Bioshock Infinite Review
Bioshock Infinite isn’t worth the 10/10 scores that it’s received. It just isn’t. There are several flaws, from pacing issues in the first half to a lack of certain characters whose presence was heavily advertised, that prevent it from being the perfect game that a perfect review score would imply. Beyond these and a few other gripes, however, is a solid 8-9/10 shooter—and this is a shooter, offering no options for stealth or anything else that would keep it from being anything but—that will invite you in with its prettiness, bore you a little toward the beginning, begin to redeem itself with incredible action sequences, then ensnare you in its narrative web until you’ve relented. You’ll find that you love this game by the time you reach its insane conclusion, because there’s just too much to love about Infinite to hold its flaws against it.
Nonetheless, some of those flaws will be dealbreakers for some, so I’m going to cover them first before I get into the game’s virtues. The single biggest flaw of Bioshock Infinite would undoubtedly be its save system, an awkward mess of checkpoints that aren’t always logically placed. This would usually be tolerable enough, but the game alternates between “exploration” sections (where you’re rummaging for items and eavesdropping for back story) and combat, with the autosave always coming before the former. What this means is that if you accidentally steal something or walk somewhere where you’re not allowed, NPCs will attack you, forcing you to either kill them and forgo whatever interesting dialogue they may have or reload. If you’re the completionist type and opt for reloading, the poorly-placed autosave locations will almost assuredly force you to redo several minutes of tedious item scrounging. There’s absolutely no excuse for a game in 2013 to have such an archaic save system.
Then there’s the pacing. I’m going to be very clear about this—after Elizabeth joins you (more on her later), the pacing in the first third of the game becomes a bit of a mess. There’s a lot of pretty scenery at first, but you’re soon wandering around, doing what amounts to busy work for people who don’t get enough back story, with the most notable being Daisy Fitzpatrick. Her story is filled in mostly through little audio collectible recordings called voxophones that people leave lying around, and she’s woefully underdeveloped outside of what they have to offer. Because of this, the plot gets going really slowly before it hits the game’s mid-point, at which point things kick into high gear and become absolutely insane. That’s not to say that the first half of the game is bad by any stretch, mind you, but the story seems too stretched out, which then forces things to be a bit too condensed in the second half (leading to some “information dump” moments toward the end of the game). I would have much preferred a steadier pace, especially since the plot-heavy second half of the game means that characters like Songbird barely get any screen time. You may remember Songbird from trailers and teasers; it’s that mechanical bird creature designed to keep Elizabeth from escaping and with which she has a complex, interdependent relationship. It was made to sound like it was heavily intertwined with the story. Instead, it only makes a few brief appearances, mostly in cutscenes, with their relationship barely touched on at all. I can’t help but think that a good portion of the busywork in the first half of the game could be cut out and replaced with something that better fleshes out Songbird and/or Daisy.
Not every character needs more back story, however. Many of the characters who are integral to the overarching plot are fleshed out so completely that you can’t help but love and hate them as though they were real people. Most notable of all is your companion Elizabeth, the character on which the entire story rests. Taking her away from the floating city of Columbia is the job that sends you there in the first place, and as the story progresses, she becomes more and more interesting and developed as a character. A lot of this has to do with the fact that she plays an Alyx Vance (of Half Life 2 fame) type of role, commenting on the world in order to help it come alive. Unlike Alyx, however, Elizabeth plays such a crucial role in the story that you can’t help but feel as though the two of you are piecing together a mystery as you go along. This makes traveling with her incredibly fulfilling, especially since she takes care of herself (and sometimes you) in combat and keeps the game from ever feeling like an escort mission. Even better is how she changes over the course of the story; her transformation from sheltered naiveté to a more grounded view of the world is a particularly stunning aspect of Infinite, and this transformation is so nuanced and subtle that you won’t even notice how much she’s changed until you replay early sections of the game again. Her character’s contribution to the game’s overall excellence simply can’t be overstated.
Bioshock Infinite’s setting is the flying city Columbia in the early 1900s, and this means that there’s racism. If the topic makes you squeamish and uncomfortable, then the good news is that this becomes less pronounced and more bearable later on in the game. Even if it’s the kind of thing that makes you so uncomfortable that you consider avoiding this game altogether, however, you have to respect a game actually tackling the time period and doing it justice. It may be ugly and hard to deal with at times, but it’s the perfect kind of backwardness to contrast the seemingly ideal and advanced Columbia.
