BioShock Infinite is set in 1912, and it opens similarly to other BioShock titles. There's a man, a lighthouse, and a trip to a mysterious city — but from there, it diverges. Gamers play as Booker DeWitt, a down-on-his-luck mercenary who is hired for an odd job. He must infiltrate the floating city of Columbia and rescue a girl named Elizabeth. Columbia is a futuristic paradise of amazing science and technology, but it's also an isolationist and xenophobic land where slavery still exists and the American Founding Fathers are worshipped. As if that weren't strange enough, there's a civil war brewing between Comstock, the city's founder, and the Vox Populi, a group of rebels seeking to overthrow the order. Booker's focus is on saving Elizabeth, a task made more difficult by the fact that she is worshipped by the city's denizens because she can open "tears" in space and time.
Infinite doesn't really know what it wants to be. It changes tones and ideas so often that it's almost bewildering. The first few hours of the game feel like a completely different story from the ending. The title focuses on the strife between the Vox Populi and the Comstock faction, and it also highlights the innate racism of the Columbia culture. Then it all fades away so Elizabeth's story can be told. Major plot events occur off-screen or in other dimensions, and you wander into the aftermath. The civil war is little more than an excuse to give you more guys to shoot, and the plotline kind of fizzles out. A ton of time is put into developing Columbia as a world, but it's really just a backdrop for Elizabeth's story.
It's a shame because Columbia is a chunk of American exceptionalism with an emphasis on some of the worst parts of American history (e.g., Wounded Knee, the Pinkertons, etc.). It's interesting to see a game lay it on thick instead of glossing over the unpleasant elements. They do a good job of setting up the conflict between the Comstock factions and Vox Populi, but there's some interesting hand-waving at the idea that a revolution can easily turn into tyranny, but it's so far in the background that it's hard to care. It also leaves some elements feeling a little strange, particularly those dealing with racism and slavery. Rapture was the star of its story, but Columbia is a supporting character at best.
Elizabeth's story is difficult to discuss because it involves deep spoilers. She's a likeable character who's trapped in an overdone story. The twist in the original BioShock was subtle enough that you could overlook the clues. In Infinite, once you puzzle out one piece, it becomes incredibly easy to figure out the rest. The game tries to build up anticipation, but it does a poor job of keeping a lid on the mystery. The finale is so predictable that the buildup ends up feeling rather hollow.
Elizabeth does her best impression of a Disney Princess early on (including a brief musical number), but she quickly grows more defined and motivated by picking locks, cracking codes, and tearing holes in dimensions. There are times when you wonder why she isn't the solo star, considering how often she does everything but shoot the bad guys. By comparison, Booker is a thug who's prone to making bad decisions, but otherwise, he feels pretty bland and seems to exist merely to introduce us to Elizabeth. A big theme falls a bit flat because of this. Fortunately, Elizabeth carries most of the story on her own .
Compared to its predecessor, Infinite is a more streamlined experience. You no longer have persistent resources aside from money and ammo, and your health bar consists of a regular life bar and a regenerating Halo-style shield. Gunplay has been downplayed, as you can only carry two weapons at once, and all guns are less complex than in the prior title. Weapons can still be upgraded, but upgrades consist of flat bonuses to accuracy, clip size or damage, not bolts of electricity. Because of this, you'll likely settle on two favorite weapons and never switch. Having two upgraded weapons is a lot more useful than switching, and money is scarce enough that you can't go overboard on upgrades.
Vigors replace the BioShock Plasmids, although they're basically identical. Around the city, Booker finds Vigors that he can ingest to permanently gain a superpower that he can activate. You'll get every Vigor as the plot progresses, but some side-quests can give you early access. Activating a Vigor drains some of your mana bar ("salts"). Each Vigor has a specific salt cost, with more powerful Vigors requiring more Salts. You can regenerate salts by finding bottles in the environment or chowing down on certain kinds of food.
