REVIEW: BioShock Infinite (2013)

R.G. visits the floating city of Columbia and takes a look at the third game in the BioShock series to see if it was worth the hype. 

Reviewed on PlayStation 3.

I love the original BioShock, and it was one of the best games to come out in 2007. BioShock 2, which debuted three years later, was a solid game but an overall disappointing and unnecessary sequel to a much superior predecessor. BioShock Infinite is the third in the series and the second BioShock title developed by Irrational Games, who also developed the original, which is probably one of the reasons why the second was so lacklustre. As one of the most anticipated releases of 2013, and the game I was most looking forward to, lets see if Infinite is the true sequel we’ve been waiting for.

Being one of the few modern FPS games I have played that doesn’t have multiplayer, it is refreshing to see a first-person shooter in this day and age that refuses to cop to the online crowd. I am not saying that multiplayer is bad, but for the last couple of years, online gaming has become the identity of the genre, resulting in multiplayer being the major factor that determines the overall quality and success of the title. Usually, the single player ends up being forgotten, which is a bit of a shame since developers spend more time and resources on making campaigns from writing the story, animating the scenes, recording the voice actors, coding the scripts and so on. With BioShock Infinite, Irrational have really outdone themselves with a campaign that will not be forgotten any time soon.

Let’s get the technical bits out of the way first before we delve into the story and gameplay. Infinite is absolutely gorgeous to look at, and its mixture of cartoon-like visuals and realistic atmosphere give it a timeless look. The floating city of Columbia gives the same feeling of environmental immersion that the underwater city of Rapture did with BioShock, as it is a meticulously detailed and well-realised world. You cannot help but explore every nook and cranny just for admiration. I heard that the PC version has the best graphical and technical performance out of the three platforms, because it has a better frame rate and optimisation. I don’t know if the PC edition has this problem, but in the PS3 copy, the game stops and loads for a few seconds occasionally during combat, ruining the flow quite considerably. Fortunately, it only happened two or three times, predominantly on the busier combat levels later in the game.

You play as Booker DeWitt, a disgraced Pinkerton agent sent to rescue a young woman to pay gambling debts. This young lady is named Elizabeth, and she has the ability to open up tears, allowing her to create a new universe at will. Elizabeth plays an integral part to both the story and the gameplay. She is your artificial intelligence companion, and probably one of the most unique and impressive I have ever seen in a game. Her tear abilities give the battleground a lot more depth as she can reveal supplies from other dimensions at your command. She can also hand you supplies including ammo and health in a very dynamic fashion, as she throws it at you, depending on the distance, at the press of a button. I was a bit afraid that I’d have to rescue her every time she is in danger, but thankfully, Elizabeth isn’t a damsel and is never a hindrance to the overall experience. Her AI can be a bit strange at times as she tends to appear and disappear all over the place, but that’s really the only nagging issue.

Infinite’s gameplay is very different to its predecessors. Unlike BioShock and BioShock 2, which are more Survival Horror-influenced, Infinite is action-orientated as you become a one-man army going up against hordes of enemies. I was quite sceptical at first since BioShock’s controls didn’t have the most convenient layout when it came to combat, but thankfully the mechanics have changed to cater to the action, even if the iron sight is still the R3 button instead of the shoulder button. Elizabeth’s role in the battleground makes the spectacle feel a lot more cinematic, especially whenever she throws supplies at you during critical moments, making combat a lot more intense. The action is a mixture of gunplay,  powers in the form of Vigors, which are a lot of fun to use and mostly to turn the tide against enemies, and a new additional melee weapon. The latter is the most useful when dispatching an enemy who is near death, giving you an instant kill cinematic when prompted to do so. Most of the combat areas are composed of skylines, which is the most exciting mechanic of the game and can be used to travel around the battleground to flank enemies or take them out of range. In later areas, tears will appear and can be either hooks, supplies, turrets or cover, which Elizabeth can open for tactical advantages.

In typical BioShock fashion, equipment and powers can be upgraded, but to a lesser extent in Infinite. Ability bonuses come from gears which give many advantages from health boosts to fire-inducing melee attacks, though some of them can be a bit overpowered. While out of combat situations, scavenging for items such as money and lock-picks play an important part of the game, as cash will let you buy upgrades and get you to areas with essential items, such as “Infusions,” which can increase your health, shield and Vigor. Unfortunately, that is all there is to it, as exploration is mostly used to drive the narrative, relying on Columbia’s imaginative environments and interesting events to entice your curiosity and give you a motivation to explore.

