March 25, 2013
When I was a wee lad growing up amidst the picturesque dales of Yorkshire, and by that I mean the inner-city slums of Birmingham, candy cigarettes were a real thing. The coolest kid on the playground would always be the one who could pretend to take the biggest toke on this sugary stick of goodness. I mean, who didn’t want to be Marlon Brando (the slim version) growing up? Granted, it’s hardly a good example to be setting for the next-generation of the country’s lawyers, doctors and politicians, but that was the way it was. Heaven knows what would have happened if there was ever a cigarette created for and advertised to kids; the playground would have descended into chaos. It’s a good job we didn’t live in Columbia then, BioShock Infinite’s floating city in the sky – not that you can live in an imaginary city anyway, but I’d certainly have given it a good go.
This floating utopia-gone-catastrophically-wrong plays home to Irrational Games’ proper follow-up to the 2007 smash hit, BioShock, where the year is 1912 and you jump into the shoes of Booker DeWitt, a disgraced former Pinkerton agent, who's been given one last chance to wipe the slate clean by heading up to the floating city and rescuing the imprisoned Elizabeth – protected by a large mechanical beast called Songbird – from the grasp of the self-proclaimed and much-loved Prophet, Comstock.
Columbia is the polar opposite of BioShock’s underwater husk of a city, Rapture. It’s a city bustling with life, one rich with colour and one that oozes personality. Despite all that though, it feels oddly familiar. The ghosts in Columbia in contrast to Rapture are living, all going about their own daily routines while the city descends into anarchy around them. Like BioShock, the political and social commentary runs deep throughout the segregated Columbia and provides an engaging context for the city you find yourself in, shining a light on past and current real-world issues like the class culture, racism and xenophobia. It’s a game that’s deep on so many levels, and the fact that you never feel comfortable anywhere in Columbia – constantly being looked upon like you’re an outsider – is a testament to the game world’s rich history and artistic vision.
Columbia is quite easily one of the richest and most immersive worlds envisioned in a video game, it’s that simple. It’s a city where you could spend hours just soaking up the little things, revelling in the attention to detail. Whether you stop to listen to a barbershop quartet sing the Beach Boys’ ‘God Only Knows,’ play games at the fairground, or just soak up the art, there’s something around every corner worthy of your attention.
It’s a city chock full with carnivals, street performers, a fairground designed to brainwash minors into enlisting in the military, cults worshipping John Wilkes Booth – with paintings depicting Washington as the devil – lavish houses, mechanical horses, epic manmade beaches with magnificent waterfalls and majestic churches. It’s truly stunning. It is a city of black and white though, and while for the most part it’s a city of wonder and beauty, if you scratch beneath the surface you’ll see the heart of the city, made up of shantytowns, slave camps, anarchist armies like the Vox Populi and the brutal, almost brainwashed regiment that patrol Columbia’s streets. The environments and what’s housed in them are something to behold and create a backdrop for what can only be described as a stunning story.
Topping BioShock 1’s story was always going to be a tricky task from the outset, but unbelievably, Irrational has truly knocked it out the park. Instead of the game suffering from a mid-game climax and never quite recovering like the original, Infinite refuses to blow its proverbial load early, saving the best moments for last. That’s not to say there’s nothing to sink your teeth into along the way. Oh no. In fact, you’ll spend the majority of the 12-16 hour campaign asking yourself “What does this mean!?”, “What does that mean!?”, “Who are this mysterious couple!?” and slowly, with the assistance of audio diaries (Voxophones) and video diaries (Kinetoscope’s) should you seek them out, Irrational reveals more and more about this mysterious flying city. It’s a story that sinks its tenterhooks into you early on and refuses to let go until the final credits have started rolling. The pacing is spot on for the most part as well. Oh, and that twist in BioShock 1? Well, BioShock Infinite eclipses that and then some.
Amidst all that is a touching story of two out-of-place souls: the troubled Booker DeWitt; and the excitable and genuinely brilliant Elizabeth – an adorable character in her own light, if only for her infectious lust for life; she’s like a kid at Christmas when she first leaves her cage. The performances from Troy Baker (Booker) and Courtnee Draper (Elizabeth) are what really sells it with their incredible chemistry, further bringing to life their complicated relationship. It’s a campaign full of personal and touching moments, none more memorable than when Booker picks up a guitar from within the environment – something which isn’t part of the story and is a huge reward for fans that stumble upon it. We won’t spoil it for you, but wow. Just wow.
She’s also the handiest sidekick we’ve ever had in a game, scrounging for ammo, coins, salts and health, and providing you with items when you need them most. She’ll also point out lockpicks and bring your attention to a whole array of goodies, as well as crack codes found within the game environment. More importantly though, she can rip holes called tears in time and space, bringing through battlefield assistance like cover, turrets, powerful weaponry and the like, which proves to be a life saver. In fact, her assistance and company along your journey means that when she’s not with you in the game, you actually miss her.
