Gaming today, especially on the Xbox360, has been a flood of first person shooters that have aimed for "realistic" military themes that focus on multiplayer while happening to remember they have a single player portion in there somewhere.
Bioshock Infinite is not of this kind of game and I couldn't be happier for it.
Ken Levine wowed all of us with his previous games in the "shock" series starting at "System Shock" with its dark techno future, then "Bioshock" let us believe in a city under the waves, and now he has returned to (in a twist of the old Superman saying) make us believe a city can fly with"Bioshock Infinite". The people, buildings, music...everything lends itself wonderfully to the complete illusion of the early 1900's time while still weaving in steampunk inspired machinations with technology that seems out of place and right at home all at once. After a bit seeing a building simply float up and connect the street so you may continue becomes common place and when something that is impossible today seems mundane then you have managed to create a very convincing world for us to inhabit.
You play as "Booker Dewitt" a man sent on a hunt to bring back a girl from the floating city of "Columbia" in the year 1912. Over the course of his search, you will face off against the "Prophet" Zachery Comstock who wields religious control and segregation on the city as a means to control the populace and keep them in line. He has worked to form a glistening floating Eden above the earth for his flock. With all of this beautiful detail in the world and its people, this makes it all the more ironic when the game quickly takes a turn and really shows you how dark this world can be. While Bioshock went by the idea that everyone could succeed if they were willing to work, Infinite shows us just how different America was in 1912 by showing the full extent of racism in many forms including delving into iconography most people just won't even reference and want forgotten, as well as religions dark sides, are all brought to your face like a raw open wound. This leads into the darker side of Bioshock Infinite and what I would describe as the true Mature content of the game which is the dark oppresion of religion on a people in a zealots hands, and a discussion of race and class that is brought into your face in a way people have to talk about and hopefully learn from these past mistakes that people made against each other.
Your joined in your travels amongst the clouds by a strange woman named Elizabeth that somehow is a key to everything that is going on. She is a character that is by your side for most of the game, yet never ONCE does she come off as weak or gets in your way. When a lock needs to be picked, it's her that does it. She is always on the look for supplies that she will call out and throw to you in the heat of battle or just as you explore around. And she will spot and mark items or dangers so you won't be caught off guard. Even right from the get go they make it clear that she can take care of herself and you don't have to watch over her. I honestly haven't seen a partner this fleshed out and functional since Alex from the Half-Life series and I believe that says a lot about her creators.
All in all, Bioshock Infinite manages to come up with a surprisingly deep and complex story that will give you all of the twists and turns you expect, even as you are going in expecting them after Bioshock. I can tell you many moments my jaw dropped and I uttered a few choice words of surprise as a revelation hit, or new locations where discovered. And in the end it leaves you with questions that guarantee you will be talking about it with friends and trying to figure out what all is going on in this floating city over early 1900's America.
Bioshock Infinite is a game that shows the Xbox360 is hitting it's stride when it comes to the bigger is better games strictly from a graphics stand point. Don't get me wrong...this world is simply BEAUTIFUL, but when you compare it to the PC release you really start to see the limits for textures as well as the extended use of clouds to hide the distance in some areas. The world still feels even with a little texture pop in here and there, but there were a few instances when I would stop to wait and see what a store front display may look like and the full resolution texture was either not loading or just not present at all and sacrificed to keep the rest of the world looking good. The Xbox360 still has years of great games left in it, but we will start to see the limitations when compared to people running high end PC's.
Irrational Games chose to bring what I believe is a more animated art design to their faces which works beautifully for Elizabeth and helps you see what she is feeling as she talks to you or just takes in her surroundings as you are face to face with her for most of the game. You can tell when she is upset, scared, angry, or just sad at seeing how different classes of people are treated in this supposed "floating Eden" mixed in with her innocent wonder of the world as well.