While I do appreciate how dynamic and entertaining the combat is, and the variety of mechanics to work with, it does feel quite stripped-down and there are some elements from BioShock that I wish were carried over into Infinite. You can only use two weapons at a time instead of six, and you are able to swap them for different firearm combinations, as there are so many weapons to choose from. It would be nice if the gauntlets were a bit more varied in function because the weapons are just the usual pistol-machine gun-shotgun-sniper-rocket launcher combo. When I said there are a lot of weapons, I meant that there are two sets of the aforementioned combination, with small differences to damage and fire rate. The same goes with the powers as you can only stick to one. Also in the first play-through, you can only stick to one combat style. My approach was to use the “Bucking Bronco Vigor,” which lifts enemies in mid-air and takes them out one-by-one with a shotgun whilst using a machine gun to take out enemies at long range. I only altered my approach rarely in the whole game.

Environmental damage such as puddles of water and fuel feel quite unnecessary in Infinite, as most of the combat areas are so open, meaning you will not even see them or just ignore them completely. As for enemies, there isn’t a lot of variety to them, especially when it comes to using your powers. I use the Bucking Bronco all the time because it can immobilise maybe 80% of the enemy types. The rest are the Siren, who are the most annoying antagonists with the most frustrating combat level in the game. There are only three types of mechanised enemies in the game: the Patriots, Turrets and Handymen. Coming back to exploration, it is also quite depleted from past entries. In the previous BioShock games, powers were integral to exploration as you needed specific abilities to get passed an area, but in Infinite, it only happens in one instance. Scavenging can sometimes become a monotonous chore as you only tend to find either money or food, but because it is so essential for preparation, it is a better choice, especially on harder difficulty levels such as “1999 Mode.” The latter is the difficulty that I recommend the most, since enemies have more health and you have less, making your approach different in each situation. It also makes scavenging a necessity as you need money whenever you die, and if you don’t have enough money and croak it, it is game over and you start from the beginning of a checkpoint (which are few and far between).

While Infinite stumbles a bit when it comes to gameplay, it never stumbles when it comes to narrative. Infinite’s story is by far one of the most memorable I’ve experienced in some time, and this is the aspect that elevates the game and allows you to forgive its flaws. The BioShock series has always been well-known for telling stories via visuals and environments, and Infinite nails that aspect perfectly as the game gives you the freedom to go at your own pace without the overarching plot telling you to do so. The plot is well-paced, imaginative, morally challenging and mind-twisting, and the characters are unforgettable. DeWitt is one of the few first-person protagonists to have a personality outside of the player’s action, and Elizabeth is probably one of the best heroines I’ve ever encountered in a videogame. Her voice actress is great, her design is great and her characterisation and importance to the plot is seamless and natural thanks to very impressive A.I. She has such vivid animations and expressions. The story’s themes of religion, politics and fate are endlessly fascinating, too, and its cryptic plot points mixed with the multiverse aspect gives you a motivation to replay the game multiple times. Infinite doesn’t pull any strings when it comes to evoking the racism, nationalism, rebellion, self-importance and hypocrisy of religion found in a “Utopian” society. The ending, which I won’t dare spoil, is a fantastic conclusion, and you have to pay attention to the story to get the best result when it comes to a head. My problem, if I had to pick one from this amazing story, is that there are certain points where it gives you pre-chosen decisions. The problem is that they are more cosmetic changes throughout the story and don’t affect the plot one bit. Maybe its all just symbolism, and if that’s the case, then it’s not really a problem at all.

Is a game’s story enough to carry a title’s overall quality, even if the gameplay isn’t on par? Infinite, in spite of its flaws, it is a hugely enjoyable and memorable way to kill a few hours. Its combat trumps most first-person shooters today, as it offers many unique mechanics, such as the skyline, to make it stand-out. I do wish it had some elements from previous BioShock games to make it a bit deeper, but to Irrational’s credit, they knew just what they wanted. The previous BioShock games were claustrophobic Survival Horrors with an open sense of storytelling. Infinite is an action game that has more focus in pushing its story forward, and in the long run, delivers on that promise in spectacular fashion. This is a story that will be remembered as well as debated for a long time, and you will find yourself going back to it again and again just to experience new facets and discover new revelations. I can confidently say that, yes, Infinite is the true successor to the original BioShock and a definite contender for game of the year.

R.G. Villanueva

Contributing game and film writer for SquabbleBox. Occasional DJ and instrumentalist, amateur programmer, all-around lazy guy.

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