Review: BioShock Infinite – Clear Skies

A utopia, no matter how promising, will always fall. Unlike the first BioShock, in BioShock Infinite you will witness the floating city of Columbia as it descends from the perceived perfection and suffer the same fate as the underwater city of Rapture. The inevitable utopic fall represents one of the many themes throughout the game which all contribute to the believability of a society living in the sky. The gradual development of these themes builds upon the understanding of Columbia’s history and current events. Irrational Games’ attention to detail and their ability to imagine grand fictional worlds only compliments one of the best told stories in video games.

Looking to pay a debt, Booker Dewitt travels to Columbia with the purpose of capturing a mysterious girl named Elizabeth. Things don’t go as smoothly as expected as Booker’s decision to capture her comes during Columbia’s revolution.

With the shared desire to safely escape Columbia, Booker and Elizabeth work together (although she does not know what he plans to do with her). Elizabeth will savage the surroundings for ammunition, money and other supplies during and outside of combat. You will spend majority BioShock Infinite with Elizabeth learning about her life and the origins of this floating city. She will engage in conversation about her past or Booker’s past, point out significant paintings or sculptures in the environment and comment on the surrounding conflict.

BioShock Infinite  rooms.jpg

Her presence and her helpfulness during combat, plays a significant role in pulling you into the world of Columbia. I never once thought of her computer controlled movement paths or conversation topics; she felt like a real person with real thoughts. She didn’t intrude during combat or glitch into a wall; she moved independently and stayed out of the way when the situation escalated into a firefight.  Elizabeth’s companionship won’t burden you, it will develop both Booker’s and Elizabeth’s personalities through hours of conversation, morally revealing situations and firefights.

Too frequently games will list objectives without any clear reason as to why you should complete them. Relevant objectives with clear reasons for completion will drastically change the awareness of the situation. All throughout BioShock Infinite, every objective and the reasons for why you need to complete them, make complete sense. Very few games can clearly layout objectives in relation to the story, and understanding of why I needed to head to specific locations increased my feeling of involvement and agency.

The clarity of each gameplay objective sees the same method in the story telling.  Each room in Columbia carries details that reveal all sorts information about this early 20th century city and will even tell its own little story based on the appearance of rooms. I often observed surroundings of dead bodies with blood spilled all over the floor and wondered what caused such an altercation. I began to imagine what happened before I arrived; taking clues from the environment and putting together a scene that seemed possible. Each room, although not directly related to the story, reveals the ideals of the society or state of the revolution.

BioShock Infinite  no jobs.jpg

Instead of dumping information on how the city came to exist, the nature of the religion and other subjects, Irrational Games slowly unravels the intricacies to the player. You will find Voxophones – voice recorded monologues – that hold a person’s observations of surrounding events or explanations for unanswered questions. Depending on which and how many Voxophones you find, your understanding of for example, how the city even sustains flight, will differ from person to person. Like I stated before about Elizabeth, paintings and posters promoting Columbia’s religious beliefs inexplicitly inform the player of the culture of the city. The slow trickle of information leading up to the narrative plot changes brings greater clarity and significance to story.

Informing the player of Columbia through the environment and conversation represents a method of storytelling that takes advantage of the interactivity and visual nature of video games. BioShock Infinite doesn’t rely heavily on cut scenes; it tells the story always within the game, rarely taking away control from the player. I always knew what happened and why I shot someone. For a game to tell a story not devoid of complexity yet so clear in its delivery, only comes around a handful of times throughout a generation.

BioShock Infinite does not only consist of a memorable story in which you see both Booker and Elizabeth develop as morally driven people, you will also play a game. The game part of BioShock Infinite unfortunately does excite me in the same ways as the rest of the experience. The first-person shooting in combination with Vigors – abilities powered by Salts you constantly need to replenish – makes encounters as dynamic and as involved as one could hope for.

BioShock Infinite  citizens escape.jpg

Throughout each level puddles of water or oil to electrocute or burn groups of enemies can emphasize the destructive nature of Vigors. Juggling the Vigors and guns seamlessly happens with the triggers of a controller with the action only stopping when you swap out a Vigor in a hot-key. As you progress you can purchase upgrades for both weapons and Vigors but I didn’t notice a significant change in weapons aside from obvious things like increased magazine sizes.

In addition to Vigors and weapons, Elizabeth can open Tears – a sort of portal into a previous time zone later explained in the game – to bring in weapons, automated turrets or cover to help during combat. Each encounter will provide areas with multiple Tears that Elizabeth can only keep one open at a time. If you play on Hard difficulty (which I recommend), opening the right Tear can shield from incoming bullets or divert enemy attention. Placed all over the map, these Tears can prove difficult to reach, so the use of Skylines will shorten travel distances.

When Irrational Games first introduced the Skyline – a magnetic rail your hand attaches to for travel – they gave the impression that it would allow for more freedom and agility in combat. The reality of the Skyline, while not completely as advertised, gives the player more maneuverability to dodge bullets or the ability travel to higher spots, but not much else. Their limited use makes their appearance novel and a great change of pace in the combat, though their touted potential makes me wish from something much more exciting than the Skylines available.

BioShock Infinite Skyline.jpg

When you consider the Tears, Skylines and Vigors, the gun combat sees a variety of complimentary methods, but I just can’t lie about my general lack of enthusiasm whenever I enter a room full of enemies that need shooting. The first person shooting and all the complementary aspects work almost flawlessly, though functionality does not concern me as much as suitability. With such a detailed world full of interesting history and environments so interesting to explore, I wonder if BioShock Infinite should employ a different type of combat. I sometimes wished the combat consisted of only Vigors and Tears, rather than shooting, as it would require the player to really use the environment to their advantage to maximize the effect of Vigors and Tears in key situations. Regardless of what I think of the combat, without any encounters, what would the player do besides explore the environment? I wish for fewer encounters but the same time I imagine boredom without any.

BioShock Infinite tells a deeply detailed story in the clearest way possible without sacrificing complexity in both gameplay objectives and narrative. The Vigors, Skylines and guns allow for many ways to defend against ruthless enemies and they work as well as you could hope for. With functionality in mind, that doesn’t represent the issue. The souring reality of the combat lies in the fact that it does not generate the same excitement like with the story. When looked at collectively, BioShock Infinite brings to life a world full of unrealistic scenarios and objects, but that won’t stop it from seeming so real. When the story, the characters and your familiarity of a thoroughly explored Columbia all comes together, the memory of BioShock Infinite will remain as clear as the actual experience.