- Developer - Irrational Games
- Publisher - 2k
- Platforms - PlayStation 3 (tested), Xbox 360, PC
- Release date - 26 March
- Price - £39.99
Set aboard the fantastical floating city of Columbia, the civil war at the centre of BioShock Infinite is perhaps the first meaty take on rich vs. poor, left vs. right and white vs. coloured that games have ever managed.
It would have been easy for Ken Levine and the Infinite writing staff to ham the American right-wing up as arch, greedy villains. But the game is smarter than that. The two political parties of Columbia are the Founders, predominantly Caucasian and zealously religious, and the Vox Populi, the nihilistic black and Irish underclass, driven to revolution by the working conditions in Columbian factories.
But whereas in most games - in fact, in most mainstream fiction - the scrappy left wing underdogs come over as the goodies, in BioShock Infinite, there are no heroes. Divided by ideology though they are, the Vox and the Founders are equally insidious, publicly executing civilians of one another's faction and suppressing their followers with airy, vague demagoguery.
The Founders hate non-whites, numbing their people with grotesque propaganda campaigns, and conditioning their children with fairground shooting galleries where you get more points for killing black people. Meanwhile, the Vox Populi are angry, leaderless brutes who lynch rich people and pillage white neighbourhoods.
Especially in today's climate, it's a fascinating portrait. The Tea Party and the American one percent are often painted, especially online and in the blogosphere, as cash-mongering hyper capitalists, exploiting a system that favours white folks to hoard all the wealth.
The Occupy movement on the other hand are impoverished, punk-rock, street fighting men, standing up for the "real America" that don't tread on anyone.
But Infinite charts the middle ground. It's a very, very cynical game, swayed neither by the riches of the right or the so-called righteous indignity of the far left. Its politics are much more centrist. Emanating from a country where the voting patterns have been more or less unchanged since the civil war, that level of flexibility is refreshing.
The game skips over its politics, though. For the first third of BioShock Infinite, Levine's imagery is fascinating, all giant statues of the founding fathers and vulgar posters of racist caricatures. But that edge is soon - too soon - taken off as the game draws into its weaker second act.
The civil war plot strand just kind of ends. As Infinite shifts its focus onto the relationship between the two central characters, Elizabeth and Booker, that polticial commentary is pushed to the back bench, way before any of the issues it brought up have really had their day in court.
Elizabeth and Booker
The crux of BioShock Infinite is, in fact, the relationship between Elizabeth and Booker.
Booker is who you play as, an ex-Pinkerton agent and US cavalryman with a murky past. Owing a debt to some shady people, he's sent to Columbia to retrieve Elizabeth, a young woman who's been imprisoned in a tower since she was born.
The citizens of Columbia believe her to be some kind of prophet or messiah, referring to her as 'the lamb of Columbia', and expecting her to lead them to whatever salvation it is they've promised themselves.
Though you play the first hour or so alone, once Booker finds Elizabeth, they have this strained, almost reluctant dynamic to begin with, whereby she is naïve and reckless, and he is wizened and cynical. The first time Elizabeth sees Booker kill somebody is a painful moment, as she runs off, crying, scared at what this man who's supposed to be helping her is capable of.
That tension eventually progresses into co-dependence. Elizabeth needs Booker to get her out of Columbia - Booker needs Elizabeth to keep him alive in combat. She will throw you bullets, health packs - things called 'Salts' which refill your magic ability - and also open 'tears' in space, bringing foreign objects into gunfights, like brick walls and boxes of weapons.
But Elizabeth's not quite the organic, living person her creators want her to be. In a game of such grand scope and achievement, technical gripes like these seem picky and entitled, but she doesn't move naturally; she doesn't interact with the world of Columbia as smooth or as seamlessly as she's perhaps meant to.
Elizabeth is always keeping pace with Booker, so if you ease up on the left stick, she slows down also. And the things she responds to are seemingly random. She's perfectly likely to pick up an orange or a statuette and make some remark about it, but sometimes, extremely major plot points unfurl and she doesn't say a word. Elizabeth still feels a little artificial.
