Six years ago a team of developers at Irrational games spearheaded by Ken Levine released a game named Bioshock, a title that would become one of the most critically successful; memorable games of all time thanks to it’s engrossing setting, creepy tension and it’s sublimely weaved narrative – not forgetting it’s now legendary plot twist. Six years on and, multiple delays later it’s long awaited sequel Bioshock: Infinite has been released unto the expectant masses. After such a long development time with sprinkles of delay was it possible the title could succeed in matching or exceeding even the original’s greatness, turns out joyously the answer is yes – so get excited.
Despite the same name make no mistake Infinite is it’s own beast, losing elements that defined the original whilst adding new to bring out it’s own individuality. Gone is the claustrophobic; dank undersea metropolis of Rapture, replaced with the floating spacious brightly coloured city of Columbia. Horror elements are all but removed in favour of more action heavy sequences – a touchy subject currently, an effect of increased accessibility? Not in this case. Series familiar’s Big Daddies and their Little Sisters are no where to be found, with no substitute in sight. Despite the large differences it feels very Bioshocky, the engrossing world, story and characters combined with familiar gameplay elements keep the identity as part of the series very clear – all whilst following it’s unique vision; examining a totally new set of ideology and ideas. Of course it also comes with it’s own mesmerizing twist.
Of course the undeniably largest change all links to the new locale – Columbia a marvellous flying city that’s constantly floating above the USA – populated by the friendly religious masses that follow it’s founder the prophet Father Comstock. Horror is gone, tension is severely reduced there’s no distant echoes; long dark corridors with that whisper with madness are replaced with an incredibly beautiful city – perfect even. Awash with bright colours, vivid whites and papered with bright flowers it’s certainly a glorious sight, sadly the textures are a bit muddy; there’s also some screen tearing here and there but the artistically stunning design more than makes up for it. Of course it’d wouldn’t be very exciting if it didn’t have a severely more sinister side.
Following a tradition started by the original the journey starts with a light house. Players take control of Booker Dewitt a private detective who owe’s the wrong people money, in order wipe away the debt he’s ordered to steal a mysterious girl – Elizabeth – from the floating city of Columbia and deliver her to his debtors. Dewitt’s past is a shrouded in mystery though it’s obvious that he’s more anti-hero than straight up good guy from the get-go and, once Elizabeth is freed a greater sense of his personality is revealed as he bounces off his naive but defiant companion. Their relationship fast becomes a cornerstone of the experience, Elizabeth is nearly always present but, intriguingly never a nuisance as she can’t be harmed meaning you never have to worry about protecting her in combat.
Although Mysterious Dewitt takes the role of lead protagonist the bubbly Elizabeth is the star of the show – Bioshock Infinite successfully fosters a deep engaging relationship between her and the player. Protecting Elizabeth as you travel through Columbia is it’s own reward but, if that’s not enough she’ll also aid the player in fire fights by providing consumables she scavenges, locking picking doors to secret areas outside of combat and her ever deepening relationship with Booker keeps the narrative permanently moving along at a good pace.
Bioshock Infinite‘s antagonist’s are lead by the scheming prophet Zachary Comstock, founder of Columbia and the man who will shepherd the “lamb” to fulfil their destiny to “drown in flame the mountain of man”. Like Andrew Ryan before him Comstock is an ever looming sinister presence behind much of the madness in his city. He seems to get more focus than his precursor, whether he’ll be more memorable to the masses or not remains to be seen. The other big bad is Elizabeth’s sworn protector, the fearsome Songbird, for all the build up in the media Songbird’s role is minor at best and receives an unsatisfying amount of screen time, never reaching his full potential. The other supporting cast are all memorable and engaging arguably more so than the original.
Combat remains similar to previous entries in the franchise with a few tweaks, it remains serviceable with little in the way of thrills. The basics remain somewhat unchanged players can use a range of traditional weaponry found in the city but rather than collecting and, holding all weapons permanently only two can be carried at any given time, much like many current gen third and first person shooters. The old system worked better as it allowed for players to use weapons as they saw fit encouraging using ammo for favourite guns sparingly – the new system adds to the action orientated feel and feels less individual than the previous system. Like the original guns can be upgraded, this time however not through finding “Power To The People” machines but bought through cash at “Minute Man’s Armoury” vending machines.
