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Review: Bioshock Infinite

Shea Huffman |
April 5, 2013 | 1:13 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

The character Elizabeth is one of the most richly characterized figures in any game, and is brought to life by Bioshock Infinite's expertly crafted story. (Screenshot courtesy of Irrational Games)
The character Elizabeth is one of the most richly characterized figures in any game, and is brought to life by Bioshock Infinite's expertly crafted story. (Screenshot courtesy of Irrational Games)
When the first Bioshock released in 2007, critics praised developer Irrational Games (then 2k Boston) for creating an engaging AAA game that portrayed a creative and original world and explored complex moral and political themes using the unique qualities of the gaming medium.  Whatever you thought about the games-as-art debate, the story of Andrew Ryan's underwater libertarian dystopia Rapture proved that there some narrative experiences that can only be delivered with the interactivity of video games.

Expectations have thus been high for the newest iteration in the series, Bioshock Infinite, which released last week, not only to deliver another smartly designed first person shooter experience, but to once again provide a generation-defining moment for gaming itself. That's a tall order, but Irrational seems to have succeeded with what can only be described as a transcendent gaming experience. 

The biggest challenge for Irrational was to set Bioshock Infinite apart from it predecessor.  It is certainly a spiritual successor to the original Bioshock, with enough similar elements in the setting and gameplay to justify the “Bioshock” label.  But rather than rehashing everything that worked with the original, Infinite strikes out in some fresh and exciting directions that pay off exceptionally well.

Story and Setting

You play as Booker DeWitt, a man with a debt who is tasked by a pair of mysterious employers to infiltrate the floating city of Colombia and retrieve a young woman named Elizabeth.  This isn’t your typical damsel in distress story as you soon find out, though, as Elizabeth quickly becomes a valuable companion in your fight to escape the city and the mystery surrounding her immediately has you questioning all the strange things happening in Colombia.

Infinite abandons the previous art-deco themed halls of the underwater Rapture in favor an entirely new setting floating amongst the clouds.  Colombia exudes a tone of Gilded Age Americana mysteriously enhanced with bits of advanced technology like robotic horses and mutant-power-granting tonics called Vigors that harken back to the Plasmids found in the first Bioshock.  The entirety of the pristine and dynamic city is wondrous to behold and contrasts with the dark and dank ruins of Rapture as a bright, fully realized steampunk metropolis at the height of its greatness.

Colombia’s sinister side soon emerges, though, in progressive, subtle steps.  Set in the 1910s, you soon discover the city is ruled by the self-proclaimed prophet Father Comstock who has fashioned his own religion out of American history, with different founding fathers taking on the roles of prophets and saviors.  American exceptionalism run rampant is the best description of Colombia, as the idyllic veneer slowly gives way to conflicts between privileged elite and oppressed minorities bubbling up under the surface.

The game treads some dangerous territory by fully engaging the blatant racism and religious fanaticism present in America’s past with oftentimes shocking dialogue and imagery.  Infinite pulls its punches in the right places, though, and never seems gratuitous as set pieces like jingoistic, stereotype-emblazoned propaganda posters or racially segregated bathrooms are more background elements than anything else.  

The story and setting strike the right balance between subtlety and spectacle to draw you in and invite exploration of the eerie atmosphere that pervades Bioshock Infinite.  This sense of mystery notably appears early on in the form the game’s anachronistic (and exceptional) soundtrack which features jazz or barbershop quartet covers of songs that shouldn’t even be written for decades.

The mystery deepens when you discover Elizabeth displaying the supernatural ability to open up “tears” in reality: doors to other times and places that allow her to visit a new area or to obtain an object.  You discover these tears can in fact lead to alternate realities and Elizabeth begins using them to help you escape Colombia and discover exactly why she was being imprisoned.   Both in terms of plot and gameplay, this theme of intersecting realities makes for some mind-bending scenarios and spectacular narrative set pieces.  From beginning to end Bioshock Infinite tells an exhilarating and fantastical story that leaves you constantly hungry for more encounters with Colombia’s inhabitants, and does so in ways that will leave you questioning more than just the details of the plot.

Like all other characters in Bioshock Infinite, Elizabeth is brought to life with expert writing, animation, and voice acting, but her character in particular shines through as an instantly classic NPC.  Elizabeth’s visual design and character mannerism bear striking resemblance to the expressive elegance and innocence of a Disney princess, something Irrational developers have said they strived for in making her a responsive and engaging element of the game.  Throughout the story, you build a connection with Elizabeth both as the character Booker (who comes with his own background and baggage), but also as the player yourself, as you fight not only to protect one another, but also to gain her approval and affection through the emotional ups and downs of the story.  This kind of close connection with an NPC is a rare feat in gaming attained only by other well-written characters like Half-Life’s Alyx Vance or The Walking Dead’s Clementine.

