Bioshock Infinite is the third game in the series that’s previously had us explore the underwater delights of the city of Rapture in 1960 as Jack, a fortunate plane crash survivor who discovers the city as it’s experiencing a civil war. It gave gamers the opportunity to experience the notions of choice and freewill through its lauded story telling, as much as through its approach to environmental design and combat. It is, rightly, one of this generations classics, only narrowly beaten to the top spot by Aliens: Colonial Marines (kidding!). The second game, cleverly named Bioshock 2, is set in Rapture 8 years after the first and you play as Delta, one of the Big Daddy’s. It wasn’t as well received by fans due to development being farmed out from Irrational Games to 2K Marin, but still scored highly and is a great game in its own right, as well as complimenting the original. For the third game we move back to the original developer Irrational Games, and to the airborne city of Columbia in 1912 where you’re playing as Booker Dewitt, a down on his luck tough guy who’s taken a kidnapping job to pay his debts off. The target is Elizabeth, a young girl held in the city that your employers want to delivering to New York as soon as possible.
Things start sedately with Booker making his way to Columbia and exploring the city that’s in the throws of a celebration day, which gives you ample opportunity to take in the sights and sounds of what feels like a normal, everyday metropolis-in-the-sky. There are people out for picnics or shopping or dining at the local café, and you can listen in to every conversation happening to give you a better understanding of the city’s inhabitants. Audio voxphones are lying around (and cunningly hidden) that fill out the backstory for certain characters, kinetoscopes can be used to relay short movie clips on key events in Columbia’s history, and telescopes are available to check out the view and the impressive landmarks. It genuinely feels like a city and draws you in so that strangely you don’t notice it, you just accept that it’s there. Part of accepting the city for what it is comes from the distraction that there is clearly something wrong with the population, and fairly quickly it becomes clear there are tensions brewing that are going to get in the way of your hunt for the girl. I could go on and on about the pacing, setup and how the story arcs, the Songbird, handymen and quantum mechanics, but that’s just going to ruin it, so let’s get to the mechanics of it all.
When I booted it up for the first time I was disappointed to see the Unreal Engine logo. As a PS3 fan I know this means screentear galore for any cross platform game, which I can live with, but would rather not have to. Getting to the main menu didn’t do anything to change my opinion, just moving between options screens caused some hideous tears to appear, and it’s the same with some of the cutscenes during the game. However, Irrational have included a v-sync option in the menu so make sure it’s enabled because it means that when you’re in the thick of the game the images stays as clear as possible, though you may suffer some slowdown or dropped frames. I didn’t see anything during my first playthrough and had no problems with image quality during the sections I was in control, though cutscenes did still have issues. If you prefer a maximum frame rate at the cost of visual fidelity then leave the box unticked. And whilst this is built with Unreal Engine, there’s a lot of customisation in there to enable the buoyancy of the buildings, the longer draw distances needed for the environments, and the characterisation of the city. It’s all very good looking. Everything is done in the same semi-cartoon/cell shaded style as Bioshock where the artists have gone for a degree of believability without striving for hyper-realism, and the attention to detail is phenomenal on both the NPCs and the surroundings.
On the audio side the game defaults to DTS through my amp, something that doesn’t happen often as most games seem to opt for the Dolby Digital track. It sounds superb with every noise crisp and clear, and the volume scaling based on distance from an in game audio source is excellent, you really notice that getting closer makes things louder (unlike Crysis 3 where the enemies all have the same volume voice regardless of where you are in relation to them). The only thing wrong with the audio track is when in game noise and voxphones clash. For example, I was in one section of the game listening to a discovered voxphone (which can be repeated and played at will, but not stopped) when I walked in to the cue point for a tannoy announcement. The voxphone overrode the announcement and I missed what was being said. This happened several times until I learnt to stand still through every audio recording I found, even though I’d prefer to continue my obsessive-compulsive bin ransacking whilst absorbing the backstory.
