Will the Circle be Unbroken: Trey’s Review of BioShock Infinite

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When BioShock came out in late 2007, it was an instant commercial and critical success, and raised the bar exponentially for story-driven FPS. Its influence can still be felt, with the most recent example of its progeny probably being the excellent Dishonored.  The game had a few shortcomings, of course, as anything made by humans tends to. Even the mighty Ken Levine felt compelled to include an unfortunate “final boss,” a fight which culminated in what may be the single most anti-climatic ending of modern gaming. But taken as a whole, BioShock was a singular and arresting masterpiece.

Business being what it is, publisher 2K immediately wanted to get rolling on a sequel, something which Levine and the team at Irrational Games agreed with… at first. Issues arose when 2K wanted to rush the studio’s (admittedly lengthy) standard development process, and were further compounded when it was determined the game “needed” a multiplayer component. Irrational departed the project to work on a “true” successor, and BioShock 2 was released to middling scores; arguably the game’s most interesting feature was the laundry-list of development teams featured in the opening credits.

Fast-forward to August of 2010, when Irrational used the tease of “Project Icarus” as the lead-in to Infinite’s reveal trailer. Eager players got our first look at Columbia, an almost complete inverse of Rapture: A city among the clouds, founded on the principles of American exceptionalism, racial purity, and religious fervor. We were also introduced to the game’s central plot: You were trying to rescue a young woman with special abilities from this city, with things apparently bigger and badder than even Big Daddies trying to stop you. Unfortunately, the initial release date of “October 012” eventually became March 26, 2013 owing to Irrational’s aforementioned penchant for taking their (sweet-ass) time.

Alright, I promise the history lesson is done, and apologize to anyone who was already well-aware of that information. I chose to include it, however, to make a point: Very few games have ever had this much hype to try and live up to. Hell, just go give my “Five Reasons” article another glance and you’ll understand just what this game had to leave up to for my expectations, alone. I want to establish these things so that when I tell you the final product met and exceeded my desires in almost ever area, you get a feel for just how good this game must be.

The opening lighthouse-centric portion of this game is, if anything, even more mysterious than the plane crash that launched BioShock. You’re Booker DeWitt, a former Pinkerton agent turned private eye / “independent contractor” who is being sent… somewhere in order to retrieve a young woman named Elizabeth. The game doesn’t give you much to go on, except that Booker has fallen in with some bad sorts, and he needs to “bring them the girl to wipe away the debt.”

I won’t spoil your initial arrival in Columbia, but I will say that Infinite begins at a much more easy-going pace than its predecessor. Depending on how much time you spend looking around, there’s almost an hour worth of simply wandering around Columbia; you can listen to a barbershop quartet, watch fireworks, and play games at a carnival. (Appreciably, the carnival games are actually tutorials on some the weapons and abilities.) You’re slowly making your way toward “Monument Island,” a giant statue of a winged girl where Elizabeth is being held. Everything is going well until someone notices the letters “A.D.” scarring the back of your hand.

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You see, Columbia is ruled over by Zachary Comstock, also known to the residents as “The Prophet.” Comstock claims he was given a vision from an angel, and Columbia was the result. Apparently Elizabeth is his daughter, born under miraculous circumstances to his now-deceased wife, who was supposedly murdered by the “Vox Populi” labor rebellion. Elizabeth is now known as the “Lamb of Columbia,” though the Prophet has seen that a “false shepherd” will try and lead her astray.

A false shepherd who happens to have the mark of “A.D.” on the back of his hand.

From there, the idyllic sight-seeing turn into a full-fledged fight for survival, as the Prophet employs ever-increasing measures to try and stop you. Your first two acquisitions are a sky-hook and an ability-enhancing “vigor” (plasmids from the first game) that allows you to posses enemies. The sky-hook serves as both your melee weapon and gives you the ability to use freight hooks and sky-rails to move about the environment. As such, the player understands from these very first fights that combat in Infinite is about mobility, using your environment, and creating ways to keep focus off Booker when possible.

It’s here that I want to avoid talking too much more about the story, except to say that Booker does eventually reach Elizabeth, and from there they get swept up into the larger conflicts of the city. There’s the aforementioned Comstock and his other “Founders” Cornelius Slate and Jeremiah Fink, who are the heads of the city’s security forces and manufacturing, respectively; Daisy Fitzroy, the former servant and Vox leader accused of killing Lady Comstock; Robert and Rosalind Lutece, a pair of twins who appear to be involved in Booker’s mission and have connections to Comstock; and finally, the Songbird, the mechanical being assigned the task of both caring for Elizabeth and keeping her under confinement.

