Bioshock Infinite (Xbox 360) Review
- Looks stunning both still and in motion
- Characters are solid and the Booker/Elizabeth dynamic is perfect
- Peerless story telling in a rich and interesting world
Not so much?
- Middle third of the game is a little lacking compared to the rest
- Introduction of late weapons and Vigors feels unnecessary
- Unreal Engine sometimes leaves things looking messy whilst it loads texture
- Engine does appear to struggle at times but the game always remains playable
As the final minutes played out in Bioshock Infinite I sat with my mouth wide open, gaping like a cod fish. Managing to take such a large, all-encompassing story and just pull it off so spectacularly shows the confidence and talent at work in Irrational Games to date.
Bioshock Infinite has been a long time coming. Not just in terms of a protracted development cycle. No I’m talking about personally I’ve been desperate for the next game from Irrational and Ken Levine since I finished Bioshock.
Way back in August 2007 I’d reached a turning point. I was done being a gamer. Everything that was coming out was a first person shooter. My 360 produced some OK graphics, but it served the constant need for shooter and poor action titles. As I was working away from home I took the Xbox 360 on one last trip, picking up the interesting looking title from some of the System Shock guys. Bioshock kept me busy with its rich world, gorgeous visuals an wonderful story for weeks after. When I finally finished I put down the controller – I was back in the game.
Full disclosure, I’m going to be trying my hardest to be objective throughout this review. To that end I must admit to playing Bioshock on every format it released on apart from Mac. I’ve finished it multiple times on PC and Xbox with a almost complete run through on the PS3 waiting for my return. Levine and his team managed to create a true landmark in gaming – an almost masterpiece that was going to take a lot to beat.
Jump forward almost five and a half years and Bioshock Infinite arrives on my door step as the current console generation reaches its twilight years… there’s some kind of poetic symmetry to that.
Bioshock Infinite follows a similar path to that of the original Bioshock. You are thrust in to a world that is wondrous and confusing. An almost familiar reality with a “this could happen” edge to it. You play the part of Booker DeWitt. A former Pinkerton , DeWitt is sent to the air-city of Columbia. Here he must locate a girl by the name of Elizabeth who appears to be held captive in a large statue fortress. If DeWitt can retrieve the girl and get her to New York then the copious amounts of debt he’s racked up will be cleaned from his slate.
Set during the period in American history known as “American Exceptionalism”, the game deals with many bold topics straight off the bat. Huge overtones of Racism, segregation and religious indoctrination run throughout the earlier parts of the game. Caught in the midst of a revolution with the rebel faction know as the Vox Populi. Booker must also deal with the fact that Zachary Comstock, the religious and political leader of Columbia also known as The Prophet, has known of his coming and is prepared to pull out all the stops to thwart his attempt to take Elizabeth.
I’m going to leave Bioshock Infinites story beats there. This outline is nothing but the tip of the tip of a much larger tip on a massive mind melting iceberg. The real beauty of Bioshock Infinite, like Bioshock before it, lies in the rich world and wonderful story telling. The team at Irrational have taken Ken Levine’s story/design and expanded it in to such a rich tapestry. I will say though that Elizabeth is a great companion both in concept and delivery. She not only doesn’t need any tending (she avoids the fights and early on Comstock’s orders are that she not be harmed) but she provides an essential supply of Salts, ammo and first aid throughout fights. She also finds handy stashes of cash that she throws to you as well. This is all handled seamlessly and incredibly smartly. At no point does it feel like a game long escort mission!
The game looks gorgeous. Not only from a technical point of view, but the skewed 1920’s take on everything is refreshing. Character models are interesting and gorgeously animated. The facial animations and expressive nature of the characters, especially Elizabeth, helps to compound the story as it unfolds. Columbia is a floating sun drenched city that feels alive. The modified Unreal Engine 3 backbone does the heavy technical lifting and shifting this in to higher resolutions and top detail on a PC will reward you with gorgeous sun dappled streets, light streaming through windows and being diffused by objects in the path of the rays of light. The console versions are no slouch either with both version offering up an equally gorgeous looking world and characters. Side by side the 360 version can’t compete with the PC on higher settings but it’s certainly one of the best looking games of this generation. The nasty pop-in issue that has plagued Unreal Engine 3 since inception is the only thing to detract from the games visuals. Nasty looking objects will slowly shimmer in to nicely textured items as the engine slowly loads them in. This is a universal issue and makes me wish in some way Infinite had shipped on next generation technology. Some frame stutters and general engine missteps do dog the game at times but overall it’s still a great technical accomplishment – sadly the 360 edition does seem to be the weakest of the trio this time out.
Sound design in Bioshock Infinite is just as high-end as the graphical prowess on display. The voice work of all characters is nothing short of superb. Bioshock Infinite lives and dies on its story and the story lives and dies on the ability of the people delivering the lines to draw you in and believe in those characters. The interactions between Booker and Elizabeth are so very well handled. Both characters are strong and they have a bond that strengthens throughout the 12 – 15 hours they’re together in the game. Sound design has been well handled, lending a wonderfully produced and evocative score and weaving it throughout the game – it adds stupendous amounts of gravitas and depth to the onscreen action. A special mention, and a brief spoiler’ish mention (skip to the next paragraph to avoid if you must!), has to go for the reworked “modern” classics that can be found in the game. An early example being a barbershop Quartet rendition of God Only Knows by the Beach Boys… or Cyndi Laupers Girls Just Wanna Have Fun as a seaside pipe music tune a little later on. These small audio touches could so easily be missed but when you finally catch a few bars you recognise and then work out the songs being used in context.. well it’s a real “wow!” moment.
