- review is based on PC version, although I also tried my hand at the PS3 version via the PSN 1-hour trial
- game time clocked in at just over 14 hours. I played on Hard difficulty
- I've played Bioshock 1, 2, System Shock 1 and 2, and other similar games in the genre, most of which are on PC
- there are SPOILERS in this review, but I'll warn you beforehand.
Within just a few moments, a wave of nostalgia washed over me as waves of digital water pummeled my small rowboat. In the distance, through the dreary weather, a lighthouse! Fond memories of an ill-fated plane crash from the first Bioshock came back to me, and I eagerly climbed the stairs to a new adventure.
Bioshock Infinite is an excellent game in many respects. For those who are interested in Ken Levine's latest, you'll probably fall into one of two categories (or maybe you'll find yourself stuck between). One, you might be getting the game for its gameplay. The Bioshock series is well-known for its compelling gameplay and unique approach to combat. It isn't a pure shooter. It isn't a pure RPG. It's not open-world or completely free-form, either. It's a mixture of all of these. So, it's understandable why you'd want to try out Infinite. Or, perhaps you're getting the game for the storyline. Bioshock 1 (and 2, to a lesser degree) is infamous for its plot twists, it's in-depth storyline, and the engrossing atmosphere that is wrapped around the game.
Or, maybe you're like me. Maybe you want a bit of both. Maybe you want Bioshock Infinite to be the best game in the series. And if you're like me, you might be disappointed.
Let's get the technical stuff out of the way. Graphically, the game's beauty lies not in the number of pixels crammed into each scene or the depth of the shadow effects. Rather, the unique environments are what draw you in. Walking down a brick-paved road and seeing buildings float - yes, float - by is certainly a unique sight to see. I never ran into any major glitches or problems. A few times, it would take a moment for textures to pop in (a common side-effect of the immensely popular Unreal Engine). Framerate was solid, both in the PC version and during the brief time I had with the PS3 version. Controls worked very well in both the console version and the PC version. Using Vigors (the new name for Plasmids) felt more intuitive on the PS3 controller, but as a veteran PC gamer, I was more at home with the shooting mechanics with a good ol' mouse and keyboard. The sound design is also very good. Keep in mind: unlike Rapture, Columbia is a lively city. You'll see people walking (and fleeing) around town. People talk about various topics. Not everyone you see is your enemy. Sometimes it's fun just to walk around and hear what people have to say. The high quality of the voice acting, not only for the main characters but even for no-name people you hear on the street, was a pleasant surprise. The weapon and environmental sounds are also well done and they add a lot of atmosphere to the overall experience.
Graphics aren't everything but rest assured because the art style and atmosphere are really top-notch, too. Environmentally, the floating city of Columbia is every bit the opposite of the Rapture we've come to know and fear. Instead of dark, leaky, mold-infested nightclubs, battles take place on sunny rooftops while flying between buildings on the sky rails. This is my opinion, but I like Columbia's style a lot more than Rapture's. We have plenty of dreary, blood-soaked, brown environments in this day and age. Columbia's bright streets are a breath of fresh air. Seriously, if you really like shooters and you're yearning to simply shoot stuff in an environment that is completely different that what you're used to, then don't bother reading the rest of my review and just go play the game. And, by the way, there's nothing wrong with that. Shooters are fun. There's a reason why people buy a lot of them. So, if you want a shooter in a unique world, get Bioshock Infinite...
But, perhaps you want more than just a shooter. Perhaps, like me, you were seduced years ago by the freedom offered by shooters like System Shock, Deus Ex, or more recently, Bioshock and DE: Human Revolution. Perhaps you want MORE out of this game than just a shooter with a pretty environment. Well, this is where things take a turn.
I'll be as spoiler-free as possible in regards to details. However, I'm going to be discussing the themes of the game and why I was disappointed by the storyline and the fundamental design. I'm not going to tell you who kills who, or who dies, or when the "would you kindly?" moment occurs. Are we good? I just gave you the "minor spoiler alert". Moving on...
