Platforms: PC (tested) | PS3 | Xbox 360 (reviewed)
Developers: Irrational Games
Publishers: 2K Games
Remember Natalya Simonova? She'd constantly get you killed. It didn't matter that you'd already taken out a nuclear facility, stormed a Siberian bunker solo, and totted up a body count in the hundreds. The fact that Natalya was a mute goon with a propensity for running repeatedly into walls (and gunfire) and preferring the confines of her cell to the outside world, meant that you'd invariably perish whilst trying to rescue her, and her middle name would be replaced with endless streams of profanity.
The moral of the story? AI companions can ruin otherwise excellent games.
There are a select few games out there, however, wherein evidence of tireless work points towards something rather special: a companion that is helpful rather than useless. A companion who is good company rather than annoying, who reflects and enhances the narrative in a variety of interesting ways. A companion you never have to babysit, or nudge back onto the right path because their pathfinding AI has gone awry. A companion much like Bioshock Infinite's Elizabeth.
She is, in many ways, a deconstruction of that tired princess-in-the-tower trope. You do, as ex-Pinkerton agent Booker DeWitt, break her free from imprisonment, albeit in a rescue not exactly conducted for selfless reasons, but she is no passive figure or trophy. Indeed, you miss her when she is gone; both her company and her capabilities. You miss the zipping exchanges on morality where she tests Booker's gruff detachment. You miss the way in which she'll toss you vital supplies and ammunition during an intense firefight. You miss her keen eye for hidden items and collectibles, and her gift for lockpicking and larceny. You miss her ability to pull useful items in from alternate realities.
It's her gift for manipulating the fabric of time and space that makes Infinite's combat so engaging, although you have to wade through three or four hours of standard FPS gunplay before that can happen. This game, like the original, does have its tight-knit corridor-shooter moments, but its trump card comes in the form of expansive battlegrounds, littered with these pan-dimensional Tears, and bordered by personal rollercoasters.
First, the Tears. Each little rip brings something different to the party, and that could be a crate of health packs, useful cover, an automated turret, a bullet-spitting airship, or a freight hook that might be used to gain a better vantage point. Infinite's combat system is tighter than that of its predecessor in terms of the mechanics themselves, but the template is virtually identical, only with Vigors replacing the Plasmids of the first game. Two weapons, two Vigors, numerous combinations. It works, but it's also nothing new, combined with weapon selection that is uninspired at best.
Combined with the open space and the ways in which Elizabeth can change the battlefield, however, Infinite's combat takes on a certain amount of depth, particularly when the rollercoaster-esque Skyrails are taken into account. Swooping in and out of the game's larger battlefields, the irony is that the literally on-rails sections of the game are actually the most open. You have complete freedom to go where you please, hopping across tracks, boosting and slowing where you like, and using enemies as gory crash mats. That your AI opponents will actively pursue you across the Skyrail network is a marvel, and the large war zones become a scrappy race for positional ascendancy. You can never really stay in one place, or lock Elizabeth into a single Tear. The key is to keep moving, explore your options, and play to your strengths. Bring forth a floating drone to distract the enemy, before zipping up to a balcony on the Skyrail and having Elizabeth spawn a sniper rifle, or an RPG own below. Later on, in a hint towards the merging of realities that the game brings to a head, you'll even be able to have her present an alternate shadow of your own self to distract your foes.
As much as she manages to augment and enhance combat, it's Elizabeth's relationship with Booker, and the way in which she augments and enhances his relationship (and therefore ours) to Columbia. The floating city itself is a creation every bit as dazzling as Rapture ever was, and every bit as diseased. Once more, Irrational have created a game world in which it is a crime to rush. The environmental storytelling is fantastic in places, and though much still comes from the tried-and-tested method of collecting audio logs (this time recorded onto enormous vinyl Walkmans called 'Voxophones'), the best snippets are wholly-bypassable nuggets gleaned from eavesdropping here and exploring there. Conversations between NPCs on the street, snippets of radio broadcasts, little tableaux that are acted out whether you stumble into them or not.
The key difference between Columbia and Rapture is that the former is still bustling with life. It begins as a pristine floating city state, peppered with with the opulence that one might expect from wealthy fin-de-siecle society, but it's not long before the undercurrents of racism, class strife, capitalist industry, and swathes of anti-intellectualism begin to make their appearances, peeking out in bubbles, before boiling to the surface when violence floods the streets. We arrived late to the party in the original Bioshock, visiting Rapture after the social storm had thundered and obliterated a concept of paradise. Here, we're the guest of honour, with the finest seat in the house as the forces of the bearded, bigoted Comstock clash with the worker fury of Daisy Fitzroy and her Vox Populi movement. What starts as a struggle seen only on billboards and in newspapers soon becomes an all too vivid reality.
