It’s hard to top the chilling and grandiose opening of Bioshock. So hard, that in nearly a decade, no one has come close. Not least the lacklustre sequel, which for the purposes of this review will be completely ignored (regardless of the fact it‘s a perfectly serviceable, story driven shooter). Bioshock Infinite’s prelude has a damn good try at topping it’s predecessor and time will tell whether it’s entrance is superior.
It begins with our hero, seasoned war vet Booker Dewitt, sent to an isolated lighthouse in the middle of the ocean (sound familiar?).
Ascending several levels littered with cryptic clues and ominous messages, he reaches the top and straps himself into a rickety looking chair which, after a wonderful homage to Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, launches him into the clouds. There, both De Witt and the player gaze in awe at the golden city of Columbia, a bustling metropolis floating in the sky.
It’s a breathtaking moment, whose parallels with the original game’s opener do not become apparent until much later.
From then the player is left to explore the streets of Columbia, which, unlike the abandoned ruins of Rapture, are populated by shiny happy people holding hands, having picnics and getting their shoes shined. The atmosphere of the city is intoxicating; children play with fire hydrants, suitors serenade their sweethearts on the promenade, shopkeepers babble about politics in between enthusiastically peddling their wares. This isn’t a harsh series of dark corridors, infested with mutated psychopaths and armour clad behemoths, it’s a living, breathing city at the peak of civilisation.
Of course, things can’t stay rosy for long, and when Booker finds Elizabeth, a mysterious girl imprisoned in a gigantic tower made in her own image, all hell breaks spectacularly loose. Booker needs to rescue/kidnap Elizabeth at all costs and in his way is a city full of people who worship her and, more importantly, have been told to expect and fear his arrival.
Ken Levine has always spun a challenging tale, his creations test the very limits of what a videogame can achieve when it comes to story and characterisation. More than any other modern titles that claim to push the narrative capabilities of gaming forward (I’m looking at you, Bioware), this series is a landmark for true adult storytelling within the medium.
As well as the usual moralising and tough choices faced by the protagonist, Infinite’s narrative scope also extends to the politics of modern America. Racism and social segregation figures prominently, as does an elitist economic structure and the danger of religious ideologies. Remember, this is a videogame we’re talking about.
To give away anything about the actual story would spoil too much and sully Levine’s grand vision. Needless to say, the final stages of the game will be picked apart and discussed for years to come, some applauding it’s bravery, others dismissing it as a convoluted mess.
WELCOME TO THE CIRCUS OF VALUES
Gameplay wise, nothing much has changed from previous instalments, which also means the frailties of Bioshock’s combat system also remain untouched. The problem is the guns…and the shooting of those guns. Weapons just don’t feel very powerful and there is little to differentiate them other than the fact that some are fast, some are slow, some have scopes, some fire explosives etc.
Fortunately, the fun of the original Bioshock came from the Plasmids, augments that turn the player into some kind of jacked up superhero/villain. Infinite has Vigours, which are Plasmids in all but name.
There are several flavours of Vigour, ranging from the useful (Devil’s Kiss launches firebombs) to the “meh” (Undertow lets Booker push or pull enemies using the power of water). Most fun is Murder Of Crows, which unleashes a cloud of winged minions that tear the flesh from your foes. All Vigours have a secondary function which in most cases allows traps to be set, allowing for a more tactical approach to fights. Tactical is the order of the day when it comes to Booker’s sky hook gauntlet as well. Columbia is riddled with skylines, suspended rails that allow for quick travel between buildings and across islands. The sheer thrill you get from whooshing around the clouds on these things is only matched by the freedom they afford you, allowing you to circumnavigate entire groups of enemies and plan strategies on the fly.
Then there’s Elizabeth AKA. The most satisfying escort mission in the history of gaming. First off, she doesn’t need protecting, the fact that she seems to disappear entirely during firefights sometimes tests logic barriers, but not having to look after a damsel in distress while being targeted by a dozen pissed off Columbians is a godsend. Out of combat, your charge will throw you extra cash she finds lying around and, provided you have the picks, open locks to secret areas filled with goodies. During combat she can open dimensional rifts (known as “tears” in the game) that can summon forth health packs, weapons, turrets and even cover. It’s an interesting dynamic that, while not as fully developed as you’d hope, still manages to add an extra dimension to the action.
Elsewhere there are slight modifications and improvements to the health and salt system (salt powers your Vigours, Columbia‘s version of ADAM). First aid kits are instantly used when picked up, instead of being stored for use later, which makes things a little more dangerous during combat. Luckily, Elizabeth will toss health, salt and ammo if you are running low. This, along with her other talents, endears you towards her character all the more.
Ken Levine hasn’t just crafted a loving tribute to his undersea adventure (and the claustrophobic Sci-Fi horror that started it all), he’s also perfected his own formula.
Beauty and painstaking attention to detail can be found in every inch of Columbia, from it’s inhabitants to it’s grand structures. Touching and disturbing moments of perfect storytelling are scrawled across walls or heard in the many voxophones scattered around the city. The voice acting is fantastic, complimenting the detailed facial expressions perfectly and creating characters that you genuinely care for.
It would be a mistake to dismiss Infinite’s familiar motions as an exercise in recycling, because there is a fundamental method to it’s creators madness. Like Rapture’s Andrew Ryan or Columbia’s Zachary Hale Comstock, Levine has a grand vision to share with the world, hopefully a vision his peers will share.