The underwater dystopia of Rapture left us reeling. The plight of Andrew Ryan and the feeling that the player contributed to so many horrific events was what ended up making BioShock such a memorable experience. BioShock Infinite is an interesting amalgamation of the elements that made BioShock in and of itself as a franchise great. But it’s a uniquely different kind of great that stems from the one thing that burns the world of Infinite so finely into your psyche: new and interesting aesthetics, personality, and ideas.
But don’t mistake that for innovative. In fact, that’s how one could very easily sum up BioShock Infinite: new an interesting. It has no qualms with repurposing the same shooter mechanics we’ve been used to for years or even the tired “kill X amount of baddies to advance” song and dance that’s been relied on for the glut of video game history. It’s set comfortably within these confines, and yet somehow rather than becoming irritated and turning the console off we’re moved to keep pressing on. Why?
“New and inventive” storytelling – for the first few moments of the game you’re asking questions. Who’s Booker and why is he afraid of God? And why is he looking for someone? As you carefully inspect your surroundings (and your ascent to the floating city of Columbia) question after question surfaces. The mystery mounts. And while gentle religious themes float lazily by, the automaton voice’s “hallelujah” echoes in your ears, and the breathtaking view of Columbia surfaces, you know you’re in for a ride that’s already challenged you beyond a Call of Duty installment by showing you different set pieces. And in terms of pushing the genre forward, it’s already making strides.
Columbia itself is a rich and varied environment, with eye-popping color palettes and architecture you’ll be salivating over (there’s an entire artbook dedicated to it). And as beautiful as it is, there are decidedly more sinister overtones that permeate the idyllic community. It’s already looking troubling once you realize one man is being worshiped as a demigod amidst a racist and intolerant public that derides, humiliates, and persecutes those not deemed “acceptable” or “pure.” The beauty of the area is tarnished after a pivotal turning point nearly just a half hour into the game, and it’s an explosive change when it finally happens. In terms of narrative, what could have easily gone a more familiar route goes out the window with the first time you raise a hand holding a baseball at either an interracial couple or carnival barker.
And that’s before you meet Elizabeth. Without spoiling too much of the story, this waifish Disney princess is much more than a porcelain china doll tied to your wrist. The spirited young woman acts as a handy item-gathering service, magically coming up with ammo, health, money, and salts when you need them. She stays out of your way, and she brings you back to life immediately once you’ve fallen in battle. In a way, she’s like the game offering a helping hand – remember, new and interesting.
The way Elizabeth interacts with the player (and her character archetype) is what ends up making her a breath of fresh air – not the “tears” she opens up to reveal cover, ammo, or automatons for use in battle. We’ve seen that before, and frankly with a time limit to these augments, they’re nowhere near as useful as the smaller perks Elizabeth provides. Lockpicking and those extra items become especially useful – and unlike most AI partners, you’ll notice and miss her when she’s not there. When you’re finishing off an enormous wave of baddies and she tosses you a health pack, you realize just how immensely useful and integral to the game and story she actually is. Like Booker, you grow to love her and care for her more than that of, say, Ashley of Resident Evil 4 or any co-op partner you’ve been forced to delegate to AI.
Elizabeth softens the blow of the constant stream of “plot point, shootout, exploration, shootout” by acting as an intriguing conversational partner, but then so do the vigors. They’re basically the Plasmids you’ve seen in previous BioShock games but given a different name and must be replenished via salts. There are a good variety of them to choose from, and the animation accompanying the first bottle imbibed are gruesome and intriguing – for example, the Devil’s Kiss vigor has Booker’s hands melting away to bone, and the Murder of Crows vigor sees a lone crow landing on his hand. A cheery little animation accompanies them, complete with a “devil” and good religious carrier demonstrating the vigor. Each can be used in conjunction with one another, and you’ll want to experiment with them as best you can to manage waves of enemies.
There are plenty of them to keep you busy, and while the more interesting ones are at least cool to look at, it often feels like these drawn-out shootouts are keeping you from uncovering the secrets behind Booker’s quest and his “ascension” to Columbia. There are areas that swarm with them and while I realize this is a shooter, little time is allotted for exploration in an area where there’s so much to see. Hulking Motorized Patriots are no Big Daddies, but they’re interesting, and for the most part human enemies are a headache. It’s fun to blow them away or electrocute them, but Infinite’s spirit makes it much more fun to progress than killing random enemies.
The heart of the world of BioShock Infinite undoubtedly comes from exploring, finding where the story eventually takes you, and the expansive lore, environment, and character interactions. The core of Infinite and its mechanics are old, but the way it employs them are, as stated, new and interesting. These are characters and situations begging to be unraveled, and areas that yearn to be scoured. Classing and upgraded game mechanisms work together to create an excellent experience that moves forward not in the ways you expected, but in ways you didn’t know you needed.
That’s why it ends up being such a disappointment when the game comes to an end, throwing out a tired wave scenario instead of some patriotic figure or horrific endboss – it felt lazy, as though the story itself wasn’t enough fanfare to justify the ending. In fact, it was such a departure in quality from the rest of the game it may well discourage players from sprinting to the finish line.
BioShock Infinite: a new and inventive experience overall, despite certain missteps in tone and the endgame. Still, it’s a mystifying and gorgeous romp through an ethereal, yet morbid world that’s every bit as exciting and memorable as the previous games under the BioShock umbrella. If you’re wondering whether or not you should get it, that’s a no-brainer. If you’re wondering if it’s revolutionized the genre, it hasn’t – but we’re getting pretty close.
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