Bioshock Infinite

Developer: Irrational Games
Publisher: 2K Games

Review by Son of Montfort, 7 April 2013

order of the hex

GrogHeads is proud to induct Bioshock Infinite into the Order of the Hex, for its Mind-Bending Narrative.

And in attempting to explain the full level of awesome that it is, Monty tries to express his love for the game without spoiling too much of the plot, like that really annoying kid in 3rd grade that told you Vader really was Luke’s father.

"Bring us the girl and wipe away your debt." It always starts so simply. Rain on a secluded dock, an abandoned lighthouse in a storm, a mysterious pair rowing a boat in yellow slickers. But from the moment that the sky lights up in answer to the lighthouse’s call to the mind-twisting finale, Bioshock Infinite is anything but simple. It is a complex, breathtaking, heartbreaking, and shocking tale of penance and redemption. It is also a tale told with outstanding visuals, set against the changing backdrop of a gilded city floating in the sun-drenched realm above the clouds.

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Thinking solely about gameplay, Bioshock Infinite is a fairly high-achieving, albeit slightly derivative, member of the First-Person-Shooter genre. Players are tasked with the now familiar formula of grabbing guns, powering them up through a variety of upgrades, and mowing down a clever opposition tasked with ending the main character’s life. Bioshock Infinite does manage to make this rehashed type of gameplay interesting through several additional elements. The most simple is limiting players to only two weapons, which are drawn from a bevy of steampunk inspired killing tools that become increasingly more bizarre and intriguing. The player starts the game with a relatively standard 1912s pistol but, over the course of the game, gets the chance to grab weapons such as the slow-firing but deadly sniper rifle, a strange blunderbuss that fires heated shot to set enemies on fire, or the burst-firing but still accurate carbine. This is only a sampling of thirteen ranged weapons available and part of the fun of the game is discovering the capabilities and special uses for each new type discovered, so it is best to avoid spoiling that fun. Being forced to choose and hold only two of these weapons at a time presents players with a problem in resource management – some guns do high damage but have low ammo reserves, while others are more accurate or have higher ammo reserves, but only can attack one target. Choosing the right weapon for the situation is a difficult, often frustrating, exercise (particularly as weapons caches are not particularly common in the game’s long levels).

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The limited supply of weapons does present a rather interesting problem that will certainly turn some gamers off – the limited amount of resources available means you can only upgrade certain guns, forcing a degree of specialization. During a player’s first playthrough, he or she will likely not know what weapons are coming up, what weapons will be in high supply at the end of the game, or if ammo will be plentiful enough to make specializing in a weapon viable. While most weapons have enough ammo to be useful, some weapon upgrades are not unlocked until fairly late in the game, meaning that upgrades spent on earlier weapons either become wastes of precious resources or a reason to dissuade players from trying new toys. For instance, when I played, I poured a lot of resources into upgrading my favorite weapons – the carbine and the sniper rifle. By the end of the game, I was reticent to pick up any of the other cool weapons, because I did not want to risk losing the benefits of my upgrades (even when ammo got low for both). Frankly, some of the weapons just feel more effective than others, and the ability to one-shot bad guys with my accurate carbine and rifle seemed the better choice than playing around with the weapons capable of splash damage (which, overall, seemed weaker).

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The second way Bioshock Infinite tries to shake up the formula is through the use of Vigors, Infinite’s answer to the original Bioshock’s Plasmids. The Vigors are visually stunning but they provide powers that are familiar to anyone who has played the Jedi Knight series. Various forms of levitation and pulling, possession, and lightning all make their appearance. The Vigors are done in unique ways, but I did not feel like they were as thrilling as the Plasmids offered by the previous titles. That being said, the upgrades that are available for the Vigors allow for some neat customization of favorite powers and the high-expense of Vigor upgrades coupled with the scarcity of currency makes each upgrade a difficult choice with a noticeable gain. Infinite also spices things up with a variety of wearable gear, but this largely confers passive abilities or bonuses that are much more subtle (with a few exceptions) than the weapons and Vigors.

