PS3 Review: Bioshock Infinite



Few games come pre-packaged with as much hype and expectation baggage as Bioshock Infinite. The original Bioshock delivered a narrative experience as engrossing and beautifully told – from both a storytelling and art design perspective – as almost any game before or since. It’s a bar that new developer 2K Marin never quite reached with sequel Bioshock 2, but with original developers Irrational Games back on board for Infinite, hopes have been set improbably high in the months leading up to release.

So it’s pretty shocking that, even as they settle into a comfortably familiar gameplay routine, Irrational still manages to casually step over the bar they’ve set themselves; Bioshock Infinite never really attempts to revolutionise or revamp the franchise in any major way, but their focus on simply tweaking and refining those familiar Bioshock mechanics and creating a finely-crafted narrative, well-written characters and a jaw-droppingly gorgeous, beautifully realised world pays off wonderfully as it manages to surpass its predecessor in just about every way.

The game takes place in 1912, some 40-odd years before the original Bioshock, where you step into the shoes of Booker Dewitt. A troubled former soldier and Pinkerton detective in serious debt to shady people, Dewitt is given the option to put his investigative skills to use and solve his problems in one fell swoop: If he retrieves a girl named Elizabeth from Columbia – a floating city among the clouds – and brings her back to New York, his slate gets wiped clean. But Columbia’s far from the skyward utopia it seems on the surface; on the brink of being torn apart by racial prejudice and class warfare, it’s ruled over by a self-declared religious “prophet” named Comstock who’s intent on keeping the mysterious Elizabeth at all costs.
.
.

(Click image to enlarge)

.
.
Mechanically, Infinite still retains almost everything you remember and love about the first two Bioshock games. You’re still juggling guns and superpower-from-a-bottle skills, combining the destructive uses of both in your quest to blast your way through to the next rewarding narrative nugget. You still buy weapon upgrades, ammo and skills from those retro fairground-style vending machines, still pick up enticing chunks of backstory from voice recordings found dotted around the landscape and still loot corpses, crates and trashcans for cash, health-restoring food, ammo and elixirs to top up your powers.

Super-powered ‘Plasmids’ are called ‘Vigors’ now and you fuel them with ‘Salts’ rather than ‘EVE’, but the principle and execution is exactly the same. In one hand you’ll wield your everyday firearm (in tried-and-true FPS fashion, there’s the pistol, shotgun, assault rifle, sniper rifle, rocket launcher and a few variants) while the other hand you’ll use to blast vigors at people. There are surprisingly few new powers in comparison to past games, but all the old bases are covered – amongst a few others, you can hurl fire, water and electricity around or possess turrets and people, while swarms of crows replace the ability to fire bees at enemies.

The vigors don’t makes as much narrative sense here as they did in the original’s tale of genetic spicing (and, strangely, vigor bottles are found on the corpses of almost every enemy, yet almost none ever use them against you, adding to their more tenuous inclusion), but there’s still immense fun to be had chaining together your gunfire and abilities to find rewarding combos, whether you’re lighting people aflame and hitting them with a blast of telekinetic energy to send fire blasting out in all directions, possessing a robotic George Washington (!) to lay waste to enemies while you pick off the strays or hurling foes up into the air and picking them off with a hand cannon as they float high off the ground.
.
.

(Click image to enlarge)

.
.
But while Bioshock Infinite certainly takes an ‘if it ain’t broke’ approach to its core gameplay, there’s more than enough laid on top of that foundation to make it still feel fresh and satisfying. Right off the bat you’re given an added melee weapon: a mechanical geared glove called a ‘skyhook’ that you can use to latching onto freight hooks dotted around, leaping sprightly up onto balconies and get the drop on enemies below. You’ll also use your skyhook to ride around on ‘skylines’ – rollercoaster rails that loop around the levels and connect different sections of the floating city. The skylines are a slightly underused concept, but it does there is fun to be found in hopping onto them during a gunfight and ride around picking off enemies from up on high as they struggle to land a shot, or hopping off and landing directly on a bad guy for a devastating attack.

Your handy new tool also allows for some brutal new execution-type melee finishers and whether you’re killing off bad guys with the grisly, blunt end of your revolving gears or finishing them with a well-placed headshot, orchestral horror movie-style stings on the soundtrack punctuate the moment to perfect, satisfying effect. Adding to the loot you’ll find is a collection of ‘gear’; stashed away in sometimes obvious, sometimes hidden locations you’ll find packages with items of clothing that grant you certain handy perks like reclaiming health after melee kills or unleashing a blast of fire damage when hitting the ground after jumping off a skyline. Interestingly, the effects of collected gear is randomised: If you pick up a fire damage perk and die, when you head from the checkpoint to grab it again, chances are the contents and effect of the gear package you pick up will be completely different.
.
.

