You’re Booker DeWitt, off to the floating city of Colombia to retrieve a mysterious girl kept locked away in a tower. It sounds like a potential steampunk version of a questing knight. Save the damsel in distress. Simple? Well, after being announced in 2008 and now finally released in 2013, this game isn’t as straightforward as a what you’ve just read. We’re no longer in the depths of the sea, but high up in the clouds. Quite a change of setting, and a risky one at that. Bioshock and Rapture go hand in hand, and I remember that when the details of Infinite were announced it was hard to perhaps see why they’d take such a move after the success of Bioshock in 2007. The formula we’re used to now is that if a franchise is successful, you just keep on publishing new editions of that original formula that struck gold – and reel in the cash. The best example of that is the Call of Duty franchise; since Modern Warfare in 2007, it’s kept coming back with a new number the only change to the title. So why not do the same? Well, one of the reasons I think well of Infinite is because it’s a recognition that an idea can only last for so long while still being good. Rather than try to make a Bioshock III, it was time to move to pastures new.
Ah, you say that like a sequel to Bioshock was never made! You’re ignoring Bioshock II.
That’s true, they did make a sequel to Bioshock, but things become problematic when you look at things closer. Instead of being developed by Irrational Games (who were once 2K Boston) like Bioshock and Infinite, it was developed by 2K Marvin. So it sounds like a change in development teams? Well, that seems to go fine until you find out 2K Marvin were involved in development of all three Bioshock games. Besides, in terms of reviews it did well. IGN gave it 9.1/10. Eurogamer gave it 8/10 and Game Informer gave it 8.25/10. Then when we start thinking about development times in relation to when Infinite and Bioshock II were announced, it becomes hard to pin down a date when it was decided that Infinite would be in a floating cloud city. But even as we look at developing studios, it seems the only answer I can pin down is that Ken Levine was the lead writer and creative director for Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite, but had no involvement in Bioshock II. Either way, what’s important to note that the change of tack has happened in accordance to what material there was available for the third game. After the idea of playing as a big daddy in Bioshock II, it became hard to see where next Rapture could go. Still, onto reviewing Infinite.
One of the obvious points I’ve heard grumbled about infinite is the simple interchanging between Vigours and Salts, with Plasmids and Eve. They’re there, and they both function in exactly the same way as they did in Rapture. But a Bioshock game without plasmids/vigours wouldn’t be Bioshock, and once you come up with a system of genetic improvement that gives the wielder superhuman powers it’s hard to say it’ll ever be different to what it was in the previous games. The question really is, if you’re grumbling about that, then you try to come up with a new system that is different to the plasmid one but still delivers the core Bioshock experience. I just see this as a frankly irrelevant point, because an Infinite without vigours/plasmids would be just a dull shooter.
The next point to move onto is then the actual vigours themselves. They all pretty much do exactly the same thing, to a greater of lesser degree when compared to the plasmids in Bioshock. It’s a fair observation, but one that is more of a nitpick than anything else. Some truly new vigours would have been welcome, but this is more an observation make in hindsight, rather than as you play the game. It’s no pressing concern.
Perhaps the only other point to make about gameplay is either the uselessness of being able to aim down sights. It’s a good feature, but more one suited to Call of Duty. The problem is that on the PC with the original controls, using the sights is awkward and annoying at best. The default bind is “Z”, which in combination with using WASD for movement controls is just awkward. This however, is a nitpick. For one, it can be solved by setting a new control for it. On the other, I never actually used the sights and I never once felt that it was impeding my ability to play.
The other big, looming half of these games is the storyline, and for those unfamiliar with the Bioshock franchise must note it’s something to set it apart from other games out there. In this case, the game wraps its plot around the story, rather than having the story as nice window-dressing for the actual gameplay itself.
Why does Bioshock Infinite hold such high esteem for me? Quite simply, it shows maturity. The franchise has grown, it has matured. Bioshock was a great game in itself, but it leapt in at the deep end with a dystopian society where horror and revulsion where its main playing cards. You arrive in Rapture to where the signal is so very clear that it is a dystopia, and a place that has already plunged into chaos before your arrival. But with Infinite, it’s not so straight forward. When you first arrive in Colombia, you slowly get drip-fed clues that something isn’t quite right about the seeming floating marvel. It’s a great example of pacing, and the sum doesn’t arrive when you number 77 wins the raffle. With the Vox Populi set up as seemingly as the good guys, you could be forgiven for thinking that’s where the story would lead itself, where the player is the champion of that faction. But no. Even as you have Vox Populi allies fighting with you, the under-trodden and the oppressed who would have the player’s sympathies then show a very dark streak – and this is where Infinite proves its maturity over Bioshock. No longer does the series view morality in fixed terms. It all reveals itself to be ambiguous where there are no easy ways out. This is what makes Infinite feel more mature as a game compared to previous titles. While Bioshock might allow the player an influence in moral choices, and thus have the ability to be good and have a good ending, Infinite allows no such choice. You just watch the world burn and you’re hopelessly caught in the crossfire. Infinite can be criticised for having not choices in gameplay that affect the outcome, but the whole point of that becomes clear in the ending – where there is no choice.
What’s also worth commenting on is the depth of supporting characters – the Lutece “Twins”. These two draw upon Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a play which deals with the inevitability of fate. The Twins behave in the spirit of the characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the above mentioned play, and bring a fresh diversity to characters. Their comic relief is generated by their absurd manner and dry humour, which gives Infinite greater depth. At times, the characters pay direct homage to the play by using dialogue and scenes taken from the play, in this case the heads or tails scene.While it might seem bizarre, this scene is used to set up the ending and the two sides of the coin comes to fulfil the two sides of DeWitt.
However, the greatest of the supporting characters is Elizabeth, and it seems unfair to even label her as such. Though the cover of the game might bear the image of DeWitt, Elizabeth really deserves the title of being the main character rather than a support, because in all respects the story belongs to her. However, to explain in greater details would spoil things. But, what’s noteworthy is that she is extremely well characterised. As a AI character who follows you around, her contribution to gameplay is another breath of fresh air. Instead of having a dimwitted NPC that manages to get itself into trouble, Elizabeth is a great addition to gameplay. In combat, she will randomly throw you ammunition, salts and health kits during fire-fights which is useful on paper, but during gameplay adds a much more organic feel. There have been times when I’ve been running low on ammo, or just about to die until I get a health kit tossed at me, and my life is saved. This mechanic is great because it makes Elizabeth function more like a human player than a computer controlled one.
To summarise, Infinite is definitely a great game. Is it going to be the best game of 2013? I wouldn’t be surprised. Will it live up to claims of being the game of its generation? Only hindsight will tell. My verdict however is that Bioshock Infinite rescues a franchise that seemed in danger from sub-standard sequels like Bioshock 2, and at the same time breathes into it a new life. It is certainly a game that you must play. It will drop a bomb on you in the end. However, what makes this game stand out is the seamless blend between storytelling and gameplay. It suffers in neither department, and neither antagonises the other. As a game, that’s no easy feat. When the balance is wrong, everyone notices. When it’s right, no one realises it.