BioShock Infinite has been one of the most anticipated games in recent memory and has suffered the slings of release date delays and criticism from certain interest groups, but that hasn't stopped its incredibly powerful buzz train from bringing our expectations to new heights. Does it deliver on its promises and keeps us floating in the throes of ecstasy? Or does it belong in the murky depths, like a certain other city we know and love? (Not a negative thing, really. We like Rapture!)
Even as I'm writing this, I'm looping the choir version of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" in the hopes to channel the absolute magic I felt during every moment of this game.
No. BioShock Infinite is more than a game; it's an experience. Sure, it has all of the trappings of a game -- pretty visuals, fantastic shooter mechanics, collectibles, and upgrades of all kinds -- but BioShock Infinite transcends the sum of its parts. It is a triumph in storytelling, in world-building, and in getting the player to do so much more than shoot enemies while getting from point A to point B. Like DeWitt in the chair atop the lighthouse in the beginning of the game, BioShock Infinite takes us to a completely new place with jaw-dropping discoveries at every turn.
If you're not familiar with the game's premise by now, then it's safe to assume that you've happily avoided the complete deluge of promotional videos and previews that have been dropping ever since the game was announced. But if you have been keeping up, then you know that you're former Pinkerton agent Booker DeWitt, who is now a private investigator for hire with a checkered past and an even worse gambling problem. He owes some bad people a hefty amount of cash, but is given the choice to make amends by following one simple instruction: "Bring us the girl, and wipe away the debt."
The girl in question is a late-teens girl named Elizabeth, who, thanks to a man named Comstock who fancies himself a prophet, is trapped inside a tower in a city in the sky called Columbia. Sounds a bit like the stuff of Disney Princess movies, right? Booker is given instructions to save this damsel in distress and is launched from the top of the lighthouse and lands in the floating city.
Where BioShock's Rapture was a dank, eerie network of enclosed spaces under the crushing darkness of the sea, BioShock Infinite's Columbia is full of light, life, and jubilation. This isn't the ruins of a once-great city built on objectivism that's gone to hell; it's a breathing, populated utopia in the heavens that embraces the concepts of American exceptionalism and religion, even fashioning some of the greats of American history as colossal religious figures.
Comstock has everyone believing that he, through Elizabeth, will lead the people of Columbia into heaven by raining down fire on the Sodom Below, which is what he calls the surface world. Why? Well, through his "prophecies," he has seen the absolute mess that the future will bring and is set on doing God's work to destroy it.
It is up to Booker to save Elizabeth from whatever nefarious plans Comstock has in store for her and clear away his debt by bringing her back to New York. If only it was as easy as smashing through to the tower, grabbing the girl, and getting out of the city. But she's got a guardian in the form of a giant mechanical bird hunting them down, a fight between the elite Founders and an increasingly violent revolutionary group called the Vox Populi (People's Voice), and Comstock's forces to contend with. Not to mention the added issue of Elizabeth's mysterious power to open up tears in the fabric of space and time.
If that doesn't get you biting and wanting to sink your teeth into the story, then I don't know what will. Well, maybe you care more about gameplay than you do the story? The good news is that even with all of its heavy themes and fantastical concepts, BioShock Infinite does not skimp on gameplay mechanics. This is a first-person shooter that packs some serious style wrapped around a lot of substance. There are a handful of guns that you can use throughout the game, and though you'll be restricted to only carrying two at a time, combat efficiency will never be an issue.
The weapons are of the standard fare and include classics like a pistol, a shotgun, a machine gun, and an RPG, but you can mix and match them with Vigors, which is Infinite's version of Rapture's Plasmids. These powers are fueled by Salts, the replacement for EVE, and can be upgraded for more devastating effects. For example, you can use the Bucking Bronco Vigor to levitate your enemy and then follow up with some well-placed shots to the head.
You'll also be able to collect Infusions, which are upgrades that augment either your Shield, Health, or Salt levels every time you find one. Depending on whether or not you value damage mitigation over Vigor-casting, your Booker could end up totally different from your friend's. Another upgrade system in the game takes the form of various pieces of Gear that Booker can equip, like hats, pants, and shirts. Each article of clothing can give bonuses, like a shirt that shocks enemies when they strike you with a melee attack in the middle of a fight. While they're stunned, you can unload your guns in their faces or punch them with your trusty Sky-hook.
Should you expend all of your ammo, Salts, or run low on health, you don't need to go scrambling for the nearest vendor right away, since this is where Elizabeth shines in battle. Our pretty little damsel in distress assists you in every way possible by tossing you med kits, extra ammunition, Salts, and she can even revive you when you die. She also calls out notable enemies on the battlefield that are considered "heavy hitters" and might give Booker some trouble. But as an added bonus, Elizabeth can open up tears around the battlefield and bring in objects from other dimensions to aid Booker in a fight. Examples of these are boxes of medkits, various weapons, automated gunners, friendly Motorized Patriots, puddles of water for shocking groups of enemies, and freight hooks which can give Booker the higher ground.
Out of battle, Elizabeth is a near-constant companion who will roam around and look at things that interest her, comment on situations, point out objects for Booker to collect, and she'll even prove that she's a roguish type by opening locks, so long as you have the number of lockpicks necessary for the job. It is a joy that she never gets in your way and never needs you to babysit her. She's a completely autonomous companion who only serves to make the adventure in Columbia all the more enjoyable. It also helps that voice actors Troy Baker (Booker), and Courtnee Draper (Elizabeth), did such a bang-up job that I felt like these two characters were very real people.
But she's also a character that's shrouded in all kinds of mystery. Why was she in the tower? What plans does Comstock have for her? How is she able to open tears into other dimensions? These questions and more ultimately drive the experience forward, giving you another incentive to move on while collecting various Voxophones (audio recordings), to flesh out the narrative and get clues into exactly what lies behind the shiny veneer of Columbia's idyllic lifestyle.
The adventure will last anywhere between 10 to 15 hours, depending on how thorough you are when it comes to listening to every Voxophone and gathering all of the other collectibles. A lot of discussions have been cropping up, all surrounding the game's ending, and for good reason. Without giving anything away, let's just say that it will definitely get lots of people talking for a very long time.
And if it doesn't get them talking, then it might get them humming, considering that the music in the game is top-notch. The soundtrack is provided by BioShock veteran Garry Schyman and helps infuse life into every corner and facet of Columbia, amping up the action during firefights and slowing things down during more somber moments of quiet between Booker and Elizabeth. You owe it to your ears to listen to this soundtrack.
For all of its merits, BioShock Infinite is not without a few blemishes. And mind you, these blemishes are extremely minor, but they're still there and keep the game from being an absolutely perfect experience (though it's pretty damn close). The graphics on the PlayStation 3 version I played for review looked a little blurry and the colors looked slightly muddy, especially when compared to the PC version. It helped to give the game a sort of Impressionist look, but with all of the beauty in Columbia, it would've been more beneficial to have sharper textures and brighter colors.
The middle section of the story also seemed a little bloated. While it was fun to run around with Elizabeth, some parts could have been truncated in the interest of driving the story forward. Again, these are very minor issues, but ones that kind of detracted from making BioShock Infinite a perfect gaming experience.
At the end of the day, Ken Levine and the crew at Irrational Games have crafted an amazing journey through a fantastic city with two of the most compelling characters gaming has seen in a long while. We've waited for what seems like forever, but now that Infinite's finally flying across the gaming stratosphere, we're free to come along for the ride. Columbia may not really be heaven, but it's the closest we've come in a while.
This review was based on the PlayStation 3 version of BioShock Infinite. A copy was provided to us by the publisher.