Columbia is a beautiful 1912 era American city. Full of life, people, children playing, acapella singers singing The Beach Boys. Can you see what’s wrong with that sentance? I did a double take when I first heard that when wandering round the streets of Columbia in the opening hour of the game. That sums up Infinite perfectly. Surprises around every corner and the nagging feeling that something isn’t quite right in this idillic floating city.
Bioshock Infinite is the spiritual follow up to the excellent Bioshock, which, in stark contrast was set in an underwater city in the 1960’s full of crazed residents known now as Splicers. Infinite is set on the floating city of Columbia, ruled as an almost dictatorship by a mysterious man whom everyone seems to worship as a god. You arrive in Columbia as Booker DeWitt, under the pretence of bringing back a girl named Elizabeth in exchange for your debt back down in real America being cleared. You will encounter horrendous racism and abstract poverty, coupled with extreme wealth and an idealistic, often zealot like people. That’s about as far as I will discuss the story as it really is something that needs to be experienced. It is without a doubt one of the greatest narritives ever put into the medium and to regurgitate it’s secrets here would be an injustice.
The game feels a lot like the original Bioshock, though mainly in spirit. Anyone coming into the series and expecting a military style FPS like Call of Duty or Battlefield will likely be disappointed. This is a FPS in a much more arcadey sense. Enemies will still go down with headshots, but if you’re playing Infinite like that, you’re doing it wrong. DeWitt will come across a whole plethora of weapons, including Machine Guns, Shotguns and even RPG’s and all feel satisfying to use in their own way, especially when you begin to collect enough Silver Eagles (Columbia’s currency) to upgrade them at one of the many creepy vending machines dotted around the city.
In tandem with Booker’s arsenal of weapons (I say arsenal, you can only carry around two weapons at a time which is a nice gameplay decision and stops you feeling too overpowered) you can collect upgradeable ‘Vigors’, Infinite’s equivalent to Plasmids from the original Bioshock. Vigors are essentially magic drinks which grant you new abilities, fired from your left hand, for example you can toss a grenade made of fire, or how about shooting a murder of crows at someone? You can also get the ability to possess other humans or gun turrets which will then become your allies, it never got old taking over an enemy security guard then watching him beat himself over the head (in a very cartooney manner I hasten to add) in a bizarre suicide twist. Vigors add an extra layer of depth to Bioshock Infinite’s combat system that really plays upon the gamers creativity. For example, want to make your murder of crows more powerful? Toss a fireball immediately after unleashing them and watch the carnage.
A new gameplay mechanic not brough over from the original Bioshock is the ability to ride Columbia’s Skyline system, a series of Rollercoaster like rails designed as the City’s transport system, using your wrist mounted tool (which handily doubles as a melee weapon). This never feels tacked on and flows into the combat system perfectly when it needs to. It’s incredible fun zipping round Columbia on the rails only to then jump off on to an unsuspecting bad guy for a one hit kill. About a third of the way into the game you will also aquire the ability, when partnered with Elizabeth, to open pre-determined rifts in the universe, pulling through objects such as gun turrets, cover walls or hooks to get to higher ground. This is another fun way to play and again, adds another layer to an already excellent combat system.
Elizabeth is with you pretty much the entire game, yet unlike in other games where you are forced to pair up with a partner (Resident Evil 5, i’m looking at you), she never gets in the way. Quite the opposite in fact. Whilst you’re fighting enemies, she will scavenge around looking for things such as Ammo, health or Salts (used to recharge your Vigors), and throw them to you in the heat of battle. You never have to wait around for her, in fact, most of the time she runs ahead of you. She will also pick locks for you and throw out a witty remark every now and then.
This is where some praise needs to be given to the game’s writers. The tone throughout is often quite tongue in cheek but at the same time there’s some brilliant dialogue put in to drive the story forward. All the line’s are delivered pefectly by the voice cast too. The entire game is dripping with atmosphere, maybe not to the extent that the original Bioshock is, but dripping none the less. Columbia feels alive and lived in from the moment you arrive, unlike some games which feel like they exist only when the player is around. Though not quite open world, there is a sense of freedom in the level design, allowing you to hop backwards through them for the most part, redisovering some of the many secrets such as the brilliant audio recordings. You owe it to yourself to take your time and seek these out. They flesh out the story and give the whole city a different, almost scary tone.
The graphics are nice enough though I imagine the PC version will be superior (we reviewed on Playstation 3). Colours are bright and vivid and character models whilst not meant to look ultra-realistic, look great in their slightly styalised manner. Detail is good and the Art Deco style is gorgeous to look at, just as it was in the original Bioshock.
If I had to find a quarrel with part of the game it would be with the game’s enemies. The main bad guys are usually Columbia Police or Security, and are no where near as memorable or disturbing as Bioshock’s deranged Splicers. There is also nothing that comes close to the dread of hearing a Big Daddy and seeing it lumber into view. The notable exception goes to the Handyman, an inhuman hybrid of man and machine which begs you to put it out of it’s misery as it pummels you into the ground, bringing a melancholy feel to the whole affair.
Bioshock Infinite is as close to a perfect game as you can get. Brilliantly designed, excellent atmosphere, a story unmatched by any other and a level of polish very rarely seen anymore in big budget games. So much care has gone into making it, you owe it to the developers, Irrational Games, to play this masterpiece.