Elizabeth is probably the main reason I looked forward to each play session. It is evident from the first time Booker sees her – under circumstances where she can’t see him – that we are intended to love her, though not necessarily in a romantic or sexualized way. Her captivity has made her both naïve and world-weary. The first thing she does upon escape is to join a group of people dancing on a pier, and it seems she could do that indefinitely and still be happy; at the same time, her desire to escape has made her an expert in lock-picking and cryptology.

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While held captive physically, she has been afforded every opportunity when it comes to education: We see her painting, dancing, and singing; she seems to be exceptionally well-versed in the arts and the sciences; there is reason to believe she is multi-lingual; and even though she can’t leave her tower, she can see outside and beyond it through her use of “tears.” In a nutshell, tears are windows into other points in time and space, such as Paris in 1983, or a Kansas farm in the middle of a tornado. This ability has been studied and exploited over the years; for instance, Fink uses it to discover new items for his factory and has his brother produce songs based on music he hears through the tears.

Comstock has been using a device to limit these powers, but once freed of her tower, Elizabeth slowly grows stronger in ways that become exceptionally useful. Initially, she is able to bring small changes in from other versions of Columbia, such as a box of med kits or an automated gun turret. Balancing which tear to have opened during combat becomes a huge focus at this point, and is one of the most refreshing things about the game. Elizabeth herself doesn’t participate in facts, but also doesn’t have to be “escorted” through them; she does, however, keep an eye on your health, salts (used for vigors), ammo and cash. If any of these take a big hit, she will try her best to provide you with more so you can keep going.

As the story progresses, her use of tears gradually advances to where she – and you, by proxy – can sometimes move between different versions of Columbia. This is every bit as potentially disastrous as it sounds, especially considering that the tears are what Elizabeth refers to as “some sort of wish fulfillment.” Thus, when in high states of emotion, she opens tears to realities that reflect that. For instance, after something truly horrific happens to someone connected to the Vox, she states she wants “a real revolution, just like in Les Mis.” She opens a tear to a Columbia where the Vox have been much more successful and better-equipped, but are also exceedingly more violent. In these rare moments, you feel a slight understanding for her containment; it might not be a good idea to let an impressionable teenager freely make use of her ability to reshape existence.

Of course, Booker wouldn’t be necessary if Elizabeth could do everything on her own, and brings his own skills to the table. A veteran soldier, he is easily able to utilize the various weapons used by both sides of the conflict: Pistols, machines guns, rifles, and even the occasional explosive are all at your disposal. These can also be upgraded the same way the guns in the first game could be, although there are a few notable differences. This time around, you can only have two weapons equipped at a time, forcing you to think about what’s best in a given situation; ammo is more plentiful, but that’s because the tone has shifted to a more-action oriented approach; and alas, this abundance of ammo comes at the removal of the different types of ammo available in BioShock.

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Your other primary means of attack are vigors, of which there are eight scattered throughout the game. These range from familiar fire and shock attacks, to new abilities like launching enemies up into the air, to the powerful – but draining – ability to possess enemies. All vigors have a built in secondary / trap version, and can again be upgraded at vending machines. The final piece in the combat puzzle is the inclusion of gear: Booker has a slot for a hat, shirt, pants, and shoes. Scattered throughout the game, these articles range from making your clips bigger to giving your melee attack an elemental charge. I found that I kept the same few pieces equipped for the early parts of the game, but the later battles almost require you to suit up for specific circumstances.

Though Infinite does feature some corridor-based brawling, most of the excitement takes place in the open areas around Columbia’s buildings. These arenas are usually feature at least two vertical levels, and find you riding sky-rails between sections that may not even be physically connected. I already mentioned how managing which tear you have opened is vital, and this only becomes more prominent as the battlefields get bigger. I will freely admit that I tried several times to get through a fight – including the game’s final, unbelievably frenetic setpiece – by holing up next to an ammo spawn or automated turret, only to find myself cornered.

