When the sun finally sets on this console generation, Bioshock will still be seen as a defining title. It didn’t just create one of the most immersive environments in video gaming, but made it an ongoing metaphor for a fable of extremist politics, free-will, greed, corruption and moral decay. This isn’t the place for an argument about games as works of art, but Bioshock is one of the few games that I can whole-heartedly argue qualifies. Bioshock is entertainment, but it’s also the work of a team with vision and ambition. It has something to show us, and it shows us with real skill.
Bioshock Infinite repeats this achievement. In fact, it repeats a lot else besides. Ken Levine’s Irrational Games might have swapped a city under water for a city in the clouds, but this is unmistakably the work of the same team. Bioshock’s Plasmids might now be labelled Vigors and its Tonics might now be items of clothing, but they still work in much the same way. This is still a game where you spend most of your time wandering through superbly detailed period corridors, rooms and civic spaces, buying items from vending machines and shooting a variety of enemies in the face. We can praise Bioshock Infinite for a lot of things, but it doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel.
Within the parameters of an intelligent, beautifully-designed FPS, however, this is a bigger, mostly better Bioshock with some awe-inspiring twists. Interestingly, there’s no immediate connection to the original. The game begins with three people on a boat in foggy waters, headed towards a platform where one, an ex-Pinkerton agent by the name of Booker DeWitt, will be sent hurtling towards Columbia, a miraculous city of the skies. There he is to find a girl, Elizabeth, and bring her back to New York City. Trust me when I say that the game will be even better if I don’t tell you any more.
Elizabeth, when you find her, is one of Bioshock Infinite’s two killer features. With a few notable exceptions. CPU-controlled companions in games have usually been little more than a mechanic. They’re there to be rescued or protected or helped across large gaps, but they rarely feel like proper characters.
Elizabeth is different. She doesn’t just follow you around or cry for assistance, but acts as an agent in the plot and an aide on the battlefield, throwing you items or ammunition, or, with some direction, using her power to open ‘tears’ into other realities to even overwhelming odds. And as the game goes on you build a relationship with her. Bioshock Infinite doesn’t find its emotive power just in what you’re shown, but in the connection between its two lead characters. The fact that it comes close to being heartbreaking at times just shows how well this works.
The other killer feature is, as with Bioshock, the setting. At first, Columbia doesn’t seem to have the tangible presence of Rapture. It’s an impressive vision of steampunk meets early 20th Century Americana, and a city with a population too, but for all its incredible detail and coherent style, it feels a little empty. Yet the more you dig beneath the surface, the more this changes.
Through movie footage, voice journals, propaganda posters and hideous museum exhibits Columbia emerges as a grim reflection of far-right-wing American ideals, where Lincoln is demonised, overt racism is endemic and freedom and a pseudo-Christian morality are idealised at the expense of basic human rights. Not that Ken Levine and company just have the far-right in their sights. Bioshock Infinite is equally harsh when it comes to violent forces on the left.
All of this knits together in a story that snakes and turns through a series of exposures and revelations that bring in religious fundamentalism, quantum mechanics, sin and redemption. In the end, it’s this, Columbia and Elizabeth that make Bioshock Infinite so unforgettable. It might not be flawless, but this is a game made by artists who understand their medium and who aren’t afraid to take it to the highest level. The Unreal Powered visuals are consistently impressive and beautifully lit. The music is artfully chosen and sound deployed with a keen ear for atmospheric detail. Graphically, sonically and narratively, Bioshock Infinite is about as good as games can get.
Improving the Action
This was also true of Bioshock, but in the first game the gameplay sometimes felt like a secondary consideration. While the mix of Plasmids and upgradable weapons ensured the combat was always inventive, primitive AI and messy staging meant it wasn’t always as compelling as the story. Here, Bioshock Infinite is a real improvement. Enemies still aren’t that resourceful, but they’re ready to do more than stand and shoot or rush and attack, and with the Patriots and Handymen (heavily-armed automatons and hard-hitting maintenance mechs) Bioshock has found its most threatening enemies yet. They might not have the intimidating style of Bioshock’s Big Daddies, but they pack a bigger punch.
It also helps that Columbia allows for bigger, more open spaces than Rapture, leaving more room for snipers, automated turrets and airships ferrying new troops. What’s more, these spaces are interweaved with high-speed skyrails, navigated with the aid of a special grappling gun. These encourage you to take a mobile approach to the battlefield, leaping down to assassinate lone solders then escaping before the turrets hone in.
Vigors and Gear
Many of Bioshock’s plasmids find analogues in Bioshock Infinite’s Vigors, but new ones like Murder of Crows throw up new creative options. Tap the trigger and you unleash a horde of vicious carrion to harass your enemies. Squeeze and hold and you set a trap which throws out crows at unwary foes. What’s more, each one is upgradable with vending machine boosts, so that Crow victims transform into traps once dead.
Bioshock fans might note the lack of good stealthy options, with the tonics that encouraged quiet kills not imitated by the new system of wearable Gear, but you still get an effective and versatile box of tricks to slay and maim with, and situations that demand a flexible approach. And with a good selection of rifles, machine guns, shotguns and pistols at your disposal, you certainly can’t say that fighting in Bioshock Infinite is ever dull.
In fact, you can’t say that anything about Bioshock Infinite is ever dull. This is one of those games that keeps you thrilled and energised throughout its running time, but that also occupies your mind. And when we say that, we don’t just mean while you’re playing, but while you’re not even in the vicinity of your console. It’s smart, inventive, brilliantly written and totally immersive. In short, this is the kind of game that might help define the next console generation, and when the sun sets on that one, will still be seen as a classic.
Bioshock Infinite is as good as Bioshock, and better in some respects, with more exciting and varied combat and the best AI companion yet conceived. But its real triumph is as a work of rich, interactive storytelling, where you still play the leading part, but in a drama full of beautiful art and intelligent ideas. Like Bioshock, it’s a game that lives on in the memory long after you’ve put down the controller, and that will inspire more titles and developers to raise their game.