“The mind of the subject will desperately struggle to create memories where none exist…“
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few months, you know just how much hype has been built up for Bioshock Infinite. What seemed to be a trailer, announcement, or leaked bit of news every second day kept gamers worldwide hanging on Irrational Games’ every word, wondering just what we were going to see once the curtain was lifted, and what we saw truly did not disappoint. Bioshock Infinite will go down as one of the greatest mindfucks in gaming history; the beginning will make you wonder, the middle will raise more questions than answers, and the ending will leave you silent.
The player’s first in-game glimpse of the floating city of Columbia comes from within a pod launched from a lighthouse off the coast of Maine, and it presents just as beautifully as promised: a bright, bustling (though slightly decaying) utopia in the clouds, almost like Heaven. America’s Founding Fathers are worshipped as gods, and the city’s ruler, known as “the Prophet” (who calls to mind George Orwell’s “Big Brother”), is seen as their vessel. The whole experience leaves protagonist Booker DeWitt, a former soldier and Pinkerton Government Services agent, completely disoriented, and for a long while the player shares that disorientation.
Columbia is more than just a beautiful backdrop for the player to admire; it is the vessel through which Infinite tackles a lot of major, controversial social and political themes and constructs with gusto. Gunfire and explosions audible throughout the city serve as a constant reminder of the civil war between the Founders – led by the Prophet – and the Vox Populi, a rebel group led by one Daisy Fitzroy who preach equality and fair conditions for all. Throughout the game, people on both sides of the fence ask questions and spout propaganda based around religion, morality and freedom, and to add to it all, the townspeople are racist and fearful of change and the player is able to eavesdrop on their conversations at every turn, hearing opinions about politics, current events, and influential figures in the city.
The game’s backstory has a number of ways of revealing itself to the player within the city of Columbia, be it through the conversations you can overhear, the ‘kinetoscopes’ which play silent films depicting significant events in the city’s history, or the numerous ‘Voxophones’ hidden around the city. These Voxophones provide short audio snippets – diary entries, if you will – from a number of the game’s lead characters, and are often found in areas relevant to the character who created the diary. Many of these are found in objective locations, areas where the player must go to continue the story, while others are more out of the way. While the Kinetoscopes aren’t all that relevant to the game’s story, they’re quite well made and interesting to check out; the Voxophones, on the other hand, are vital if you’re looking to understand more about the complex, crazy story unfolding before your eyes.
Of course, Booker isn’t in Columbia for leisure or education; he’s here to take care of business, and the city’s architecture is incredibly helpful when it comes to getting where you need to be. The skylines all throughout the city serve as its rail system, allowing for access to higher ground and cover as well as a speedy method of travel between different areas. Of course, the skyhooks required to use the system are ordinarily for the police force only, but you’re able to procure one during your first taste of combat. In combat, the skyhook not only enables the player to flank and avoid enemies using the skylines, but is an extremely dangerous melee weapon in its own right; the only one you’re able to use throughout the game.
Of course, the skyhook isn’t the only weapon Booker uses throughout the game. Soon after acquiring the sadistic melee weapon, Booker gets his hand on a pistol and the game’s combat system really begins to reveal itself. Booker is able to equip two of the game’s 13 different weapons at any given time, switching between the two almost instantly. Booker is able to stockpile ammunition, available at the Dollar Bill vendors, for all 13 weapons simultaneously, which is good since I had a horrible tendency to chew through ammunition like crazy and it’s always a relief to pick up a weapon in a hurry and have a full bandolier of ammo. Health, which comes in the form of medical packs as well as fruits and other yummy stuff, and ammunition can be found in rubbish bins, chests, trunks, and behind shop counters all over the city, which leads me to a bit of advice: look at every little nook and cranny of the city, that little bit of ammo you might find could end up saving your life later on.
Bioshock Infinite’s already-solid combat system begins to resemble a bit more of chemistry lab, a mix-and-match counter at your favourite candy store if you will, when you factor in my personal favourite thing about this game: Vigors. Vigors take the place of Plasmids from the original Bioshock games, potions that grant Booker superpower-like abilities when imbibed. These Vigors are introduced to the player in a short film, with hilarious little devil characters acting as crash test dummies, and give the player the power to shock or possess enemies, pull them in from a distance, summon a murder of crows to distract and injure them, push them away or even absorb ammo and damage. The player can equip two vigors at a time, and the game pauses when you’re selecting the ones you want, so it’s easy enough to figure out the right combinations for each type of enemy. Vigors are powered by salts, which either come in vials or less healthy food such as coffee and cake.
