BioShock: Infinite was a game made by Irrational Games and originally released in 2013 for multiple platforms. BioShock: Infinite sees the return of Ken Levine, who was the primary writer and director of the original BioShock as well as System Shock 2. The game seeks to be a story-heavy experience with emphasis on mature, complex themes such as class discrepancies, American exceptionalism, and advanced scientific concepts. Unfortunately, despite the game’s ambition and decent sales figures, Irrational Games, much like Looking Glass Studios before it with System Shock 2, folded less than a year after this game’s release. In its seventeen-year life, Irrational Games was only responsible for the development of a handful of games and BioShock: Infinite wound up being their last. Did the company end its run on a high note?
Playing the Game
Compared to System Shock 2, BioShock: Infinite could be seen as a downgrade in quality. Like BioShock, BioShock: Infinite is a first person shooter. The guns you’re given cover the basic gamut of FPS weapons, including a shotgun, a pistol, a machine gun, and so forth. There isn’t as much variety in weapons as there is in modern FPSs, which usually feature several models of the aforementioned gun classes. Also gone is the alternate ammo system, meaning that BioShock: Infinite does not feature armor-piercing bullets or exploding buckshots. Furthermore, you’re only allowed to carry two firearms at once. This is in stark contrast to System Shock 2 where you could hold as many weapons as permitted by your strength stat and BioShock, in which you simply held all of your weapons at once.
Another aspect of BioShock: Infinite that might be construed as a major step back from its predecessors is its level design. BioShock: Infinite is significantly more linear than System Shock 2 and BioShock. While those titles had a certain order in which you explored their environments, whatever points of no return existed only manifested themselves when nearing the endgame. BioShock: Infinite, on the other hand, features several one-way paths, meaning that it’s easy to permanently miss out on audio logs or other helpful items.
Fans of System Shock 2 will also doubtlessly be disappointed in BioShock: Infinite for lacking RPG elements, which gave the former title the depth and complexity that made it unique. This means every playthrough will largely be the same and you cannot develop your own methods for solving your problems. Instead, BioShock: Infinite could be seen as just another first-person shooter, which the market certainly wasn’t hurting for when it was released.
In light of all of this, how does BioShock: Infinite compare with BioShock or System Shock 2? Between those three games, I feel that this is the best game by far.
Confused? Even though everything I said in the first few paragraphs was entirely true and a conglomerate of many criticisms I’ve heard lodged toward the game, I don’t think any of those aspects negatively impact the game’s quality.
To start with, the lower variety of weapons is not an issue because in most FPSs, I find myself gravitating towards 2-4 weapons even if I’m allowed to choose between thirty or more. Plus, you can upgrade your weapons so that they can do more damage, fire more bullets per clip, and recoil less. Having a smaller array of guns simply reduces the amount of time it takes to find your preferred ones. While it is somewhat disappointing that you’re only allowed to hold two at once, I can see why it was necessary. It requires money to upgrade weapons in BioShock: Infinite, which is in short supply compared to other games that feature a currency system. As such, it’s advised to develop good spending habits in this game by only upgrading the weapons you’re the most proficient with. Luckily, if you drop a weapon and later find another copy of the same weapon, it retains all of its upgrades. In other words, you don’t have to worry about upgrading a weapon only to permanently lose the money you invested in it should you decide to experiment with other ones.
I admit it’s a somewhat heretical opinion to have, but I find myself not missing the RPG elements that were present in System Shock 2. That was a game you could potentially render unwinnable by leveling up your character incorrectly and there was a major discrepancy between useful and useless skills. Though they were an interesting idea, the experience is enhanced by their removal. I felt that the RPG elements only locked you out of using certain weapons or skills rather than actually adding depth to the gameplay.
I’ve addressed the major criticisms towards the gameplay, so now it’s time to explain how BioShock: Infinite succeeds.
For starters, while BioShock played a lot like System Shock 2, BioShock: Infinite plays like a combination of Halo and Half-Life. You have a shield that protects your health meter and regenerates when you’re not taking damage similar to Halo, whereas the linear level design and heavy emphasis on science fiction reminds me of Half-Life. This gives the game a much more brisk pace than its predecessors and makes it feel more like an action game than a survival horror; it’s almost akin to the first two Alien films in that regard.
Though BioShock: Infinite lacks RPG elements, it does have a system that functions like armor would in those types of games. It’s called the Gear system. You’re allowed to equip hats, shirts, pants, and boots which bestow passive upgrades to the player character. Also featured in this game are Infusions, which are used to upgrade your health, shield, or salts. The last of these functions as a mana system for the psychic powers you obtain throughout the game. I like the way upgrading works in this game because it encourages the player to explore the levels organically with tangible rewards rather than meaningless collectables.
Finally, BioShock: Infinite has my favorite level design in the series, even including System Shock 2. BioShock: Infinite is the polar opposite of BioShock in terms of its setting. While BioShock took place in the underwater city of Rapture, BioShock: Infinite is set in Columbia, a city which floats in the sky. The level design in BioShock was superb in that it took advantage of Rapture’s location on the floor of an ocean by creating a sense of isolation and claustrophobia.