The Ending

Bioshock Infinite’s ending has already prompted a fair bit of debate, particularly after a few gamers who got their hands on a leaked copy a week early trashed the game’s conclusion.  Normally I wouldn’t discuss the ending in a review, but because of the controversy as well as how integral the ending is to the overall experience of Bioshock Infinite, I feel compelled to address it.  I will attempt to avoid spoilers as much as possible, but beware nevertheless.  My spoiler-free take on the ending is that while some players might find it unsatisfying, it ties in well with the rest of the narrative and themes of the game and provides a thoroughly mind-bending and spectacular conclusion to those who are willing to engage it with some thought.


Spoiler Warning Below



The ending does run the risk of alienating some players by taking an intellectual route that could be interpreted as too convoluted and confusing.  Like the first Bioshock’s famous “A Man Chooses” reveal, Infinite’s ending deals with the idea of the illusion of choice (which also serves to comment on gaming and choices we as players all make), though the developers decided to take the idea somewhat deeper in this iteration.

An ending like this, of course, has caused a number of gamers to compare Bioshock Infinite to Mass Effect 3 and its ending fiasco, where the chief criticism is that the conclusion invalidates everything the player did earlier in the game.  The Bioshock series, however, has never featured a story that was anything but tightly controlled and crafted by the developers.

Moreover, how the ending plays out fits in well with the themes the game established throughout the story and sums up the overall message about the illusion of choice and infinite possibilities all leading to the same outcome.  This serves as a commentary on gaming itself and how each player can have very different experiences that nevertheless lead to the same outcome decided by the developer.  It’s a narrative that really could only be told with the interactivity of the video game medium and the ending is that much more effective for it. 


Spoilers End


Gameplay and Presentation

The actual gameplay of Bioshock Infinite is utterly delightful and plays with any expectations you might have after playing the original Bioshock to surprise and amaze you.  The familiar balance between gunplay and supernatural abilities (called Vigors rather than Plasmids) returns, but you are given a much more open environment to play with the tools at your disposal.  You’ll find yourself utilizing a fairly standard lineup of weapons like machine guns, sniper rifles, and rocket launchers (all upgradeable of course), but as in earlier installments the fun is in combining gunplay with your ability to fling fireballs or mind-control enemies.  Scenarios like lifting an enemy into the sky and blasting him out of the air while another mechanical enemy is caught in your electrified trap nearby create a sense of sadistic chaos that never gets old.

Combat is much faster paced in comparison to the methodical plan-then-execute formula of the original Bioshock, as enemies are more ruthless and dynamic and give you a bit less of an opportunity to really play around with your powers.  This doesn’t mean there isn’t variety, however, as you’ll face a wide range of foot soldiers, robotic terrors, and supernatural enemies that will test every tool in your chest.  These sometimes lengthy fight sequences are often broken up by long periods of exploration and plot as well, which keeps you from getting fatigued.

The most significant addition to the combat, however, are the skylines; the magnetic railings that entwine the floating buildings of Colombia instantly inject any fight with a rush of velocity and wonder as you race, leap, and shoot around the intricate, multi tiered battlefields.  This element in particular prevents the varied and refreshing level design from becoming overly complicated or confusing by allowing for quick traversal and avenues of escape that keep the battle constantly moving.

Elizabeth plays large role in the gameplay as well, as she joins you in almost every fight and can use her tear abilities at your command to open doors to desperately needed weapon and supplies that only exist in “other” Colombias.  She can even open tears that place strategic cover between you and the enemy, or bring to life friendly robots that fight alongside you.  The ability is well-balanced and unobtrusive, and further strengthens your bond with Elizabeth as a valuable companion rather than another object to be saved.  During combat, Elizabeth will toss to you badly-needed health or salts (which recharge your Vigors), and outside of combat she will pick locks and help you access hidden areas, which again makes you feel connected to a responsive, realistic character both in terms of story and gameplay.

Bioshock Infinite suffers a few issues that bear mentioning, however.  The save system relies on a checkpoint system rather than manual saves, which normally isn’t much of a problem.  But the checkpoints follow little discernable pattern and are placed much too far apart, which means quitting the game can lose sometimes half an hour of progress or more.  The game can sometimes be a bit too easy as well, as a few of your Vigors like Possession can be overpowered once sufficiently upgraded.

Visually, Bioshock Infinite is utterly beautiful.  Colombia is one of the most colorful, bright, and varied game environments we’ve seen, and you will find yourself oftentimes simply staring in awe at, say, a lush garden awash in sunlight pouring through the clouds as red, white, and blue confetti from a nearby parade flickers through the air.  On powerful PC hardware, especially, the game’s Unreal Engine shows its graphical prowess in the richly detailed and sharply defined environments peopled with realistically animated characters that bring the intriguing art direction to life.  More than just eye candy, though, the visual elements inject character into what is already a fascinating story and engaging world.


Bioshock Infinite exceeded all the lofty expectations gamers built up for it.  It has delivered not only a breathtaking world to explore and an exhilarating first person shooter experience, but what can only be described as a triumph of video game storytelling.  Bioshock Infinite will no doubt join the annals of video game equivalents of required reading for any self-respecting fan of interactive entertainment, and is an instant contender for Game of the Year.  Don’t pass this one up.

Score: 10/10

You can reach Staff Reporter Shea Huffman here or follow him on Twitter.



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