What makes a great game something genuinely special? To be honest, it could be any number of things, or for that matter, a perfect coming together of the individual components that make up the whole. In the case of BioShock Infinite though, that something special, that unique piece of the puzzle that turns a great game into one of ‘the’ great games is a young lady by the name of, Elizabeth.
Even without her, BioShock Infinite would unlikely be anything less than an extremely good game, but once you’ve experienced Irrational’s monumental shooter, it will be all but impossible to imagine the world without her. Elizabeth is as essential to the experience as the weapon in your hand or the beautiful and utterly compelling world around you; needless to say, Elizabeth is the star of the show; a technical and artistic triumph, and surely the greatest AI partner since Half Life 2’s, Alyx Vance.
Without wanting to give anything away, BioShock Infinite weaves an intricate and often spellbinding tale of one man’s plan to rescue a young lady from her tower in the sky. Placed in the shoes of the relatively interesting but occasionally clichéd Booker DeWitt, the majority of the game’s intelligent storytelling and often moving dialogue tends to come from the characters around you, with DeWitt left primarily to his device as reactionary tough guy. That may sound like a criticism, but given his, and your, duty to shoot the vast majority of things that move in the face, the clash of storytelling and mechanics may have been too strong to retain a level of believability if Booker had been anything other than a tough guy with a troubled past. As it stands though, DeWitt does a perfectly good job of keeping the gameplay moving while Elizabeth admirably does her job of keeping the story chugging along – they really are quite the team.
Yes, sometimes the inherent shoot-everything FPS mechanics that make up the core gaming experience do clash against the heady attempts at genuinely compelling storytelling, but to Irrational’s credit, they do a sterling job of making the experience feel as organic and natural as it does here. Despite the intrinsic linearity of the game and the obvious expectations that have to be dealt with in light of those genre defining moments from Rapture, Irrational does a great job of leading you without pushing you and all the while delivering the story and design beats that you expect without feeling the need to smash you over the head with them. Everything about BioShock Infinite is delicately balanced with only the all-encompassing commitment to loot really clashing against some of the more memorable story moments.
I wrote a blog recently on how the commitment to looting and upgrades (read it here) can jar against the increasingly nuanced storytelling found within an industry still struggling to find its true voice, and despite their best efforts, there are moments in which common sense suggests that I be checking out the dead body or beautifully crafted landscape rather than rummaging through bins in search of food, but there I am, in full gamer mode, scavenging for the sake of scavenging – does money have to be some damn shiny!?
Still, despite this minor problem which, in fairness to Irrational, is an industry level issue rather than something that can be cited as a particularly poor design choice, BioShock Infinite is nonetheless a triumph of storytelling, of art direction, of characterisation, and perhaps most surprisingly, a triumph of combat mechanics. You see, despite my love of Rapture, I struggled through much of BioShock and, truth be told, never got around to finishing it. Why? Because of the infuriating combat mechanics. There were great ideas at every turn, but I couldn’t get past the fact that shooting an enemy simply wasn’t very fun. In fact, despite all the arguments to the contrary, I actually preferred BioShock 2. The game world obviously didn’t have the same impact, but as a pure gaming experience, BioShock 2 was the far superior product. Infinite though? Well, that’s the best of both worlds – the majesty and impact of BioShock combined with the slick gunplay of its immediate successor.
While the Vigors aren’t perhaps as far removed from the original’s Plasmids as one would have hoped and certainly don’t fit in as comfortably on a thematic level as Plasmids did in Rapture, technically, they are a joy to use, and in conjunction with the accurate and solid gunplay, offer up a pleasingly robust combination. Add to that the sky rails and Elizabeth’s ability to tear open the fabric of time and space and what you have is a surprisingly robust and, especially on the higher difficulty levels, highly tactical shooter.
With sky rails fitting into the aesthetic and architecture of the sublimely realised Columbia, Infinite is simultaneously imbued with a unique aesthetic, a fantastically distinctive mode of travel and, as previously mentioned, an additional tactical layer to its already solid combat – the sky rails may be simplistic enough in their design, but their effect on gameplay simply can’t be overstated. Then there are the tears. Again, without moving into spoiler territory, Elizabeth can open tears to alternate universes, which, as you can imagine, plays a rather important part in the multifaceted and consistently engrossing story, but in the more literal terms of battle can give you the edge over your opponents by allowing Elizabeth to bring sentry guns, cover, ammo and health drops into your world at a moment’s notice. It may not be the most imaginative use of her powers, but in terms of the larger scale battles dotted throughout the story, they prove a consistently useful addition to your already impressive offensive and defensive repertoire.
As good as the combat is though, and in fairness, it is good, it nonetheless plays second fiddle to the story, world and characterisation (does that make it fourth fiddle?). Between the complex beauty of Columbia’s city in the sky, its wealth of incidental details (both visual and audio-based) and the story that so beautifully encompasses it all, Infinite provides an experience that will remain long in the memory for those that experience it. Beyond the carefully constructed world and the tricky inclusion of multiple universes, it’s the social aspects, something that was so important to Rapture’s design, that really rises the world of Columbia far above the realms of surface level eye candy. From racial prejudice to political isolation and the power of religion, Infinite takes these issues and successfully incorporates them into its core narrative via a deft touch and not inconsiderable amount of skill.
Still, the glue that holds all of this together, the one thing that brings all of the brilliant individual aspects together to create a game that will be rightly revered as one of the greatest of the generation is Elizabeth. With you for the majority of the game, she is sorely missed when not around. An AI partner that is believable, technically sound, genuinely interesting and absolutely essential to the overall story is something rare to say the least, and for that alone, Irrational’s creation deserves to be celebrated. It’s testament to the character, the writing and the performance behind it that I don’t even feel comfortable as referring to her as a ‘creation’. She feels real, and while you’re playing the game, you will almost certainly care for her. She is as well rounded as any character I have come across in the industry and the new standard by which all future AI companions will be judged and compared……good luck with that.
Still, as great as Elizabeth is, as great as the story, world and gunplay might be, Infinite is not a perfect game. Beyond the aforementioned issues with loot obsession, there is, simply put, no Big Daddy. Now, I wasn’t actually expecting a Big Daddy, but none of the enemies come close to the challenge or impact provided by Rapture’s finest. The Handyman is the closest in terms of challenge but can’t compare in terms of visual threat or aesthetic appeal, while again, the motorized Patriots and Fireman are relatively tough customers, but prove little more than an obstacle to overcome. Further to that, the story, while mostly brilliant, does get lost for a while as you move from one shoot out to the next around the midpoint of the game.
To get caught up in these minor issues would be unfair though as, negligible faults aside, BioShock Infinite really is one of the very best games of the generation and a worthy successor to Levine’s original. In a world of me too shooters, Infinite proves a thought provoking breath of fresh air and a kick up the ass to an industry that has been stuck largely on auto-pilot for the last year or so. Columbia is a visual and thematic feast, the combat varied and enjoyable and Elizabeth, well, Elizabeth is nothing short of a revelation – an unforgettable companion and surely one of the most memorable characters to ever grace a videogame.
Come to Columbia for the views, but stay….stay for Elizabeth.
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