Sometimes a gaming series has so much legacy and heritage woven into its very fabric, that changing direction seems impossible. After the public had gotten their hands on Bioshock 2 (while it was accepted as a good sequel by many) fans of the series seemed ready for a change of scene and Irrational Games apparently were already on the same page.
There are many interesting articles floating around the internet regarding the events which ultimately led to the end of Irrational as we knew it. One of the best I found was written by Polygon in which former employees shed some light on how the development of Infinite was shaped from an internal perspective: it's a fascinating but also sad read which you can find here. With the massive success of Bioshock behind them, it seems Ken Levine had earned plenty of favour with their publisher and so went into a creative overdrive. Many ambitious ideas were tested for the next Bioshock game and as early footage shows: Infinite went through many iterative cycles. Elizabeth was initially shown as a far more involved combatant whose powers were immense. However, in the final version, she is more of resource gatherer who can also call in various structures to help the player. It is clear that in the interest of getting the game over the finish line many of the original concepts had to be scrapped but in March 2013 the game released to the relief of many. So only three years on let us take to the skies for the final game in the Bioshock journey.
To the Sky
In Bioshock Infinite you take the role of Booker DeWitt, a private detective with a dark past who has been tasked with travelling to Columbia to find a girl. The game opens in a storm at sea and with you being ferried towards a lighthouse by two very odd people you will later know as the Lutece twins. Right from the off something doesn't feel right and as you enter the lighthouse you see a note 'Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt'. After finding a dead body who has clearly been tortured to death you end up atop the lighthouse where you find three bells, obviously. When you ring the three bells in the right order you are treated to a scene right out of Close Encounters with red lights beaming down from the dark clouds above. Booker ends up being presented with a red chair which on sitting down turns into a device that propels him skyward and into the unknown.
As you breach the clouds the city of Columbia unfolds below you and you are treated to one of the most breathtaking sights I've ever seen in a game. Huge monuments erupt from huge chunks of city which are casually floating miles above the earth like intricately designed helium balloons. As whatever thrust brought you here cuts out, you soon become aware that gravity is now acting upon your craft but you are soon reassured by the sound of a chute opening above you and the pod immediately slows to a gentle descent.
As you fall in a seemingly precise trajectory the city catches you from the air and you are lowered down into the depths of Columbia. It's clear you have landed in some kind of religious shrine dedicated to the Founder of the city and his late wife. Images of the self-proclaimed profit, Zachary Hale Comstock are everywhere around and it's immediately clear this guy loves to promote his own image. Warm sunlight emanating from the stain glass windows shimmering off the water covering the shrine floor and this leads you towards a congregation of followers. Here you are given an impromptu baptism by the priest who seems to be enjoying pushing your head under the water a little too much. You awake in nearby gardens and set off on your search for the girl that will indeed wipe away the debt.
What follows is by far one of the most beautiful, serene and captivating introductions to a game I've ever had the pleasure of playing. The city of Columbia opens up around you with impossibly large statues and buildings towering into the pastel blue sky. The sun is low and bathes the busy streets in hazy light, hummingbirds flitter around your head and there is a wonderful sense of peace here. The year is 1912 and this era of America has been painstakingly recreated but of course with the added layers of its own fantastic world. In one scene a floating barge rises adjacent to yours carrying a barber quartet that proceeds to serenade young couples out for a stroll in the prestige gardens. The attention to detail is phenomenal and certainly one of the highlights of the game.
Black and White
It very becomes clear that this recreation of America has also come with some of the ugliest sides of human nature and history: racism and elitism are rife in Columbia. Under the rule of Comstock, the city has become a pseudo-Christian utopia which despite a very high opinion of itself still mimics the very worst of the civilisation it sought to break from. As the games introduction draws to a close you come to a stage where a black man and white woman are heckled simply for being in a relationship. You are given the choice of throwing an object at the couple or the presenter: which of course is the start of the moral anchors we see in all Bioshock games. Regardless of your choice, the people see the mark of the 'false Shepard' on your hand 'AD' and the games combat starts in earnest.
