The next time you hear a gamer complain about the uninspired annual crud parade a series like Call of Duty has become, you can thank a game like BioShock Infinite for inspiring such feelings. BSI is a game that never panders, never condescends, and is the video game equivalent of great literature. It is a video game that assumes its audience is well-read and intelligent, and is filled with subtext and inside references. BSI is the first video game since the original BioShock to truly surpass the stigma of games-as-toys; it shouts to the world that video games can be every bit as intellectually legitimate as the best novels and films.
BSI is the anti-Call of Duty, and it’s been a long time coming.
The year is 1912, and America is experiencing the booming success of a great Industrial Revolution. Science and industry are exploding with new ideas and America is quickly becoming the dominant cultural and scientific capitol of the world. In BSI’s fictional universe, President William McKinley ordered the launch of a great floating city meant to symbolize the power and ingenuity of the American spirit. In 1901, Columbia rose up among the clouds. However, it became apparent that Columbia was more than a symbol of intellectual moxie; it was a floating warship meant to crush those opposed to growing American influence. Columbia’s leaders, disgusted with America’s multi-cultural direction, went rogue and disappeared with the city. A civil war erupted among Columbia’s citizens, leaving a power vacuum to be filled by either the Founders (led by Zachary Hale Comstock) or the Vox Populi (led by Daisy Fitzroy). The Founders is a bigoted group of zealots who use warped Nationalistic theory and religious fear to achieve its goal of strengthening White Purity and eradicating all non-white, non-Protestant citizens; at the beginning of the game, the Founders are in control of Columbia. The Vox Populi is a group that believes in diversity and freedom for all people; it is a splintered, rag-tag revolutionary group striking against Comstock’s Founders using guerrilla warfare.
You play as Booker DeWitt, a now disgraced member of the Pinkertons (a real-life organization that was a very early prototype of a Private Military Company). Booker, on a mission to get his life back in order, takes an assignment to recover a girl named Elizabeth who is held captive in Columbia. Elizabeth appears to be vital to Comstock’s twisted vision of Columbia’s future, and Booker becomes ensnared not only in Columbia’s dangerous religious and political underpinnings, but also in events that will reshape his entire universe. To say any more would ruin the experience, so I’ll cut it off here.
Legendary developer, Irrational Games (helmed by Ken Levine), has created the second game I can think of that hands the player a required reading list. Granted, you do not have to do the reading, but if you are versed in the background theory, you get far more out of the experience. The other game is, not coincidentally, the first BioShock, which also came from Irrational. The first BioShock was drenched in socio-economic Objectivism themes, while BioShock Infinite takes aim squarely at theocratic rule by proxy of fear and xenophobia. BSI also takes a few well-deserved shots at the pseudo-scientific nonsense that is Scientology.
The beauty of both BioShock and BioShock Infinite is you can go into either completely ignorant of all the serious, intellectual themes and simply have fun shooting, immolating, or electrocuting the games’ inventive enemies. It works so well on both levels, which has been vital to the series’ success.
BioShock Infinite plays almost identically to the first game in the series. You shoot with whatever weapon is in your right hand (left mouse button), and you use your enhanced powers with your left hand (right mouse button). In BSI your special powers are called Vigors (instead of Plasmids), and they operate in much the same fashion. You have a small variety to choose from – some better against certain enemies or in certain situations – and they are powered by Salts (BSI’s equivalent to EVE).
BSI offers a few new powers, my favorite being “Murder of Crows,” which sets loose a flurry of crows at your enemies to stun them (interesting fact: a group of crows is actually called a “murder”). BSI also offers the new gameplay mechanic of zipping around Columbia’s rollercoaster-like rail system using a hand-held grappling device called a Sky Hook. You can zip-line among the buildings, or jump from anchor to anchor and perform grizzly air-kills. The Sky Hook is also your melee weapon, which introduces serious cranial problems to your victims.
BSI’s control mechanics are extremely smooth and intuitive. It’s very easy to nail a distance headshot with your Mauser “broomhandle” pistol, or line up a Vigor fireball to torch multiple enemies on the fly. You can also mix up Vigor and weapon attacks for extra damage. The overall experience of playing BSI on the PC is vastly superior to the consoles, as the consoles’ limited controller buttons require a lot of pausing-into-menus to access specific Vigors or weapons; the vast array of keyboard keys allow instant access to whatever you need.