It's a stunning, almost Disney-esque metropolis in the clouds, and it's impossible not to do a little bit of sightseeing in the first few hours, enraptured by the watercolour tapestry that proves as resplendent in the sunshine as Dunwall seemed plagued-ridden in the dirt in last year's Dishonored. There's even an Achievement to mark one's obsessive virtual tourism, although no reward would have been necessary. Just as with Rapture before it, Columbia captivates the senses, even as it sickens the soul.
I'm not going to go into the story, not specifics anyway, suffice to say that Irrational have learned from the mistake that made in the original Bioshock. The twist, exceptional and mind-blowing though it was, came too early, rendering the last quarter of the game relatively muted. The pacing throughout Infinite, however, is perfect. We share in Booker's confusion and detachment at the start of the game, situated once more in the role of a wide-eyed outsider, with a sense of purpose matched by the linear structure of the game's first few hours. Why is there a barbershop quartet singing Frankie Valli? What is an enormous mechanical bird doing keeping a woman locked in a tower for? Who the hell are the British couple who keep popping up out of the blue and talking in riddles? Why is there a cover of Soft Cell coming out of a gramaphone? Why does Booker keep yelling a woman's name when he's near death?
These considerations fall by the wayside as sheer survival takes over, but Irrational fills in the pieces of the story slowly, tantalisingly, peppering the narrative expertly with half-answers and more questions. You have to have answers, there are logical gaps to be crossed! It's a bit of a shame, then, that in amongst a large amount of Quantum Leap-ing, everything kind of falls apart at the last minute. The pacing is utterly perfect, and leads up to a spectacular final couple of hours, where your mind is bombarded with revelations and realisations. But the final note seems ever so slightly off. The deliberate alienation of the characters at the start translates to undesired confusion for the player at the end as the rules that appear to have been set are suddenly rendered vague. Instead of an Inception-esque finale that is both spectacularly crafted, contained, and demanding of further discussion and argument, Infinite's conclusion is ultimately deflated by assuming a change to the rules that renders what should be a hefty emotional blow somewhat meaningless.
That said, Bioshock Infinite is a stunning piece of work, and the ending's slight squandering of potential is only felt so keenly because you are so utterly invested in the story, in Booker, in Elizabeth, and in Columbia. The faults come when Irrational lose sight of the city that they have created. The weapons, for example, fail to reflect any of the invention exhibited in their surroundings, filling up bog-standard slots - pistol, rifle, grenade launcher, RPG, shotgun. There's precious little atmosphere too, not in the same way that Rapture exuded a near-permanent chill, bestowing each new objective with a sense of dread and danger. There are beautifully wrought vignettes of peace in amongst the chaos of Infinite's later levels, usually involving a guitar, but Columbia is not much of an interactive world: we are presented with moral quandaries, yet rarely given the chance to act in a meaningful fashion or really affect anything as players. And in a game that revolves around causality and consequence, that's perhaps a little disappointing.
Additionally, and I really don't want to spoil anything, but Songbird is almost criminally underused. The lack of a truly iconic enemy, not to mention a tangible antagonist (Comstock is a horrible individual, but never really has the same impact Ryan and Atlas did) only serves to highlight the lack of actionable tension. Whatever is there is almost always alleviated through the same method: grunt-slaying.
But that shouldn't put you off Bioshock Infinite, not at all. The ending serves to propel you into a cycle to which few properties in any medium can lay claim: that desire to immediately go through the experience again, and you'll do it gladly. For what it's worth, I found 1999 Mode a little too taxing, and a little too frustrating. It removes navigational aids, makes enemies much tougher, restricts your checkpoints, and makes health and money (and therefore upgrades) far scarcer. A certain type of gamer will adore it, but I never really found Bioshock Infinite to be about combat difficulty. Its possible to play the game as a frat-headed FPS, but it won't be particularly satisfying.
Embrace Columbia and Elizabeth, though, and you'll find one of the most engrossing experiences to be had this generation. It's a game which has a default setting of being breathtaking and beautiful, a game which constantly encourages you to stop and think, even if it doesn't give you he chance for direct response. It's a game that we'll be talking about for months, whose occasional missteps are swallowed whole in a narrative of sweeping scale and epic drama. It's a game that you'll probably play again, immediately after you finish it the first time around.
And that's fantastic.
- Outstanding voice work
- Columbia is a jaw-dropping setting, particularly on PC
- Art direction is superb
- Skyrails are lots of fun
- Elizabeth's AI is fantastic
- Story is alost dangerously engrossing
- Tear mechanic never quite lives up to its potential
- Combat proves a little uninspired, particularly in the guns themselves
- One or two narrative missteps
- Wasted Songbird
- How the hell will DLC work? What is that Season Pass even for?
The Short Version: Bioshock Infinite's final moment is one that will leave the player anywhere between gobsmacked and muted, but regardless of how the game ends, its journey is a thoroughly engrossing rollercoaster ride in a crumbling, thought-provoking paradise with one of the finest AI companions ever created. Irrational strike gold yet again.