nowPlaying: Bioshock Infinite

Bioshock was one of the first Xbox 360 games I ever played. I bought the console from a friend, along with a few games, and that was the only one that looked interesting to me. (I had yet to go pick up my copy of Fallout 3, which was my reason for buying the console in the first place.) I remember being surprised at how much fun it was: Not your average first-person shooter, the game implements the use of biological powers called plasmids, which ultimately led to the fall of the game’s utopian underwater city, Rapture. The game introduced the Big Daddy, one of the most iconic video game characters to appear in recent time, and the story’s twist ending was something I hadn’t seen much in the world of video games.

I remember playing Bioshock 2 and finding it to be a little too familiar. It’s a solid game, but it didn’t offer much that the first game didn’t. Perhaps this is to be expected; the game is made by a different team.

The team behind the first Bioshock would later go on to make the third entry in the series, Bioshock Infinite. This one leaves the underwater city of Rapture in favor of the floating city of Columbia. It’s clear from the beginning that this isn’t going to be more of the same.

Welcome to Columbia.
Welcome to Columbia.

The protagonist of Bioshock Infinite, Booker Dewitt, is much more present than in past games. In recent years, there’s been an influx of silent protagonists. This is something that isn’t always successful in terms of storytelling; when done correctly, the player will feel like they’re in the game, but if not, it tends to feel more like you’re playing as a wall that other characters keep asking to do things. It’s refreshing to see the concept of the pre-made, vocal protagonist is still around and can still be successful.

While you don’t control what Booker Dewitt says, several decisions are left up to you, the player. These range from trivial to very difficult, but great care has been taken to make sure they aren’t out of place. This is the downside to playing as a pre-made protagonist: Sometimes you, the player, make them do things that character would never do. Bioshock Infinite treads this line perfectly. Nothing Booker does is out of place, and he reacts to things the way you’d expect him to react.

Strong storytelling isn’t limited to Booker Dewitt. Bioshock Infinite is one of the strongest games I’ve seen in a long time, in terms of story. Booker’s journey begins on a boat trip to a lighthouse, and takes him into a floating city. His mission: Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt. “Whatever that means” will likely be your first thought, and this is intentional: Booker is the kind of guy who does things he needs to do and doesn’t ask questions. At least, that’s how he starts out.

Things in Columbia quickly take a dark turn, and Booker finds himself fighting for his life, trying to reach a distant statue so he might “find the girl”. It seems Booker is Columbia’s prophesied antichrist figure, recognizable by the “AD” carved into the back of his right hand. Columbia’s prophet, Zachary Comstock, has seen Booker coming, and wants him stopped at all costs.

Columbia is made up of floating islands, and to traverse them, Booker will use a device called the Sky-Hook to latch on to rails connecting the islands. This makes for an interesting mechanic: While sliding along these rails, called Sky-Lines, combat is still possible, and sometimes even required.

The Sky-Hook also makes for a powerful melee weapon.
The Sky-Hook also makes for a powerful melee weapon.

While interesting, the Sky-Line and Sky-Hook system never realize their full potential. Whatever you do the first time you use them is probably going to be all you do with them throughout the game. Shooting from the Sky-Line is difficult, and you’ll most likely miss most of your targets. There also isn’t much complexity to be found: Most of the Sky-Lines in combat areas just take you in a circle around a platform your enemies will be shooting at you from. I couldn’t help but feel like a lot more could’ve been done with this system.

This brings me to my other main complaints about the game. Instead of the plasmids found in earlier games, Booker will use Vigors. The concept is the same: Your DNA is altered, allowing you to use biological attacks. If I had to summarize the game’s use of these, it would be “too much shock and not enough bio”. In most cases, you’ll just end up pulling the trigger of your regular old rifle until everyone else stops shooting at you. I found the Vigors to be mostly useless; one of them, called Devil’s Hand, was just about the only one I used, and it wasn’t particularly creative: Throw a ball of fire and it explodes. As far as first-person shooters go, they may as well have given you grenades.

