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BioShock Infinite review – To infinite and beyond

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BioShock Infinite is one of 2013’s most anticipated games – fans have been waiting nearly 3 years since the game was announced and in the past three months, we’ve seen a heavy and steady stream of promotion in the form of teasers, trailers, screenshots and demos from Irrational Games. Is BioShock Infinite worth the wait? After finishing the game and inspecting every nook and cranny, we have the answer right here.

BioShock Infinite was reviewed using retail copies independently purchased by us. All screenshots from actual gameplay on Windows PC platform.

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Bright lights, big city

Upon stepping into Columbia, our reluctant hero and former Pinkerton agent Booker DeWitt is welcomed extravagantly to the City in the Sky with its majestic statues of worshipped leaders and vibrant setting of multicolored buildings outlined by seamless bright blue skylines. Everything is peaceful, lively and succeeds in living up to what we imagine heaven to be like. The kids are laughing and playing on the streets while the men and women enjoy picnics and walk like the world is timeless. Everyone is dressed splendidly as though they are all equally privileged and prosperous.

But beneath that beautiful and holy façade lies a brewing turmoil, a raging war between factions that struggle to obtain dominance over Columbia and it all begins with Booker who breaks Elizabeth out of the tower she’s been imprisoned in for many years…

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Meet Elizabeth, your intelligent partner

Elizabeth is a mysterious woman with powers unimaginable to the eyes of a human. She is somewhat like a superhero in the fictitious Columbia – loved by some, feared by many. She was born with the frighteningly powerful gift of ‘tears’, portal-like openings to other dimensions such the yet-to-be-built Eiffel Tower. Her powers can be used as war assets for either good or bad. In this case, the on-going conflict between the Founders and the Vox Populi.

Elizabeth is doubtlessly the heart of BioShock Infinite’s story, the Sun to our planets and the gravity to our Earth. Her amusing banter with Booker is both fun and believable, neither too cheesy nor too serious. One of the wonderful mechanisms Elizabeth possesses is the abilities to pick locks. Not only does it give her something to do, it shows that she isn’t just your regular damsel in distress who stands around with absolutely no knowledge of life outside her tower.

Elizabeth frequently observes things that she finds useful to you out loud, making life much easier when searching for supplies. Plus, get ready for some emotional investment because that’s exactly what Elizabeth does to you. She responds appropriately to the things around her and provides plenty of insight on Columbia throughout the high octane adventures. And let’s not forget how amazing and spectacular Courtnee Draper’s voice performance was. (A pity if it’s true that Draper is retiring from acting).

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One of the key focus points is Elizabeth’s intelligence and role as your partner. Her revolutionary AI is amazing, a game changer for industries all over the gaming world. Elizabeth is remarkably brilliant, with top notch implementation by the creators of BioShock Infinite, and fits seamlessly alongside you as the player. She sticks with you for most part but doesn’t get overly attached by keeping her distance, not mirroring your movements step by step and even ever-so-often running off short distances to go about her own explorations.

In times of combat, she proves to be a great sidekick and lifesaver by tossing you ammo, Salts and weapons. I was at war with the Heavy Hitters when Elizabeth began hurling things at me; health packs when I was starting to take quite a bit of damage, Salts when the meter was running low and ammo as I burned through countless magazines. During the adrenaline-filled fights with officers and brutes and other fiends throughout BioShock Infinite, she offered me a balanced platter of different weapons almost as if she wanted me to sample the effectiveness of each gun. I think Elizabeth does a great job at reading the player’s mind as she is incredibly resourceful and always reaches a helping hand out when you need her, yet she knows when to take the backseat and remain unnoticeable when you’re focusing on a fight, for instance.

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Irrational Games has really nailed the creation of a near perfect AI partner in BioShock Infinite. You’ll always be aware of Elizabeth’s presence with her upbeat personality, but she doesn’t get in the way or crave for attention. And that’s the point – you’re not supposed to be escorting or babysitting her, she can fend for herself and be an asset to you; she even tells this to you upfront when you first get to know her. Elizabeth feels extremely human-like, as if she’s being controlled by your friend in the seat right next to you, evaluating and responding to your every move throughout the journey in BioShock Infinite.

Elizabeth vs. Heavy Hitters vs. Booker

The enemy AI is not nearly as intelligent as Elizabeth’s, often standing unresponsively and reloading at the center of the battlefield. They also have this nasty habit of charging forwards and appearing in random rooms for reasons unknown. Heavy Hitters (Motorized Patriots, Handyman, Sirens, Boys of Silence, Fireman, Crow) can sometimes get stuck behind objects and freeze when you don’t appear. The citizens of Columbia are similarly stony and unreal, blinking at you wordlessly or not seeing you at all. From what I heard in earlier Infinite commentaries, the inhabitants were supposed to respond to Booker’s actions (i.e how close he stood to them) but they only turned out to be scripted puppets. I mean, why are you watching Booker search your purse while it’s right beside you, lady?!

