Editor’s Note: This review contains light spoilers, like the kind of thing you will discover in the first hour of playing the game. Nothing specific about the overall plot is revealed however other than gameplay elements and character names.
If you came here expecting yet another glowing review about how BioShock Infinite is the best game ever created, you won’t find it. BioShock Infinite is a very good game. It even ventures into greatness in some areas. But it has a few flaws in the gameplay area that prevent it from getting the "best ever" title. I think the reason reviewers are falling all over it is because most video games these days emphasize gameplay over story. BioShock Infinite turns that notion on its head, putting story and characterization first, so it’s more like a work of art, at least much more than almost any other game. But to be fair, reviewing this as a game, one has to be honest about a few shortcomings.
Let’s start with the story, since that seems to be the biggest selling point of the title. One could also argue that the stunning graphics are the key, and Infinite shines more than most, but every game looks good these days. Not every game has a storyline that could easily transition into a really good book.
You play Booker DeWitt, a former Pinkerton Detective who was called on in the past to bust heads when workers got a mind to try and form unions. DeWitt actually was too violent for the Pinkertons, if that was even possible, and was kicked out at some point. Building up a massive gambling debt, he is offered the chance of salvation (and a clearing of all he owes) if he can sneak into the floating city of Columbia and rescue a girl named Elizabeth. The rub is that she’s being held captive by a crazy religious zealot and profit named Zachary Comstock, who has an army of fanatical protectors at his disposal, and even a near-invincible flying tank named Songbird.
Columbia is an idealized version of 1910-era America. The people there worship George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin as gods. They seem to revere all things American, and hang patriotic flags on every inch of available space. They are a bit of an enigma though, having seceded from the Union, and now see themselves as the only "true" America.
Once you find Elizabeth, the two of you develop quite a rapport. It’s hard not to fall for the pretty, young, innocent but conflicted girl that becomes your companion. At various moments between fights, like when you are riding in an elevator, the two of you will talk about some surprisingly deep philosophical things. In fact, I really wish there were more interactions between the characters, as this was a real high point.
Without giving anything away, the scope of the overall plot is pretty epic in scale. There is a lot going on in Columbia, and a variety of ways the story is told. Which brings me to one negative point against the newest BioShock: the fact that it’s possible to go through the game and not really experience the story. You see, much of the plot comes to light through the use of voxophones, which are little records you pick up and play as you travel. At least you can pick them up if you want. Many of them are hidden in out of the way places. There are 80 of them in total. I searched and searched as best I could, and only found 77 in my first play through. But that was more than enough to figure out all of the plot points the game had to offer, even the supposedly shocking ones. On the other end of the spectrum, I have a friend who played the game as a pure shooter. He didn’t bother reading or listening to many of the Voxophones, and didn’t search for anything. When the end of the game was presented to him, he was totally lost and said that nothing about it made sense, because he had missed probably more than half of the story.
Having a story told in an optional fashion is not really the best choice. Whether a person is totally satisfied with the game or not depends largely on how many "collection items" they find, though it does seem that the more important ones are laying out in more or less plain sight. But that is not always the case. I consider voxophone number 65 to be a MAJOR plot point that explains the motives, dispositions and even the condition, of two of the game’s most important characters, yet it’s hidden between a bed and a nightstand in a spot that I guarantee most people will overlook. The game gives you a big green arrow to point to your next objective, but perhaps a little help finding the plot-giving voxophones might have also been helpful, especially for a game that depends on its story so heavily.
I will also say that the world of Columbia becomes a sort of character in its own right. It’s a beautiful place on the surface, but hides an ugly racist hatred and Ku Klux Klan-like organizations that build statures to John Wilkes Booth for his role in killing the slave-freeing Abraham Lincoln. At various points in the game, everyone gets slandered, some in very big ways, from Chinese people to American Indians to black people to Irishmen to Jews. Kudos to developer Irrational Games for including this normally taboo element in the story to advance the plot. It takes a lot to shock me, but the racism here did the trick. It made me angry that I liked Columbia so much before that darkness reared its ugly head.
Moving on to atmosphere, the game is absolutely gorgeous. On the PC, it looks just about as good with medium settings as it does on high, so even those with moderate systems can enjoy all that the cloud city has to offer. Especially at the beginning, the world is just completely beautiful, with flowers, singing barbershop quartets, carnival games and just a wonderful portrayal of an almost perfect-seeming city, circa 1910.
From atmosphere we move quickly into gameplay, because the two are kind of combined. There are skylines throughout Columbia which transport giant cargo containers, like monorail trains. Later in the game you acquire a skyhook which allows you to jump up and travel down these lines. It’s like riding on the best rollercoaster ever built, one where you hang down from the track with only the glove-device keeping you from falling as you are whisked away at about fifty miles an hour. Yet you control the speed if you want, can fire your guns from the line, and even jump to other lines or to conveniently placed cargo hooks. You can even leap to the roofs of buildings or onto floating barges. Many of the hidden elements in the game can be reached by exploring the skyhook system of travel.
