BioShock Infinite
Developer: Irrational Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Release Date: Out Now
Players/Online features: One
Words By:

BioShock Infinite, the third game in the BioShock FPS series, places you in the shoes of Booker De Witt, alcoholic gambling addict, war criminal and former Pinkerton agent, a man with a simple but vague mission brief: 'Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt'. The game is set in 1912 in Columbia, a mysterious, technologically advanced city flying high in the clouds above America, ruled with an iron fist by self-styled prophet, Zachary Comstock, an ultra-religious, far right, militaristic racist. The inevitable uprising is already in progress when you arrive as the Vox Populi, led by Daisy Fitzroy, try to throw off the shackles of their oppressors, and it’s not long before you too find yourself in conflict with Comstock, who has apparently foreseen your arrival and warned the population to be on the lookout for the 'False Prophet' as he calls you, out to lead the 'Lamb' astray. The Lamb being Elizabeth, the girl you're out to rescue from her gilded prison...

Columbia itself looks stunning in the anachronistic steampunk-meets-future-tech style familiar from previous games and it’s almost a match for the underwater city of Rapture seen in the first two games (provided you ignore the hopelessly incorrect brightness settings suggested by the game, which make the lighting look flat and lifeless). Whereas Rapture was all neon-lit bars and clubs, Columbia (being run by a religious maniac) is much more muted but once again there are moments aplenty where you're left to stand and stare at the new wonders which surround you. The huge floating islands that make up the city are beautifully realised but unfortunately, to squeeze the big-picture beauty out of the ageing 360 hardware, something had to give; textures are often very low res, with huge pixels stretched over even the most important characters and objects, even up close where most games would load in a more detailed version. Balloons have edges like 50p pieces and the civilian residents of Columbia are also extremely similar-looking, with no more than a handful of different faces; maybe it's the years of white supremacist inbreeding, but it feels more like a disappointingly cheap memory saving trick.

The sound is another matter entirely and is uniformly fantastic. There's plenty of old time music playing, including 1912-styled cover versions of 'God Only Knows', 'Fortunate Son', ‘Tainted Love', 'Shiny Happy People' and even 'Girls Just Wanna Have Fun', delivered to the world via a trans-dimensional rift in time and space known as a Tear. Sound effects are also excellent throughout; my personal favourite is the falling piano sound triggered by a headshot kill, which fits perfectly with the bizarre, cartoonish atmosphere of the game.

The visual design of the city and its gradual descent into Hell as the Vox uprising begins in earnest is fantastically done. The mind-boggling alternate-dimension based storyline (think Back to the Future meets The Butterfly Effect) might not be entirely original but it’s given the unique BioShock flavour and it’s really well told (and packed full of plot twists, some obvious, some much less so), provided you hunt out every one of the Voxophone audio diaries hidden throughout the game… Miss more than a handful (or miss the important ones) and you're likely to finish the game with no idea what's been going on. There are also dozens of subtle pointers to the final twist spread throughout the game in little bits of dialogue or scenes that barely register first time around which really gain new meaning on (and justify) a second play-through.

Actual combat in BioShock Infinite feels much more fluid than in the previous games; the controls are smoother, faster and more responsive. No longer will you be cursing as enemies run around in front of you faster than the control scheme allows you to aim, which is a massive improvement! As before, on top of your standard guns, you have a variety of special powers available (known as ‘Vigors’, rather than the ‘Plasmids’ found in Rapture, and fuelled by ‘Salts’ instead of ‘Adam’), allowing you to throw fireballs, summon a swarm of crows to disable enemies or shoot lightning from your fingertips, among other things. Vigors can also be upgraded (with higher level upgrades adding new options or effects) or combined - lift an opponent in the air and hit him with a different Vigor to send him flying off the edge of the city, for example.

For some reason, despite these Vigors being heavily advertised throughout Columbia and even handed out like candy at the Founder's Day Fair that's taking place when you arrive, only three enemy types in the entire game ever use them against you; the extremely annoying Crow guys, who can transform into a flock of (invulnerable) crows to rapidly close on you before attacking with a large sword, the sinister Fireman, a heavily armoured fireball chucking character wearing a suit very reminiscent of Rapture's Big Daddy armour, albeit much weaker, and the huge Handyman, saved from cancer by replacing his entire body with a mechanical marvel/monstrosity who (once in a blue moon) electrifies the cable car-like Sky-Lines that link certain islands. Every other enemy from beginning to end of the game uses standard weapons (with the exception of one of the most irritating repeated bosses I've ever encountered, but more on that later...)

Even the strongest of the standard human enemies can be turned into an ally using the Possession Vigor (the first Vigor you receive and possibly the most useful), which also has the disturbing side-effect of making the victim commit suicide once it wears off and he realises that he's just murdered his own friends. This effectively means it's a one-hit-kill move; use it on the RPG-wielding Beasts, who normally need two sniper rifle headshots to kill due to their heavy armour, and what may have been a difficult encounter can be rendered trivial.