Customisation really comes to the fore in this edition of Bioshock, with each of the game’s weapons having four possible upgrades which can be purchased at the Minuteman’s Armory vending machine and upgrade clip capacity, damage rate and lessen recoil. Each Vigor has two upgrades available which add effects, increase duration or decrease the amount of salts required to use them and can be purchased at the Veni Vidi Vigor machines which are often nearby. A third vending machine, the Dollar Bill, provides health, salts and ammunition as well as other little bits and bobs on occasion. The player also finds various Infusions and Gear, often located well off the beaten path: Infusions can be used to boost Booker’s health, salt and shield capacities, while the Gear (hats, shirts, pants and shoes) are akin to perks on a Call of Duty game: giving Booker additional, intangible abilities or attribute boosts.
Given the wealth of options available in combat, it’s difficult to believe that I felt quite overwhelmed at times due to the sheer number of enemies trying to kill me. While the groups of citizens (including the Crows and Firemen) and police alone weren’t too much of an issue, and machinery can be possessed using the “Possession” Vigor, the “heavy hitters” really made life difficult. The Patriots – giant stone statues of George Washington armed with crank guns – weren’t extremely difficult to deal with personally (vigors made it easy to shoot their backs), but the Handymen (massive gorilla-like men with the ability to throw enemies, electrocute the skylines, jump for miles and close space incredibly quickly), Sirens (ghostly enemies who spawn “zombie” soldiers, and bring them back to life when you kill them) and Boys of Silence (“surveillance agents”, so to speak, who alert all of the enemies in the area if they spot you) were particularly tough, especially as the game’s difficulty crescendoed. Thankfully, these enemies only appear once or twice per major battle, and you do have a little bit of help on your side…
Pictured above is quite simply the nucleus of Bioshock Infinite’s story. Known by the Prophet and his subjects as the “Lamb of Columbia”, Elizabeth is the precious cargo which Booker is sent to Columbia to retrieve in order to wipe away a life of debt. Like something out of a fairy tale, she is held captive far above the rest of the city in Monument Tower under the watchful and extremely protective eye of what she calls her only friend: a giant, mechanical bird known as the “Songbird” (which reminds me of the Big Daddies from the original games). Elizabeth is the only person in Columbia with the ability to manipulate “Tears” in the space-time continuum without the aid of machinery, allowing her to procure things such as weapons, ammunition, turrets and even living beings, as well as to cause alternative realities to enact themselves within Columbia. Due to this immense power, both the Founders and the Vox Populi are desperate to capture Elizabeth and use her for their own means, while the Songbird is desperate to get her back.
After being freed from her captive home, Elizabeth begins to trust Booker, becoming a near-constant companion (when she’s not with you, your mission is find her at all costs), who is often seen making funny little quips about current events – e.g., plugging her nose when entering a bathroom – and leaning against walls while Booker searches every desk, drawer, corpse, sink and toilet he can find. Along with her space-time manipulation ability, Elizabeth is also proficient with a lockpick, and providing the player has enough lockpicks she can grant access to areas previously inaccessible to the player, often yielding great monetary rewards and allowing the player to stock up on ammunition and health (as well as finding things like Gear and Voxophones). She also offers strategic advice, often providing the player with alternative options, ideas or routes. The development of the relationship between the Lamb and her saviour plays out brilliantly, coaxing Booker into revealing information about his past and allowing the players to watch as the former soldier develops a renewed morality just from being around the young girl.
