Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC
Reviewed by William Mabin
Ken Levine, the writer and creative director of Irrational Game’s BioShock series is a man who has come under some scrutiny. Many people have slammed the recently released BioShock Infinite for being racist. Others have been completely awestruck by the graphics and storyline of the game. The question is whether the seemingly magical city of Columbia in which the game is set stays aloft in its miraculous heavenly delight, or if it threatens to sink to the bottom of the sea?
BioShock Infinite centres around the character Booker DeWitt, a former instrument of the Pinkerton Agency and veteran of the Battle of the Wounded Knee. DeWitt has turned private eye in a Steampunk inspired world that seems to be constructed partially of now and remnants of the past. The events take place in an alternative 1912 setting in a paranoid manifestation of an armed floating city. The catalyst for this city is the genocidal racial ideologies that occur as the context for the events of the game. DeWitt’s goal is to rescue a young woman called Elizabeth who will act as the partner of the player as well in the gameplay, reminiscent of the preceding two BioShock titles.
The city was christened Columbia in 1901, referencing the female personification of America. It is the bastard child of a period of Exceptionalism, in which people viewed the, in retrospect old-fashioned, ideology of the time as exceptional and infallible. It now acts as a type of ghost that haunts the world a decade down the line. In fact it is the embodiment of old ideas and beliefs that are entrenched so deeply by history that they sometimes feel near inescapable. These ideas are indeed controversial and many people on the internet have started discussing what this means in more than one way. The self-proclaimed prophet Comstock, a barbarous dictator, enforces a period of racial segregation and violence which he justifies through propaganda. At the same time, a rival ‘revolutionary’ called Daisy Fitzroy. is soon revealed to be equally violent. She leads the Vox Populi, a culmination of Irish, Jewish and black citizens who revolt against the current regime.
During the narrative it’s revealed that Elizabeth, your trusty AI companion, can open quantum tears in the city which seem to lead to alternative dimensions. This ability allows the player to experience potential futures in which the Vox Populi have become genocidal themselves. Essentially, in this way the game shows the two factions to be two sides of the same coin. It also suggests that our youth are the only people that can overcome the absurd political and religious ideologies that perpetuate strife in our time and in possible futures. The mechanics of the story are bound to upset just about everyone’s sensibilities at some stage and I believe that this is intended to show that in war nobody wins. The style in which the player engages with the story is similar to the first two games. It is predominantly linear, with side quests and extra items that can be optionally searched for.
Players of BioShock and BioShock 2 will immediately see resemblances in the latest instalment in the franchise’s gameplay. In one hand, DeWitt holds a firearm, while his other hand is conjures up supernatural energies such as electricity, fire, force, possession and a rather startling ability to summon crows that attack your enemies rendering them helpless. While the machine guns and RPGs are more the generalised by-product of today’s first-person-shooters, there are some great guns available like the aptly dubbed Hand Cannon, a powerful pistol that takes its name from the Film Noir genre and makes it more literal.
The combination of modern and old-school weapons gives the arsenal a certain style and you quickly pick favourites. DeWitt’s powers are funded by Vigors, referencing Wild-West alchemy more than the genetic experimentation found in the Plasmids, Adam and Eve in the first two games. Their effects are wonderful to watch and unleash on unsuspecting enemies. I only wonder how much you really need them with such a powerful melee weapon available to you. This weapon, the Sky Hook doubles as a grappling hook that DeWitt can use to travel on roller-coaster-like travel ways that cruise through the clouds.
The game is quite linear, with various occurrences of back-tracking. The misguided spinning compass point from the first two games has been replaced with a, sometimes delayed, but wholly reliable waypoint system that is similar to the one in Dead Space. Elizabeth, beyond providing an emotional relationship with the player, handily assists you by finding ammo, money and salts (that you need for Vigors). She also does most of the lock-picking and hacking for you meaning that you can focus on the action and story. Although the lack of puzzles and ocean might frustrate traditional BioShock purists the action side works well and speeding through the city like Spider-Man is very fun.
When it comes to graphics, nothing but acclaim has been heard for BioShock Infinite’s use of Irrational’s modified lighting engine and polygonal detail. People have stated that they are revolutionary and that, together with the story make it the most complete game ever. This prompted me to replay the first BioShock to see how they graphically compared and was surprised to see how slick the six-year old graphics of the Unreal Engine still are. One of the major improvements, with the use of the Unreal Engine 3, definitely is the use of striking dynamic lighting that ignites fascination with Columbia. that one almost wants to move in. There is also a lot more going on in terms of how many Non-Playable-Characters populate a scene.
There are amazing, animated backdrops that keep the city convincingly alive. The narrow, nautical passages of Rapture have been replaced by wide-open spaces in which to play. I did notice that the major sacrifice, at least in the Xbox 360 version, is texturing resolution. There are some shop windows that on close inspection are populated with sprites, or textured planes that are supposed to be toys. Some large objects are also a bit hard to discern because of a lack of textured detail. The low-detail meshes that are supposed to only pop in at a reasonable distance sometimes explode into view at really close proximity. However, this type of sacrifice comes as no surprise seeing as most of the game-world is so detailed.
When it comes to sound, occasionally speech is delayed in the game. Elizabeth will talk about something that has already transpired. Sound bites also interrupt each other. You will be listening to a Voxophone that’s recorded some of the history of Columbia and can’t hear something of prime importance to the story. On the other hand, so many characters talk and so much is being said by the avant-garde game that this type of thing is bound to happen. Also, generally sound is prioritised in the right order.
It came as somewhat of a shock to me after playing the game that despite the controversy BioShock Infinite has caused, it is actually plainly trying to communicate a message that is quite relevant in this day and age. This message is conveyed in the form of the youth that, privy to information about cause and effect in human history, has the ability to break the shackles of the conservative propaganda of the government and fight their way to any specific future they want. It strikes a powerful message that the on-going racial feuds in today’s world are doomed to continue because as long as one person opens fire, there will always be somebody to shoot back.
BioShock Infinite is also definitely a winner in the graphics department and the relationship between DeWitt and Elizabeth is far evolved from the mindless drone companion that you must constantly protect lest they die. The technical side of the game has some flaws including lagging sound and some poor texturing, but this is this is the type of surrender that would befall makers of a cutting-edge product such as this. There is a phenomenal balance between story, game mechanic and art and, to be honest, if we don’t score this game a ten, we probably never will give anything such a high score.
Reviewed predominantly on the Xbox 360.