding weapons and powers - now called vigors instead of plasmids - returns. Booker is unable to carry the game’s entire arsenal this time, and can only hold two weapons at once. I found this to be an odd design choice because of the game’s huge catalog of weaponry. It has many more firearms than the first two “BioShocks.” Two vigors can be held at once, but those can be substituted by other tonics at any time.

 

Melees are achieved by swinging the Sky Hook, a tool that doubles as a violent killing machine and a mode of transportation. Columbia’s primary form of transportation is a series of railways called Skyline. These rails move you like a rollercoaster from platform to platform. The Skyline provides a breathtaking feeling upon using it for the first time and furthers the uniqueness of “Infinite.”

 

Weapons and tonics can be upgraded throughout the game with Silver Eagles, the game’s currency. Different vending machines are scattered around the city that can upgrade your arsenal.

 

 

Silver Eagles are found in nearly every building of every room in the city, which leads to my lone gripe. The game is loot-heavy to the point that it interrupts the natural flow of the gameplay and story. It’s essential to stock up on health, salts (vigor fuel), and ammo, but this requires you to loot every tabletop, desk, and box in the game. I would go into an empty room and mash the X button to loot everything I could without even looking at what I was taking. It becomes an annoyance in the later parts of the game.

 

Elizabeth can aid in battle by opening portals that can provide cover fire from a turret or a crate of medkits. Different parts of the battlefield become highlighted to show what Elizabeth can form and where. Having an escort is nearly always an act in frustration in video games, but “Infinite” makes it nearly perfect. You don’t have to worry about Elizabeth dying since she follows at your speed and gets out of the way when necessary.

 

“Infinite’s” stunning presentation makes up for the constant looting. Not only are the graphics incredible, but the overall art direction is just magnificent. Columbia’s buildings and statues that can be seen floating in the distance make for awe-inspiring experience.

 

Troy Baker and Courtnee Draper play Booker and Elizabeth respectively. They bring the characters to life, creating a believable bond between the two. It’s an excellent performance by the whole cast.

 

 

(MINOR SPOILER ALERT FOR THOSE OF YOU WHO WANT TO GO INTO THE ENDING WITH A BLANK SLATE)

 

There’s a lot discuss when it comes to the story of “Infinite.” Some things are left to interpretation, other aspects just beg for further questioning. I’m sure I’ll read someone’s jaw-dropping, 5000-word interpretation in a month that outlines allegory and the space-time continuum, written by a more informed mind than my own. But even as I write about it now based on my experience, “BioShock Infinite’s” story and ending are chilling. This tale of inter-dimensional travel and American History shows that human nature is unavoidable. Prophet Comstock tried to build a castle in the sky, and Andrew Ryan tried to build a utopia at the bottom of the sea. Booker tried to rid himself of his past sins. Even after exploring endless alternate dimensions, there is no cure for human nature. “BioShock Infinite” is a scary reminder of that.


10 out of 10

Pros:
-A story that will lead to discussion for the rest of the year
-Stunning environment
-Deeply satisfying overall

Cons:
-a tad loot-heavy, but the rest of the package erases minor flaws

 Release Date  3/26/13
 Platform  Xbox (reviewed), PS3, PC
 Rated  M for Mature
 Price  $59.99

 

  

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