Review: BioShock Infinite

The original BioShock is arguably one of the most influential videogames of the 21st century. It won numerous awards and was even featured in the Smithsonian as an example of art in videogames. So when Irrational Games announced in 2010 that it was making a spiritual sequel to the game, titled BioShock Infinite, fan anticipation was cranked up to 11.

Here’s all you need to know about Infinite, without spoilers: It’s 1912, and you are the former Pinkerton detective Booker DeWitt. This un-silent, manly protagonist owes a debt to a mysterious entity. In order to erase it, he has to journey to the floating city of Columbia and kidnap Elizabeth, a young woman being held captive in the city’s central landmark, a giant angel statue. Once you’ve set her loose, she becomes your companion for the rest of the game. In combat, she’ll periodically throw you aid and health supplies. In world exploration, she’s occasionally a better guide than the Navigation Arrow available in basic controls.

Insert your own Beauty and the Beast joke here.

Insert your own Beauty and the Beast joke here.

It’s been tossed around that Infinite is all about your relationship with Elizabeth, and it’s absolutely true. This interesting, complicated female protagonist (even if she is not a playable character) will undoubtedly attract new fans to the series. She is useful to the male character and is in no way the subject of an escort mission. Sure, you have to rescue her a few times. But when it comes down to it, Elizabeth won’t hesitate to take action. This heavily-publicized character is a great step toward featuring more rounded female characters in videogames.

The town of Columbia itself is intricate to the point of being dizzying, with several sections to explore. What Ayn Rand-esque objectivism was to BioShock’s Rapture, American exceptionalism (and all its ugly aspects) is to Columbia. The 1912 aesthetic is streamlined and recognizable, even with the steampunk zeppelins and weaponry. In particular, the middle-level enemies referred to as Handymen are a work of art. While their mechanical bodies are very strong, their human heads are still exposed. It is easy to conceive of them as the spiritual predecessors to BioShock’s iconic Big Daddies (recognizable by their diving suit armor). But they have not become the game’s iconic enemy so much as the Songbird, a mechanized horror bent on protecting Elizabeth. Watching it wreck the environment, with movements so fluid that I was genuinely frightened at times, is a beautiful use of the technology available.

You have been Birded.

You have been Birded.

The story surrounding Infinite, understandably, has several twists and turns that alter the player’s perspective of Columbia over time. You’ll across several sections of Columbia, from the decks of warring airships to furnace-like slums. Language and iconography reminiscent of evangelical Christianity are everywhere (warning: baptism takes place within the story, so take care if being baptized in a different “faith” violates your beliefs). These symbols make the world feel not only cohesive but more true to life than the underwater, objectivist Rapture in BioShock. Columbia is “closer to Heaven,” so to speak; it sees itself as above the world, whereas Rapture houses those running away from it.

The arrow that may save your life a few times.

The arrow that may save your life a few times.

The pace of Infinite is much more urgent than its predecessor, and players will likely feel less encouraged to interact within the environment as a result. It’s a matter of deciding whether to ignore the desire to explore in order to progress further the story or taking time to explore nooks and crannies despite all external cues. The Navigation Arrow definitely comes in handy, not only because no map is automatically given but because it’s easy to become lost in the many similar-looking environments. I personally found navigation without the arrow difficult, but I have no doubt that fans of traditional shooters will have an easier time of it.

Columbia’s equivalent to BioShock’s power-giving plasmids are Vigors, powered by bottles of Salts (equivalent to EVE hypos). The effects of these are very entertaining and make the player feel very empowered within the context of battle. With world-appropriate names like Murder of Crows and Bucking Bronco, they are easier to use and just as cinematic as in the original BioShock. One notable difference: enemies attacked by a Vigor’s effects have significant marks and scars on their bodies, even if they do not die. It’s a small element that makes combat scenes much more satisfying.

In terms of combat, Infinite lives up to the excitement shown in previews. Weapons are easy to use, and gear makes sense within the universe (care for a hat that sets enemies ablaze?). If you don’t want to use the heavily-advertised skylines, you don’t have to. The new melee-move button is seamless, and there’s more than one way to win a fight. However, the game has a similar feel to a typical first-person shooter, moreso than the original BioShock ever did. There’s even a directional damage indicator, which honestly threw me off the first few minutes I played.

Just like this dancing scene.

Just like this dancing scene.

The original BioShock was flexible regarding story. Would the artist Sander Cohen make it out of Rapture alive? What about the Little Sisters? Most notably of all, would you the player engage in every confrontation or leave some enemies alive? You didn’t have to beat up every Big Daddy—you could just pass them in the hallway and each go your merry way.  The pacing and progression were flexible. But in Infinite? Not so much. You’re forced to participate in bouts of combat to progress throughout the story, in an almost humorous way. A battle-heavy music track plays without warning, followed by an NPC shouting something like, “There he is!” A second later, half your health’s gone. And nothing in the story can progress until you kill everything around you.

There’s one question you can’t shake all throughout Infinite: Should this be considered the “real” sequel to BioShock (as opposed to BioShock 2, developed by 2K Marin)? That’s for the individual player to decide. The real question is, who was this game made for? The marketing surrounding the game suggests that it is story-heavy, where everything is about you and Elizabeth exploring the world together. For the first half, this is mostly the case. But there is so much combat throughout the second half, all framed in such a way that casual players may have trouble strategizing at first. Your perspective of Columbia shifts over time, and the game follows in the same jarring manner. Perhaps too well.

Infinite is a fun, trippy, battle-ready game that is not afraid to use the environment to mess with the player’s psyche (imagine racist posters on Disneyland’s Main Street USA). The intensity ramps up quickly after the first half, but so does the intricacy of the plot. If you have anticipated this game whatsoever, you owe it to yourself to play Infinite. If you’re coming for the first time, take heed: The skies are beautiful but full of lightning.

Recommended for:

  • Shooter fans looking to switch it up.
  • Hardcore fans of the BioShock series.
  • Easter-egg hunters.
  • Anyone looking for an unconventional shooter.

Not Recommended for:

  • Fans expecting an atmosphere similar to BioShock.
  • Environment freaks. You will get bored.
  • Shooter fans who like straightforward battles.
  • Exploration fans: you will be disappointed.

BioShock Infinite was developed by Irrational Games and published by 2K Games. The game is available for a suggested retail price of $59.99. It is available on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Microsoft Windows and OS X. The reviewer received the game as a gift from a significant other and played the game to completion on PlayStation 3 before writing this review. Please see our review policy.