As you move through the world of Columbia racism remains a strong theme throughout, posters will declare the need for racial purity, bars will state 'whites only' and even public toilets have been designated, Black/White. It is not only in Columbia itself that we see racism but also when we observe a themed history of Columbia the player is given a tour of the horrific events this floating metropolis has been involved in. As someone who doesn't have a racist bone in my body, I found these elements of Infinite profound, extremely sad and yet I applaud the developers for taking on such heavy subjects. It is unfortunate that the moralistic choices the player's makes don't change the outcome of the game like in previous games but this might have caused problems with the planned DLC. As the game progresses it is clear civil unrest has gripped the city with the underclasses now forming open revolt under the banner of the Vox Populi (voice of the people)
Sum of Parts
So in terms of setting it's clear Columbia and Rapture couldn't be more different but how does the game actually play? Well, some basic elements of previous Bioshock games remain, the Plasmids have now been named Vigors but the end effect is the same: you quaff them down to gain superhuman powers. Most of them have just been reworked and tweaked a little, such as the killer bees have now been replaced by killer crows. Fire and lightning powers have also come over and are pretty much the same bag as before. There are a few interesting new Vigors such as Bucking Bronco (knocks enemies into the air for a period of vulnerable weightlessness) or Undertow (which can wash enemies away or wrench them over to you with squid-like arms. You can also combine these effects for some pretty devastations results, such as Murder of Crows combined with Devils Kiss is awesome to watch. Booker can also pick up 'gears' which are essentially pieces of gear that grant various skills, these items occupy one slot and can be swapped out with others depending on the circumstances you find yourself in. There are also infusions to find around the gameworld and are usually given as a reward for searching through hidden areas, these add one point to either maximum health, shield or salt (Eve).
Conventional weapons also still play a part in combat and range from light pistols to sniper rifles and even the old RPG. As you progress weapons and Vigors can be upgraded as certain vending machines for cash which you pick up from the game world. For some bizarre reason in Infinite we can only carry two weapons at a time. This convention isn't unheard of in gaming but when in previous games we've been given a whole arsenal to carry this move for me felt like part of a wider dumbing down effect.
One new element that did survive the creative process was the Sky-Line, which is an elaborate rail system that connects the city and is used to transport heavy goods. Now it allows Booker to leap on (with a magnetised Sky-Hook) and ride the rails at high speed. This is fantastic fun and also helps Booker out manoeuvre enemies in combat situations, you can also knock people off the Sky-Line who are brave enough to give chase and you can even land on foes knocking them flying.
I have to say that despite all the pieces being present there is something definitely missing from the formula in regards to combat. It could be the fact we now play in a wide open space whereas down in Rapture we were boxed in. There also seems to be a lack of playfulness in this Bioshock. The first and second game I loved messing with devices, creating traps and having my own two little sentry turrets puttering along behind me. Indeed, it was this adaptive AI and clever use of systems that game the original game such a unique feel. Even more so in Bioshock 2, we had so many ways to 'play' with the enemies but much of these options now seem missing in Infinite. Right back when IrrationaI first started showing off the game there seemed to be a far deeper relationship between Booker and Elizabeth in combat, but to the dismay of many the final game seems rather light.
As always I do not wish to delve too far into the story as the secrets of Infinite are the magic beans that give this game it's incredible punching power. Fairly early in the game, you meet the girl you have been paid to find. Elizabeth is a young lass who has been imprisoned her entire life inside an elaborate tower. The amount of detail as well as some exquisite scenes pulls you forward and builds intrigue like nothing else. The meeting between Booker and Elizabeth is one of my favourite parts of the game and Irrational clearly spent a lot of time getting it just right. Elizabeth is larger than life and has so much personality it is difficult not to instantly like her: this is helped by some excellent voice acting by Courtnee Draper.
Acting as both guardian and custodian: Songbird is a huge mechanical beast that never leaves the tower unwatched. As Elizabeth breaks free from the tower her only friend now begins to hunt for her among the many floating islands of Columbia. There are some truly awesome scenes as Songbird opens building tops like cans of beans looking for her.
As with all other Bioshock outings, past events as well as the important/intimate thoughts of key characters are strewn across your path on Voxaphones. Like in previous games these snippets of dialogue fill in the blanks for the player and allow us to get a handle on the bigger picture. Most you cannot miss but some are very cleverly hidden which it why I would urge you to scour every area and make good use of Elizabeth's ability to pick locks/decipher secret codes.
For all the spit and polish this is my least favourite of all the Bioshock games because I feel like whatever that secret sauce was in the original - it is missing here. With a triumph like Bioshock under his belt Ken and his team wanted to create something even bigger that would improve on every aspect of what made the original so special. Looking in from the outside we will never really understand what this process was like or how events unfolded within the team at Irrational. We saw many small glimmers of something greater over the development cycle of Infinite and it is always bittersweet when these gems have to be lost for the greater good.
There is no denying Bioshock Infinite is an incredible game that hits so many highs in areas such as storytelling, world building and atmosphere. Many, (including myself) set out thinking we had a good bead on what this game was about, only to sent reeling by the twists and turns that Ken Levine does so well. Regardless of how the game plays the end sequence of Infinite is and will be one of the most talked about for years to come.
Of course, this is not where the story ends because after Infinite was released fans were also treated to two additional pieces of story content: Burial at Sea Part 1 and 2. In my next and final piece for the Bioshock collection please join me for what I consider to be essential content for anyone who has followed this story so far. Thank you for reading my retro review for Bioshock Infinite on PC. You can follow me on Twitter @riggedforepic to never miss a review or article.