In terms of gameplay, what you expect is what you get. Forwards, backwards, left and right turns, jumping and strafing, it’s all there (not much changed since Wolfenstein in that department). Combat is straight forward and effective, and with the ability to hold only two weapons at any time you find yourself swapping them around probably more regularly than if they were all stored in a massive invisible backpack. They’re also scattered liberally around so you’re never wanting for a new one, and nothing feels rare or unique so you don’t mind tossing one away on a whim. Health is back to the old skool style of pickups as either health packs or food items, there’s no hide and regenerate in this game. There are also the vigours which are the 1912 equivalent of plasmids and are powered by salts found lying around. These can be swapped in and out through a radial menu on the L2 button, and you can swap between the two selected with a tap of the same button to combine the effects on the unfortunate NPCs. L1 and R1 are your vigour and weapon fire buttons, with iron sights being on R3 and is slightly disconcerting, particularly when you keep meaning to aim down the sights at distant enemy and end up wasting your vigour salts on the fresh air in front of you. It takes a bit of getting used to, and when you’ve adapted it is very effective, with scoping really only being used for the sniper rifles.
On top of the ranged weapons there’s the melee skyhook which has the dual purpose of transporting you round the sky lines. These are rollercoaster style traversal rails that link sections of the city together and allows not only quick movement to new places, but opens up combat options as well. A press of jump whilst looking at the rail leaps you on to it, you can control speed and direction, and also shoot whilst zipping along, then dismount on the nearest enemy to send them flying. Great fun.
There are some variations in the enemies encountered, but not as much as I expected, the majority are just humans with guns. It works for the story but means you sometimes feel a bit like you’re throwing grenades at fish in a barrel, but then it ramps up the difficulty for “boss” situations and you wonder why everything is ineffective as you’re chipping away at the health. Luckily, there is no frustration involved because Irrational have created the most effective AI ever. Elizabeth, the one you came to kidnap, unsurprisingly becomes your travelling companion and she is fantastic. Forget the annoyance that was Shiva in RE5 or any of the abominations in Operation Racoon City, if you need cash, ammo, health, salts or just for her to get out of the way, she’s on it like a car bonnet (car hood for the US readers, though that doesn’t rhyme anywhere near as well). Elizabeth even spots items in the environment for you to pick up and rings them with a small blue halo in case you’ve missed that fact they’re glowing 10 times brighter than everything else. She is genius. She is also the walking equivalent of a vita chamber so that if you die you come back to life with the same progress, only slightly lighter in cash and energy. I don’t know if I can get this across in text, but the implementation of her is brilliant, you feel like the best co-op partner in the world has your back without it becoming contrived or cloying.
So did I enjoy the game? I think it’s clear I did, and it’s easily the best game I’ve played this year so far. Why? The story. Everything comes back to how the story unfolds through the game and how it makes you think and feel at the end. Taking the time to discover all the little touches in the game that give you more knowledge of the world you’re visiting is well worth doing, it rewards you with a deeper immersion in the experience, something that others games manage to turn in to a grind. I shouldn’t be surprised though because that’s exactly how I was with Bioshock, and Irrational have elicited the same wonder and joy with this game. I can’t give this full marks though, there are three things that stop that. 1.) I bought the Premium Edition and it’s not exactly the best for content considering the price(art book, board game piece for something I’m never going to buy, key ring, DLC codes, digital soundtrack); 2.) I enjoyed Infinite so much I bought the season pass and got the bonus starting items for my second playthrough only to find that it didn’t work and I’ve been waiting for a fix; and 3.) a day one patch for a single player game.
Even with these small detractors, I strongly recommend that everyone buys it and experiences one of the best videogame stories I think you’ll ever play. There’s a high level or replayability here because you will want to go back to Columbia and examine things in more detail, and there’s the talked about 1999 mode which makes things very tough (unlocks when you finish the game, or input the Konami code). As a final note, all through the credits I was thinking about what I’d just done and how it made me feel (not a regular response to an FPS), and the main thought was “I want to play Bioshock now”. Well done Irrational, you didn’t even have to ask me kindly.