Somewhere, over the clouds…
The similarities between the two mind-bending shooters produced by Irrational Games start early and recur frequently in the latest from Ken Levine and company, Bioshock Infinite. Players take a rocket ship up to the skies rather than a bathysphere down below the sea. You get powerful, elemental attacks on one hand and a firearm in the other. With "the twist" being so central to the original Bioshock, it's impossible not to try guessing at the truth behind everything in BioShock Infinite.
But I didn't get to experience the original Bioshock's ending firsthand. It was spoiled for me and, as a result, almost the entirety of the experience fell apart with it. I wasn't motivated to harvest more Little Sisters. I'd fought a few Big Daddies and didn't feel like anything beyond those hulking beasts could impress beyond the ruined plot. Infinite contains a similar sense of mystery and intrigue throughout the experience, and while you probably already know all about Booker Dewitt and his mantra—bring us the girl, and wipe away the debt—it's better to experience the narrative for yourself. Despite my intention to stay firmly in spoiler-free territory with this review, Infinite improves on its predecessors by miles in gameplay, meaning even a late-game secret won't ruin the experience for anyone with a mild interest in first-person shooters with strong storytelling.
Booker is, of course, tasked with rescuing Elizabeth, a girl locked up and lost in Columbia, a city with strong religious and American themes pervading its walls, floors, sounds, people, and architecture. Columbia is truly beautiful, even more so on the PC where textures can explode in size. Sometimes it can feel like you need to have paid attention before even starting the game to truly understand the motivations and characters. Elizabeth and Booker meet, and Booker quickly kills scores of attackers in their defense. Shocked, Elizabeth questions Booker's itchy finger, but these nagging questions are quickly shrugged off in the midst of the tightly tuned shooting mechanics.
Like the Bioshock titles before it, Infinite allows the player to switch between two weapons and a full wheel of "Vigor" powers. The difference this time is that you drink your poison, rather than injecting it straight into your arm. Setting fire to enemies, electrocuting a group standing over a puddle, or possessing a powerful opponent and setting the brute loose on the crowds in Columbia entertains like no other. When an enemy triggered an explosive fire trap I had set, he screamed and flailed in a blazingly realistic way. Then his flesh melted off and his bones crumpled into a pile of ash. The violent fidelity and extremely fast combat will make you continually admire Irrational's artistry.
The design work on hand is flawless, bright, vibrant, and miles ahead of Rapture. Dirt, grime, and degradation still dominate the landscape, but everywhere you look you'll see the central conflicts in Columbia: church vs. state, and sheep vs. flock. Gamers don't often find themselves challenged with these themes in first-person shooters, but Levine proves fiction works in interactive entertainment. Infinite doesn't have an ounce of fat on it and everything about the experience encourages the player to explore and push forward in the game.
Dead ends and hidden rooms conceal money and supplies. Locked doors hide expansive pieces of narrative. Finding hidden codes and their cyphers furthers this incentive to explore. At time, though, I wish Infinite could have been more linear, if only so I knew I wasn't wasting my time rummaging through cluttered desks for pocket change. Regardless, Elizabeth helps to lead the player in the right direction and it's true that she never gets in the way, but I'm reluctant to call her a truly engaging AI partner.
In combat you can receive ammo, health, and Salts (that power your Vigor abilities). When Infinite was originally revealed to the public, Elizabeth could draw clouds for your lightning ability, but don't expect anything that involved here. Various "tears" in the fabric of space and time can be opened for cover, mechanical turret support, or mobility. It's an interesting mechanic, but the development clearly focused on making sure Elizabeth was less of a burden than AI partners you've been paired with in the past. More entertaining and truly exhilarating is the sky-rail system that encircles large combat arenas.
With your skyhook, you can leap from rail to rail and fire upon your enemies from the air. Dismounting often provides a melee opportunity, but I tended to use the rails more to strike and escape quickly before the opposition could train their sights on me again. The rails and dimensional tears allow combat to exceed well beyond past Bioshock titles in speed and in making the player feel like an incredible badass.
In one sequence, several enemies surprised me and attacked at once. You'll fight lots of regular grunts, but flame-throwing or crow-commanding enemies force you to mix your abilities due to their resistances. In one particular firefight, a Big-Daddie-esque mechanical man joined the group. I asked Elizabeth to open a tear for an automated turret to make a distraction while I hopped onto the skyline and took off from the mob of attackers. I dismounted on a rooftop and took a few shots at enemies with my sniper rifle, while enemies attempted to chase me down with skyhooks of their own. Before focusing my rocket launcher on the mechanical man, I took a shot at an enemy on a skyline and watched him fall into the abyss below.
Still, I felt like more could have been done to draw the quantum-mechanics and sky-rails into the rest of the experience. I wanted more opportunities to fly from one plot point to the next with my hook or more chances to explore unknown dimensions. That's truly to Infinite's credit, though. Even after 13 hours with the campaign, I saw where the mechanics could delve deeper, and more importantly, I wanted to follow.
While repeat playthroughs can certainly extend the life out of Infinite, there are no New Game Plus modes and no multiplayer. That's not necessarily a strike against Infinite, mostly thanks to the way the narrative feels like a very long movie. It's not hard to become emotionally invested in Elizabeth, not when you're tearing down the walls of her cell and her perceptions of reality. The role the player has in the narrative is nuanced and difficult to describe without going into spoilers, so I won't. You have to play the game for yourself to understand.
Infinite improves on its predecessor in gameplay by leaps and bounds. Elizabeth is not the revolutionary AI partner you might have hoped for, but the animation work, art design, world, and narrative create a genuine connection between the player and the girl, whether or not you wipe the debt away.