Bioshock Infinite: a rollicking good ride

Bioshock Infinite PAL coverI finished Bioshock Infinite last week and boy, what a ride it was. It’s not often there’s a video game that keeps me playing just to see what happens next, but for those few days I raced home to pick up the controller and find out where it would take me. It was like being a kid again. But with a complicated meta-narrative.

For one thing it’s easy to see where all those years of development went – the game looks stunning, to the point where I’d often stop just to gawp at the skyline. It’s the attention to detail that really pulled me in though – the fact that all of those bystanders have unique lines of dialogue and react to your presence. One of my big complaints about the previous Bioshock games (see my review) was that the inhabitants of Rapture always reacted murderously to your presence, so it was refreshing to find some inhabitants of Columbia who didn’t have homicide on their mind. Eavesdropping on their conversations turned out to be one of the game’s unexpected pleasures and, as in Dishonored, the city felt like it had a weighty history that you could choose to explore or ignore at your leisure.

Bioshock Infinite screenshot 1

It’s the story that’s the big draw though – the game isn’t afraid to keep you in the dark about what’s going on, and that’s the main reason I wanted to pick up the controller every night. It showers you with questions – “Where do the Vigors come from?” “What’s inside the tower?” – but keeps the answers close to its chest for as long as possible, drip feeding information like a stingy hamster bottle. It all ends in a final reveal that’s truly jaw dropping – I actually mouthed the words “No way!” at one point. I’d love to discuss it at length here (maybe that’s something for a future post), but in the meantime I’d recommend you head over to this spoiler-tastic Eurogamer article (DO NOT CLICK if you haven’t finished the game!).

Earth-shattering ending aside though, there are a few things that niggled me about the game – it’s certainly not the ‘perfect’ achievement that some reviews would lead you to believe. For a start, when the tear-jumping begins about a third of the way through, there are a few things that don’t quite add up – again, I might save these for a later, spoiler-filled post. More important than the odd plot-hole though, the game itself feels like it’s trying to be two conflicting things at once. I agree with the Brainy Gamer that the central shooting mechanic jars horribly with the rest of the game, which invites exploration and thoughtful contemplation of the skewed world of Columbia. The game takes pains to shape Elizabeth as a believable character set in a densely storied world, but at its heart it’s a dumb shooter. By the end you’re simply gunning down hordes of goons with gay abandon.

Bioshock Infinite screenshot 2

It struck me early on that Bioshock Infinite‘s intense focus on narrative and place would make it much better suited to being an RPG than a shooter. I think there was talk of making a Bioshock RPG at some point, and it strikes me as a logical next step: probably the most enjoyable part of the game for me was just wandering around Columbia at the beginning, listening to conversations and learning about this bizarre flying city. In many ways the shooting was superfluous – I’d much rather have been able to explore the city at my leisure, talking to its denizens and only entering a firefight when it was absolutely necessary or when it had a clear purpose.

The game is also intensely linear. Infinite adds in a few new ‘side quests’ along the way, but these simply amount to finding keys for locked doors, and if you miss one there’s no way to return to a previous area. I suppose the linear nature of the game is there for a reason: to propel the central narrative along. However, Fallout 3 showed that you could have a powerful central narrative that also gave you the flexibility to explore of your own free will, and I would have dearly loved to nose around the streets and corridors of Columbia without being shunted along a certain path.

The Vigors also seem a little out of place – despite apparently being freely available throughout the city (you see a salesman flogging them at the beginning), only you and a few hardcore policemen seem to be using them. It’s a little odd that whereas Plasmids led to the eventual downfall of Rapture, Vigors seem to have barely made an impact on Columbia – apparently Columbia’s citizens are immune to the lure of conjuring fire from their bare hands.

Bioshock Infinite screenshot 3

These are generally very minor niggles though, and I rush to say that Bioshock Infinite is truly a joy to play – it’s certainly the most memorable game experience I’ve had in a while. I’ve barely mentioned Elizabeth too, who turned out to be remarkably good company throughout – all memories of the wooden, suicide-happy Natalya in GoldenEye have now been banished. In fact, when at one point Booker is separated from Elizabeth, I really found myself missing her. You don’t hear that said about a game character very often.

All in all, I can’t hesitate to recommend Bioshock Infinite – it’s a truly astonishing game and a definite must-play. At the same time though, it feels like a step along a path – an important step no doubt, but a step nonetheless. There is so much more that could be explored in the Bioshock universe, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.

[Written in gay abandon by Lucius Merriweather.]