The Vigors feel pretty well balanced, and there's very little reason to diversify. The electric shock works wonders on almost every enemy, and when it's upgraded, it chains multiple enemies and keeps them stunned while increasing the damage of your guns. An expensive Vigor upgrade is a neat idea but can drain your salts while failing to be more effective. Like the weapons, you'll settle into a comfortable groove with your one or two upgraded Vigors.
Elizabeth is your constant companion, and fortunately, she's a great partner. She's invincible, and as you fight, she'll wander around the environment and occasionally finds items (ammo, health or salts) that she'll toss to you. What she finds is contextually dependent on what you need. If you run low on ammo, she'll toss you a full gun. If you're low on health, she'll give you a medpack. She also calls out important enemies to mark them on your HUD. She can also open tears in space and time to snag items from another reality that Booker can use, such as ammo crates, puddles of water, or rocket turrets. She can only maintain one tear at a time, so if you want a rocket launcher, you'll have to give up your cover for a short while. For some cash, she also revives you.
There are two kinds of permanent upgrades in Infinite: vials that permanently upgrade the player's choice of health, salts or shield; and gear (boots, hats, pants and shirts). You can have one of each gear type equipped and switch between them from the menu screen. Gear offers passive bonuses that range from increased ammo capacity to temporary invincibility. You'll probably find a couple that satisfy you and forget they exist unless you find another really good one. Early in the game, I found a hat that made enemies explode, and nothing eclipsed its usefulness.
One of the coolest features in Infinite is the Skyline, or magnetic rail lines that you can ride using a special hook. Hop on one, and you'll zoom around until you jump off. You can use this to escape from enemies, reposition yourself, or zoom around and shoot enemies. You can't do this in every fight, but major set pieces take advantage of the Skyline. It keeps fights fun and frantic.
The game does a good job with combat. The mix of Vigors and weapons is a fun combination, and it's enjoyable to mix powers and tears. The game is at its best when you're pulling off a chain of lightning-fast kills to destroy a room full of enemies, riding the Skyline around the huge environment, and pulling items from tears. It is at its worst when you're trying to have a plain old fight. Enemies are bullet-spongy, and even upgraded guns lack impact. The more freedom you have, the more interesting the combat system is. Taking down a Zeppelin is sure to rank among this year's best moments, especially since it is done without QTEs or cut scenes. On the other hand, the fight against the Siren, who teleports around and sends swarms of enemies, may be one of the worst.
Exploration is a mixed bag. The game spends a lot of time being linear, with guided paths from point A to point B. When the game lets you explore a chunk of Columbia, it's the best. It is no Dishonored or Deus Ex, but there are neat things to discover, small side-quests to do, hidden rooms to find, and a few other things that break up the linearity. Columbia is distinctive and rich in small details. You may notice that the music in certain scenes sounds familiar, and that's because it's from the future but has been repackaged and resold by a clever businessman. It's wonderfully surreal to walk along Columbia's beach and realize that a distorted version of "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" is playing in the background. There are tons of audio tapes and hidden video records that flesh out Columbia as a location.
Infinite's visuals are helped by immensely strong art design. The graphics aren't great, and the console version pales in comparison to the PC iteration, but the art design is so good that you can overlook it. Every area is rich with tiny details that bring the city to life, from the clothing choices to the posters on the wall and the subtle way Elizabeth's appearance changes throughout the game. Elizabeth is staggeringly well animated, enough so that she stands out from everyone around her through her body language alone. The voice acting and audio design are also top-notch. There are a few wacky accents here and there, but nothing egregiously hilarious. The title is undoubtedly held back by the aging hardware on the consoles, but it's not enough to sour the experience, and some of the visuals are breathtaking.
BioShock Infinite is a flawed masterpiece. When it is on, there is no other game like it, but it's frustrating when it fails. The story line is simultaneously clever and too impressed with its own cleverness, and the gameplay veers between some of the most exciting you'll ever play and being workmanlike and tedious. The failures in Infinite are mostly from setting such a high standard that it is disappointing when some moments don't live up to it. This is a rare example of a good game that disappoints because it could have been even more. Despite that, it's completely worth playing and an overall well-made product.
More articles about BioShock Infinite