Ever since I started reviewing for The Tech, I’ve found myself liking new game releases less and less. And this change has made me wonder: does reviewing a game as you play it lessen the experience? Or am I growing into a person who doesn’t like video games? Or is it neither, and today’s games are just not as exciting and fun as games of old were? I stayed up at night, searching for my gamer soul, hoping that Far Cry 3 was indeed boring and I wasn’t evolving into some ghastly sort of — shudder — non-gamer.
Hallelujah, then, for Irrational Games and their newest work, Bioshock Infinite (BI). A sequel to 2007 Bioshock’s philosophy-filled romp, BI is on the level of a religious experience for the modern gamer. It’s an opportunity to be baptized, to be born again into the gamer flock, to re-affirm your faith as you battle to escape the steampunk sky city of Columbia. Some minor flaws exist to remind us all that the game was made in Quincy, MA, not descended from on high in a flaming chariot, but BI remains a game that sets a new standard for what players should demand from AAA studios. It’s probably 2013’s game of the year, will be remembered years from now when we look back on the best games of the 2010’s, and is easily worth the $60 asking price.
What makes BI amazing is its storytelling. It flies through the usual checklist of narrative elements with ease: voice acting par excellence, an intriguing and complex plot, great atmosphere and pacing, superb dialogue, etc. etc., but what sets BI apart from the hoi polloi is the way it engages you with its characters. It is hard to make a gamer feel like they’re actually the protagonist of the game, particularly when that protagonist isn’t silent (see the aforementioned Far Cry 3 for a premiere example of a completely unrelatable main character). But Booker DeWitt, the man of the hour, does everything right. Every line he says and action he takes is what I want him to say and do, and not because the game is full of player-made choices, but because Irrational Games have masterfully set me up to think and feel and act the way they’ve written the main character to act. Similarly, it’s rare to fall in love with game characters, but it took me all of thirty seconds to fall in love with Elizabeth, the woman Booker is sent to Columbia to retrieve. BI highlights how video games can go beyond what other media, like cinema, are capable of, a feat that I cannot remember ever seeing in all my years as a gamer.
Admittedly, beyond Booker and Elizabeth, there are really only two other characters in the game that merit praise. Everyone else feels like some stock character drawn from a folder of tropes, is paper-thin and instantly forgettable. But I can’t help but wonder if the one-dimensional nature of everyone else in the game is by design. They’re meant to blend into the scenery — not just because doing so focuses the player’s attention more on Booker and Elizabeth, but because it also reinforces the theme of the plot.
Beyond storytelling, BI still hands in a respectable performance. The graphics are quite good, particularly when it comes to Elizabeth’s facial expressions and Columbia’s sweeping sky city vistas. The controls handle as well as any other first person shooter, though they do suffer from the Fallout/Elder Scrolls fiddliness when trying to pick up small objects. I didn’t notice any bugs besides the occasional teleport by Elizabeth when her pathfinding screwed up. And the game is a decent length — I took 14 hours to beat it on the hardest difficulty.
The largest flaws on the diamond appear in the combat and gameplay. BI introduces all sorts of exciting moves and abilities, from flying around on zip-lines and dropping on people, to a collection of super powers, to a wide array of firearms. It has an interesting little gear and upgrade system, where you can build Booker according to your playstyle. But BI never really forces you to use all of the fun stuff it lays out. The game is simply not challenging enough, even in the “1999 Mode” that was touted to be a return to Nintendo-hard retrogaming. Once you find a combo of powers, guns, and gear that works, you can ignore all of the clever level design and just spam your chosen combo to grind your way through a fight. All the pieces were there: if Irrational Games had had the courage to force players out of comfortable playstyles and make the game hard enough such that each fight required planning and adaptation, BI would not just be a great story, but a stellar action game as well.
Mechanically, BI makes some improvements over the original Bioshock, mainly by subtracting the boring parts (like the original’s tedious mini-games). Unfortunately, it doesn’t subtract enough — one of the worst mechanics of BI is having to comb over every room and search through every wastebin and filing cabinet for loot. Worse yet, you can’t skip the looting, not if you want to unearth every little nugget of story that the writers seemed bent on hiding in Columbia’s back alleys and pantries. Even the fun mechanics brought in from Bioshock, like the powers system, feel out of place. In the original Bioshock, the players’ powers were a major part of the storyline — they were the reason the city of Rapture had descended into chaos. In Columbia, we’re asked to pretend that handing out superpowers to every Tom, Dick, and Harry has had no ill effects whatsoever. There’s no attempt at squaring the circle – what was critical in the first Bioshock is inexplicably mundane in BI.
Bioshock Infinite is not a perfect game, but even where it falters, it comes out better than average, and its minor stumblings are forgivable when it achieves so much. This is a game that truly realizes the potential of video games as a medium, and embarrasses those game reviewing sites that routinely assign perfect scores to lesser works. Buy this game the moment you have the time to play it.