Nevertheless, they're both remarkable figures. Booker is a dark and violent man, a foil to Elizabeth's big-eyed optimism. Though their dialogue sometimes strays into the unconvincing, the roles these two characters play are very clear. Booker is us - tired, used to it; accustomed to the world - the game world - around him. Elizabeth is more energetic. She fits the bill of Infinite's designers, eager that you look at the world around you and feel reinvigorated by it.
And that aspect of her comes off flawlessly. From the start, she's inviting Booker to come dance with her and picking through objects like they're something brand new. It's a really beautiful thing Irrational is trying to do with Elizabeth, to remind people who play games just how magical they can be. Sometimes, though, she feels like she's not real; when you can see the gears working behind this person who's been sent to make you forget that those gears exist, it's kind of disheartening.
Discussing this aspect of Infinite, it's hard not go give away story spoilers, but, as depicted in the trailers when Elizabeth opens a gateway to 1982, time and space in Columbia is disrupted. Things from other worlds seep into the city; events from different dimensions have bearing on each other. Characters may die in one version of Columbia but, when you step into a tear, may be alive again. Alternatively, they may not have existed at all.
These infinite dimensions (which I imagine are where BioShock Infinite takes it name) are reminiscent of the infinitely different experiences and choices we can all have from the same videogame. It's still Columbia - it's still BioShock Infinite - but in each case it's slightly different; the city or the game as laid out by some omniscient creator is the same always, but each iteration is unique.
It's a much more hopeful vision of games than in BioShock which, in ways I can't describe here without ruining things, is explored in way more depth as the game goes on.
It does get convoluted however. The meta commentary in Infinite is definitely observant and interesting, but it's also totally overwritten. The "Would you kindly?" reveal was a very quiet and disturbing moment. Infinite tends to beat you around the head some, and gets lost in its own ideas.
And, again, without wanting to drop spoilers, the way the "straight narrative" (the relationship between Booker and Elizabeth, the turmoil in Columbia) resolves itself is confusing in a bad way. No doubt it will inspire umpteen fans to make forums dissecting it at length, but the plot in Infinite feels kind of scattergun and meandering. Levine consistently moves the goal posts, telling us that this will be the thing that saves her, no THIS will be the thing, and when the final half-hour plunges head first into metaphysics, the criss-cross, time travel main story gets totally buried beneath highfalutin chin-stroking.
The city of Columbia itself however is, unquestionably, one of the greatest masterpieces in the history of videogames. It's just beautiful. Purple-yellow sunlight spills down cobbled alleys, white marble statues and great brass sculptures line the streets. People in their finery are dancing and smoking all around you; there are flowers everywhere.
The first time you see the city is, truly, the most wonderful thing you'll have ever seen in a game. Even more than the original reveal of Rapture, when those neon lights first lurched into view, the opening glimpse of Columbia will astound you - it will make you cry. If BioShock Infinite achieves no greater legacy, it can still lay claim to the most astonishing single moment ever created by a game studio.
And that's just the beginning, because when you've finally acclimated to the lustre of the place, there's this gut churning physical offness to it, with buildings, doors and water features placed where they shouldn't possibly go. The most unerring example is Battleship Bay, a boardwalk plucked from a Seurat painting that inexplicably sits beneath an industrial park. Then there's Finkton, a collection of factories with incredibly high walls which all somehow seem small on the inside.
As the plot explores in exhaustive detail later on, things are not as they seem in Columbia and the game's physicality tells as much.
Infinite's real narrative affliction is shooting, which happens way too often and smothers any of the game's finer points. The game is too loud. Violence breaks out every few minutes or so and generally involves you facing down a dozen or more enemies over a massive area. It really slows the game down. At its nucleus, Infinite IS a first-person shooter and the game's self-observance wouldn't work if it weren't so gamey.
But the fighting feels almost out of place. It's kind of patronising. You really want to lose yourself in the dialogue and the themes and the rich layers of Infinite's world, but the constant shooting which, I think, is a product of the same low self-esteem which Infinite is ostensibly battling, stops you from doing that.
Though it's nevertheless absorbing.
