Video Game Review: ‘Bioshock: Infinite’ Reaches for Brass Ring

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CHICAGO – I played the first “Bioshock” about a year after release and managed to avoid all the spoilers. What an experience that was. A deconstruction of game linearity wrapped in a beautiful, decaying, underground once-utopia that brought ideas and philosophy to the table, in addition to a huge arsenal of weapons and special powers - plasmids. I think everyone who’s played it remembers the big twist in that game with an incredible fondness, truly feeling like, you too, had been had - it was game immersion at its best. So, it’s safe to say that “Bioshock: Infinite” has a whole heck of a lot to live up to, especially after countless delays, hype, and all the buzz surrounding a mysterious ending that throws you for a loop or two million. Video Game Rating: 4.0/5.0
Video Game Rating: 4.0/5.0

You’re Booker DeWitt (who my mom thought sounded exactly like George Clooney), a man hired to bring “the girl” from a mystical floating city in the clouds, Columbia, to New York City, in order to clear a gambling debt. Of course, things don’t stay that simple and along the way you’ll traverse dimensions, fight a giant mechanical bird, explore the gorgeous floating city, get special powers (with vigors standing in for plasmids this time around), and discover one or two secrets about the universe while you’re at it.

Bioshock Infinite
Bioshock Infinite
Photo credit: 2K Games

Visually the game is stunning. Columbia is sunny (as a city above the clouds should be…) and decently populated (considering the limitations of the current gen hardware). It’s not the most technically impressive game, but it is absolutely the front runner for the artistic merit category at the VGAs awards. Columbia is a fully realized city, populated by newspaper boys, couples casually chatting, airships, and the omnipresent narration of Comstock the Prophet. There are a ton of details that make this feel like a real place; you can watch short film-reels about the history of Columbia, listen to voxophones from the inhabitants, and look at all manner of posters, headlines, and paintings to immerse yourself in the lore and legend of Columbia.

Bioshock Infinite
Bioshock Infinite
Photo credit: 2K Games

“Bioshock: Infinite”s gameplay peaks while you’re conducting a crescendo of vigor-and-tear-assisted chaos on Columbia’s combatants - wreaking untold havoc via a combination of salt-powered-vigors, tears (as in what happens to your pants after a big meal, not what happens after watching “Bambi), and good old fashioned gunplay. A delightfully brutal example involves the ability to send a flame-engulfed murder of murderous crows toward a group of enemies by casting the fiery “Devil’s Kiss” vigor in the direction of your recently summoned crows.You can also combine said crows with electricity, if you feel so inclined. “Tears” grant you access to interdimensional combat aids like cover, automated weapons, health-kits, and ammo. the inclusion of the rollercoaster-esque sky-hook system adds a level of vertically to the already rich tapestry, and it makes retreating from battle pretty exciting to boot. While none of the elements by themselves are particularly excellent - the gunplay is standard fare, you run out of salts for your vigors far too quickly, and the skyhook appears far, far, too infrequently, when you get a chance to combine all three, you’re in for a great time

But that great time does eventually dwindle, and things might become somewhat tiresome depending on your love of shooters. If you’re a hardcore FPS player who lives to play games like “Call of Duty”, “Borderlands”, “Far Cry 3”, “Doom”, and “Battlefield” - the unique combat elements of “Infinite” will be right up your alley, and the change in scenery will be a breath of fresh air from the post-apocalyptic mutants and angry foreign insurgents that typically populate FPSes these days. However, if you’re not a particularly huge FPS fan, and are really only playing the battles in order to advance the story, things become repetitive pretty quickly as the game seems to find every excuse in the book to throw dozens of enemies at you. A particularly…irksome sequence involves going through a history museum and battling groups of enemies in each of the rooms, as a guy named Slate wants “his men” to die at the hands of a “real” soldier. It’s a cool concept - although it feels a bit like an undercooked “Spec Ops: The Line” sort of thing, and incredibly visually interesting, too but after the third battle you start to ask some logical questions like 1) just how many men Slate has under his command and 2) just how exactly they all got into the military after being dispatched so easily by one man and his disney princess-esque companion.

Bioshock Infinite
Bioshock Infinite
Photo credit: 2K Games

Those logical questions are a pretty damn big problem if you’re in it for the story, by the way. *my* biggest issue with the game is the cognitive dissonance between attempting to tell a highbrow, nuanced, and very cerebral story while simultaneously forcing you to graphically murder, decapitate, electrocute, and immolate literally thousands of people. A great deal of time is devoted to Columbia’s founding, Columbia’s rules, Columbia’s history, and the people that live there.There’s a very sweet moment early on in the game where an airship descends upon Columbia with a barber-shop quartet singing “God Only Knows”, and a virtual world had never held so much potential. But once things go pear-shaped and you’re thrown into the real meat of the game -you seriously start to wonder where in the hell all these murderous bastards are coming from. I understand suspension of disbelief comes into play here, and seeing that the game is a first person shooter, you need things to, well, first person shoot. But at the same time, it becomes really difficult to take anything - including your ultimately sympathetic character, seriously, when the volume of people you murder is thunderingly huge.

And, again, this would not be as big a problem if the game wasn’t challenging you to think critically about it the entire way through. Ken Levine and Irrational Games absolutely want you to think seriously about what’s going on in “Bioshock: Infinite” from the first moment. There’s subtle clues, plot hints, moments of levity, compassion, a racial subtext, and the mind-effery of the ending that are all crying out to be discussed, debated, and obsessed over. But if that’s the case, the game needs to be a complete package - with all elements of the game working together instead of existing in compartmentalized sections. Instead there’s the combat-y bits where you’re in a violent fantasy land, and the story bits where you need to start taking the world seriously again, and they’re at completely perpendicular angles to one another.

Bioshock Infinite
Bioshock Infinite
Photo credit: 2K Games

I’m reminded of the time I saw “Howard The Duck” on basic cable at the ripe old age of 11. While my memory is foggy, I remember being completely confused as to why this cartoony duck was being such a jerk. Then there was a giant creepy “alien”-esque space monster. Then an airplane. Then a rock band. And I think I vaguely remember an elongated tongue in there somewhere. To my 11 year old self, none of it made any sense because the movie was so tonally awkward you weren’t sure if it was a comedy, a drama, or a hard sci-fi flick - and I had no idea what to feel about it - it just, was. Similarly, “Bioshock: Infinite” tries combining the academic and the pugnacious, and it’s very difficult to mix those without sacrificing narrative fidelity.

So, like the kid on the carousel who reaches out for the brass ring with both hands - “Bioshock: Infinite” falls on its own face just a bit - but gets effort points for sure. And It’s entirely possible I’m completely wrong about how narrative breaking the disparity between gameplay and story are, too. For the record, the game itself is absolutely a quality product - my qualms are so pointed because there is greatness in this game, and it’s heartbreaking to see the opportunity slip away thanks to a possibly consumer-driven need for hyper-violence. Really, “Bioshock: Infinite” is beautiful, is fun, is filled with personality, made with care, and most importantly, it’s ambitious. Irrational Games is nothing if not ballsy, and the entire concept of a floating city in the clouds, to a girl who can open magical portals to other worlds, to the twist ending, are all absolutely worthy of being experienced at least once simply because there’s absolutely nothing else like it on the planet.

Well, this planet anyway.

“Bioshock Infinite” was released by 2K Games on March 26, 2013. The version reviewed was for the Xbox 360 but the game is also available for the PS3 and PC.

By Paul Meekin
Staff Writer

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