Written by Matthew Harper, Media by Michael Trieb.
[Disclaimer: This review discusses a game that is rated “M for Mature,” meaning that it contains strong violence and some strong language. The game is not intended to be played by anyone under the age of 17, nor should parents let their children play it. The game deals with issues younger people would struggle to understand, anyway (if they got them at all).]
In the fall of 2007, Xbox 360 and PC gamers were stunned by Irrational Games’ revolutionary first-person shooter, Bioshock, which was ported to the Playstation 3 several years later. The game’s radical gameplay, featuring a mixture of gunplay and “Plasmid” enhanced abilities (such as shooting lightning bolts, releasing deadly swarms of bees, etc.) wowed many, but the story was what made it an experience more memorable than perhaps any other game ever released. An underwater city, run by a madman, was falling apart at the hands of people whom the Plasmids had turned into crazed lunatics. After one of the greatest twist endings of all-time, most wondered if the game could ever be topped. Six years later, that development team from Irrational Games, led by the talented Ken Levine, has finally returned with Bioshock Infinite (Bioshock 2, released in early 2010, was made by a separate team and is more of a spin-off that’s not nearly as highly regarded as the original). Not only have they topped the first game, they’ve crafted what might just be the defining game of the current console generation.
You play as Booker Dewitt, a former soldier and Pinkerton agent who is still haunted by his actions at the Battle of Wounded Knee. The game opens with Booker being transported by boat to a lighthouse where he finds a message stained in blood and nailed to the door: “Bring us the girl, wipe away the debt.” Booker, after a series of events in the first five minutes too jaw-dropping to spoil, finds himself in Columbia, a city in the sky. He quickly learns that the city is ran by the “Prophet” Zachary Comstock, a man who values himself and the Founding Fathers of the United States more than God or anyone else. This man seems beloved by the people of Columbia, but the city is a refuge for racism, elitism, and all the things that the people below (or the “Sodom” below, as Comstock puts it) were finally trying to work their way past. Additionally, a revolution is trying to launch at the hands of the Vox Populi, who don’t fall for Comstock’s supposed prophecies and crooked ways. Dewitt quickly finds “the girl,” who is named Elizabeth and is locked in an enormous tower of Lady Columbia, and the rest of the plot hurtles forward from that point.
Many reviews available online spoil much of the game’s story, but I am going to avoid doing so here. In fact, I am not going to reveal any more of the plot than I already have. This is a game that needs to be experienced, not just played. There are battles, moments that will have you at the edge of your seat, and turns that will leave you thinking about what you’ve just witnessed for days. If the first Bioshock was a game that left you amazed, I can honestly say that you haven’t seen anything yet. What Ken Levine and his team at Irrational have accomplished with this story is nearly unbelievable. I would not hesitate to argue that this is a tale as strong as any that can be found in any films, books, or other games in recent memory.
Not wishing to spoil that jaw-dropping story, then, we now move on to the gameplay. The mix of gunplay and super-powered abilities remains the base of the experience, though the “Plasmids” of Bioshock are known as “Vigors” in the world of Columbia. Added to that already award-winning combination, though, are “skylines.” Booker wears a device on his left arm that allows him to jump into the air and connect to rails that lead him around areas. From these, he can leap down to tackle enemies, make his way to new areas, and get a better vantage point all around. This is a system that shouldn’t have been possible to create in a way that worked well on the technology of our current console generation (which is of course ending this upcoming holiday season with the release of the Playstation 4 and the new Xbox, still unnamed), but somehow Irrational hasn’t just made it work, but made it work flawlessly. Combat is so enjoyable that you might find yourself replaying sections over and over just to find different ways to take down the numerous enemies you’ll be facing. I know I did. This mesmerizing mechanic, though, isn’t the most impressive part of Bioshock Infinite.
That honor, ladies and gentlemen, belongs to the AI-creation that is Elizabeth. Elizabeth is the best companion you could ever hope to have in a video game. In most games, you’re immediately enraged by the person tagging along with you. They get in the way, get hurt too easily, slow you down, etc. Not Elizabeth, though. First of all, she takes care of herself in combat. She doesn’t fight — she finds places to hide and then helps you by tossing you ammo, “Salts” (you have to keep your Salt meter filled so you can use your Vigors; winning a fight with only guns and melee attacks is very unlikely), and health. She won’t win you any fights, necessarily. If you’re playing recklessly and not taking cover and doing a good job of shooting, you’re still going to die. But if you’re doing your job right and are running low on ammo, chances are she’ll toss you exactly what you need exactly when you need it.
In non-combat situations, Elizabeth is just as helpful. She finds money to give to you that you can use to upgrade your guns and Vigors, as well as purchasing ammo and health packs, and she can pick locks when you tell her to. Not only is she never in the way, but she’ll lead you for much of the game. Not as in “Follow Elizabeth or you’ll lose the game,” either, as you would see in older games. No, Elizabeth will be in front of you because she’s programmed so well that, when you start to move, the game predicts where you’re going and moves her in that direction first. She’ll also help show you where to go if it becomes clear that you’re struggling to find the correct path. She points out secret areas with valuable goodies sometimes, too, which you’ll be very thankful for. Of course, the entire story revolves around her character, also, and while I won’t spoil anything, I will say that you will find yourself deeply caring for Elizabeth, an accomplishment that is absolutely unheard of to this point in video games.
In the end, what I am saying is simple and will most likely sound like hyperbole until you have tried the game yourself: Bioshock Infinite is one of the greatest achievements in the history of its medium, and it left me shaking and picking my jaw up from the floor when its credits started to roll (speaking of, make sure to stick around after those credits). It’s an absolute joy to play and leaves you plenty of incentive to replay it over and over again on the various difficulty settings. Irrational Games has crafted a world that’s so utterly convincing, so absolutely alive, that you will want to spend as much time there as you possibly can. If you are prepared to deal with issues of racism, classism, and religion in an honest, engaging way, then you should not hesitate to pick this game up immediately. I promise you that you will not be disappointed.
I don’t know how they’ve done it, but Irrational Games have elevated their medium to a shocking new height. Do not miss this game.
FINAL SCORE: 5/5
P.S.: Playstation 3 owners, I suggest you pick the game up for your system, as it also includes the original Bioshock in its entirety on the same disc. It’s a great opportunity to catch up if you’ve never played it, or just to relive the world of Rapture and the madman Andrew Ryan all over again.