The fighting is a bit scrappy to begin with. Enemies take too many bullets to die and it's more a case of hammering the trigger button than it is picking your shots. But as you go on and learn to combine the magical powers you get from Vigors (similar to Plasmids from the original BioShock) with Elizabeth's tearing ability, shooting in Infinite gathers this plodding, mechanical rhythm that really suits. Faced with a gang of baddies, you'll spit crows at them using a Vigor, get Liz to tear in a turret gun and sit back picking off stragglers with your rifle.
Beyond that, Infinite will feel familiar to anyone who has played a BioShock before.
There's a focus on resource collecting - checking crates and corners for supplies - and exploration, with semi-large hub areas taking the place of typically linear first-person levels. You don't have to juggle your weapons as much now, though. Players of the first ever 'Shock will certainly remember having to cycle constantly between their shotgun, pistol and grenade launcher as they continually ran out of ammo for each gun - that's not the case in Infinite.
If you find a weapon you like, you can pretty much stick with it and keep it fully-loaded throughout the entire game. You can also upgrade it, upping the power, increasing the reload time and so on. It adds something of an RPG element. Especially when combined with wearable items called Gear, which give you abilities like increased health or speed, the way Infinite uses guns is designed to help you find a fighting style and stick with it.
Braver players will load up on health buffs and bullet shields and tear into combat head-on. The less bolshy will pick the HandCannon pistol and extra speed, and stand back using tears and the SkyLine to outmanoeuvre enemies.
It's a very vibrant approach to fighting, further encouraged by the line-up of enemies, which range from the enormous mechanical Handyman to shrieking, lithe Vox Populi scouts. It's not that the combat isn't fun and diverse - there are lots of ways to approach it - it just tends to overshadow some of Infinite's more progressive thinking.
This is not quite the videogame I expect a lot of people were hoping it would be. It's not The One. In a AAA market still saturated by run-of-the-mill RPGs and me-too shooters, BioShock Infinite was shaping up to be the flood that would wipe all that away. With its overt political ambition and distinct, talkative art style, Infinite was going to be something of a saving grace. It was going to be a turning point.
It's not, sadly. The political charge in the game is palpable but sidelined too early; the metaphysical analysis is present, but cast a little too wide.
Nevertheless, BioShock Infinite is interesting, more interesting than anything to come out, on shelves at least, for the past five years. It's bound to spark an enormous amount of academic fervour, from which one can only imagine we'll develop a changed idea of exactly what videogames are. As a straight work of good writing, though, it comes up short.
- Gameplay: 8/10 - In terms of shooting, Infinite can feel a little scrappy and overly loud, but that's not all there is to the gameplay. It wants you walk around and explore, to breathe in its incredible environments and subtle, painted on themes. In regards of drawing you into doing that, it works flawlessly
- Sound: 10/10 - Franchise mainstay Garry Schyman returns to do Infinite's soundtrack and its combination of melancholic piano, Jonny Greenwood-inspired percussion tracks and barbershop versions of pop classics is superb.
- Graphics: 10/10 - Columbia is beautiful, it's stunning, not only in the sense of vibrancy and colour, but in the way it bends to suggest something about the game's murkier talking points. That's met with a stark and original aesthetic, the people and creatures in BioShock Infinite resembling nothing quite like you've seen in a videogame before.
- Writing: 7/10 - Very surprisingly, this is Infinite's main stumbling block. It wins points for daring to broach themes of race and American egotism, and for its considered meta commentary, but a lot of the dialogue itself is poorly scripted, Booker and Elizabeth in particular dropping some real clangers. The plot gets lost as the game goes on, degenerating into a baggy and loose sci-fi melodrama that's more convoluted than it is complex.
- Replay value: 9/10 - Again and again and again you will want to play Infinite; one pass over its rich, meaningful game world is absolutely not enough and to really extract the most from the literature, you'll need to re-evaluate it time and time over. This is a game that will be played and written about for years to come.
- Overall: 9/10 - Infinite deserves all the praise in the world just for being so brave. It fails to really explore its politics and its self-examination is knotted and overwritten, but regardless, we just don't get games like this. Perfect though it most certainly isn't, Infinite is a landmark piece of work. It might not go far enough, but it still pushes the boundaries of what videogames can say and do.