Talking of special moments Bioshock Infinite is littered with them. Some are obvious scene stealer and others are simply hidden away in places that many may never see – for instance a cellar of a bar area has a small boy who runs and hides from Booker and Elizabeth as they enter. As Booker you see a guitar laying against a chair and notice you can use the action button on it. When you do Booker and Elizabeth have a short exchange and then Booker picks up the guitar. As he plucks out a tune Elizabeth sings along, all the while trying to entice the small boy out of hiding with an apple. It’s just such a beautiful and poignant moment.
The game is more action heavy than perhaps Bioshock was. Thrusting you in to more immediate combat situation almost straight off the bat. Unlike Bioshock’s Jack, there is no ambiguity to Booker’s purpose here on Columbia – he must fight to get the girl. Luckily there are plenty of weapons on hand to help him achieve this. From the standard machine gun and shotgun variants to the more exotic repeater, pepper-mill crank gun, pig volley gun etc. Booker can carry no more than two weapons at once meaning you need to find the combination that works for you. Personally the China Broom shotgun and Barnstormer RPG worked for me. Add to these the eight Vigors you find throughout the game. Vigors operate as the games magic system – similar in all respects to the Plasmids found in the original Bioshock. These special abilities, like Shock Jockey (an electrical stun attack), Murder of Crows (sends a flock of crows to peck foes), are all powered by Salts. These can be obtained in viles around the environment, from Salt dispensers found sparingly or scavenged from fallen foes. Two Vigors can be selected at any one time but you can swap in any from the selection that you have uncovered in the game. The final piece of the Bioshock Infinite’s offensive arsenal is the Skyhook. This device functions as a suitably brutal melee weapon as well as allow you to use the Skyline rail system that traverses the skyline of Columbia. Simply pressing a button will hook you on to the rails and have you whizzing through the air. Once in the air Booker can still fire his weapon or, with a swift button press, dismount the fail and take down an enemy.
The Skyline is a neat concept that works in many ways but fails in a few. The ability to traverse these distinct areas quickly offers a frenetic edge to the pace of combat. Circling an area taking pot shots at swarms of enemies in an attempt to thin their ranks is useful – especially if fighting one of the games more unique enemies like The Patriots (large mechanical fighting statues of George Washington!) or The Handy Man (a huge marionette like robot that servers as this games Big Daddy like enemy). Unfortunately too often the whole thing feels disorientating as you struggle to control the rapid movement. It also jars a little that these rail systems are localised to small areas – surely they’d run all through the city in a joined up system? These are small niggles at best but I remain unconvinced to the validity of the Skyline system.
Weapons and the potency of Vigors can be upgraded as the game continues by spending any spare cash you’ve managed to scavenge at vending machines. Early on in the game money feels tight and you’re forced to pick specific “go-to” weapons to upgrade to make the most of your investment.
Whilst talking of areas that maybe lacked a little I have to say that Bioshock Infinite is a game of thirds. To explain, what I mean is you can distinctly see a difference between a virtual part 1, 2 and 3. The initial part is about coming to grips with the flying utopia that is Columbia. You’ll traverse the sun drenched buildings and see the wondrous sights. You’ll cringe and feel disgusted at the segregation and open racism of the inhabitants. That is until you reach part 2 when a lot of what you’ve been experiencing as Columbia is hidden away from you. This middle section feels a little like protracted filler in many respects. Sure there are some important story beats here, and some of the setup pays off when you look back at the end of the game. You can’t help but feel this was the “game” part of the whole experience. This is made even more evident at the fact that at around the half-way point you have the tools you’re going to need to get all the way to the end – by that I mean the weapons and Vigors. The last third is a master class in setup and reveal of a ultimately mind-bending story. As you approach the final hours of the second part you’ll think “yeah I see where this is going” only to have those thoughts smashed in the closing hours of the game.
As the final minutes played out in Bioshock Infinite I sat with my mouth wide open, gaping like a cod fish. Managing to take such a large, all-encompassing story and just pull it off so spectacularly shows the confidence and talent at work in Irrational Games to date. I still prefer Rapture as a setting. The original Bioshock will probably occupy a special place in my gamer-heart for the rest of my days. Bioshock Infinite could well be keeping it company. As the final credits rolled I sat my controller down and just stared at the names rolling by, letting the music wash over me as my mind grappled with the ending presented to me. I then restarted the game from my save and played the ending again to check I’d seen things correctly. I then spent time raking my brains to come up with answers to bring some order. … Days later I am still doing just that. What other games have ever done that to you?
Bioshock Infinite is the type of game that comes along maybe once in a generation – it is the pinnacle of storytelling in gaming. The yardstick that all others should be measured by.
The game is not perfect. The middle third of the game almost drags it down. The combat and Skyline mechanic being a little frenetic and disorientating doesn’t help and neither does the pop-in courtesy of the Unreal Engine. The engine does it’s very best to keep up with everything onscreen but I’d be lying if I didn’t say it struggled at times. That said these flaws stand out because the rest of the game is just so excellent.
I can’t begin to convey how essential Bioshock Infinite is to gamers. Not just to those that buy it and play it. No. Bioshock Infinite will hopefully pave the way for better stories and storytelling. Like many great books, movies, plays etc Bioshock Infinite asks lots of questions. Presents the player with uncomfortable truths. It doesn’t then spoon feed you every answer.
Much like the original title in the series, what we have here in Bioshock Infinite is another genuine gaming milestone and who can offer up a better endorsement than that.