(Click image to enlarge)

.
.
The most pleasing addition from both a gameplay and narrative standpoint is that of Elizabeth. She’ll follow you everywhere as the story unfolds and the mysteries of Columbia, Comstock and what makes Elizabeth so valuable become clearer, but she’s anything but a chain around your ankle as so many other AI companions can be. Oddly, Comstock’s goons never actually bother with her and instead focus all their bullet-spraying efforts in your direction and, being a sharp and resourceful girl, Elizabeth will raid the environment for ammo and health and toss them your way when you’re running low, throw you some extra money when you’re scraping together cash for upgrades and will pick locked doors for you when needed.

Very early on in the story, you learn that she has the ability to manipulate ‘tears’ that have started popping up around the city – cracks in space and time that provide windows into parallel realities – and Elisabeth can put that skill to use in battle, too. Around the level you’ll find tears that you can have her open that bring in extra hooks to latch onto and jump from, turrets and sentries to control, weapons and medical kits to use and points of cover to hide behind. You can only have her open one tear at a time, so you’ll need to switch and swap to the most useful tools at any given moment in combat which, when combined with the skylines and your gun-and-vigor combos, helps make the game’s action relatively fluid, rather diverse and always incredibly fun.

Elizabeth is incredibly handy to have around in a pinch, then, but it also helps that she’s a joy to have around in general. Between the game’s well-written dialogue and the faultless work from Courtnee Draper and Troy Baker as Booker, Elisabeth quickly becomes an endearing, wonderfully likeable and well-developed character and their natural interactions as you explore the world really flesh them both out to great effect. Having just been rescued from a life of captivity in a tower, it’s only natural that Elisabeth would be immediately inquisitive and awe-struck with wonder at all the new sights around her, and it’s hard not to feel exactly the same way when first dropped into Columbia.
.
.

(Click image to enlarge)

.
.
Irrational Games choosing to leave the underwater city of Rapture behind for somewhere new and different might’ve been a bugbear for some fans, but it’s one that pays off beautifully. Swapping out the water-soaked art deco style for sunlit turn-of-the-century architecture and idealised 1912 Norman Rockwellian Americana results in a game that’s arguably far more awe-inspiring than Rapture was. As you wander through the city, walking through a small-town mini World’s Fair filled with shooting galleries aimed at Columbia’s underclass Vox rebels and hucksters touting the miraculous wonders of vigors, only to step out the other side and be serenaded by a barbershop quartet atop a floating gondola singing an anachronistic acapella rendition of ‘God Only Knows’, it’s as gorgeous an introduction as any you could expect, and one of countless moments where you’ll just want to take your time and drink in the beauty of the city. It’s also the backdrop for a plot that spreads its grasp far further afield than Rapture’s story, dealing with a richer, deeper well of thematic content, from racism and religion to class warface.

Which makes it a bit of a shame that there’s no major exploration to be done aside from the linear path of the story and a couple of optional side missions (where the game’s makes backtracking to previous sections a bit of a chore). Still, with a narrative as engrossing as Bioshock Infinite’s as a driving force, you’ll hardly notice or care as stray dialogue, locations and encounters all do a phenomenal, organic sense of world-building along the way. To say too much about a story and a game that’s filled with lovely little moments and big plot turns would be a huge disservice, but it’s every bit as gripping and beautifully constructed as that of the first game.
.
.

(Click image to enlarge)

.
.
There’s some very minor nitpicks. The game is almost entirely unrelated to the original Bioshock and its sequel from a story perspective, but a more overt, concrete link that pops up between the two games feels more like clumsy fan-service than a natural plot thread. An early scene that popped up in pre-release trailers where Elizabeth opens a tear to glimpse a movie theater marquee in a future, alternate 1982 New York where Return of the Jedi kept the scrapped title ‘Revenge of the Jedi’ was a wonderful, geeky moment that perfectly established the parallel universe concept that runs throughout the game. Sadly, it doesn’t play out half as well visually (for English gamers, at least) in the final game, where the tear opens a portal to Paris and the significance of the now French title ‘La Revanche du Jedi’ isn’t as immediately easy to parse.

Again, as with the lack of many new vigor skills and relatively linear gameplay, they’re minor nitpicks in comparison to what the game accomplishes, and while Bioshock Infinite never tries to be a revolutionary leap forward for the franchise, it’s still everything you could want from another Bioshock story, taking that fun, creative action and the series’ stunning art design and storytelling and painting it onto a richer, brighter, broader canvas. It’s an absolutely wonderful game with a thematically deeper, more interesting story than its predecessors, incredible voice acting and character work, satisfying combat and an art design so gorgeous that it made me want to rush out and pick up the tie-in art book. If it’s not a top contender for Game of the Year, it’s certainly a shoe-in for the most beautiful.

Rating:





Bioshock Infinite is out now for PS3, Xbox 360 and PC.
Click here to buy the game from Amazon.co.uk.