News, Views, and Reviews
BioShock Infinite is a Masterpiece. There is no better way to describe it. Everything, from the story and setting to the graphics and art style, from the music and voice-acting to the controls and gameplay, are expertly crafted and perfectly melded together. The floating city of Columbia and it’s inhabitants supports a deep science fiction story that just happens to be a video game. That story is so amazing, that I fear spoiling ANY part of it in this review. So, I will try to stick to the basics.
Graphics: As I mentioned in my Gears of War review, the Unreal Engine 3 is showing it’s age. BioShock Infinite works around this by using a stylized art form that manages to make it look spectacular. In short, the graphics won’t win awards this year, but the art style might. It’s still obviously an UE3 game, but its careful blend of “realistic” and “cartoony” graphics make Columbia come to life. Especially in the first part of the game, when citizens of Columbia go about their daily lives, the immersion is incredible. That immersion persists throughout the 15+ hour adventure, so the graphical shortcomings aren’t that big of a concern. Another slight concern were a few stutters in gameplay, especially during massive battles, that even happened on my super gaming PC. Otherwise, the framerate is consistent and fluid. Set in first person, we never see the main character, Booker DeWitt, so the most impressive work is saved for his AI companion, Elizabeth. Like the city, her stylized appearance really comes to life, and helps convey a range of emotions. More importantly, the graphics give weight and meaning to the setting and story, so they aren’t pretty just for aesthetics.
Controls: For PC, BioShock Infinite supports both traditional KB/M and controller inputs. Like Crysis 3, I stuck with a controller because there is a lot of mobility involved, especially in combat. Throughout the game, Booker will find DNA-altering “Vigors” to digest that grant him special powers. These include some “standard” powers like throwing lightning bolts or fireballs, and some strange but useful powers like “possession” that turns enemies into temporary allies. By the end of the game, diligent players can find a total of eight powers, but like me, may find two or three that they like the most and just use those all the time. These powers can be upgraded, but that costs money, so it does help to upgrade the most used powers first. There are a number of weapons to find, and these can also be upgraded to do more damage or hold more ammo. It’s also a good idea to spend that money on upgrading a few fundamental weapons instead of trying to upgrade them all. The Left Trigger fires Vigor powers and the Right Trigger fires weapons, so you are capable of wielding both in combat. One minor difference to point out between KB/M and controller inputs, is that controllers can only alternate between two pre-set Vigors at a time, but keyboards will have them all available on the “1-8” keys. Tapping the “LB” or “Left Bumper” on a controller alternates between pre-set Vigors, but holding “LB” down will bring up a wheel (and pauses the game) that allows players to select one of the other powers. In summary, the controls are quick and responsive, allow for a number of choices and combinations to suit individual play styles, but do take some getting used to.
Game Play: I am really appreciating the quality and design of the games I’ve played recently. Crysis 3, Tomb Raider, Gears of War: Judgment, and now Bioshock Infinite share a similar game play design: directed story telling parts paired with open choices in and out of combat. The player is free to move about and investigate their surroundings, looking for hidden secrets or weapon upgrades, but story events still push the player from area to area. Enemies appear at scripted moments but the player has an arsenal of combat options. BioShock Infinite multiplies those combat options and thereby provides a unique game play experience. Between the “Vigor” powers and weapons available, players will have a lot of choices and will probably come up with their favorite combinations. There are environmental conditions to take advantage of, too, like puddles of water that can chain electricity attacks between targets or oil spills that will amplify fire effects. Added to these options is the “Skyline” that connects some of the areas, that Booker can also use in combat. Using a device found early in the game, Booker hooks onto these skylines and zips back and forth, effortlessly leaping to other hooks or lines to get advantage over his enemies, or leap directly on top of them. Like the number of Vigors and weapons available, this is usually just an option instead of a scripted, mandatory part of game play, and I appreciate that. I also appreciate the gradual escalation of the game. The first twenty minutes or so are completely action-free, and enemy encounters appear more and more frequently as the game progresses. This is an extension of the story itself, so the game play really supports the narrative. There are a few plot twists and turns (that I don’t want to spoil) that also justify the escalation of combat.
It’s hard to discuss the game play without mentioning Elizabeth, and it’s hard to discuss Elizabeth without spoiling the story. She is a revelation to video games; you never have to protect her or tell her what to do. She will throw you ammo or health packs in combat, all on her own. You can tell her to unlock certain doors and safes, and she does have some combat abilities that I don’t want to talk about. Even when you’re wandering around, looking for more money or secret areas, she will follow you around and not get in your way. It’s hard to believe an AI character is *finally* this well done.
Sound: In some ways, Elizabeth is an evolution of the ideas presented in other BioShock games: players “pull” the story from the game instead of having to sit still and watch cut scenes or listen to dialogue. There is a lot more dialogue in this BioShock, but it happens AS you play. As in previous BioShock games, players can find, and listen to, voice recordings that fill in background stories or develop characters beyond players’ interactions with them. Similarly, Elizabeth and Booker will banter and discuss events as they unfold, but the game rarely forces you to hold still and wait for it. These are clever game mechanics that meld player choice and action with cinematic presentation: the story is told to you AS you play, and if you look for it, you can “pull” more story to be told to you, as you play, and it all feels player-driven. These conversations and optional voice recordings are very well done.
Supporting these conversations and recordings, and the satisfying noises of combat, is an award-worthy musical score. Columbia is a fictional place, a floating city in the clouds, set in an alternative version of 1912. Yet, as you explore Columbia, you’ll hear tunes that worm into your brain. They’re familiar, but not enough to place where or even if you’ve heard them before. Sometimes, it’s very obvious that you’re listening to a familiar song, and that adds to the atmosphere and mystery of Columbia. It seems strange, at first, until you realize how intentional these little quirks are, and what they add to the narrative. As I watched the credits, I was surprised at just how many songs were cleverly hidden throughout the game. This attention to detail is remarkable, as is the intertwining of fact and science-fiction.
Narrative: All of these details work together and support the amazing story of BioShock Infinite, but I don’t want to spoil anything. I’ve played some remarkable games this year already, but few will stay in my heart and mind like Infinite. It’s not just an excellent story, it’s thought-provoking science fiction. Like the game play itself, it expertly weaves themes of player control, or choices, with game direction, or fate. I will point out that there are no multiple endings to worry about, as the game director has stated in interviews that it was a design choice early on to include only one ending. That may have presented some interesting game play options, and maybe increased re-playability, but I appreciate the tightly woven narrative as presented. The story would make a fantastic novel or movie, and I hope for one or the other, but the experience would be somehow lost in that translation.
Conclusion: Playing a game should be just as rewarding as watching a good film or listening to a great soundtrack, and BioShock Infinite does it all. Even thinking about it as you play and afterwards is very satisfying. The elements of game play, controls, graphics, art style, sound, and narrative are so expertly crafted together, that BioShock Infinite will be a shining example of how a video game can also be a Masterpiece.
BioShock Infinite is available, March 26th, for PC, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360. It is Rated ‘M’ for Mature for: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Language, Mild Sexual Themes, Use of Alcohol and Tobacco.