The game’s combat plays like a straight-up shooter most of the time, only offering the opportunity to avoid confrontation on a few rare occasions. Those unique situations aside, you’ll frequently be shooting guns and using “vigors” that offer interesting powers like summoning crows and shooting lightning. Of course, you can only use vigors so often before they’re exhausted and have to be replenished with salts and food items that contain salts (of which there are many left lying around). As far as guns go, you’re only able to carry two at a time, but Infinite provides a steady enough stream of ammo (and barring that, new weapons that do have enough ammo) that this limitation isn’t that big of a deal. In fact, Elizabeth even throws ammo and salts to you on occasion when you’re running low, though this isn’t something you’ll want to rely on. That’s not the full extent of her participation, either; in addition to keeping you supplied, she can open “tears,” which are basically portals to other dimensions, if you ask her to. Sometimes the things she can pull in are passive, like medical supplies, while other times she can bring in something more deadly to attack your enemies:
Despite this being a straight-up shooter, there’s actually quite a bit of customization; while you’re able to level up vigors and make your weapons more powerful, the real customization comes in the form of “gears,” equippable items that grant specific abilities. For example, one gear might increase your damage a certain percent for each successive kill within a certain time frame, while another might give you increased critical damage. There’s a gear that refills your health for melee kills, and even a gear that has a certain percentage chance of incinerating the people you punch. There are four slots for gears, but each gear only fits in one of the four slots. This means that you’ll occasionally have to choose between two that you really want to equip rather than having the freedom to equip any combination of what you find.
Counteracting the ridiculous save system somewhat is a reduced penalty for dying in combat; rather than sending you back to your last save, you’ll either be revived by Elizabeth or walk through a “dream door” of sorts to find yourself back in combat, usually hidden away from enemies. You come back without all of your health (though there’s a gear to change this), and enemies regain some of theirs, so this allows for you to play through without worrying about the save system screwing you over the second you die. This feature can lend to a perception that the game is too easy, but the difficulty is really about perfect as far as a pure shooter is concerned—Bioshock Infinite just doesn’t punish failure with the tedium of having to replay sections you’ve already gone through. Some may be masochistic enough to enjoy having to go through portions of the game again after being killed, but such people are free to go to the menu and select “restart from checkpoint” to their heart’s content. The reason that reviving mid-battle works so well within the context of the game is that combat isn’t the point of Bioshock Infinite. This is a game where the plot and setting steal the show, with the combat being little more than the seasoning leading you from point A to point B.
The graphics in Bioshock Infinite are stunning, especially maxed out on a PC. While there are some instances of textures lacking depth and looking artificial (most noticeably in flower beds and sacks of apples toward the beginning of the game), the game’s lighting is simply stunning and more than makes up for this. Even the most unimportant areas, places that most games would just allow to look generic and plain, are made breathtaking by sunbeams shining in through windows and ambient light casting dancing shadows on the walls. There are even caustic rays shining up on the walls when you’re wading through water—to call it aesthetically pleasing is to understate just how drop-dead gorgeous every scene is from beginning to end. That being said, Infinite doesn’t strive for realism in all things; while the lighting and shadows are incredible and realistic, the overall art style trends toward a more unique aesthetic style that’s has its own identity. If I had to describe this art style, I’d call it a cross between the best of Crysis and Dishonored. Even better, while the prettiness of other games such as Far Cry 3 eventually wears off and becomes normal enough to your eyes that you barely notice it anymore, Bioshock Infinite has so many creative locations that the novelty of its graphics never wears off. Even at the very end of the game, I was still marveling at its prettiness. I have more than two-thousand screenshots in a folder to prove it.
The music is only slightly less interesting, being memorable in a few instances, but rarely stealing the scene. However, there’s a single exception to this, a musical moment so simple and beautiful that it took my breath away. If there’s one thing I’ll remember about Bioshock Infinite, it’s this scene (and don’t worry, there are no spoilers):
Here’s what you should do: