You’re Booker DeWitt. You’ve been hired to get the girl. You’re in a rowboat, on your way to the lighthouse, you have a box with your name on it. In it, there’s a gun. The way Booker handles it tells you he has some experience in this regard. Perhaps he was a soldier, or a criminal?
Up you go, to Columbia, to the city in the sky where the story is delivered by the environment itself. Giant billboards rattle by on rails, drawing your attention to them while telling you something of the major characters.
You overhear conversations, commercials, put your face up to the eye-slots of those little Victorian cabinets that play short, silent movies filled with cryptic insight into why, how, and under whose power Columbia exists.
You may have already noticed that it’s hard to talk about BioShock Infinite in pure gameplay terms, thanks largely to its many triumphs in art and storytelling.
Unlovingly dissected, it’s a traditional FPS with additional power-ups designed to inspire creative play. It’s also a series of small, open-world hubs in which take place pockets of story, their own set of goals, challenges and asides.
But, guns-wise BioShock Infinite does little to shatter classic FPS archetypes. You’ve got your shotgun, your sniper rifle, assault rifle, pistol, grenade launcher, chaingun, rocket launcher and so on. Most of which come in two flavours: one for each of the two opposing factions (the Founders and Vox Populi).
Importantly, before the action kicks off, you’ll have already picked up a host of intriguing and uniquely delivered clues about your place in this new world. The plot, as they say, thickens, yet it does so at glacial pace.
It has to. While the Infinite experience doesn’t quite stand up to its title as a measure of time, this is a long game, especially if you play it like we did; on hard and with deep wonder and meticulous exploration.
Extending its life in this fashion feels natural when you consider that BioShock Infinite joins a very short list of games during whose playtime we found the thought of coming to an end a heartbreaking one.
Good word, that; heartbreak. Good description of how you’re going to feel by the time the end does arrive. You’re going to miss it. But it’s not Booker you’re going to miss. It’s Elizabeth.
Levine and his team are playing on familiar fairytale themes here. Rescue the maiden from the tower where she’s held prisoner by some cruel master.
This part of the story is as old as humankind, yet told in such a way as to feel fresh. Once along for the ride – a figure of speech that doesn’t even half do her justice – you’ll have a little time to get to know her. She is, in short, a triumph of game design.
Were you worried she would get in the way? Become a nuisance? So were we. We could spend all day trying to think of another NPC in whose company we’d be willing to spend an entire 15 hours, but it would be a waste of time. There aren’t any.
Her success is due to a combination of factors. She’s very endearing, Irrational pulls every trick in the book, demonstrating frequently her childlike innocence and curiosity. At every new location Elizabeth runs ahead to look at stuff, to poke it and to prod it. She plays with toys, activates machines, talks to you about your surroundings and reacts to whatever it is you’re doing.
Most locked doors lead to loot of some description. If you’re lucky, you’ll even come across one of the game’s many hidden Infusions, which upgrade your basic stats: health, salt (magic), and armour.
Or you might find an item of gear; clothing that affords you a wide variety of complimentary combat buffs.
She’s also an exceptional companion both in battle and while rooting about in drawers and such. She’ll frequently go off to find money of her own accord and, at the touch of a button, throw it to you for a neat catch. In battle, when you’re down to your last few bullets against overwhelming odds, she’ll throw you emergency ammunition.
And she knows Columbia better than anyone, providing useful background where needed.
And you will need it. Columbia is a not an easy place to understand. Like Rapture before it, it’s balls to bone with original ideas. Some of the enemies alone are more conceptual than the collective ideas of some entire games. The Mechanical Patriots, for example; ultra-aggressive George Washington-shaped clockworks with a fondness for the common chaingun.
To beat many of these larger, more robust enemies in fact, you’re going to need more than bullets alone can provide. Like BioShock’s Plasmids, you will steadily unlock Vigors; ornately decorated bottles containing permanent superpowers.
Fire, electricity, wind, water, to mention some of the more traditional, elemental affairs. But they also extend to the bizarre.
Possession, for example, allows you to quickly switch the allegiance of targeted enemy machinery. An enemy turret switching sides in the middle of an opposing group can wreak merry havoc.
Once powered up, possession even allows you to defect human opponents, who are then polite enough to commit suicide when the effect wears off. Murder Of Crows is another oddball, allowing you to summon a group of the birds to pester and harass the enemy while you take potshots.
The number of ways available to fight any particular battle doesn’t end there. Skyrails run about the rooftops of many of the locations you find yourself battling in, making you a difficult target for the enemy. You can also launch yourself from them, smashing into the enemy with a devastating melee attack. And then there are the tears.
She can tear holes in space-time, allowing you the option to pull through ammunition, health, weapons, hooks to swing on, or allied machines to fight on your side. There is in fact, by the last third, so many different ways to fight, creativity is pretty much handed to you on a plate.
However, if there’s one major criticism to be made of BioShock Infinite, it’s that it can feel terribly plain as a shooter, terribly normal, terribly run-of-the-mill, until later in the game when some of the scope-expanding battle abilities become available.
It shouldn’t take as long as it does to become an outstanding FPS, but in our opinion it spends too long dawdling about and being an average one, mechanically speaking.
Another problem that Irrational hasn’t really solved is that with Elizabeth being so innocent, so pure, the fact that she’s party to all that murder (from which Booker takes no small amount of gore-soaked joy) simply doesn’t fit. The first time she sees Booker kill, she’s duly shocked, but subsequently shrugs and supposes aloud that she’ll just have to get used to it.
There’s some acknowledgement there, but when we’re strolling about a busy bar, systematically shooting its patrons in the head, her silence on the matter becomes deafening.
As far as Xbox 360 goes, BioShock Infinite is a technical marvel. Art style and engine marry to create such breathtaking beauty it’s nigh-on impossible not to stop what you’re doing every couple of minutes just to take it all in.
Ultimately, though, no matter what you read elsewhere, its perfection, or lack thereof, will boil down to your own ability either to forgive, or to be blind to a few inarguable flaws: a slow start for an FPS, an ending that doesn’t feel earned, and too big a contrast in your behaviour versus Elizabeth’s reactions to it.
Forgiving it these shortcomings is an easy thing to do with so much unbridled creative beauty paraded constantly before your eyes. There’s just so much originality here, presented in the form of an unreasonably high quotient of big, memorable moments.
There is an argument to be made that BioShock Infinite is the crowning achievement of a generation in videogames. We’ll go along with that, so long as it can be accepted that even crowns have flaws.
Nothing is perfect in this world and neither is BioShock Infinite. It is an amazing game, however, and should be considered an absolute must-buy for any gamer.