The exception to the rule is a Vigor you acquire later in the game called Return to Sender. This one is easily my favorite, and the only one I found creative or even fun to use: Booker summons a ball of energy into his hand that allows him to catch incoming bullets and then throw them back at enemies. Doing this requires the use of Booker’s shield, so it isn’t unlimited, and timing is everything.

Return to Sender is particularly useful against Patriots, robotic renditions of the Founding Fathers equipped with machine guns.
Return to Sender is particularly useful against Patriots, robotic renditions of the Founding Fathers equipped with machine guns.

Return to Sender aside, Bisohock Infinite is a pretty basic first-person shooter. There isn’t much variety in the enemies (the iconic Big Daddies are nowhere to be found, instead replaced with Handymen, which are far more annoying than frightening or formidable). Where the game surpasses your run-of-the-mill FPS is in its art direction. You’ll be using the same guns to fight the same enemies you’ll find in any FPS, but they’re going to look a lot more beautiful.

It takes more than looks to make a great game (which Bioshock Infinite is). With breathtaking visuals but standard gameplay and game time (a playthrough will take about 8-10 hours), where Infinite succeeds is its story, and this really takes off when you meet “the girl”, Elizabeth.

It’s difficult to meet Elizabeth and not be immediately reminded of a Disney character (Belle from Beauty and the Beast comes to mind). She’s a young, naive girl who’s spent her life alone in a tower with her books (and a certain guardian I won’t spoil for you). Sounds easy, right? Find the girl, protect the girl, get her to New York, wipe away the debt. Looks can be deceiving; Elizabeth is no sucker, and she’s not going to obey Booker as easily as Booker obeys the man who hired him. She has a mind of her own, and this lends to what is perhaps the game’s biggest charm.

The first time Booker meets Elizabeth, she attacks him with a book on quantum physics. and thus, a legend was born.
The first time Booker meets Elizabeth, she attacks him with a book on quantum physics. and thus, a legend was born.

Elizabeth makes for an interesting character in so many ways. I said she has a mind of her own, and this extends to the gameplay itself: Elizabeth will be with you for most of the game. She’ll stay out of the way during combat, searching for ammo and health for Booker, sometimes finding money, lockpicks, and other useful items. The game’s AI is often mentioned, and with good reason. She’ll walk ahead of you toward your goal, sit down, chat with strangers, lean against walls, look through shelves; Elizabeth acts like a human being. She’ll talk with Booker about everything from his mission to her missing pinky finger. Her personality and programming make her one of the most likable video game characters I’ve ever met.

It’s hard to talk about the game’s story without ruining it. From the point you meet Elizabeth onward, Bioshock Infinite carries one of the strongest stories in video gaming. You’ll meet a lot of characters and factions with their own reasons and purposes, and the story carries what would otherwise be a decent game into greatness. Enemies become friends, motives change. Something as small as the tip of a pinky finger can have life-altering ramifications.

When the screen finally cut to black and the credits began to roll, my first thought was “That’s it?” This quickly gave rise to “What in the world did I just witness?” which was then followed by me sitting in silence for about a half hour playing back everything I’d just experienced in my head. What seems at first like a tangled, nonsensical web of plot holes becomes a complex, intricate, purposeful and meaningful series of events the more you pick at it, the further you unravel it, and I’m not convinced it’s possible to straighten everything out. There’s a reason the title contains the word “Infinite”.

Look up any list of the most mind-blowing endings in video game history, and you’ll probably see the first Bioshock on it. Bioshock Infinite puts it to shame. If I hadn’t rented the game, I would have popped it right back into my Xbox and played through it again to see what else I could see. I look forward to my next playthrough (but I’m aiming for PC next time; the Xbox 360 version suffers from an unfortunate amount of lag, especially during the last battle).

The game’s developer, Irrational Games, recently announced a massive scaling-down, as well as an intent to make no further Bioshock games. I have no doubt their publisher, 2K Games, will assign another team to make sequels, but it’ll be hard to see them as true Bioshock games. Bioshock ends with Infinite; you can’t take a story this well planned and executed and simply add on to it. It’s rare in the world of video games to see a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end. Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite create one of the exceptions to this rule, and I think I’d be happier if they remained that way.

All images taken from the official website and not owned by me.

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