BioShock Infinite ReviewJoe Shaffer
I tend to be leery of narrative-heavy games. Most of the time, I find myself investing countless hours into them because they spin such spellbinding yarns that I can't put them down. Because of that, I've played numerous titles with marvelous stories that fail to provide engaging interactive components, many of them all the way to completion. (Let me tell you, sometimes there's nothing more agonizing than playing a mediocre game for more than ten hours.) Regardless of the whether or not I dig the story, if the interactive bits aren't entertaining, then the game isn't worthy of my free time. You might think this is a rare occurrence, but I've encountered often enough that I tread cautiously with many modern video games. Honestly, given the choice between either A) a game with solid storytelling and uninteresting gameplay, or B) a game with next to no narrative that features solid mechanics and action galore, I'll almost always take the latter of the two. Give me Serious Sam over Heavy Rain any day.
Now and then I let my guard down and try a newly released game, and sometimes I discover that there's actually a 'Choice C': a game that absolutely kills it in terms of both narrative and mechanics. That, my friends, is BioShock Infinite.
Infinite's tale doesn't detract from its interactive aspects whatsoever. You won't find yourself trudging through lengthy segments of downtime while characters belt out rudimentary philosophy, nor sitting through agonizing and seemingly endless cutscenes wishing the game would cease playing itself and let you have a turn. Infinite engages you by providing you with a rich, detailed environment where even the slightest prop or tiniest portion of a set piece reinforces the game's story and its allegory. The game world is so enticing and visually gorgeous that, during my playthrough, I frequently found myself wandering locales just to see the sights. I was also so immersed in the environment that exploring nooks and crannies and eavesdropping on gabbing citizens didn't feel like a waste of time.
It's no a surprise that Infinite should contain social commentary, as that is a key element in the BioShock franchise. This time around you take the role of the enigmatic Booker DeWitt. Booker has been sent to a mysterious city in the sky that seceded from the US, known as Columbia. There he must locate a particular girl, whom he has to bring back to the mainland in order to clear a debt. What he discovers while on his quest is a country ripe with rabid nationalism, religious fanaticism, and unabashed racism and prejudice. Yet, the citizens he meets early on (who appear to consist of mostly middle class and wealthy individuals) seem to be deliriously happy and socially unified. Of course, the operant piece of that sentence is 'early on.' As Booker advances and meets the working class, he begins to understand that the world that overtly appeared to be a genuine Utopia has been slowly coming apart at the seams.
As troubling as Infinite's society may sound, it's of little interest to Booker. His main focus is a girl named Elizabeth, who has spent much of her life locked away in a tower guarded by a monstrous, semi-humanoid avian. It's after Booker liberates her from her confines that the story truly takes off. Not long afterward, Booker unloads the demons that have been plaguing him over the years, especially all of the bloodshed he's been through. At the same time, Elizabeth develops substantially and we discover that she's not as sheltered and naive as she once appeared to be. By and by the game reveals the ulterior motives of both characters, giving them ample enough depth to keep players interested in them. Perhaps more interesting than their plans, though, is the pair's propensity to bond despite their separate agendas.
As you may have guessed, a vast portion of the game consists of escorting Elizabeth while gunning down both Columbia's finest and rebel forces. In a lot of video games, "escorting" is synonymous with "having your skin slowly peeled off your body while someone dumps salt and lemon juice on the exposed regions." For the most part, escort missions entail babysitting a supporting character who manages to wander into combat rather than hide, inadvertently intercept your shots before you can plug them into a foe's skull, provide worthless cover fire while acting as a bullet magnet, and (of course) die constantly. Thankfully Irrational seemed to know that escorting can be a massive pain in the rump, and therefore decided to nix the typical "protect the maiden" bull. Instead, Elizabeth runs for cover at the sight of danger, stays the hell out of your way, and actually helps out by occasionally tossing you ammo and restorative items when you need them. On top of that, she can't be killed and isn't in any way a liability in combat.
Infinite doesn't want you to worry overmuch about Elizabeth when it comes to combat, anyway. It would rather thrust you into throngs populated by capable shooters and monstrous adversaries. You'll battle your share of basic humans, but you'll also tangle with RPG-toting, armored warriors; lunatics donning George Washington masks, crank gun carrying automatons fashioned after past US presidents, and even titanic cyborgs called Handymen, who can deftly drop your health to zero in short order. What's impressive, though, is that you'll often duke it out with a multitude of these maniacs at a time, all the while experiencing very little lag. In other words, you'll engage in scores of fierce, heart-pounding gunfights without the threat of slow down.
Like previous BioShock titles, combat isn't limited to gunning down your opponents and tucking yourself behind barricades while your health replenishes. Through Vigors (read: spells), you can integrate various strategies into your combat that suit your playing style. If you're into grenade lobbing, for instance, then the Devil's Kiss Vigor is just the ticket for you. This Vigor allows you to toss fiery orbs that explodes, igniting those caught in the conflagrant splashes and reducing them to charred bones and ash. Do you prefer more defensive skills? Then Return to Sender is ideal for you. Not only does this Vigor catch bullets heading your way, but throws them back at your foes. As the old adage says, "Turnabout is fair play."
As with its predecessors, Infinite allows you to upgrade your arsenal and Vigors. With a handful of coins, you can reduce the
MP salt cost of your Vigors or expand the size of a gun's clip, not to mention boost the overall effectiveness of either (or both, if you're wealthy enough). If anything motivates you to scour scenes and search bullet-riddled corpses for loose change, it's the prospect of improved tools for destruction.
Best of all, though, is that Infinite sports a near-perfect balance between its chaotic firefights and its mesmerizing (and often bizarre) tale. The story doesn't steal the spotlight, and at times even seamlessly weaves itself into the action. Now, I'm not saying that Infinite is a perfect game. After all, there are some instances of retracing your steps through familiar territory or completing a few asinine tasks. Such contrived objectives are few and far between, and paltry in comparison to the unified tapestry that is BioShock Infinite. I'll spare you the tired cliche of this game being "like a movie," because Infinite knows damn well that it's a game, and it proves that you can meld narrative and interactive elements without requiring one of them to take a back seat.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.