Hype. It has been the pitfall of many a game and it can appear at anytime from any number of sources. An amazing trailer, such as Dead Island. A genius auteur, like Hideo Kojima and his Metal Gear Solid series. A storied franchise, like Final Fantasy. All have been the focal point of an intense wave of hype and anticipation and all, at various points, have failed to live up to the near-unattainable level of quality that the gaming masses expected.
The almost-ravenous desire for Bioshock Infinite stems from all three of the sources mentioned above. At E3 in 2010, a clever trailer brought the world’s eye upon the game for the first time. Ken Levine, the man behind the first Bioshock, itself heralded as one of the greatest achievements in gaming, was back with a brand new game, set in a brand new world with promises to blow our minds as thoroughly as Andrew Ryan did in Rapture. Then the reviews started to come in, garnering some of the most lavish praise ever bestowed upon a video game. The hype was out of control. Surely there is no way a game can live up to this kind of fervor. Bioshock Infinite is going to disappoint us just like so many of the ones that came before.
It does not.
The Story and The World
Bioshock Infinite’s story and setting intertwine like few games do. Columbia, the floating city above the clouds, is a place of wonders, mysteries and terrible horrors. You play the role of Booker DeWitt, a degenerate gambler who works for the Pinkerton Agency. Booker is on the outs with his bookie, apparently, as he has racked up debts that he can’t pay. He receives a job with a note that commands him to bring a certain girl from Columbia back to New York and all his debts will be cleared. So it’s off to Columbia he goes. And what a place it is.
Floating high in the sky, above the clouds, Columbia is a city where America has been turned into a religion. People worship and pray to the Founding Fathers as if they were saints. But soon after arriving, things get even stranger than just a flying city, such as a barbershop quartet singing a Beach Boys song that won’t debut for another 50 years. I won’t delve into spoilers because part of the joy is discovering all of this yourself, but allow me to say that Bioshock Infinite’s story does not sag in the middle. I was prepared for the momentum to slow, but it never does, which is a rare thing. Even the best of games feel padded, but I never got that sense with Bioshock Infinite. In fact, I started to panic when I realized I was near the game’s conclusion. I didn’t want it to end. The detail and atmosphere created by Levine in Columbia is wonderful. You are compelled to explore, not just to pick up collectibles, but because you want to soak in as much of this unique world as possible. Exploring also brings audio diaries that fill in much of the world and even answer some of its most burning questions. The slow burn at the beginning gives you ample time to learn what this place is and who are the factions involved, such as the lower-class rebellion of the Vox Populi, who end up playing a pivotal role.
But even the triumph of Columbia is only the second-best thing about the game. The real achievement is Elizabeth, the girl in the tower that you are sent to rescue/kidnap. Much like a Disney princess, Elizabeth is a kindhearted girl who loves music and dreams of Paris. She is guarded by a mysterious robotic bird called Songbird, who is fiercely protective of her. The lead-up to actually finding her is filled with tension and her reveal is honestly breathtaking. As you continue through Columbia, Elizabeth is by your side for the bulk of the game and she is an asset in both story and gameplay. Her reactions to the world are so well-crafted that I would sometimes just watch her for a bit as she poked and prodded this world that had been locked away from her. The evolving relationship between Booker and Elizabeth is the heart of the story and it is kind of funny how her reactions drive your own choices. I didn’t use the brutal melee kills that often because of her expressions of disgust, which is very strange. I usually don’t care what a game thinks of my actions, but with Elizabeth, it mattered what she thought of me.
No spoilers of course, but I will say that the ending was resolved brilliantly and answered most of my questions. I can’t see any glaring plot holes or anything that would cause consternation in the gaming world, but I imagine someone will take issue with something. They always do. There is a sneaking suspicion in the back of my mind that this might be the best ending to a video game I have witnessed. Admittedly, it’s not a very high bar, but Bioshock Infinite clears it with room to spare. One thing is for sure: there hasn’t been anything like it before.
If you played either of the first two Bioshock games, then you will have no trouble adapting to the combat in Bioshock Infinite. That’s because it is largely the same, though refined and tighter and honestly, better. Your right hand holds your weapon, whether that be a pistol, shotgun or rocket launcher and your right hand holds your magical powers, called Vigors. These range from a fiery grenade to possessing an enemy to fight for you (who then commits suicide when the effect wears off) to shooting bolts of electricity to stun your foes. They are varied and all pretty useful, but you will likely find a few favorites and stick with them when the going gets tough. Certain Vigors can be combined for extra damage, which is a nice way to encourage experimentation. Some Vigors are received late in the game, when the difficulty has scaled up enough that you don’t have time to learn the intricacies of something like Undertow. For cases like that, you sort of have to go out of your way to want to use them.