Just as everything in Columbia is the opposite to Rapture, nearly everything in Bioshock Infinte is the opposite to what I loved about Bioshock 1 and 2, the storyline being the biggest culprit. Combat is enjoyable. I already made that clear. In my opinion, the enemies in Infinite have a lot more variety and are a lot more interesting compared to the first two Bioshock games. That's just an opinion, but I really did like fighting all of the enemy types. However, combat isn't very Bioshock-ish. In the Rapture Bioshock games, there were always several methods of dispatching an enemy. Or, rather, there were always several ways of getting through an area. Sometimes you didn't have to dispatch an enemy. Sometimes you could just take an alternate route. In Bioshock Infinite, the Vigors feel far less interesting and at the mid-way point of the game I was only using two or three of the available Vigors. There's also a weapon limit. Yep, instead of carrying around a backpack full of electro-shotguns and auto-revolvers, you get two guns at a time. Oh! You can upgrade them, sure, but the upgrades are bland compared to the original Bioshock (in my opinion), and the two weapon limit is just that: a limit. It limits your freedom to experiment in combat.
Maybe Ken Levine was trying to be so ironic about limiting freedom, he got ahead of himself. See, one of the themes of Bioshock Infinite is the juxtaposition between the cost of freedom and the cost of peace. Columbia is a standing monument to contradiction, on one hand spouting about freedom and American way and happiness, but on the other hand rallying against the Chinese, blacks, or any other non-white, non-obedient class in the society and killing those groups wherever they stand. Har har. We get it. It's ironic, right? Okay, but it's neither funny nor ironic when you remove all of the gameplay freedom from previous Bioshock games. That isn't a joke I wanted to hear. Levels are bitterly linear, with almost no exploration between combat sequences. The Voxophones (audio tapes) scattered throughout the levels aren't so much "scattered" as they are "placed on a desk that takes four seconds to walk over to". Ammo is plentiful, so even if there were a lot of side-sections to explore, it probably wouldn't be necessary. The lack of exploration really let me down. Columbia seems like a much cooler place to explore than Rapture, in my opinion, but my vacation on this floating city was limited to the narrow hallways that the game channeled me down. Okay, I wasn't expected freedom along the lines of Dishonored, but the developers could have at least MATCHED the freedom from previous Bioshock titles. The linearity reflects in my total playtime. While Bioshock 1 and 2 took me over 20 hours each for my first playthrough (not counting the time I also re-played each of those games), Bioshock Infinite only took me 14 hours from start to credits. It goes to show that there is simply less to do in this game, plain and simple.
So, you're introduced into this floating city, you see the racism, the blind fanaticism, and you've gotta find this Elizabeth lady. Okay. Where's the twist? Minor early-game spoiler: the underlying "twist" to Infinite is that there are an infinite number of universes that are interwoven into ours. Get it? Infinite? Like, infinite universes so we called the game Bioshock Infinite? Hurr hurr, Ken Levine. Anyways, tears can form between the universes, and the city of Columbia is a hot-spot for such activity. This Elizabeth lady can manipulate these "tears" (tears, as in rips, not crying, my dear friends). It's why she is so important. Some of the tears are really cool, because you'll see things from the future, and it appears that sometimes certain unscrupulous souls in Columbia are using these tears to bring technology into Columbia that wouldn't normally exist. These tears play a role not only in combat but also play a significant part in the storyline.
