I don’t envy whoever has to name a sequel
Bioshock Infinite is going to be up against GTA V as the final swansong (or birdsong) for this generation. It takes ideas and knowledge from the last decade or so of game design and refines it into something that is near perfect in every area. Whereas Rockstar will no doubt have something impressive for us, they’ve always been keen to do their own thing, whereas Ken Levine has clearly taken inspiration from the best examples of not just videogaming, but architecture, music and cinema, and then distilled it into this wonderful game. I’ll be careful not to spoil anything at all in this review, so plot details will be scarce, it really is important you go into this game as blind as possible.
Infinite is not really a sequel to the first two Bioshock games, but thematically it shares a lot of similar ideas. You’re exploring a would-be utopia with an eccentric leader, and unlike in Rapture where you were introduced to the after effects of Plasmid abuse and societal unrest from the beginning, in Columbia you get to see the decline first hand, meaning that you are witness to the world in all its glory before it all comes tumbling down.
I get the impression that Levine would like to go back and re-do Bioshock if he had the chance. It was a fantastic game, but Rapture felt lifeless and often sterile towards the end, and I spent much of the first two games wishing we could see the world in it’s ‘before’ state. With Columbia this is one of the best sections of the game, getting to explore (at length) Columbia’s streets in a linear but broad path, with simple interactions with residents and some other diversionary activities. It doesn’t drag out at all and if anything I wish it could have carried on for longer, it’s so absorbing and beautiful.
The whole game looks incredible, with a unique art style that you will have seen on promotional material, and the strongest use I’ve seen of Unreal Engine 3, even avoiding much of the texture pop-in that plagues other games (we were testing it on PC with high and mid to low spec machines, so your mileage may vary on consoles). Light is used particularly effectively in every single indoor environment, with different buildings having their own colour scheme and a heavy use of dust effects adding some texture to the game world.Some of the vistas and sights are breathtaking, and while NPCs all seem to share a pool of about six faces, animation is top notch, particularly in your companion.
I’ve seen Elizabeth compared to Alyx Vance from Half Life 2, and I would go so far as to add Clementine from The Walking Dead to that. She is an incredibly useful companion who requires no babysitting in combat (a fact the game points out to you so you don’t think it’s going to be one long Natalya-esque escort mission) and she responds to nearly everything. If you’re just wandering about, so will she, somewhat independently. If you do something, she’ll often comment. Like with Clem in TWD, I found myself changing my behaviour so as not to upset her. You can perform gruesome executions on enemies using your melee attack, and Elizabeth expresses her repulsion with an ‘ugh’ if she sees you, this made me feel bad and I avoided it wherever possible. This shows I had become emotionally invested in the game world and the characters, a feat few videogames manage to achieve. Her animation is stunning and the only oddity is that she exhibits the same behaviour as Watson in that creepy Sherlock Holmes game video. To avoid pathing problems where she could get stuck and would need to catch up to you, she teleports if she’s out of sight. So often I’d dive over a balcony to get to an exit quicker, and when I hit the floor she’d be standing right next to me, a long way from where she was a second ago. It’s amusing more than anything, and definitely not enough to be immersion-breaking.
Combat is much more exciting than in previous titles in the series. The new plasmids (called Vigors) are less unique or original and many just rehash what we saw in previous games, but as the places in which you are fighting are so much more open and you have a variety of ways to approach each fight, it doesn’t get dull. The controls are fantastic and despite early videos of the skylines putting me off, in game it’s easy as anything to swoop up on a line towards an enemy, land on them, knocking them to their deaths, turning and sending a flock of crows to distract a sniper, and then reloading your gatling gun to finish off a larger foe. None of the vigors seem overpowered, with each being useful in many given situations, but the same can’t really be said for the weapons. You’re restricted to two weapons at a time, and the carbine seems to be so much more effective (thanks to the power of headshots and other important hit locations on enemies) that it’s almost not worth bothering with some of the guns you find later in the game.
The game took me around ten hours to complete, and although I strived to find every collectable, I had no such luck and ended the game with something like 50/80 of the sound recordings found. If anything the campaign felt a little short, and without any multiplayer mode this could be a slight point of contention, but it’s really just a side effect of how good the game is, when you don’t want it to end.
Sadly there are some small flaws with the game. The repeated faces, as mentioned previously, do spoil the crowded scenes a little bit, and these crowded scenes are spaced out in an unusual way. You go from heavily populated peaceful area to warzones within a minute or two, and then back again without people so much as blinking an eye. When the fighting starts, generally the streets are completely empty, and this is jarring. The game doesn’t shy away from violence on innocents as occasionally there will be some civilians in the firing line, and I’m guessing it’s more of a limit of the engine that struggles to process too many characters on screen at once.
There’s also some issues with pacing. The opening two hours of the game are fantastic, as are the final two, everything in between is wildly inconsistent. There’s some amazing places to explore and some wonderful characters, but then there’s an equal amount of less impressive content that doesn’t really stand up. There are long sections where you fight room after room of similar enemies, completing tasks that are of little to no consequence. Usually there’s some voice recordings in these sections to make it more interesting, but at times it does begin to drag a little.
The ending though, is superb and although I’ll happily admit I didn’t understand it all at first, after doing some reading on forums I’m really happy with the way things happened. Often game endings are difficult to pull off as you need a payoff for ten hours of time investment, rather than the two you need at the end of a film, but Bioshock Infinite achieves it and more.
I can’t recommend this game strongly enough, despite a couple of small faults, it’s easily one of the best games of the last year, right up there against Journey and The Walking Dead.