Elizabeth is also handy in combat. She uses her ability to create Tears to change the battlefield in your favor. Need health? There’s a Tear for that. Cover? Check. Rocket-firing robot? Done and done. And there is no limit to how many times you can do this, which makes for a frenetic and fun battle system. Coming into an area teeming with enemies, you might decide to create some cover first, then a hook which you can jump to and get a better vantage point. Maybe a sniper rifle would be useful right about now. Couple this with the fact that Elizabeth will throw you health, ammo and Salts (used to replenish your Vigors) in the midst of battle and she is probably the best AI companion I have seen in a game.
One new addition to combat is the Skylines. These allow you to attach yourself to a line above the ground, which circles the area. It’s a good way to escape, gain the high ground and even drop down on enemies for a nice instant kill. The sense of speed is exhilarating and it makes you feel like a bad-ass when you drop from the Skyline onto a guard, yank out your shotgun and kill his nearby companion.
In addition to the Skylines, there is also Gear you can equip, which you find strewn about Columbia. These give you bonuses which make the fight easier. Some are more useful than others, but it really comes down to how you play the game. If you prefer weapons to Vigors, there is Gear that accommodates that play-style. It’s really about customizing the experience and tailoring it towards how you want to play the game and it does quite well. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but nothing to complain about either.
The enemies in the game lack the impact of the Big Daddies, but there are a few that stand out. Most of the time you are fighting simple humans, but some are in armored suits which allow them to spew fire at you. These firemen are a decent challenge at first, but by the end of the game, you won’t even think twice about taking them out. The Patriots, robotic automatons who look like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are much tougher and far more memorable, but their weak point is on their back, so it’s not like they are breaking new ground either. The only enemy who had a shot at living up to the Big Daddy is the Handyman, a robot/human hybrid that appears to be in great pain and is really pissed about it. They are easily the most terrifying obstacle you face in combat, but sadly, are few and far between. Each time a Handyman appears, it’s an “Oh shit” moment, but it happens too infrequently to make much of an impact.
Wonderful is how I described the game after my first night of playing it. That adjective has now changed to “grateful”, which is such a weird thing to say about a freaking video game. But it’s true. I am grateful for the experience of having played Bioshock Infinite. When I finished the game, I sat in stunned silence for a few minutes, pondering everything that I had just seen, trying to process it all. I was trying to figure out what I was feeling and I realized it was sadness. Not because of anything that happened in the game, but sadness because it was over. Games, nay, art like this only comes along once every few years and I am honestly worried that nothing will come close to this for a long time. It’s a game that ruins all others. I’m not even as excited about The Last of Us now because it won’t be as good.
I’m not trying to hype the game up, but just relaying how I feel. Bioshock Infinite made me laugh, made me worry and it made me cry. It made me feel things more deeply than any other game I have played, even The Walking Dead. This is the first game that I would put alongside the best movie, the best television show, the best novel and the best album. Bioshock Infinite thrilled me as much as Star Wars did. It engaged me on a mature level the way Mad Men does. It made me want to inhabit its world the way Lord of the Rings did. And it touched me emotionally the way The Beatles do. It’s the video game equivalent of seeing Star Wars for the first time: there is everything that came before and there is the after.
If you are a gamer or even someone who plays games casually, then Bioshock Infinite is a game you have to try. This is the absolute pinnacle that the medium has reached thus far and it lifts my hopes for the future. More games should aspire to the heights that Bioshock Infinite attains. It’s not just that one element stands out above the rest, it’s the way it all comes together to create an engrossing and gripping experience that will stay with you days after you finish it. This isn’t a story that can only be told through a video game, but it is a story that is most effective as a game. If you want to see what video games are truly capable of, play Bioshock Infinite.
Coming up with a concluding sentence to encapsulate all these feelings is too difficult for a writer of my meager talents, so I will simply say this:
Bioshock Infinite is the best game I have ever played.
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It’s a bold statement, but one I feel strongly about. What did you think about Bioshock Infinite?