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Still, Columbia leaves much to your imagination and provides enough mystery to keep you beckoning for more. What makes BioShock Infinite an incredible journey is the hallmark of Irrational Games, master of the richest storytelling you will find in the gaming industry. Irrational Games lead designer and co-founder Ken Levine mentioned more than once that Disneyland rides such as the Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Carribean inspired certain parts of the game and truly, they did a hell of a job incorporating those elements into the game.

The plot execution is spot on and flawlessly played out like the most perfect dreams you’ve ever had about cloud nine. The game has plenty of themes that surround racism and segregation, political propaganda and brainwashing, hidden agenda of the city’s rulers and the blissful ignorant lives led by some of Columbia’s citizens.

While Elizabeth is a little on the mysterious side, Booker seems to be the more enigmatic of the two with his neutral and usually cryptic answers. The less she knows, the better, he implied of Elizabeth’s questions. He’s very much a character of his own and even though lead designer Ken Levine claimed he told voice actor Troy Baker to underplay his character, Baker succeeded all too well in expressing Booker’s slightest emotions whether it was a small waver of uncertainty or the helpless bewilderment in his voice, which definitely creates a better and more enrapturing narrative.

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Lights, camera, rollercoaster ride

Perhaps the most innovative addition to BioShock Infinite‘s already-immersive gameplay is the Skylines, a virtual roller coaster you have never encountered throughout your decades of video gaming and clearly inspired by amusement park tour-style rides. It even sounds like one! The motion blur while travelling on the Skyline is steady enough so it won’t make your eyes cross or your dog pass out. It offers a brand new definition to combat and flanking. Forget concrete walls you can duck behind and forget shooting from behind wall corners. Ready your Skyhook and leap straight for the Skylines because that’s where all the magic happens – but watch your back too, as enemy combatants can also hop on to the rails.

Let’s not forget the Vigors (known as Plasmids in previous BioShock games) – another way the series differentiates from your average first-person shooter game. Irrational Games makes sure you’re not always equipped with fully-loaded weapons, an effective reminder to players of BioShock’s trademark versatile combat approach. Vigors have great perks such as during close combat calls, attacking large groups of enemies and setting traps for premeditated surprise attacks. Vending machines are also ingenious and stylish early twentieth-century ideas to integrate places for weapon and Vigor upgrades, among other important essentials.

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Adding to the oversaturation of meticulous details is the voxophones (audio logs) which can be found all over Columbia though it requires much scavenging and exploring at cul de sacs. Unlike other games where collectibles are usually monotonous and unrelated voiceovers you’d fall asleep listening to, these voxophones contain interesting thoughts and perspectives of the Sky City’s citizens on past and current events. They’re all very fascinating and filled with additional details about the city but should you opt not to listen to them, you won’t miss out on much.

Despite the commercialization of Songbird as an iconic symbol, the leather winged creature does not have a role as major as it looks from the outside BioShock Infinite. I was left a little disappointed because its relationship with Elizabeth as guardian and captive respectively should’ve been explored and delved into much deeper if Irrational Games was looking to strike a chord for a semi-abusive outlook between the two.

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While there’s no multiplayer component in BioShock Infinite, it’s actually a good thing since there’s only so much you can do with a first-person shooter before it feels ‘tacked on’ for no good reason. This gave the chance for Irrational Games to concentrate on the campaign which is very polished. For a first-person game, the storyline is very long; I finished BioShock Infinite in just under 18 hours with quite a bit of exploration. The rest of our team at Games Per Second took between 16 to 20 hours to do the same.

Stretching gameplay close to 24 hours is not far-fetched at all: There’s plenty of incentive not to rush through the storyline of the game, especially during your time with Elizabeth when you sometimes just want to hang around for a bit to observe her cheeky curiosity. Spending time to explore the vast city of Columbia will reward you with coins and currency to purchase upgrades and supplies, voxophones I mentioned previously and sometimes observations, without the need for words, which tell you about the living conditions and politics in Columbia. Replay value is decent; the complex and intriguing plot combined with the 1999 Mode of BioShock Infinite will certainly encourage some gamers to replay through the plot at least once or twice.

