April 5, 2013 by Paul Curtin
With the first BioShock setting a tone unlike anything before it, it’s easy to understand how BioShock Infinite has become one of the most anticipated games of this console generation. Ken Levine and the developers at Irrational Games, the team behind the original BioShock, are back in the driver’s seat and have taken the series to new heights… literally. The first look at gameplay blew everyone away a couple years ago, but when the game was mysteriously absent from E3 the following year in 2012 after winning so many awards in 2011, we began to worry a little… Why would the previous year’s Game of the Show not even show up? Had Irrational already shown off the best the game had to offer? Were there problems in the development that caused the game to be delayed? Or did the studio simply just not want to give any more of the story away?
Unlike the last two BioShock games set in Rapture under the sea, Infinite takes place in Columbia, a massive Rapture-like floating city that is held up by blimps and balloons (and other fictional quantum physics). Although there are a lot of big changes in Infinite, the core concepts of the BioShock series are still present from beginning to end. Like Rapture, Columbia is a beautiful dystopia that pushes the limits of the Unreal Engine 3, but instead of arriving late to the rebellion and wondering what has happened, Infinite‘s story takes place during the political uprising as Columbia begins to fall, putting main character Booker DeWitt right in the middle of all the chaotic action.
In addition to a different location, Infinite takes place in the year 1912, fifty years before the events of the first two games. As DeWitt, players must infiltrate Columbia and rescue a woman by the name of Elizabeth, who has been held captive by the leader of the city for years. Once finding Elizabeth, you’ll learn that she has mysterious powers that allow her to manipulate space, time, and life itself. As the story goes on, it gets better and better as each of the character’s stories begin to unravel, leading to the game’s big mind-blowing ending. As usual, I won’t give away any spoilers, but I will say that it’s arguably even better than the original BioShock‘s twist, and creators of other masterpieces like Christopher Nolan would be proud to have work such as Inception used as inspiration.
With such a well-crafted story, unfortunately the rest of the gameplay doesn’t hold up as well. One of the biggest problems with Infinite is that the shooter mechanics are beginning to feel dated and hold the game back. Six years ago at the start of this console generation, the basic shooter mechanics mixed with RPG-like plasmid powers in the original BioShock were brilliant. Now with so many other great games being released since then and taking ideas from Irrational, the shootouts with foes just don’t seem all that special even with the controls being spot-on.
Enemies are no longer as creepy as the Splicers from the original, and it becomes overly repetitive gunning down generic enemies who themselves don’t even use the same vigors (the equivalent of plasmids and tonics) back against you. Big Daddies have been replaced by Handymen and a giant mechanical bird, which at first seems like a great idea, until you finish the game and come to realize that there are only a couple Handymen encounters and no real interactions with the Songbird outside of cutscenes and scripted events. Even with the amazing new skyhook feature that allows you to instantly leap onto rails above the city and ride them around levels, the gameplay might still start to become somewhat dull after a while if you already have shooter fatigue.
But the combat isn’t the most disappointing feature of Infinite… The biggest letdown is how different the final product ending up being from the stunning 15-minute trailer we were shown two years ago at E3. Nowhere near as criminal as Gearbox’s E3 preview of Aliens: Colonial Marines or most of the bullshit that comes out of Peter Molyneux’s mouth, Infinite can sadly still be grouped into the same category of games that use smoke and mirrors to trick consumers into thinking what they’re going to buy is better than the actual product.
As a result of all the false promises that Levine and his team couldn’t deliver on, BioShock Infinite doesn’t seem to be able to live up to its full five-star potential that was teased in the hands-off demo that gave us and everyone else attending E3 goosebumps. Not only was the flow of events better in the demo, but entire parts are missing or done in far less emotional scenes that take away from helping the characters feel more alive. Kotaku has a great comparison of what has changed over the years, if you don’t mind seeing some spoilers.
Take for example the scene in the preview where Elizabeth comes across a dying horse and the player as Booker is given the opportunity to euthanize the horse. It’s a key point in both characters’ development: Elizabeth is shown as an innocent kind soul who wants to help others no matter what the cost, while the player as Booker is given the option to trust her and build on their relationship. Yet, the horse part is completely removed from the campaign, and there are only a couple player-driven split-second decisions that create tense moments, but still don’t have any effect on the outcome of the story.
And it’s not just the horse scene that’s been left out of the final game. Elizabeth was shown in the demo being able to pull entire traincars into combat, and the possibility of her being able to pull in a door to escape combat was also teased along with many other features. We were told that players would need to be wary about how much they use Elizabeth’s powers due to them hurting her, but ideas like that seem to have been completely scrapped like the multiplayer, and instead, Elizabeth’s abilities during gameplay have been greatly reduced with her basically being a way to call in an extra barrier or hook or to throw Booker more ammo and money when he’s low. It’s clear now why Irrational wouldn’t have wanted to show off the game again at E3 considering how much has been reduced and why the game needed to be delayed.
Even with her limited abilities, Elizabeth still feels like more than just an ammo mule due to the Uncharted-like character interaction that is constantly going on between her and Booker throughout the game. Without ever seeing Dewitt, which makes it harder for his character to develop as well as Elizabeth, Irrational’s story-telling is still done so well that it works, and the voice acting from Troy Baker (Booker) and Courtnee Draper (Elizabeth) is wonderful.
BioShock Infinite is a bigger take on the series that proves that bigger is not always better. Like riding the rails that are scattered through the city of Columbia, Infinite seems bounded by this generation’s console limitations when it wants to fly on to bigger and better ideas. Even with a lot of their promises unfulfilled, Irrational has managed to still create a wonderful game with an amazing level of detail that you won’t find in many other games. BioShock Infinite isn’t the best game of this console generation like many had believed it might be, but it’s still among the best and on par with the original. Hopefully, if we ever see another BioShock, the team will be able to deliver on all of their promises and let the series reach its full potential on next-gen systems. The gameplay might not blow your mind like we had originally hoped, but the story will. BioShock Infinite gets 4.5 out of 5 stars (Amazing).
- Brilliant storytelling from beginning to end
- Perfect voice-acting and atmospheric sounds bring all of the characters and city to life
- An extreme level of detail you won’t find in many other games
- Solid shooter mechanics
- The shooting and enemy AI feels a bit dated and holds the story back
- Certain features that were promised or shown in demos have been completely removed
- While the atmosphere is amazing, it still doesn’t capture the exact feeling of the first game