Bioshock Infinite Review: An Empire of Liberty

Bioshock InfiniteIn another life, things would probably be different. In another life, we might be somewhere else, someone else. But we’re forced to live with the hand we’re dealt, and there’s no changing that. Or is there? It’s hard for Bioshock Infinite to cast itself away from the shadow of its predecessor, mostly because of how strong the narrative of the original Bioshock was in its day. Bioshock Infinite quickly relinquishes itself from the shackles of  just “going through the motions” and carves out a unique place all its own.

Bioshock Infinite almost immediately removes players from any sense of familiarity, whisking them away to a city unlike anything else: Columbia, a paradise in the sky. The opening minutes echo those of the original Bioshock, but instead of a dreary, broken-down metropolis, you see Columbia in its prime. And it is a sight to behold. The city feels alive, a character unto itself. Columbia is a bright and colorful place with tall, beautiful industrial buildings floating on the clouds. Kids are playing in the street, men and women are discussing the current events within the city. A barbershop quartet sings “God Only Knows” by The Beach Boys atop a zeppelin as a couple dances in a small field nearby. Its a foreign, but a familiar, idyllic place; a symbol of hope and peace.

Booker DeWitt arrives on this floating Eden in an attempt to find a girl so he can pay off his debts. What follows is a story that slowly pieces itself together, not relying on one twist in the last half of the game, but more unraveling a larger mystery over the course of the narrative. The world around you suddenly and swiftly changes as this Eden begins to fall when an all-out class/race war erupts between Comstock’s followers and the Vox Populi. You soon realize no one side is fully just in their ideals as the Vox Populi are capable of things just as terrible as their oppressors. The story moves along at a brisk pace and you’ll find yourself never wanting to set down the controller because something important is always right around the corner. 

Just like Bioshock‘s critiques of Objectivism and the philosophies of Ayn Rand, so too does Bioshock Infinite expose its own rich and complex themes of patriotism, race, religion, and American Exceptionalism in a way that hasn’t been tackled by games before. It’s throughly clever and compelling, but that’s just the backdrop for a more personal story between Booker and Elizabeth.

Throughout the game, Booker and Elizabeth form a special bond that gives this game its depth. They learn to understand and help each other. They have their own strengths and flaws, and the character performances are rich with emotion and humanity. Booker and Elizabeth aren’t just defined by their personal goals, but also by how they interact with each other. Their relationship slowly builds as they get to know each other, and have subdued and relaxed moments that help define themselves and their relationship. Bioshock Infinite wouldn’t work if these two characters didn’t meld as well as they do.

Every piece of the world fits together into one cohesive story that culminates into a twenty minute climax where my jaw was on the floor and I was unable to pick it back up until credits started rolling. It subverted all my expectations and became something special and unique, capping off an emotional story about what people will do to escape their sins. Infinite‘s core themes weave in and out of a narrative that I can’t speak of any more lest I spoil the whole thing — needless to say, it’s something to be experienced.

Bioshock InfiniteFor me, the original Bioshock was a great game because of its story and atmosphere, not for its mechanics.  It was a shooter with interesting ideas that wasn’t very fun to play. Bioshock Infinite makes damn sure that doesn’t happen a second time, refusing to let the story be a crutch for the gameplay to stand upon. Intense, engaging firefights play out in open sandbox environments, giving you a plethora of options for getting the job done. Skylines connect different parts of the city together, and you can use your Skyhook to maneuver through the environments, giving the enemy encounters a sense of verticality. The AI is smart and capable throughout Infinite. There’s a variety of different enemies, some of which may give you a run for your money later on. The enemies don’t just seem like cardboard cutouts in a game of peek-a-boo like most shooters; they will come at you and they will come at you hard. Luckily, if you die you’re immediately resurrected close by.

A variety of weapons: from pistols, to rifles, shotguns, and RPGs, allow you to experiment with a variety of combinations. Weapons have a nasty punch to them and can knock an enemy back a few feet, or even take their head clean off. Vigors, Infinite‘s version of Bioshock‘s Plasmids, add a layer on top of the fantastic shooting, giving you the ability to shoot lighting, lob flaming grenades, manipulate enemies to fight on your side, send out a murder of crows that peck away at enemies, and so on. Most Vigors also have a trap version of the attack that you can lay down around the environment and trigger when an enemy is near. Upgrades to these weapons and Vigors can be purchased at vending machines spread throughout the world. These upgrades impact the strength and functionality of weapons, and extend the power and duration of Vigors in ways that make you constantly feel more capable.

Everything continues to escalate throughout Bioshock Infinite. The stakes get higher, the combat gets harder, and the world around you begins to crumble. Good thing Elizabeth is by your side for most of the game, because you’ll most certainly need her. She has the power to rip through tears in the environment that lead to other worlds. Sometimes, she can open a tear that brings back a box of ammo, or a wall you can use for cover, or better yet a turret that will fight on your side. There’s no sense of escort to their relationship, and when stuck in a fight Elizabeth can handle herself just fine. In the middle of battle, Elizabeth can throw you ammo or healing items if you need them. The few times you don’t have Elizabeth nearby, you realize how important she really is in keeping you safe. It’s a good thing the enemy AI is sort of oblivious to her presence, even if it is a slight disconnect from the narrative.

There’s so much uniqueness to the world, and things are never what they immediately seem. No environments seem recycled and everything feels handcrafted and different from what came before. Around environments are optional audio logs you can pick up and treasures you can hunt for. Through the course of the game, the mood is set by the state of the world, which constantly changes and becomes more and more chaotic.

But it’s never not beautiful. I played Infinite on PC, which means this is probably the best case scenario, but Columbia is full of high-res propaganda art and uniquely detailed environments that match the emotions within the story. Character models, Elizabeth especially, are highly expressive and realistic in their emotions. The music (from licensed tracks to the original score) throughout the game is wonderfully authentic to the time period and a joy to hear.

Bioshock Infinite is one of those games I can’t help but think about hours after the credits have rolled. The story wraps up in a very clever and interesting way and it’s something that will probably stick with me for a long while. It’s safe to say this is one of my favorite games this generation — hell, it’s probably one of my favorite games period. It’s smart, engaging, difficult at times, and the story is filled with emotion. I can say nothing but good things about Bioshock Infinite, for it is as close to perfect as a game is likely to get.