Plasmids make their return re-skinned as vigour’s. Vigour’s are less varied than plasmids totalling eight altogether, however the eight featured are inspired and unique enough from plasmids that they warrant their own identity. Every vigour has multiple applications, for example Devil’s Kiss can be used to throw explosive projectiles (read: grenades) or laid on the floor as traps for unsuspecting enemies who step on them (read: land mines). Using vigour’s uses up a resource named salts, essentially mana, salts can replenished similarly to health in items scattered around Colombia New vigour’s are acquired periodically through the adventure and can be upgraded similar to weaponry, gifting each with additional devastating effects. Again these upgrades can be bought through cash from “Vendí, Vendí Vigour” vending machines – there’s no substitute for the currency of ADAM used in Rapture.
The three largest additions to the combat come in the form of skyrails, the skyhook and tears that Elizabeth can open. Skyrails are huge metal tracks that travel all over the city they’re function is to carry freight however, these can be mounted to use to your advantage. Occasionally they’re used as a method of transportation but primarily add a new dimension to combat, they can be used to move quickly around areas during encounters. Players can also shoot from the rails or dismount them into enemies unleashing devastating melee strikes – unfortunately the rails move so quick aiming is unwieldy; slowing is possible but turns you into a sitting duck meaning combat on foot whilst taking cover is simply more advantageous – even though no cover mechanic has been implemented.
The Skyhook isn’t just used as tool to travel the rails that wind through Columbia it doubles as a melee weapon, a viscous step up from the originals wrench. In addition to simple strikes the skyhook can be used to pull of a series of visceral finishing moves that include a fair amount of neck snapping – sadly the mechanic doesn’t live up to it’s promise pulling of the technique is inconsistent at best. A regenerative shield has been introduced that should help players get in close enough to use these attacks and soak up some fire in between cover spots.
Since Bioshock Infinite is much more action orientated it’s clear a focus has been put on tactical elements rather than tension, which is evident from the previously discussed additions but, they’re never quite as cool or clever as Elizabeth’s ability to open tears in the fabric of reality. Tears can be ripped open in set locations that allow her to change the environment. Need some covering fire? Materialize a machine gun bot. Need some cover? Pop some into reality. Desperate for ammo? Tear a stash of guns through. Only one tear can be active at any given time adding a layer of choice, however their’s no cool down so they can be switched out on the fly. The additional layer of thought is welcome and strongly grounds the story element in the gameplay.
Enemy design is fairly straight forward most encounters are made up of the same groups of basic enemies punctuated with bigger bad’s that wield vigour’s or Gatling gun wielding, propaganda spouting robot George Washington’s. The occasional special enemies are enough to keep things interesting although the robots certainly wear thin nearer towards the conclusion. The enemy design ball is fumbled rather epically however when it comes to the handymen, humans with giant wooden bodies with their organic hearts on display, clearly conceptualised to be replacement’s for the Big Daddy. They don’t live up to their inspiration and every tangle with one feels annoying and completely forced, they have no place in the narrative; truefully they would have done well to cut them entirely.
Combat may not be Bioshock Infinite’s fortay but, it doesn’t matter the journey is so engaging. Exploring Columbia is where it really shines and plenty of reason is given to do so. Hidden in the city are numerous collectables, the superb voxophones (audio recordings) peppered throughout give a little more depth or explanation to story elements for those interested. They’re are codes to be deciphered to uncover hidden stashes, chests that can only be opened with keys and doors that Elizabeth can open with scavenged lock picks. In numerous of these locked locations alongside loot are infusions that allow Booker to permanently upgrade his shields, salts and health – with 30 in total each can be raised 10 times. In an RPG twist Infinite has 4 gear slots in which Booker can equip that gift him with additional abilities such as lighting enemies on fire with melee attacks - mixing up gear allows better preparation for different encounters.
Arguably the area the game excels in the most is the soundtrack. Sound effects are passable – nothing to write home about, but the soundtrack is wonderful with some bizarre inclusions. Some contemporary songs are featured, Girls Just Want To Have Fun blurts out in one location, whilst near the arrival on Columbia a barbershop quartet sings their rendition of God Only Knows by the Beach boys. It’s own original soundtrack stands out too, perfectly capturing the range of emotion on display.
Ken Levine and his team at Irrational Games had the most unenviable task in gaming set out in front of them – to deliver a sequel worthy of an all time great. Though it splinters off from tradition in many areas predominatly a focus on action and move away from horror it’s still undeniably Bioshock. Whether or not they’ve matched or surpassed themselves will be for individuals to decide. If it’s brilliant story will be remembered as a classic like is older brother or if it’s city and characters will be immortalised, well that remains to be seen. Question is, is it worth your time, answer: hell yes it is.