Here's the deal: the tears are dumb. The idea of multiple universes is nothing new. This idea has been around since the early days of science fiction, and in gameplay terms, Singularity already gave this a try (although it wasn't nearly as nifty or self-referential). But to make matters worse, Bioshock Infinite's storyline is a complete reversal of what made Bioshock 1 and 2 so clever. In Bioshock, we had ADAM and crazy citizens and the bizarre manipulation of the Big Daddies and Little Sisters. We had the ideological strife between Atlas and Fontaine. Infinite's Comstock and Fitzroy (and Lutece) are terribly bland in comparison. What? The Columbian citizens are all worshiping this weird cult-guy? Hold the phone! I've never seen overt religious commentary in a videogame before! What is this, 1997? It's nothing new! The uniqueness of Columbia's society and the true purpose of the floating city is far more interesting than the tears in the universe and the personalities of the main characters. The multiple universe thing almost seemed slapped on. The majority of the plot twists boil down to "hey! Multiple universes! Crazy, huh?" Well, no. Not crazy. I've seen this before. This theme has been done a million times. It's not new. The multiple universe thing damages the atmosphere. Okay, we all knew Rapture was fictional, but there was enough familiar music, architecture, and fashion to make us pause and wonder if a place like Rapture could be real. Columbia, too, captured my imagination with its overall atmosphere, but then we're told Columbia and its world and its society and everything that transpires is "because, multiple universes, bro". In literature, such a catch-all answer is called deus ex machina, and it is something to avoid. What's next? Bioshock Spicy! It's about a dystopian city...underneath a lake of LAVA! Get it? Hot! Spicy! It's possible because multiverse, bro. What about Bioshock Whoville? Microscopic city on a speck of dust! Multiverse, bro. Instead off adding to the charm and mystery of the franchise, Bioshock Infinite destroys it with its nonsensical explanations. Within the context of Infinite's storyline alone, the multiverse thing works, yeah, sure, but it doesn't really fit into the overall context of what the series is known for (especially when you discover that Columbia has ties to another well-known city). It would be like playing a new Halo game and you find Master Chief fighting in World War II, and the only explanation was "because a wizard put Master Chief here, duh!". There are plenty of explanations of how the multiverse concept ties together the various plot points in the end, but at its core, the multiverse idea was a dumb choice. It's a lazy storytelling mechanic.
But there's an even more fundamental reason why Bioshock Infinite's storyline and themes don't work. In Bioshock (and in a lot of good science fiction), the "sci fi" is just a backdrop to the human side of the story. We may have been introduced to a sunken city, to ADAM, to Plasmids, and to Big Daddies in Bioshock, but those things were just a backdrop to the story going on between you, Fontaine, Atlas, and Dr. Tenenbaum. The "sci fi" took back seat. The TRUE story, the betrayal, the intrigue, the mystery, the drama, the tragedy, THOSE things were the focus in the first two Bioshock games. When the ending came, we didn't go "WOAH! That plasmid-stuff turned him into a huge sea-sarlac! WOAH! That was such a good ending!" No. The Bioshock storylines have been so highly regarded because they were good on a human scale. They were interesting because the people were interesting. (Minor ending spoilers) In Infinite, the plot twists, the theme, and even the ending all revolve around this multiple universe idea. And no, when I reached the end I didn't go "WOAH! Multiple universes! My mind is blown!" It just wasn't very Bioshock-ish. Actually, it just wasn't very good, especially not compared to the two prior games in the series. I loved Bioshock 1 and 2 because Rapture - despite how cool it was - was not the focus of the game. It was simply the stage upon which the actors were placed. In Infinite, the actors are boring, so the sci-fi theme elbows in and takes the limelight. Comparing Bioshock to Bioshock Infinite is like comparing Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep to Transformers: one has the meaningful story, the other has the special effects.
Bioshock Infinite is still a good game. The combat is solid. The graphics are good. The environments are GREAT! I was serious earlier: if you're content to play a shooter in a pretty environment, Bioshock Infinite fits the bill. However, the Bioshock series is known for more than just graphics and a nifty art style. We expect freedom of choice. We expect at least a little bit of exploration. We expect a storyline that delves into human nature. Sadly, the first two hours of Infinite where we see Columbia's racism and arrogance is about as deep as the game ever gets into human nature. Of course, many people will love this game. That's fine. I'm not here to tell you that you SHOULDN'T love this game. Rather, if the storyline and the freedom and the "human" side of previous Bioshock games is why you love those games, then Infinite is a step down from previous titles in the series.