The larger enemies are nicely animated in unique ways that helps to tell each of them apart and also gives hints at what they are or who they were. The "Handyman" seems to be one of the saddest once you discover the nature in which they came to be along with how society thinks of them from off the cuff remarks people will say through your journey. But their lumbering and grotesque frame really work to show the suffering as well as the limited technology they had to work with. As much trouble as they were to fight, I found myself wishing I could see them more so I could see how they moved and were designed in greater detail.
In stark contrast to what people came to expect with the dark, dirty, and always wet worlds that Bioshock 1 & 2 brought us Bioshock Infinite starts off with so many bright colors on buildings, flowers, and even just the beautiful sky that surrounds you on this floating city. A lighthouse much like Bioshock's greets you in the very opening, but I believe this is just to get you expecting one thing while they toss you into something so different. Irrational Games really worked with the larger open spaces they were afforded in Columbia by creating impressive large detailed statues and building exteriors that tower both above and below you while you ride around with the Skyhook. You will get a great sense of movement when you traverse this new world and as you go through it, inside and out, you will have to keep an eye out for the hidden items and expanded story pieces littered around which will answer questions and bring up new ones at the same time.
Irrational thankfully paid as much attention to the audio as they did the visuals because there is always things to hear that will catch your attention. You will stop to listen to conversations just to hear the great voice acting they did throughout, you will come to learn the unique sounds of enemies to help track their movements in combat, The voice acting throughout shows a great level of detail was paid where everyone sounds unique and easily identifiable. Be it the way Elizabeth talks to you, the screech of the giant Songbird as it attacks, or just the wind as you swing around in the air...everything sounds fantastic. A nice little treat is to listen to the radios as you play because the announcer will change his tone and what he is saying depending on what is going on in the story which makes for a continuous little bonus as you go along.
Control / Gameplay
Control for this game is one of my mixed bags and seems like it could have been resolved by making a few button changes on the controller. The normal moving and aiming handles as it always did where you can adjust speed and direction in the menu easily. The problem is with the "X" button having too many actions attached to it sometimes. I would find myself in the middle of a heated battle holding "X" to have Elizabeth make some cover to find I walked over a gun and just swapped my sniper rifle for a machine gun I may not have wanted. This only became a problem for me a total of three times in the entire game which isn't a deal breaker, but I still feel like it should be brought up.
The gameplay on the otherhand I had no issues with. Plasmids from Bioshock are now replaced with "Vigors" that basically do similar functions but you drink them once instead of seeing yourself jab needles into your arm every few minutes. The other change with them is that each of their attacks can be charged up and turned into traps along with their traditional more direct interactions. You are able to upgrade each of them at special vending machines throughout the game using money you have collected to add new effects or boost the power of your existing powers so you can expland how you use each one. It becomes key later in the game to learn ways to combine the attacks for more devastating attacks, but since only two of the attacks can be queued up at any time on the 360 version, I found myself not using it as much as I wanted to.
You find a variety of weapons over the course of the game, all of which are also upgradeable at vending machines much like the Vigors, that will help you fight your way through the people and monsters that are thrown your way. I found myself sticking to the fully upgraded handgun and a sniper rifle but would pick up some heavier guns from time to time to try and turn the tide in a battle. Your limited to just normal ammunition as the specialty ammo from Bioshock is nowhere to be seen. Most of their functions have been moved over to the Vigors which work well along with the gun play.
Bioshock Infinite was a great surprise to me from the moment I started the story with a simple voice clip that helped show the brevity of a relationship down to the final moments of the game and the questions I now wait for others to see so I can discuss the implications with them. I was sucked into this game that I ended up pulling the first all nighter I have had in awhile just because like a good book, that next chapter kept calling to me and I needed to know what was around the next corner. The detail of the world made me feel like I was wandering about this city in the sky both fitting in and being so out of place it was uncomfortable that will make people think not only about how good a game they just played, but may even have you walk away with real sociological and humanitarian ideas you could have ignored before. Ken Levine and the team at Irrational Games have produced a masterpiece that needs to be played and talked about...and probably will be for years to come just like the original Bioshock way back in 2005.
Also...pay attention to the conversation in the row boat. Because "He doesn't row".
Final Score: 9.0 out of 10