Bioshock Infinite isn’t just a shooter. Almost every single gameplay mechanic, polygon, and pixel of environment art exists for one reason and one reason alone: as a storytelling device. How much you enjoy a story can be very subjective. Characters, for example, can be relatable or totally unbelievable based on your experiences. To invest all of your efforts into telling a story is a risk few games take, but Bioshock Infinite bet the farm on it.
In terms of gameplay, Infinite is among the twitchiest of twitch shooters. It’s responsive but also undeniably floaty. If you’re a fan of Halo or Left 4 Dead, you’ll feel right at home. Although, the trademark cartoony art style of Bioshock does justify its weightless feel better than pseudo-realism of those games.
Controls are as intuitive as you’d expect from a dual-wielding shooter, whether you’re playing with a controller, or a mouse and keyboard. Keyboard users do have an advantage, however, since they can equip any left-hand power at any time. Controller users can only hotkey a maximum of two powers, and must use a radial menu to access the others.
The spice that adds life to Infinite’s combat lies in the Vigors, Tears and Skylines. These are the only forms of freedom the combat has to offer; yet they provide a surprising amount of gameplay latitude. If you’ve never played the original Bioshock or heard of Plasmids, Vigors are essentially magical left-hand powers that I mentioned, similar to those of last year’s Dishonored. They have an imaginative range of uses, from simply making things explode, to possessing machinery such as turrets and vending machines.
Tears don’t quite offer the same level of freedom. As a contextual addition to combat, players can use them offensively just as a Hitman player would sabotage the target’s favorite pastime – by pressing a button next to it. True, the Tears in Infinite are activated remotely, and often in the heat of combat, which makes hem quite interesting. However, it’s still not as satisfying as manipulating the tools provided by the core mechanics.
Tears also detract from the immersive atmosphere of the game. Though the mechanic is totally supported by the story, the instantly recognizable white noise of a Tear telegraphs when gunfights are going to happen as soon as you enter a new area. Tears seem more like a gimmick than an evolution of Bioshock’s combat, but as gimmicky mechanics go, I’d take Tears over the pipedream minigame any day.
The feature that differentiates Bioshock Infinite from other first person shooters the most is undoubtedly the Skylines. Effectively a cross between a zip-line and a rollercoaster, Skylines add some much needed verticality to Infinite’s gunplay. Enemies can also chase you on Skylines, which makes for the most stimulating firefights in the game. The mechanic isn’t just unique; it’s an effective and satisfying way of traversing large environments in first person.
Cover is sparse in this game. This does wonders for the excitement and pace of gunfights, but does little for those who love to play shooter tactically. Vigors and Tears do provide entertaining ways of distracting or disabling enemy fire, but that’s as deep as the combat gets. Like Left 4 Dead, the open environments make gunplay and melee both necessary and frantic, but also very, very simple.
The enemy variety in Bioshock Infinite is impressively diverse. From mowing down ordinary humans carrying weapons, to the running frantically from Handymen, to stealthily sneaking past the Boys of Silence, The game provides a ton of different types of tension. However, Like Left 4 Dead, enemy AI is designed to challenge players with numbers and aggression, rather than tactics. In other words, you’ll be fighting morons.
It’s an old school shooter trope. Humanoid enemies are about as talented at taking cover and avoiding kill zones as Arkham City’s thugs are at figuring out where Batman is hiding. Like Arkham City, the narrative supports their ineptitude, but also like Arkham City, hardcore genre veterans may find themselves bored. If you’re a mouse user who’s used to intelligent enemy AI, the game won’t provide much stimulation.
While not as game-breaking as the original Bioshock’s Vita Chambers, Infinite offers little in the way of negative reinforcement. Though some enemies respawn or regain health, large obstacles like firemen and turrets are gone for good regardless of how many times you die. Some levels, such as the final gunfight, are easier to complete if the player runs out of health, rather than spends time looking for health and ammo. I usually like frequent, forgiving checkpoints, but I don’t like finding an exploit that eliminates the challenge.
Bioshock also has light RPG elements such as stat, weapon and Vigor upgrades that encourage lots of exploration and looting. Like it’s predecessor, Infinite also has a moral choice system. There’s far more variety this time around than the simple ‘save’ or ‘harvest’ choice from the original. Unfortunately, consequences are even more frivolous this time around.
Despite the game’s daring tagline ‘From the makers of the highest rated first-person shooter of all time’, Bioshock isn’t a groundbreaking shooter. Its combat is frantic and exhilarating due to a lack of cover and regenerating health, but it’s basically Left 4 Dead with powers. What this does is provide the exciting highs in a fifteen-hour long narrative.
If you’re a fan of shooters that require a great deal of tactical thinking, Bioshock Infinite’s gunplay will either be a guilty pleasure, or nothing special at all. If Left 4 Dead with superpowers sounds like an incredible amount of fun to you, you’ll have a blast. However, that’s not the real selling point of the game.
Infinite’s gameplay is merely a conduit. It’s designed to keep a large demographic playing long enough to experience what the game was actually made for. Yes, you guessed it – the story.