The same problem’s true for Gear (clothing items which you collect throughout the game, giving special effects for your attacks); there's one item of Gear that makes you temporarily invulnerable when leaping to or from a Sky-Line. Every encounter with a Handyman takes place near a Sky-Line or Sky hook, so if you have the right Gear, you can’t lose against what would otherwise be one of the toughest enemies in the game. It wouldn't be so bad if this Gear was end-game only, but 95% of the Gear is randomly located, so you're just as likely to unlock it right from the start, as I did on my first play-through.

Therein lies the major flaw in an otherwise brilliant game; every set piece battle in the game can either be EXTREMELY easy if you have the right Vigor or Gear, or INCREDIBLY frustrating if you haven't. If it was possible to re-spec your Vigors, or if there was anywhere near enough money in the game to upgrade all of them, this wouldn't be an issue but as it stands, it's a pretty serious one. The aforementioned boss battle for example, features an enemy that can resurrect its fallen minions time and time again; arrive without the right upgrades for the right Vigors and it's almost impossible (without taking advantage of the simplistic old-school AI that keeps enemies locked to specific areas of the map, that is; step over the invisible border to their assigned area and you can snipe them to your heart's content without worrying about being flanked.) Arrive with the RIGHT Vigor and the battle can be over in 15 seconds flat, even on the much vaunted super-hard '1999 Mode'.

Elizabeth herself is brilliantly animated, her emotions written large on her face and in her hugely expressive gestures, designed to allow you to be able to pick up on them even when she's a long way away in the game. Unfortunately, she's also rather under-used; early gameplay videos showed her supporting your powers with her own, summoning storm clouds for you to hit with lightning to kill huge crowds of enemies at once, or compressing coins into a huge cannonball for you to blast towards them. As pre-scripted as they obviously were, those events make the actual in-game use of her powers seem relatively pedestrian; wander into a new combat area and there will be several 'Tears', gateways into alternative realities that Elizabeth can open to summon helpful items across into your dimension. She can only open one Tear at a time though, so you have a tactical choice to make - do you want cover, medkits or a robotic gun-turret?

Since she can only open pre-existing Tears, which are revealed to you in advance, rather than create new ones (although—plot hole alert—she does that too in at least two cut-scenes), this doesn't actually play any differently than pulling a lever for pop-up cover or hacking a turret in any of a thousand other FPS games. Elizabeth doesn't feel like a separate, living character, right next to you in the fight, like say Sully in Uncharted, more like a button you press when you want something doing. This is even more obvious when you need her other ability; lock-picking. See a locked door, press ‘X’ to unlock, the only difference from any other FPS is that she performs the animation instead of you. As well as lock-picking, much is made of Elizabeth's code-breaking skills and soon after you meet her, she spots a secret message left by the Vox and requires you to find a codebook so she can decipher it, but this only happens a couple more times in the entire game and never leads to anything more than a hidden stash. She does occasionally toss you Ammo, Salts, Health and Coins during combat though, and will also point out loot you've missed, but that's the only time she actually does anything autonomously, outside of cut-scenes. Otherwise she's basically an extremely well animated voxophone, although she is a likeable one and you are likely to feel appropriately attached and protective towards her as the story progresses.

Elizabeth isn't the only part of the game that feels slightly underdeveloped; the actual Vox revolution seems like it might open an alternative storyline or at least some opportunity to play both sides against each other, Yojimbo-style, but pans out to nothing more than a change in scenery and enemy skins. Songbird, the huge mechanical man/machine/bird hybrid that guards Elizabeth in her tower, pops up oddly infrequently, although his rare appearances are some of the highpoints of the storyline. Several of the hardest enemy types have odd and sinister back-stories which you only get in the full (download only) version of the game's manual. Sky-Line to Sky–line combat was also promised, but is actually entirely missing from the game—in two play-throughs I never had the opportunity to fight another character riding the Sky-lines, although I spent plenty of time fighting ground-based characters from them. Some people will also bemoan the lack of any multiplayer, especially since it was present in BioShock 2, but to be honest, having played BS2's, that's no great loss.

So, what score to give Bioshock Infinite? As an interactive storytelling experience, it's fantastic; beautiful, weird, moving, involving and thought-provoking; as a game, it's still very good but hampered by some serious balance issues. Last time I checked though this wasn't www.interactive storytelling, so it gets a score of lower-than-most-would-give-it 8 out of 10 from me.

Best Bits

- The storyline.
- Fantastic BioShock atmosphere.
- Elizabeth as a character.
Worst Bits

- Serious balance issues; early choices/luck can make the game seriously hard, or trivially easy.
- Several characters and scenarios seem underdeveloped.
- Elizabeth as a convincing AI.

by: Smurfzursky

Copyright © Gamecell 2013