Okay, so Infinite is largely a story-driven affair, but at its core exists some stunning game mechanics as well. Vigors come in to replace Plasmids – although that’s more of a name change – which can be used, upgraded and even used to set traps. Quite brilliantly though is how you can combine them all. You might only be able to set two up at once, but a quick click to bring up the radial dial means you can combine more than that.
There are eight in all, ranging from bullet shields and electric bolts, to possession and summoning a murder of crows, which can be combined to find a style of combat that suits you. There’s a lot of tactics involved if you want to become more invested in that side of things, especially if you get technical with the new ‘gear’ aspect too – Booker can now wear four different items, which can give him battlefield advantages that can turn out to be priceless.
The same goes with the weapons too, of which there are your usual fare, but upgrading them means you’re not forsaken to drop your favourite gun in favour of something more powerful – for instance, we used a revolver called the Hand Cannon, for the vast majority of our playthrough. Our favourite weapon, though? The Sky-Line claw, a melee weapon that you can use to execute people in completely brutal and sadistic ways.
Sky-Lines are a big part of Infinite’s closed-off and expansive combat arenas, allowing you to quickly traverse the battlefield on a human monorail of sorts. They can be used to escape, drop in off to kick someone off Columbia’s perilous edges, access weapons, lure enemies into traps or just whizz around like a madman (like we did). They’re incredibly easy to use, have intuitive controls and are not at all finicky like we thought they could have been.
When Infinite’s “Heavy Hitters” come into play – effectively replacing BioShock 1’s Big Daddies – making use of the Sky-Lines becomes a necessity. These new enemies range from a hulking robot with a human head called the Handyman and the huge robotic automatons known as Armoured Patriots, to the blind, but terrifying, Boys of Silence. Heck, when the Boys of Silence come in to play later on in the game, things can get decidedly unnerving and rather disturbingly creepy too.
When all has been said and done though – and after you’ve recovered from the ending – Infinite has more than enough for players to come back and do it all over again. Chances are you won’t have seen and done all the city has to offer in 15 hours – we didn’t! – so going back to get all the Voxophones (of which there are 80) and Kinetoscopes (of which there are 37) will definitely be a draw. After all, you’ll want to absorb and learn as much as you can about the incredible floating city.
Then there’s the ‘1999 Mode,’ an especially tricky unlockable mode which reduces the money in the world – money you would usually use to respawn – making a “game over” screen a potential outcome – we played for over an hour and had to restart again after getting diced by a turret. The mode also disables the navigation arrow, makes enemies more powerful and slows down your shield recharge. It terrifies me just thinking about it.
In terms of achievements, I’d have to say that BioShock missed a trick or two here. No achievements for specific combining of powers (only a ‘combine all the Vigors’ achievement), nothing for seeking out the codes and their code books, and so on. The list is actually mostly by the numbers, centring around the game’s many weapons for the most part, but there are some cool achievements involving the Sky-Lines. Still, encouraging everyone to collect every collectible, especially when a considerable amount of effort has gone into them, is never a bad thing. It’s pretty standard stuff though.
There’s no doubt about it, BioShock Infinite is not only one of the best story-driven games of all time, it’s one of the best games we’ve ever played full stop. With a fantastic chemistry between the game’s two central characters, one of the most stunningly realised game worlds, some excellent game mechanics, incredible production values and a frankly genius story, it’s a game that simply everyone and his dog must own. Seriously, would you kindly go out and buy two copies; one for you and one for your dog.
The score is sublime, complemented by some fantastic re-imaginings of such classics as Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Want To Have Fun’ and Tears For Fears’ ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World.’ It’s the voice acting, notably Draper, that real drives home the experience though. Both her and Baker put in an incredible performance with chemistry that we’ve generally not seen in games to date.
Sure, some of the textures might be a tad muddy up close, but as an artistic vision, Columbia is greatly realised and one of the most immersive, picturesque, beautiful and brilliant game worlds in video game history. Throw in the fact that the game is ridiculously polished, with us experiencing no graphical issues whatsoever, and you really can’t fault it.
The original BioShock was never really lauded for its combat, yet Infinite’s seems to stand on its own two feet. Whether you’re combining Vigors or gliding along the Sky-Lines at high speeds, it doesn’t put a foot wrong.
A 12-16 hour campaign with impeccable production values, an immersive world and one hell of a story, yeah, it’s a little bit brilliant. And by a little, we mean a lot!
For what is an obviously fantastic game, the achievement list doesn’t really live up to its high standards. It’s decent enough, there’s a little creativity, but it’s all too by-the-numbers for our liking.
The best way to sum up BioShock Infinite is this: it can’t be faulted. At all. Not one bit. It’s not perfect, no, there’s no such thing as perfection, but it comes as close to perfection as you can get. BioShock Infinite is not only one of the best story-driven first-person games ever, it’s one of the best games I’ve ever played. Now, would you kindly go out and buy it.