BioShock Infinite uses a modified version of Unreal Engine 3, and it is becoming very apparent that this well-used engine’s days are numbered. Much like the recent game Dishonored (also using a modified version of UE3), the saving grace of BSI’s graphics is its style not its snazzy visual bells and whistles. Dishonored looked nice because of its water-color-like stylization, not because of any GPU-melting Crysis-3-like visual effects. The same goes for BSI. If you look at most world objects too closely, you’ll see blurry textures and low poly counts – all signs of a game engine past its prime. This is especially true of most plants, rocks, landscaping, interior set pieces, and other “building blocks” of the environment. However, important character and weapon models look far better. The insanely unique enemy designs also stand as highlights of the game’s genius art direction. The visual representations of the Vigors injected into Booker’s hand look especially spectacular.
Despite some don’t-look-too-closely visual shortcomings, BSI is still a very handsome game thanks to its art direction. It uses an art style similar to games like Dishonored or PS2-era Grand Theft Auto games. This is a method of pseudo-realism where characters and other important objects seem real, but are slightly stylized in a way that makes them look a bit unreal. Faces are more like caricatures – facial features are overemphasized and body proportions are not quite accurate. Because every piece of art in the game follows the same overall stylistic rule, this method works very effectively. It also helps mask some of the shortcomings of the engine.
Probably the best compliment I can offer BSI is how effectively the game introduces you to Columbia. It is an amazing and unique sequence that left me with a feeling of awe I have never experienced in a video game before. Your first glimpses of the floating metropolis are a visual (and aural) assault of beauty and wonder. Once you actually step foot into the city, you are greeted to a magnificent landscape of golden light flooding your senses. I literally just wandered around dumbstruck for the first few minutes taking in the beauty of the vista in front of me. When was the last time Call of Duty inspired such wonder?
Think of BSI’s visuals as the game engine equivalent of Helen Mirren: you see this super hot woman across the pub (beautiful face, great body), but once you get up close to her, you think, “Gee, she’s actually kind of old.” But you’re still fascinated because she’s interesting and has so much style.
Yeah… that’s it exactly!
The sound in BSI is spectacular, from top-to-bottom. This is especially true of the music. This game has, hands-down, the best music in any game I have ever played in my 30+ years of video gaming. BSI’s instrumental score is majestic and brimming with thematic meaning, while the pop songs are not only marvelously performed, but carry with them subtext to the game’s plot. Why, for instance, in 1912 are you hearing a barbershop quartet perform a version of “God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys, which did not appear until 1966? So. Freakin’. Awesome.
Voice acting is also superior, and fitting with the high quality benchmark of the game’s other aspects. This is not only true of the main characters, but of every seemingly disposable line of random NPC dialog. Each spoken line recorded for BSI was done so with as much care and meaning possible, and every line of dialog seemingly unlocks another piece of the story’s grand design.
BSI’s launch day brought with it a brief period of growing pains. For much of the day, gamers with high-end NVIDIA and AMD GPUs were experiencing frequent crashes while using the game’s DirectX 11 effects. Thankfully, by the end of launch day, Irrational Games released a 3.8 GB patch through Steam that seemed to solve the problems. At least it did for me. I was experiencing a game-breaking crash at exactly the same point every time I tried to play (immediately after the coin toss Booker takes part in during the early fairgrounds level… “Heads…” “…or tails?”). After the patch, the game never crashed again.
Sorry Lara, I loved your Tomb Raider reboot, but BioShock Infinite has already taken its place as the top game of 2013 (so far).
BSI is a game everyone must play. It is easily one of the best games of the last decade, and surpasses the first BioShock in its grandeur and audacious themes. If you fancy yourself an intellectual and are fairly well versed in the social arts, BSI’s story will enrapture you from beginning to end. If you’re just in it to set bad guys on fire and zip-line across Columbia’s sprawling landscape, then you will also have a blast, as BSI’s action mechanics are finely honed and lots of fun. BSI is truly the complete experience: an insanely interesting story, amazing characters, an audio/visual treat, and engaging combat.
Beg, borrow, or steal: get your own copy of BioShock Infinite as soon as humanly possible.
Brilliant, intellectual, meaningful, moving, vivid… it left me breathless.
Very much like the first BioShock, the mechanics are extremely tight and ensure you will have a great experience.
BSI squeezes as much as it can from an aging UE3; while there are blurry textures and low-poly objects here and there, the overall art style makes the game a visual feast.
The most meaningful musical experience I have ever had playing a video game; voice acting is amazing from the lead roles to the most (seemingly) insignificant NPC dialog.
FINAL SCORE: A