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Choices, calls and, sometimes, no consequences

For a fun RPG-like experience, turn on ‘floating combat text’ in the gameplay options to find out how much damage you’ve done to your enemies. During combat, words like ‘Critical!’ and ‘Vulnerable’ will pop up in different colors to state how well you’re dealing with the baddies. An icon will also appear on your screen to mark Heavy Hitters.

Another remarkable element of BioShock Infinite is the importance of symbolism. Minor spoilers here – Elizabeth asks Booker to choose between a bird or a cage to attach to the lace choker she wears which symbolizes her freedom and captivity. There are even classy washrooms for first-class citizens such as the whites and filthy ones for poorer citizens whom are considered lower-class. And who can forget the luxurious red seats for a white man to plant his wealthy rear on so he can receive an exclusive shoe-shining service?

BioShock Infinite’s morality-based concept (for standard modes: Easy, Normal and Hard) has a somewhat lacking effect on gameplay and leaves me confused in many ways. Stealing from shops and some locations has consequences, yet Booker can loot almost everything he sees outside the stores, usually right under the noses of the townsfolk, without any bad results. However, there are moments when you are given only two choices to decide between within a time limit which only adds to the heart-stopping appeal of working under heavy pressure. For hardcore gamers, the 1999 Mode, which can be unlocked by typing the Konami code at the main menu or by completing the game at the Hard difficulty, is highly recommended as the consequences are severe and harsh.

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An audio-visual treat

Irrational Games denies spending $200 million on this game but it sure as hell sounds like a multimillion dollar project. BioShock Infinite’s orchestral music is grade-A, a big-time Hollywood budget no matter what the internet says. From the mellow chorus of violins to the deep baritone of cellos joining those other magical-sounding instruments, the soundtrack will silently enchant you with its magnificent resonance. The counterpart to its wistful nostalgic songs are sharp crescendos of combat music that will sent your racing hearts a-fluttering even more.

While Columbia is wonderful in many ways, bliss parts way for the dreary story progression which unravels slowly but surely before your greedy eyes. Exploring the land of Columbia through the first-person point of view while gunning down oversized monsters lacks the ambience of watching your character walk on the streets amongst citizens of the eventful world from a third-person angle. You notice less of the jaw-dropping surroundings especially during the brutally engaging combat.

Speaking of which BioShock Infinite has plenty of appeal in the graphics department as well. The artistically designed city of Columbia with its colorful textures and lively atmosphere make it a marvelous masterpiece. BioShock Infinite obviously isn’t competing for any photorealism awards but it does well in what it was meant to be as a game. BioShock Infinite goes for an artsy look that makes it look like mix mash between a comic book and an animated movie, yet is simultaneously unmistakable as a video game.

BioShock Infinite looks remarkable on Windows PC, with its textures and environment brought to life (we will note that textures can look ‘flat’ and painted on upon close inspection). This creates great ambience but graphics are not really top-of-the-line; the flat-looking textures made it a challenge to distinguish searchable objects from dummy props, and we had to rely on the ‘interaction glow’ that emanated from them. BioShock Infinite supports the DirectX 11 and Nvidia PhysX but we didn’t notice any fancy water effects or texture tessellation.

On consoles, BioShock Infinite looks noticeably muddier and less sharp thanks to having to deal with weaker hardware. It’s not all that obvious when moving around at high speed but in the slower moments of the game, this can stand out to some eyes, and the difference becomes more pronounced in your conscious mind once you’ve seen the game being played on PC.

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Verdict

Ultimately, BioShock Infinite is the rightful successor to past BioShock games and delivers a stunning and mind-blowingly powerful narrative that will embed itself into your minds for – what Irrational Games predicted – “a long time to come”. While its controversial religious and racism content may not pull the right heartstrings for all audiences, BioShock Infinite has given a phenomenal voice heard all ‘round the world to its impressive and imaginative world of Columbia and also the birth of yet another strong female lead in the world of mainstream video games.

Now with the infinite days of waiting left behind with nothing more than a blink of an eye, we look forwards to the years and days and seconds that will bring us closer to the next (hopefully?!) BioShock title. With any luck, it might arrive sooner with a bigger and grander entrance, but we’ll never know until that big day comes again. The sky’s the limit, anyway.

Game score:

9.5/10

What’s hot:

  • Interesting storyline littered with controversial (mostly political) themes
  • Engaging gameplay with great combat and Skyline system, diverse mix of weapons and Vigors
  • Elizabeth’s character and AI is nothing short of stellar
  • Awesome voice acting and score in supporting the story-telling experience
  • Pretty graphics, textures and great city atmosphere

What’s not:

  • Stoic NPCs and enemy AI often shows its less brilliant side
  • Graphics aren’t as great if you’re playing on console

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