The level design in BioShock: Infinite also takes advantage of Columbia’s location with its Sky-Line system. Littered throughout BioShock: Infinite are rails that you can hook onto to get from place to place. What upgrades this from a gimmicky mode of transportation to an excellent game mechanic is how you can use it during combat. If you use the Sky-Line while engaging enemies, you can still shoot at them while zipping around… or you could dislodge yourself from the rail and take them down with a melee attack. It is every bit as awesome as it sounds.
Analyzing the Story
The year is 1912. Booker DeWitt is a former soldier and Pinkerton agent whose exploits sent him into a downward spiral where he turned to alcohol and gambling. He has accumulated a nearly insurmountable debt as a result of his vices. One day, he is approached by a pair of twins, Robert and Rosalind Lutece, who offer a solution to his predicament. He is to enter the city of Columbia, retrieve a young woman named Elizabeth and bring her to New York City. Should he succeed in his mission, his debts will be erased.
Columbia is a city that floats in the skies above the United States. It was commissioned by the U.S. government as a showcase of American exceptionalism, or the belief that the nation is qualitatively different from other nations. However, after an incident that occurred eleven years prior, the city seceded from the union. It is ruled by Zachary Hale Comstock, whose words are blindly followed by the populace. The city’s isolation from the outside world also resulted it in developing a very different set of morals and laws than the state it separated from.
In addition to having the best gameplay of Mr. Levine’s body of work, I also firmly believe that BioShock: Infinite is his most interesting story yet. One of the first things you’ll notice is that Booker is not a silent protagonist like his predecessor, Jack. He’s fully voice acted and has a fleshed out backstory, which gives him a lot more depth than the average FPS protagonist. Then again, this makes a lot of sense because in BioShock, you explore Rapture after everything has fallen apart, thus a significant portion of the cast is composed of posthumous characters. In BioShock: Infinite, Columbia is fine and dandy, if very backwards-looking when it comes to race relations, up until Booker arrives, so there are many more chances to interact with other characters.
Indeed, things get very interesting when you meet Elizabeth. As soon as you do, the game outright tells you not to worry about her. Though the lack of an escort mission is greatly appreciated, some critics have pointed out how illogical this is. However, I think there’s a perfectly good explanation for this. |She has the ability to travel between alternate dimensions, making use of rips in space and time known as Tears. Because of this, I like to reason you just happen always exist in the dimensions where every stray bullet or attack misses her.|
In addition to the level design, the storytelling also reminds me of Half-Life. The story is told through scripted events, dialogue, audio logs called Voxophones, and interacting with the environment; at no point is control of Booker wrestled away from the player. It’s a welcome change from games that pretend to be movies and tell their stories through non-interactive cutscenes. I also found myself really enjoying the interactions between Booker and Elizabeth as the dialogue is very well-written and both characters go through definable arcs throughout the game. Despite not being able to fight, Elizabeth does assist Booker in combat, occasionally providing him with extra ammunition or health kits, thus her presence is tied into the actual gameplay as well. The narrative also seems reminiscent of Metal Gear Solid 2 in that both games give you a simple enough premise, but they get progressively more insane by the end. Also like Metal Gear Solid 2, no description I could write about the plot twists featured in the story of BioShock: Infinite could do them justice; the only way to experience them is to play the game for yourself.
Despite its overall positive critical acclaim, BioShock: Infinite is a somewhat polarizing game in certain circles for being a pretentious mess of a story. Personally, I feel that “pretentious” is one of those words that gets thrown around too much along with “overrated” and “literally.” The use, and frequent misuse, of those words have rendered them almost meaningless. Personally, I think one of the worst things any story could be is pretentious while not being the least bit insightful (District 9 is the textbook example of this), and I don’t think that BioShock: Infinite has this problem. The story demonstrably has a lot of effort behind its creation and it was clearly written for its medium. Is it self-indulgent? A little bit. Yet I also think the story is legitimately intelligent and makes for a great conversation piece. Plus, considering the AAA industry’s rather hostile relationship with the auteur theory, I’d say that a healthy amount of self-indulgence could do it some good.
Drawing a Conclusion
This game is quite a bit different from its predecessors, and I think it shows that Mr. Levine wasn’t simply making BioShock a second time, but rather using its template to create a completely new scenario. Many purists will insist that System Shock 2 is the superior game, but to me, BioShock: Infinite is proof that simplicity doesn’t equal inferiority. The only valid complaint I’ve heard regarding the gameplay is that its last few levels degrade in quality. Even though I think this is technically true, between Mr. Levine’s previous titles, the endgame of BioShock: Infinite is the least annoying as it doesn’t involve an escort mission or exploring a convoluted maze. Other than that, if you like action games or movies which make you think, this is a highly recommended title.
Final Score: 8/10