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As with the original Bioshock (and less with Bioshock 2), much will be said about Infinite’s characters, story, depiction of race, and twist-laden ending. In truth, the characters drive Infinite in a way that was absent from the original Bioshock. While the desolate emptiness of Andrew Ryan’s undersea Rand-based "paradise" lent to the overall creepiness of Bioshock, Infinite eschews anxiety-laden solitude for the psychological and emotional disquiet of confronting an entire society predicated on open racism, religious fanaticism, gilded-age isolationist paranoia, and turn-of-the-century American imperialist jingoism. Booker has numerous run-ins with abominable personalities, the most notable being Columbia’s founder, the self-styled prophet Zachary Comstock. Comstock is the consummate villain, a bigot sure of his salvation, smug in his pre-knowledge of future events, and dedicated to some mysterious and nefarious plan of "purging the Sodom below." But the horror lies not in a sort of cartoon-villain melodrama, but in his rational expounding of real-world and historical opinions and Comstock’s ability to, like the real people that inspired his character, gather normal people into his twisted fold. The open display of racism will likely bother some players, notably a handful of very shocking set-piece scenes, but the game deals with them in a mature fashion that is designed to show players that all ideologies have the potential for excess and violence.

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The other major personage with whom the players interact is the much-hyped Elizabeth. In many ways, Elizabeth drives the entire game, not as an empty MacGuffin to force the plot forward, but as a living character that, at least in me, elicited a strong emotional reaction. Hers is a heartbreaking tale of captivity, innocence, and, eventually, innocence lost. If anything, Elizabeth’s character is too strong, often eclipsing that of Booker, the player character, who seems fairly one-sided and flat in comparison to her expressive nature and vibrant actions. This, I believe, was an intentional choice by the developers, making a character that players will seek guidance and approval from, but also seek to protect. It is through Elizabeth that Infinite remains true to its science fiction pedigree – she had the power to open "tears" to alternate realities existing in the many worlds described by quantum mechanics. This power serves purpose, not only in developing the plot, but also in gameplay. Players can use Elizabeth to summon caches of weapons, freight hooks, cover, and even stationary guard turrets. This is not a huge part of the game, but intelligent use of Elizabeth’s powers can make or break an extended firefight.

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Given the fleshed out characters of Comstock and Elizabeth, it is a shame that many of the game’s excellent secondary characters are dealt with so summarily or remain vague mysteries. Primarily, Infinite’s flagship antagonist, the gigantic and monstrous Songbird, is given little explanation and left solely as an occasional threat popping up to plague Booker’s progress. This is too bad, as most players will be left with many unanswered questions regarding the beast – who made it, what is it, was it once human? Similarly, the charismatic leader of the Vox, Daisy Fitzroy, is far less fleshed out. Further, as much of the game’s backstory is dependent upon finding the often well-hidden voxophone recordings, some players will miss integral elements of the story. Of course, this adds to the game’s replay value, similar to the search for logs in System Shock 2.

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With such a variety of colorful characters, it is a pity that the rest of Columbia’s inhabitants are so bland. Many of them are carbon copies of one another, with even the enemy soldiers becoming a mish-mash of mustached men and uniformed ladies. Mitigating this is the stunning nature of the locations, every one a joy to behold and experience. One of the game’s many side achievements is to find telescopes for sightseeing and the levels are beautiful enough to want to scour them for just hidden gems. The much discussed sky-hooks are interesting and fun, providing a bird’s eye view of the landscape (often while under fire) while being rare enough to keep them interesting without becoming oppressive. Columbia’s brightness and majesty is a stark difference to the cold and dark sea-floor of Bioshock, but the zeppelins, airships, and brass-laden decor is bound to please quite a few people.

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Bioshock is, at its core, a rail shooter with amazing characters, a fantastic story, high production values in graphics and voice-acting, and interesting (if not overly creative) weapons and Vigors. There will be discussions about the lack of true "choice" in the game (particularly given how it has become an industry standard to promote more "open worlds"), and it is my opinion that, given the tenor of the game’s conclusion, this locked-in nature of progression was somewhat intentional. In many ways, this does not matter, and the strength of the story makes the lack of player choice much more palatable. The gameplay remains fresh and challenging throughout (the enemy AI seems strong, particularly at higher difficultly levels) and does not overstay its welcome, ending after approximately nine or ten hours. Although some of the characters are not as fully featured, Irrational and 2K Games already have promised a full season of at least three DLC expansions. Given that there is no multiplayer component to Infinite, these should be fully focused on advancing the storyline and providing new and exciting levels to explore.

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But this review really lacks any discernible purpose. In some multiverses, you have already bought Bioshock Infinite and played it, while in others, you never will. What have you done in this multiverse? In my opinion, if we truly have a choice, I would live in a multiverse where I had played Bioshock Infinite, because missing such a compelling story and well-crafted gameplay would be a tragedy, no matter where in the universe you exist!

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