That said, the levels are pretty darn linear. It may not feel as claustrophobic as the original BioShock games with their underwater cities, but you have very limited paths to travel through Columbia too. Yes, there are side alleys, hidden basements and apartments that can only be accessed if you explore carefully, but this is no open world.
My biggest problem with the gameplay is actually the combat. Like previous games, you have magic like powers, this time called vigors instead of plasmids. And you have your guns. The plasmids are fueled by salts, which you can find in objects like soda pop, or in big blue jars labeled Salts. Some food items give salt while most give health. Vigors are cool, but there are some that are so much more useful than others, and a few that I bet nobody ever uses. I mostly stuck to Murder of Crows, which is like the bee swarm from the original games, because the upgraded version of it forms a nest of the birds when it kills someone which can entrap new enemies. For robots, which the birds can’t peck, I used Shock Jockey, which stunned them if nothing else, and did a good job zapping organic foes too. You can place vigor traps on the ground, and for some reason the AI won’t see the giant blue pulsating lighting fences, and will run into them every time. Finally, the Possession vigor can take over a robot for a short time, or a human for much longer (who will then kill themselves) but really shines because when cast on a vending machine it will cause it to spit out money. So no more hacking I guess, though I miss that mini-game.
Although limited in number, vigors are almost required in combat. They can even the odds in some of the most ridiculous boss battles in the game, and can keep enemies from spawning in behind you, which the game annoyingly does from time to time.
My biggest disappointment was with the guns. There are two tiers of weapons, but the lower tier which you can get early in the game seems a lot better in a many ways than the later game weapons. For example, the machine gun is supposed to be trumped by the repeater, but the machine gun holds so much more ammo, has an ammo type that is pitifully easy to find, fires faster and longer and once upgraded, seems to do more damage.
You can only carry two weapons, so most players will probably experiment and then use two of the same ones for the majority of the game.
I think the carbine is the best all-around weapon. It’s accurate, powerful, can fire fast or slow, has a large clip size and a big ammo reserve. My second slot was the pistol for most of the game, but then I upgraded to the machine gun for the last couple hours. Also, weapons have to be found. There are no vendors that actually sell them, which I think is a bit limiting.
A new element called Gear was added to the game too, of which you can wear four slots worth, one on each major body area, like a hat for your head. For the most part, I found gear to be pretty weak. Almost all of the gear seemed to have very limited requirements, like it only worked if you were hanging off a skyline. I think I stuck with the original four items I was given at the beginning of the game for the entire time, since they had universal appeal like improving shield regeneration times (very slightly) or letting me hold more reserve ammo. It’s a nice minor additional feature, but not really game-changing.
Combat is pretty good. Other than the AI running headlong into your obvious traps, they seem to perform adequately. They don’t take cover or anything, but they are darn effective in trying to shoot you, even from really far away. Some of the more advanced enemies like the mechanized patriots are really scary. Having a robot that looks like George Washington recite scripture while blasting away at you with a chain gun is an experience not to be missed. The Big Daddies in the game have been replaced with Handymen, themselves victims if you read the voxophones to know their history. They are people who got too old in Columbia, or who got cancer. Their bodies are imprisoned in the huge metal frames, their intelligence is drained away, and they are forced to do manual labor, sometimes for the very families who used to love them. Again, you only learn this by finding some of the hidden voxophones. Anyway, the have a weak spot, a glass window over their heart. If you stun them with a Shock Jockey trap, you can pour carbine shots into them and they go down pretty quick. If they get close though, they will still kill you.
You are also given a shield in this game, and you should do everything you can to buff it up, which you do by finding specific tonics in the game. You won’t lose health until your shield is depleted. In big fights if you can find a way to get out of the line of fire for a few seconds, you can regenerate your battered shield and it’s kind of like being invincible if you manage it right. It’s far more important that buffing your health, which only regenerates if you eat something or find a medical kit.
Elizabeth is amazing to have in combat too. She will toss you health, ammo or salts as needed while you fight. And if you die, she brings you back to life with some glowing green goo injection. She’s also invincible. Nobody ever targets her and she can’t be harmed unless its part of a scripted action. So she actually rises to the level of a true companion, and not some weak girl who needs protected. She can also open up tears into other realities, which can help bring friendly gun turrets, patriot robots or even airships into existence to help you fight. She’s good to have along.
The audio is so good it’s almost haunting in places. Sometimes it’s up and in your face, and other times it’s used effectively to set the mood. But it’s a big part of the BioShock Infinite experience, and some of the best you’ll ever hear in a game. The same is true of the voice acting, which takes on the professionalism of a feature film. If video game actors could win Oscars for their performance, a lot of the cast would be up for it here.
BioShock Infinite is a beautiful game. It’s flawed in a few places, but more than makes up for it with a deep story of the type that so rarely ever makes it into computer games. And it’s an experience not to be missed. It may not become your favorite game of all time, but even the detractors out there have to admit that it is an epic title in many ways. At the very least, I think everyone who plays will have a good time, though some will appreciate it much more than that for its deeper meanings and themes. We are awarding it 4.5 out of 5 GiN Gems. Grab your skyhook and reach for the clouds.