Columbia is one of the most stunning game worlds ever created.
Columbia is one of the most stunning game worlds ever created.

Few developers have as impressive a body of work as Irrational Games. The folks behind System Shock and the first Bioshock, have produced some of the most intelligent and thought-provoking games in the medium’s history. Since its unveiling in 2010, expectations have been extremely high for the studio’s first release since 2007. Amazingly, Ken Levine and company have surpassed their last effort with Bioshock Infinite.

 Infinite is a title which rewards multiple playthroughs with a deeper appreciation for the game’s artistry and ambitionSet in 1912, Infinite tells the tale of Booker Dewitt, a broken man who is sent to find a young lady named Elizabeth to square a debt. Held captive by the fanatical Father Comstock in the floating city of Columbia, it is not immediately clear what is so special about her. Infinite’s narrative plays out over 12 or so hours and covers familiar Bioshock themes like choice and free will, whilst exploring all new territory such as religion, racism and xenophobia. Artfully paced and scripted, the plot contains moments which you will never forget. Infinite is a title which rewards multiple playthroughs with a deeper appreciation for the game’s artistry and ambition. The final thirty minutes is hauntingly beautiful, and will linger with you long after the final credits.

The game plays similarly to its predecessors with Booker having access to a host of traditional weaponry and vigors, the successor to Bioshock’s plasmids.

Unfortunately, gun combat is an unsatisfying experience. The controls aren’t as tight as you’d expect in a shooter, resulting in some frustration when attempting to line up a long distance headshot. Initial appearances seem to indicate that Infinite boasts a large array of firearms. However, it soon becomes clear that the number is inflated by several functionally identical guns representing each faction (e.g. Founders’ China Broom Shotgun and the Vox Populi’s Heater). Another strange omission is the absence of any visual difference when you upgrade your firearms. It’s a small but disappointing change considering how the variations added such character to the arsenal in past Bioshock games.

Combat should feel familiar to anyone who has played previous games in the series.
Combat should feel familiar to anyone who has played previous games in the series.

In contrast, vigors are a blast to use.  Players can choose to use the vigors in a direct assault by hurling/blasting enemies, or by laying traps. It’s also possible to upgrade vigors,  adding perks such as the ability to chain hits. The total number of vigors is noticeably reduced compared to the number of plasmids in previous titles. The most conspicuous omission is Telekinesis, a fan fave from Bioshock and an ability which was prominently featured at Irrational’s E3 2010 demo of the game.

The game presents players with a vast city to explore… but we’re left swinging about in circles, thus breaking the immersion.New features come in the form of the Sky-hook and Elizabeth’s role on the battlefield. The Sky-hook provides Booker with a vicious melee attack and a means of traversing Columbia via Sky-lines; a human monorail system. Zipping along the Sky-lines inject a dose of verticality into combat encounters, presenting the player with a number of interesting strategic options such as the one-hit kill Sky-line execution. Ironically, the Sky-lines highlight the linearity of Infinite’s level design. The game presents players with a vast city to explore… but we’re left swinging about in circles, thus breaking the immersion.

On the other hand, Elizabeth’s contributions serve to draw us deeper into the world. Unlike companions in other games, Elizabeth is fully capable of taking care of herself. When the bullets begin to fly, she’ll scour the battlefield for health, salts and ammo, providing Booker with a steady supply when battling hordes of enemies. She is also capable of opening tears in reality, pulling in turrets, ammo and cover for Booker’s use. These abilities can prove extremely useful on Infinite’s higher difficulty levels, and  serve to inject some freshness into the overall gameplay package.

Elizabeth more than holds her own throughout this memorable adventure.
Elizabeth more than holds her own throughout this memorable adventure.

Built on a modified version of Unreal Engine 3, Infinite is a visually breathtaking game. Boasting outstanding art direction, every tower, bridge and pavement exudes personality and history. It is a testament to the talent of Irrational’s team that they have followed the creation of Rapture with a city which is every bit as fascinating. Character design is memorable and effective with some instances of brilliance such as the Boys of Silence. Infinite’s art team has succeeded once more in transporting us to another time and place.

Unfortunately, the technical aspect is unable to keep pace. Infinite sports some noticeably low resolution textures and a  frame-rate which is prone to sputtering on the aging consoles. These issues are largely absent on the PC, but it’s clear that Infinite was  never meant as a showcase for polygon counters who live for phrases such as subsurface scattering and tessellation.

The veteran cast delivers some incredible voice-over work. Troy Baker infuses Booker with an impressive amount of emotion and personality, dispelling concerns that he was nothing more than the cookie-cutter action star depicted on the divisive box art. Likewise, Kiff VandenHeuval (Father Comstock) and the ever versatile Jennifer Hale (Rosalind Lutece) turn in excellent performances which provide the ambitious plot with necessary momentum and heft.

She is Booker’s and,by extension, the player’s, purpose and motivationHowever, it’s Courtnee Draper’s extraordinary Elizabeth which drives the game. She is Booker’s and,by extension, the player’s, purpose and motivation. Draper has succeeded in creating one of the most charming, intelligent and nuanced characters since Half-Life 2’s Alyx Vance. I expect that Elizabeth will be an enduring character in the annals of gaming and a mainstay at cosplay conventions for many years to come.

Infinite’s evocative soundtrack is a combination of original compositions from series veteran, Gary Schyman and a large number of licensed tracks. In addition to music from the period, there are several covers of more recent pop music peppered throughout the game. I won’t go into too much detail so as not to ruin the surprise of discovering each of them on your own, but God Only Knows why they were included.

The soundscape is punctuated by some impressive sound effects and editing. From the crack of a sniper rifle to the cawing of crows as they swoop in to eviscerate some unsuspecting sod… every sound effect does a fantastic job of complementing the beautiful visuals. This all comes together to create one of gaming history’s most immersive and fully fleshed-out game worlds.

Finally, there are two niggling issues with the game. The first is the lack of a proper chapter select option. The chapter select is linked with the game’s autosave system, which only allows for a single save file. It inexplicably limits players to one save per chapter and seems to be wildly inconsistent. You never know which point in the level you’re going to appear in when you load up a game from the chapter select option. The second issue is the lack of a NewGame+ option following the completion of the game. These issues create unnecessary obstacles to players who would like to experience specific areas of the game again, be it for the story or to farm for achievements. However, these are minor issues and could be fixed with a patch.

Bioshock Infinite is an interactive experience which boasts big ideas, memorable characters and stunning production values. Although it’s let down by a few mechanical issues, all is forgiven in light of its remarkable ambition. In shooting for the sky, Irrational has crafted a game which soars.

This game was reviewed on PC and Xbox 360.

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