Game Review: Bioshock Infinite
I just finished Bioshock Infinite (2013). In short, Infinite is one of the best games I have ever played in my life (I have been gaming since I came out of the womb). It puts the Bioshock series on the Mount Rushmore of video games trilogies. It is a masterpiece. So here is my review (spoilers below).
Welcome to New Eden
Bioshock Infinite is set in the fictional City of Columbia. Created by a self-described prophet who secedes from the Union (USA) to build his own “city upon a hill”. As you enter Columbia, who stand in awe of its beauty, its prosperity, its civility, its peacefulness. It becomes the embodiment of the utopian vision. Utopia is an important concept in the Bioshock series. It is the pursuit of a utopia that puts into motion the events of the first, second, and third game in the series. As the game progresses, the artifice Zachary Hale Comstock builds for his city begins to peel off. The thin veneer created for the city, as you experience a “baptism” upon entry, begins to give way to a society poisoned by racism, segregation, slave labour, economic disparity, religious fundamentalism, and cult like worship. As I began to learn more about this city, I was struck by the strong parallels made to the Confederacy in the United States. Columbia is the logical conclusion of the visions of a white ethnostate dreamed up by Robert E Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Adolf Hitler. Allusions are made to many of the musings of White supremacist thinkers throughout history, but more pronouncedly in the enlightenment and post-enlightenment Anglo-Saxon world. Bioshock Infinite has something to say about societies built on sin. Societies, like the United States of America, that amassed immense wealth and power on the backs of African American slaves, Chinese migrants, Irish labourers, Native American land owners, and imperialism in Central America. Direct references are made to the Boxer Rebellion and the Wounded Knee Massacre, events which typified the American method of violence and oppression in the 19th and 20th centuries to realize broader geopolitical aims. Eugenics, phrenology, propaganda, racial stereotypes, the “white man’s burden” are all explored here with intellect and critical thought. American exceptionalism is on trial in Infinite. The advertisements all over the city exhibit unbridled capitalism, embodied by industrialist Jeremiah Fink. Mythologies created by America about its military interventions across the world is embodied by Captain Slate. Comstock himself embodies the fiction of America’s founding fathers as the high priests of liberty. The myths of a Christian nation pure in form. Many of these revered figures have complicated and tainted legacies — for good reason — and Infinite is not afraid to explore these complexities.
Bioshock Infinite’s art direction and graphical quality is some of the best I have ever seen. Each level is painstakingly detailed, featuring clever and thoughtful allusions to real world phenomena. The idea itself, of a city in the sky, with a sky rail, with capitalism at every corner, with monuments dedicated to their worshipped figures. It is all so creative, so imaginative, so well executed. The lighting is well rendered, the colours pop in stark contrast to the gloomy and dark palette of the first two games. The environment changes constantly, the particle effects, the frame rate, and the cutscenes are pristine. The entire aesthetic is unique, original, and inventive. The soundtrack fits perfectly, featuring orchestral scores, classic modernist tunes, and a few surprises. Audio design is also well done, with voices, sound effects, audio cues all at the top of their game.
Moving through the Clouds
Bioshock Infinite’s gameplay is in many ways a significant departure from the previous two entries, and for better. The most immediate change, that is executed with perfection, is the sky rail. Latch onto these rails and move with finesse and speed at an altitude, picking off enemies and modulating your speed to fit your tempo. At times, Bioshock’s gameplay felt like Titanfall’s, which is a very good thing. With Elizabeth refilling your ammo, health, and special abilities, you feel like you are constantly moving. The guns themselves feel weighty and have a great popping feel. The vigors (Infinite’s version of plasmids) are all smart refinements to the abilities you were provided in the previous games. My favourite was the power to sweep your enemies off the ground, holding them suspended in the air as you pick them off. The ability to use your vigors as traps was also a nice layer. Your weapon selection is limited to two at any time, and this required the player to be more careful in what weapon they selected. Elizabeth, your companion for most of the game, also offers a fourth layer of combat, beyond your weapons, vigors, and skyline. She can creates tears in reality to set up turrets, RPG launchers, provide sniper rifles or modify the environment so you can traverse with more freedom. Having Elizabeth not be a liability is also very relieving, allowing you to do your own thing and not have to baby sit. The hacking mechanic from the previous games is taken out completely and this is probably for the better, as it keeps the pace up. Enemies are intelligent for the most part, with the presidential machines, the turrets, the firefighters, and the handymen all keeping you on your feet and modifying your approach as you go. Crafting remains prominent in the game and the collecting element from the previous games is as addictive as ever. In terms of critiques, I played the game on medium mode and felt it was a bit too easy, so I’d crank it up to hard mode. The game also does not feature any puzzle solving and/or stealth elements, and I think it would benefit greatly from these new avenues of gameplay.
Infinite’s story is perfect. In addition to the critical commentary the game makes about social, political, and historical issues, the actual narrative, about your character, Booker DeWitt, your companion, Elizabeth, and the prophet Comstock, is academy award worthy. The first half of the game is deliberately similar to the first two Bioshocks. As you reach the end, you understand why it was designed this way. Everything you do in Infinite, every story beat, plays an important role. No detail is mundane. No detail is arbitrary. If it makes you think twice, it’s because it serves a purpose. The characters in this game are all well realized, impressively voiced, and strongly written. The moment to moment conversations with Elizabeth harkened me back to conversations Joel would have with Ellie in The Last of Us. It’s organic, it’s interesting, it’s thoughtful. The second half begins to reveal an unexpected and much deeper layer to the story. Fourth wall breaking concepts. Broader philosophical questions, such as the relationship between past, present and future, the nature of causality, and determinism are all brought to the surface and given a weighty examination. By the end, you will feel dumbstruck by the complexity of the narrative. The way it ties into the first two games, and what it says about the genus of the series itself, is so beautifully executed. This is as much in terms of spoilers as I will provide. I’d love for you all to uncover the rest. The ending is something that will be embedded in my mind for years and decades to come.
Bioshock Infinite is a near perfect mixture of a powerful critical commentary, a strong narrative, a thoughtful meta story, well realized characters, high quality dialogue, a beautifully rendered world, original and unique art direction, fast and fluid gameplay, and a gripping pace. It is, without a doubt, one of the best games I have ever played and one of the best games of the last decade. Ken Levine is to video games what Aaron Sorkin is to movies. I recommend anyone and everyone play this game and this series. It has been a while since I’ve played a game through from start to finish in one/two sittings (Uncharted 4 last year) It will be worth your time and money.