I’ve been put to task, given the honor of posting my opinion piece on Bioshock Infinite, after finishing it. I have to be completely honest; when I saw the teaser trailer at E3 a few years back, I was a bit skeptical, to say the least. The visual style was awkward from what I’ve come to expect from a Bioshock game, and the polar opposite locale of choice had me eyeing the title warily. This was a few years ago, and eventually I had basically forgotten about it, until its release drew nearer and I saw the buzz it generated in press. The cynic in me initially scoffed at its rave reviews, because let’s be realistic here; how often do main reviewing industries lambaste triple-A titles, despite how sorely they deserve it? My scoff was almost audible when they sung glorious praises about the AI. Hah! Good AI? I’ve played the last 3 Resident Evils, I’ve played with co-op bots in shooters back to the N64 days, I’ve drudged through MMO escort quests, and these people claim this game has good AI? This I had to see.
When it comes to genres I hold near and dear (in which, survival horror ranks pretty highly), I can be pretty cruel with the expectations I hold for sequels. I spent a good three hours playing Resident Evil 4 before the sheer fun of gameplay broke through the bitter betrayal I felt at the abandonment in style. Don’t even get me started on Silent Hill 4 and beyond. I’m thinking it was partially because Bioshock 2 was pretty watered down (ba dum tshhh), but I didn’t hold the bar very high for Infinite. And I have to tell you, I should do that more often.
With Resident Evil’s current identity crisis, Diablo 3 not knowing what the hell kind of game it wants to be, and “Jesus Christ Kingdom Hearts what in the actual Hell?”, I’m ready to take an IP that tries to reinvent itself and switch genres out back and give it the Old Yeller treatment. So, when we sat down and fired up Bioshock Infinite, my expectation sat at about Little-Sister-shin-high level. And, for the first time in a long while, I was pleasantly surprised; extremely so.
To all the purists out there; just don’t go into the game expecting a survival horror-esque game. The gameplay is virtually unchanged from its predecessors, but the environment couldn’t be farther from its roots. The character models are highly stylized and cartoony, and that adds to one thing this game has oozing from every virtual pore; charm. The game takes place in 1912, and the old-timey unabashed racism is apparent, but not offensively so. I can’t imagine the amount of tip-toeing you have to do to keep with the industrious, workaholic atmosphere central to the game, in peak slavery time, without offending someone along the line. I feel that the matter was handled rather tastefully; incorporated but not exploited.
If you’ve played the first two Bioshock titles, you will be at home with the control layout for the third, right down to creatively combining Plasmids…I mean Vigors, for enhanced effects and maximum hilarity. I almost kick myself for not thinking to try the following example while we were playing; you have a spell called Murder of Crows, which attacks nearby enemies with a flock of crows. It deals mild damage, but incapacitates them. Apparently, you can then shock the everloving bejeezus out of the birds (and the pecked enemies as well), which is, itself, almost worth re-firing up the game. I’m fairly certain you can set them on fire as well. Environmental hazards are as prevalent as ever, although I can’t personally attest to their potency; I was too busy headshotting everything in the free country with a sniper rifle, you see. The recent addition of Skylines serving as a sort of fully-controllable railgun shooting sequence was a neat little twist, even if navigating to your objective on them can be a little confusing. There were even a handful of customizations to make it more effective, which I dabbled in toward the end of the game. Again, it’s tough to say; an exploding head probably would have exploded at 30% less damage either way, but DAMAGE.
Speaking of customization, I’m sort of on the fence when it comes to the gear. You have four slots for equipment (Hat, Shirt, Shoes, and Pants), and there is certainly no shortage of options. They seem highly situational, with a small handful being all-around-awesome (we settled on the hat which made us temporarily invincible when we stuffed our fat face, and a piece of gear that granted ammunition upon a kill 40% of the time). I was disappointed that we didn’t come across a set of gear that turned us into the wrench-wielding terror of the depths you could become in the first one. Sure, there were some enhancements for melee, but nothing remotely close to the melee focus (and even the drill focus of Bioshock 2) that you could choose in the past. However, on default difficulty, switching gear on the fly was hardly mandatory but nearly always fun. I mean, what isn’t fun about dropping from the Skyline like a bat out of Hell, complete with an exploding ring of fire?
