Launching as one of the most highly anticipated videogame titles of the year can be both a blessing and a curse. Securing enough day one sales to consider the videogame a success before it’s even available to buy is undoubtedly a boon for the money men, but for the creatives it brings a great deal of expectation. So much in fact that the weight of such external pressure can often stifle innovation: if there’s a chance gamers won’t ‘get it’ it’ll most likely be thrown out. BioShock proved to be the exception to the rule back in 2007, so hopes are high that BioShock Infinite will follow in it’s footsteps in more ways than one.
Though tied to the original BioShock (and gently nodding to System Shock before it on occasion) BioShock Infinite is an entirely new, separate videogame experience. Set in the floating city of Columbia, the videogame begins in an all-too familiar fashion: approaching a lighthouse out at sea. This time however, you are prepared for action. You have a gun, you have a mission and you have the knowledge that what you are about to experience will be no easy task. What comes before you is most certainly a warning, but will also ring further bells of familiarity with those already involved with BioShock, as BioShock Infinite is most clearly a videogame made specifically for them.
As Dewitt, knowing that your mission is to find Elizabeth (as most gamers will do prior to beginning the videogame anyway), your first experience of Columbia is remarkable. A Rapture that still benefits from being at the height of its glory; beautifully presented with majestic sculptures and capturing the light so perfectly from all angles. Things only get better once you step outside, with verdant gardens beckoning you to spend a while listening to bird song and doing little else aside from breathing the fresh, clean air. It’s clear that Irrational Games have not been blind to the widely acknowledged gravity of BioShock’slocale, and that in Columbia they hope to replicate that success while adding more variety and a new sense of character.
Columbia isn’t your typical videogame landscape of course. Bright and airy for most of the adventure, it’s almost as sickly sweet as a Disney take on an evil empire. Dewitt, too, is not your average protagonist (though he may look it in many respects). Obnoxious and cynical, one is compelled not to like Dewitt at the start of the videogame in a similar manner to how Conner Kenway proved to be an irritation in Assassin’s Creed III; these are bold character designs that are needed to progress the medium. Who says you need to actually like the good guy? It makes a very welcome change to go against the grain in such a fundamental manner, especially as the audience reaction to Kenway wasn’t too warm despite this boldness.
Elizabeth, on the other hand, is a gentle soul who is initially shocked by Dewitt’s brutality. Given that she is portrayed as being remarkably knowledgeable she is of course quick to grab the ‘them or us’ situation she and her new comrade find themselves in, eventually agreeing to help supply Dewitt with health packs and ammunition during combat; a mechanic that has a significant impact on the way in which you play the videogame. This, coupled with her constant pondering and idle animations as she leans against railings or ducks for cover, give Elizabeth a more believable quality than most AI teammates.
Of course, Irrational Games have taken some liberties in the design of Columbia and its inhabitants. As heartwarming as the barbershop quartet rendition of God Only Knows is, the song was originally recorded in 1966 – certainly not 1912, the year in which the videogame is set – and the technology present in the world is decades ahead of that which existed at the time. You could explain this away as being the idea; that Columbia was built by the world’s greatest minds. But if this was the case why is Dewitt – a first time visitor to the land – not surprised by its existence? Instead it’s best to simply accept that BioShock Infinite doesn’t exist in our reality. Human civilisation is a source of inspiration, but the world which Irrational Games have created is entirely separate and noticeably distant from our own.
BioShock Infinite is a very linear experience – more so than either of the previous BioShock titles – in which, though it may give you small areas to navigate at will, you are always brought back to the beaten path. The combat is structured in such a way that you will always feel pressure applied no matter what difficulty setting you choose, though any experienced player will likely be able to ration out the supplies gifted by Elizabeth to prevent dying almost entirely. And here we find a stumbling block for BioShock Infinite; as the adventure progresses Dewitt becomes more capable, Elizabeth more supportive and supplies more readily available, yet the enemy difficulty doesn’t increase at the same pace. This means that once reaching the second third of the videogame the player will find the combat challenges significantly easier than when they first drew their gun; an odd design decision and likely one that wasn’t thoroughly tested on new players.
Players are allowed to carry two weapons at any one time but may also stockpile ammunition for weapons not currently in their possession. The usual suspects make their appearances – pistol, shotgun, machine gun, RPG etc. – and ignoring their Columbia twist are fairly run-of-the-mill. However, coupling them with the Vigors makes all the necessary difference. Vigors are superhuman powers that the player will acquire as they progress through the videogame; BioShock Infinite’s take on BioShock’s plasmids, though much stricter in their application. Each Vigor has two uses (press or hold the left trigger) which can allow for some welcome tactical implementation. Furthermore, Vigors can be upgraded, allowing for increased damage or area-of-effect, or even automatic chain attacks between close enemies from a single use. There’s so much experimentation available that combat will rarely be boring throughout the duration if the videogame, despite the limited number of Vigors and well worn nature of the arsenal.
All of this is of course delivered with some very high quality visual and aural presentation. The soundtrack and voice acting are simply phenomenal, easily some of the best the current-generation has offered and possibly anywhere in the industry. The characters are genuinely believable in their emotions and Columbia, which in itself could be considered a character, is brought to life by the idyllic walks through the city, lazy days at it’s manufactured beaches and the angst and pain suffered by those in it’s slums. The visual quality is also commendable, though not without fault. The colour palette is wonderfully varied and the animation is second to none, though there are some noticeably low resolution textures that are used with alarming regularity, and the occasional visual glitch which does hinder the suspension-of-disbelief that other areas of the videogame work so hard to achieve.
A beautiful, imaginative and gripping experience, BioShock Infinite presents one of the best adventures yet offered by current-generation systems. Though it’ll be largely familiar to those who played either previous BioShock title it’s no less inviting because of it; with every new door opened, every corner turned and every moment of adrenaline-rush combat compelling you to step further into the world of Columbia, and unravel its mysteries. BioShock has become a rite of passage, with any gamer worth their salt having experienced the original title, and BioShock Infinite stands to offer closure on the current-generation hardware in a fashion that with be noted in the annals of videogame history.