The game is designed to keep you moving, and certain design features highlight that: Booker can move freely on /off or between sky-rails without taking fall damage, no matter how far the jump; special, devastating attacks can be performed against enemies on the ground and on the rails with you; tears to health and ammo crates that seem randomly placed on the ground suddenly make perfect sense when seen from the perspective of the rails. The dynamic nature of these fights puts me best in mind of the large exteriors of Halo: Combat Evolved in terms of how three-dimensionally the fights require you to think.

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The only real complaints I have come from what seem like holes (or tears, if you’d like) in the world-crafting. Plasmids made sense in Rapture and alongside ADAM / EVE added key elements to the story of the city’s fall. But within the racial-purity-driven halls of Columbia, Gatorade bottles full of demigod powers seem a little out-of-place. I also found absolutely no explanation of “salts” and how they fuel vigors, whether they are natural or synthetic, etc. Admittedly, there are several of the excellent audio and video logs that I didn’t find, so it’s possible one of them addresses salts.

My good friend Erich Wildgrube (JS Wolfwood from the “Blackout” blog days) has an interesting theory that some game elements support: Originally, vigors were going to be limited in use based on finding bottled versions scattered through the game. This is still evident in an early area where a vending machine is selling a four-pack of the “Bucking Bronco” vigor. The price tag is well beyond any amount you could have amassed so far, so most people assumed it was a simple nod to a former iteration of the game.

As you progress through the game, however, you come across numerous areas – especially in Fink’s factories – where there are busted-open crates filled with bottles of a certain vigor. When Booker picks these up, all they do is provide a refill of salts, but the existence of these crates seems to indicate the need for large quantities of particular vigors.

We also only ever see two enemy types using vigors: the “firemen” who attack with Devil’s Kiss, and the “reapers” who use a variation of Murder of Crows. In many ways, their use of the vigors seems to have altered their very nature, much like the way plasmids altered the splicers of Rapture. Think about the terrible things that happen to Booker’s hands each time he picks up a new one; perhaps prolonged exposure could lead to permanent damage for the citizens of Columbia.

Is it possible, then, that Booker’s ability to absorb vigors for repeated use is tied to some of the more… interesting aspects concerning his presence in Columbia? It would explain why vigors weren’t seen as too big a threat to the Founders’ rule; the supply would have been carefully controlled, and the presumably horrific results of overuse are a deterrent in their own right.  I’ve come around to this way of thinking, although it still doesn’t give a reason for why there would also be bottles of salts lying around and available for purchase in vending machines.

The game also seems unsure about what exactly to do with tears, both from a story perspective and as a gameplay mechanic. Certain combat zones are rife with little doorways to all sorts of goodies, while others within the same area of the city have none at all to utilize. The same is true of big, reality-shifting gateways; there’s a section where you pass through several over them over the course of about 90 minutes, but then they don’t really become prominent again until the very end of the game.

I’ve already mentioned that I understand how Comstock would feel the need to limit Elizabeth’s powers, and I can also understand it from a developer standpoint. Too much messing about with alternate reality tears would make the story more convoluted than it already (slightly) is, and too many combat-enhancing tears would make them less exciting and eliminate much of the challenge. Still, it feels like the game presents us with only half an explanation regarding when they can and can’t be utilized, which only serves to highlight the questions that remain unanswered.

All of these things didn’t really come to mind until after I had finished the game, though, and begun discussing it with other players. While I was in the thick of it, leaping from skylines to airships, launching my enemies into the air and then summoning a mechanical George Washington to pick them off, all I felt was raw elation. When the game took Elizabeth from me, I was angry; when she ran away because of things I had done, I was heartbroken. I was never compelled by thoughts of “the end,” but rather by a desire to spend more time with these two.

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And as the credits rolled, after an ending that was simultaneously a mind-frak and exactly what the game had been leading you toward, I felt resolution coupled with a profound sense of loss. I feel no shame in admitting that I eventually loved Booker every bit as much as Elizabeth and saying goodbye to them will stay with me for a long time to come.

[amazon_link id=”B003O6EB70″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]I played BioShock Infinite on the Xbox 360. It is also available on PS3 and PC.[/amazon_link]


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2 responses to “Will the Circle be Unbroken: Trey’s Review of BioShock Infinite”

  1. […] it is! I’m sure anyone who even perused my gratuitously loving review of Infinite is wondering why it’s not at the top of this list. I have an answer for you: It […]

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