To round out my opinion on the gameplay, we get to the AI. The game’s objective is to escort a young lady from her ivory tower, initially to an unnamed third party. This girl, Elizabeth, accompanies you throughout the city, Columbia, while an army chases you down to retrieve her. The claims about her spectacular AI aren’t entirely fair, because she cannot be targeted or damaged by enemy attacks. Which is fine, hell, it’s even awesome, but it really makes for an unfair comparison drawn to -real- AI companions, a la Sheva, Ashley, et cetera. What I believe a lot of people rave about, is that she’s smart about the in-combat assistance she grants. When you are low on health, she tosses you health. When you’re on your last clip of ammo, she’ll lob some your way. She even refills your Salts (the game’s resource for using your Vigors). Of course, there’s an internal timer on all of these items; it seems health replenishment being the longest, followed by Salts a little more frequently, and ammo the most frequent. She was a tremendous help in the tougher battles, certainly, but when she is essentially not in combat, I can’t rate her compared to combat AI of other games. I can tell you that she never, ever let me run out of sniper rifle rounds, and she’s gold in my book for that. There were times where I’d be a bird sneeze from death and she would toss me ammo, causing me to give her the “WTF?!” treatment as a Handyman practiced percussion on my fleshy bits, but she’s at the mercy of her cooldowns. All in all, her assistance was a great help, and the large-scale battles were scaled accordingly. I just have a hard time attributing that to spectacular AI when she literally only has three things to manage, with respective cooldowns. Four, if you count using her tears, but those are 100% player controlled. Now, if she had to duck enemy fire, return fire while toggling multiple tears on her own and still keep me topped on the three resources, a) THAT would be extremely smart combat AI, and b) she pretty much wouldn’t need the player anymore. Before getting into the aforementioned tear ability, I want to talk two more minor gameplay points. First, the Handyman are Infinite’s answer to the Big Daddy/Big Sister. I wish I could say more about them, but the fact is you only encounter 4-5 throughout the course of the game. By the time I had ironed out a strategy to try to kill them with minimal damage and ammo expenditure, we had fought the last one! Considering the shoes they had to fill, in my opinion they were unremarkable and disappointingly unrewarding to kill. There’ll be no wallet filling from this games’ tanks. Secondly, there is a very brief Rapture visit, and I honestly think I’d rather it not have happened. It was entirely inconsequential, served the plot in no meaningful way, and was just shoehorned in for the sake of self-referencing. No Splicers, no Big Daddy, no Andrew Ryan, nothing but the city under the sea, then you leave. A whopping thirty seconds.
Okay, on to Elizabeth’s tearing, which is a huge point of the plot, making it a good segue from gameplay to story. You find out early that Elizabeth has an ability to open ‘tears’ to alternate realities, and pull things from that world to your own. This helps in combat in various ways; summoning reinforcements, supplies, or cover. Both her and Booker (the player character) also have the option of traversing these tears, bringing themselves to the alternate reality. Without spoiling too much, this naturally has consequences of varying degrees, and allows the what-ifs to run rampant through your mind as key characters alternate between the worlds. Players more astute than I have drawn very elaborate plot analyses, attempting to wrap up the goings-on within the laws of the games’ rules, which are easily missed if you let yourself get swept away in the fast-paced fun. If you intend on playing the game, I would advise you to stay away from these posts until you’ve completed the game itself; I would have hated to have the ending spoiled. Without spoiling it myself, I will say that the more we thought of the little details leading to it, the more sense it made, bit by bit.
And the best, in my opinion, has been saved for last, and that is the atmosphere. Nearly everything about this game is just so damned endearing; from Daisy Fitzroy’s appropriate accent, to the old-town brainwashing video strips, right down to Mr. Fink’s outrageous mustache and top hat. The PA loudspeaker is ever-present, enforcing the dogma of a hard day’s work, accepting your societal role, likening joblessness to anarchy. Despite being perpetually aloft, the cloud city of Columbia has a very gritty, salt-of-the earth working class. So relatable, in fact, you could find yourself siding with a radical group of revolutionaries working to liberate the city from the antagonist’s rule. Booker and Elizabeth find themselves embroiled in the city-wide conflict as they race for Elizabeth’s freedom, catching glimpses of the grander scheme of things through the occasional tear.
As is quickly becoming the custom (for better or worse), the characters truly become fleshed out via discoverable audio logs, or in this case voxophones. It is through a handful of these late-game that threads start to connect to one another, while a good deal of them offer a bit of humor. Either way, they are more often than not a pleasant aside, and absolutely worthy of being sought out and listened to. A good deal of the characters’, uhh…character, is revealed in their ramblings, and in the case of the more shadier folks, it offers primary insight as to what they’re after.
I’ll wrap this up by hitting on two of the final aspects of atmosphere I feel were knocked out of the park by Irrational Games; character models and voice acting. As I initially stated, the jump to a more animated style had me skeptical, but after shooting the breeze with a few of Columbia’s residents, they grew on me. The style reminded me of Fable, of all things, which attributed to the overall charm of the game. After spending some time experiencing the best and worst of Columbia, I can’t imagine it being any better with the gritty, somber, realistic cast of the previous installments. Elizabeth, in particular, looks like she was torn right out of Disney World. She is, without a doubt, the most expressive model in the entire game. It’s very easy to read her expressions, her sarcasm is painted all over her face, her “Are you f***ing kidding me” looks are among my favorite memories of the game.
This is, of course, backed up by the voice acting of the game. The main characters’ voice acting was more than just bearable, it was enjoyable. The runner up for my gaming genre of choice would be RPGs, and as such I’m accustomed to hearing the worst voice acting in the business. Hearing a main character who reads off his lines with a sense of being and naturality, and not as if he were a member of the Borg collective, was great. Elizabeth’s voice acting was similarly pleasant. Her skepticism and sarcasm were evident in her tone and accompanying expression, and that’s something you don’t see nearly enough in games these days. And I -loved- the brother and sister twins’ bickering and bantering. Their tone was bone-dry and was absolutely perfect for the character type they represented, easily one of the more effective comic relief characters I’ve seen recently.
There you have it, the record of my journey through Columbia. If you’re a long time series fan, do your best to keep an open mind going into Infinite. It may not be as eerie and dismal as Rapture, but let Irrational prove to you that they’re not a one-trick-pony and can capture vibrant, charming and grandiose just as well. With a colorful cast of actual characters and not simple archetypes, you won’t be disappointed. It easily trumps Bioshock 2, and I’d go so far as to say it rivals the first, even though I love them each for different reasons. If you’re not a Bioshock veteran, worry not; there is little to no continuity between this and the first two titles, you will not be left in the dark. On the contrary, you’ll be left in the big, huge, bright, metal bird-laden sky.