The original Bioshock was famous for two things – one of which was its captivating opening sequence. When it comes to following that act, Bioshock Infinite does not disappoint. I haven’t seen such superb pacing in a first-person game since Portal 2. The pacing is mainly attributed to the level design, which is not only beautiful to look at, but also works together with the narrative.
The amount of time it takes you to walk from A to B, the ominous sights that naturally fall into the player’s gaze, the symbolic meanings of some of the seemingly mundane objects you pass by. All of these things build atmosphere, intrigue and tension, making the eventual reveal of the city of Columbia all the more epic and significant. Once you arrive in the city, the game has incredibly provocative things to say about religious and political fundamentalism. Some of the imagery in the game’s first act is so controversial I doubt you could ever make this story a mainstream film.
However, as I got further into the game I found that the narrative had some problems. As the story goes on, the environment, character relationships and end-goal change significantly and abruptly. It gets to the point where you wonder if certain character’s original motivations still apply. As more and more story elements were introduced, as the status quo continuously altered, I began to stop caring about achieving the goals set for me, not knowing what is or isn’t significant in the long run. It’s a common problem with the kind of sci-fi story Infinite belongs to.
The other thing the original Bioshock is famous for is, of course, the gigantic twist near the end of the game. Without spoiling anything, Bioshock’s twist wasn’t just an unexpected solution to a mystery; it tricked players by exploiting their knowledge of videogame tropes such as forced linearity. It’s one of gaming’s best examples of a story that could only have been told through an interactive medium.
This is, unfortunately where Bioshock Infinite falls short of its predecessor. Sure, you’re expecting a twist this time around, but that’s not why it falls short, the narrative is structured to support this expectation. There are four reasons why the revelations at the end of Bioshock Infinite aren’t as effective as the first game:
- The idea behind the game doesn’t capitalize on the interactive nature of the medium, as the previous game did.
- One aspect of the game is, and has always been supernatural. There is no real-world explanation.
- The twist is very simple, and could have been explained in two or three scenes, but it was presented in a very convoluted way.
- Unfortunately, what is possibly the most significant of Infinite’s many revelations has been done before in a videogame just a few years ago.
It sounds like I was completely put off by these issues, but really I’m nit picking. Bioshock Infinite has some of the best character development in any first person shooter, though it’s difficult to articulate how without spoilers. It tells a unique science fantasy story in an intriguing way. As long as you’re not expecting every little thing to be explained by science, all of the game’s lose ends are tied neatly by the time the credits roll.
In terms of presentation, Bioshock Infinite isn’t so much a technical achievement as it is an artistic one. On ultra settings the game definitely looks beautiful, but the game isn’t infallibly stable. If you want a smooth experience you may have to turn off dynamic shadows and light pillars, as the game tends to cut the frame rate in half while in populated open environments.
Unfortunately for users with fantastic monitors, the game has no option to turn off v-sync. This means you may experience mouse lag, which can be a dealbreaker for those who are opposed to controllers. Though a game set in the sky will inevitably have lots of 2D vistas, you’d be surprised how much of Infinite’s environments are rendered. Unlike most multiplatform games, Infinite never leans on pre-rendered cutscenes to hide loading.
Almost everything in the campaign is in first person and in real time with an adjustable field of view. No dream sequences. Well… actually there are, but they’re interactive too. Still, the game does have short loading screens between levels, which is disappointing considering the game is mostly linear.
Every single room, structure and object in the game has been modeled with intricate detail. The art nouveau aesthetic combines seamlessly with Bioshock’s signature steam-punk vibe in every single asset. The color palette is pleasingly varied compared to its predecessor. Bright blue and gold visuals towards the beginning of the game create a nice contrast with the dark reds of the second act, and the saturated blue-grey of the home stretch.
Sound design is superb, with not a single syllable out of sync or sound out of place. The dynamic range is comfortable enough to hear the most intimate dialogue, but extreme enough to punctuate the epic set pieces with the convincingly loud sounds of buckling metal and explosions. Voicework is surprisingly hit or miss. Each individual line is superbly delivered, but voices can often run over one another in awkward and unnatural ways.
It’s a problem I would have called ‘inherent’ to the method of recording that was used in the development of Bioshock Infinite, if it weren’t for the amazing performances of Telltale’s The Walking Dead last year. As impressive as that game was, recording dialogue in a small room and editing the timing afterwards just doesn’t do Infinite’s characters justice. Then again, if you’re comfortable with the dialogue of choice-driven RPGs like Mass Effect and The Witcher, you might not even notice it.
Though I wish the game was a little more stable, and the voice editing was a tiny bit more natural, the game still looks and sounds absolutely beautiful. It’s not a bar-raising experience in terms of technical presentation, but it’s artistry is highly impressive, and without a single bug in either of my two playthroughs, it’s definitely in the upper echelon of polish when it comes to multiplatform games.
Bioshock Infinite is a fantastic achievement for a game developer, but requires a very specific recommendation. The gameplay is simple but exciting, and features a lot of player choice. The story is told better than the first game, but isn’t as original or groundbreaking. It’s not the holy savior of first person games, as other reviews may have made it seem. It is, however, an exceedingly well-executed experience.