Elizabeth’s presence is not only the driving force behind the story, but also a ‘secret weapon’ of sorts that is available to Booker in combat. The player is informed at a very early stage that Elizabeth can take care of herself, and throughout combat she remains hidden but available to help out in a number of ways. She provides a second set of eyes, informing Booker when there’s a particularly dangerous enemy approaching, and can also be relied upon to hand rations of health, salts and ammunition when the player is running low (outside of combat, Elizabeth also finds money for you on quite a regular basis). As expected, though, Elizabeth’s most significant contributions to combat sequences involve the use of her powers; she can not only augment the power of certain Vigors, but upon command from the player she can open Tears on the battlefield which spawn crates of medical kits and salts, cover, and even turrets and automatons to provide extra firepower when it’s most desperately needed. Due to the depletion of her powers, she can only open one of these Tears at a time, but they do not disappear when “deactivated” and so the player is free to switch between them at any given time simply by looking at the tear and pressing the action button.
Not since Final Fantasy X in 2001 have I played a single-player game that has made it truly difficult for me to put the controller down, but Bioshock Infinite has done exactly that. So compelling is the storyline that my usually-explorative play style, searching every room of every building before moving forward, was thrown to the wind by my compulsive desire to advance in the story and find out what happens next. The use of voxophones placed at or en route to major plot points is a stroke of genius, ensuring that my intrigue remained at the highest possible level, even when I could easily have turned around and started treasure hunting. The storyline builds up perfectly to a tear-jerking absolute mindfuck of an ending which left me dead silent (believe it or not) with my jaw touching the ground. More than anything, it has left me wanting to play through it all again now, knowing what I now know – which is good since I plan to try for the Platinum trophy, which includes a playthrough of the ultra-difficult 1999 Mode without the use of the Dollar Bill machines (gulp).
On top of the incredible story, it’s perfectly clear to me that the repeated delays of Infinite’s release did nothing but help Irrational produce such an incredible product, exemplified by the fact that I’ve truly struggled to find flaws in the game. The game is presented beautifully, with incredible production values – special mention must go to the voice acting, which was nothing short of perfect in my book – and beautiful graphics to boot. Speaking of flaws, the only one that jumped out at me, because Abir’s such a graphics nut, is that Booker is a floating torso; when you look down, you don’t see legs and feet, but that’s such a negligible complaint that I don’t even know why I’ve mentioned it. Irrational have combined the graphics and atmosphere of Columbia with a fantastic soundtrack to create a truly edge-of-your-seat experience, leaving the player nervous as all hell even when the sun is shining brightly and the townspeople are enjoying the sights and sounds of Columbia. Some of my favourite moments in the game, however, were light-hearted: a barbershop quartet singing their version of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows”, an instrumental version of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” appearing on multiple occasions, and some hilarious quips from Elizabeth, Booker, and other characters.
Coming from an FPS background of Call of Duty, Battlefield and Medal of Honor, I did find the controls a little difficult to adjust to at first (the right analog stick to aim down sight when I’m used to that being L1, for example), but as I progressed I realised that it worked very well for the style of combat the game aims to promote. I did waste salts now and then by accidentally using a vigor as I turned a corner (FPS 101: aim down sights as you turn a corner), and crouch when I meant to hack someone’s throat, but such errors never caused me death or serious damage and I was able to look past it, and so I can’t really say it was bad – just a pet peeve. With that being said, the best thing about the gameplay: aside from costing a few dollars to revive, death is almost completely inconsequential: a short cutscene occurs, and you spawn at a checkpoint near where you died with a full shield, half your health, any enemies you killed still dead and any that you damaged only slightly healed.
Overall, Bioshock Infinite was one of the finest experiences I have ever had gaming, and the fact that I finished the story within 24 hours of acquiring the game can only attest to that. It is the amalgamation of one of the greatest, most gripping stories I’ve ever seen – in gaming, film and literature – with fantastic gameplay and an incredibly appropriate soundtrack that not only has me recommending it to everyone, but wanting to play it again, and again, and again. If there is one thing I could say to Ken Levine and the crew at Irrational Games regarding this game, it would be ‘thank you’. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Author’s Note: 2,700 words later, I’d just like to say a quick hello to my brother Alex, who spent all but two hours of my first playthrough watching and enjoying the game; it really did make the experience that little bit better, especially considering he can’t stand shooters. Also, all of the images in this review have been taken from the Bioshock Wiki, and so credit lies with the users who posted them. Finally – I reviewed the game based on the retail copy for PS3, which I bought and paid for out of my own pocket – I’ve had no outside influence in reviewing, or indeed scoring, the game… It’s just that damn good.
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