The decision made by Irrational Games to move away from Rapture and take to the skies might have raised a few eyebrows when Bioshock Infinite was first announced, but it’s one of the finest decisions made in recent gaming. While early trailers got Bioshock fans in a bit of a panic with it’s shooting heavy gameplay, this isn’t any old FPS. This is a first person adventure, that just so happens to have some shooting in it. Make no mistake, Infinite is something pretty spectacular.
From the very start of the game when you take up your role as Booker DeWitt, you’ll find it impossible to miss just how much is going on around the place, getting hooked into the impeccably created world as it all happens. While you wont be heading to the floating city of Columbia for a short while, just approaching the lighthouse feels intriguing, like there’s something hidden away that has yet to be discovered. And that moment when the bizarre becomes reality, when the clouds clear and you see Columbia for the first time, is one of those moments that make you remember why you’re playing video games in the first place. Those moments, those vistas, those feelings that are impossible in reality, it all comes together as you arrive in the city where you’ll be spending the next few hours of your life.
Part of the beauty of Columbia comes from exactly that – the beauty of Columbia. Bioshock Infinite is one seriously gorgeous looking game, and while there are a few low resolution textures if you look too closely in the wrong place, there’s so much great stuff to look at that you’ll either ignore or forget the little shortcomings. While you’re out in the open there’s always something going on in the background; floating transports bumbling along in the background, characters going about their usual business and so on. Indoor spaces are equally well designed, offering a nice contrast to the wide open outdoor spaces and making closer-quarters combat a very different ball game to the open areas. The ability to set traps using your powers comes into full effect inside, letting you coax enemies into a nasty surprise that you’ve got waiting for them.
This is also one of the few games where I’ve really wanted to get hold of the soundtrack in order to fully enjoy the music used throughout. Whether it’s some of the more action-oriented tunes that kick in when in combat, the gorgeous music when you first arrive in Columbia or the barbershop quartet (the gayest in Columbia, according to their own advertising) singing a genuinely brilliant version of God Only Knows some 50 years before its original Beach Boys release, the music is absolutely spot on. Those of you lucky enough to have picked up one of the limited editions of the game will have a code to download it, but the rest of us will have to look on with envious eyes for now…
One key aspect of the gameplay itself is how you interact with Elizabeth, a young lady who you rescue early on in the story and becomes integral to what goes on throughout the game. Holding the ability to open up tears between dimensions, she not only brings some tactical mind-twisting into combat situations by letting you bring extra weapons, cover and other supplies into the action by pulling them in from other parallel dimensions, but also hunts around for extra ammo, health packs and salts to keep you fully topped up. Handy. It makes for some create improvisational gunfights, and being able to try out different ideas and choose your own way to do things is just another thing that makes this so satisfying to play.
But Elizabeth isn’t just a resource-scrounging inter-dimensional character who’s along for the ride, she also just so happens to be one of the best AI characters I’ve ever seen in a game. If you’re messing around in a specific area, looking at the view or searching for something she’ll either have a wander round herself, or just have a rest by sitting down, leaning against the wall or whatever else. She won’t, as you see in other games, linger half a metre behind you at all times and wait around for you to bark orders at her. She also keeps herself safe during fights, and although the bad guys generally ignore her as if she wasn’t there at all it still feels like she’s doing everything she can to stay safe. It’s hard to put it into writing, but she’s a far more real character than pretty much anything I’ve experienced before in a game.
She’s not the only thing that will help you on your way though – old-style vending machines (which, to be honest, freak me out a bit) will let you buy supplies like ammo and health, as well as upgrading your vigors, the extra powers which seasoned Bioshock fans will be familiar with. These powers are nicely varied, giving you the chance to (amongst other things) send electricity bolts at your foes, attack them with crows and force them to fight on your side for a short time. The latter of these is especially good fun, more so when the effect has worn off and the affected bad guy decides to commit suicide out of guilt. Many enemies have an immunity to some of the vigors though, so picking the right one at the right time is an important consideration to make. They’re pretty high powered, and often outweigh the weapons themselves in the damage stakes, but your salt supply drops with each use and it’s not uncommon to get carried away and end up unable to chuck a fireball at someone at a crucial time. As mentioned earlier you can also use these vigors to set traps, giving your attackers something else to worry about when they’re hunting you down. Again, it’s another tactical option which you can just chuck around randomly or use careful placement and draw your enemies into the traps. Either way it’s hugely satisfying to see them kick off when they get too close.
Elizabeth’s other role is driving the story forwards, which unfolds little by little as the game progresses. There are no huge surprises, no moments that smack you round the face and run off laughing as you stand open-mouthed in wonder, instead a story which blossoms over several hours and totally draws you in. It’s a beautifully crafted story which, as with so many other things in Bioshock Infinite, has been done which such care and attention that it stands out over most other titles you’ve have played recently. Better yet, there’s no reliance on previous Bioshock games, so if you’re new to the series then you won’t be missing out on any plot (although the opening moments with the lighthouse might not feel quite so ironic). This carries the feel of a Bioshock game, there’s no doubting that, but it’s not bogged down with prerequisites.
It’s very difficult to answer people who ask “what makes Bioshock Infinite so great?” – in a sense it’s everything, the way the story builds throughout, the huge sprawling environment of Columbia, the relationship you build up with the excellently crafted Elizabeth, the do-it-your-way combat approaches… I could easily go on, and despite a couple of small hiccups which you’ll notice once and probably never again you’ll find that there’s really nothing you can criticise about this. Games like Bioshock Infinite are the reason why I still love gaming; it’s another weapon in the argument that games can be works of art, and right now I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be playing. It was a bold move to take Bioshock away from Rapture, but it was also an undeniable master-stroke.
Reviewed on PS3