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As a whole, we’re kind of sick of shooters by now, aren’t we? It’s almost industry standard for players and critics to deride the unsurprising annual reveal of a “new” Call of Duty. But occasionally a game will come along that keeps the core shooter gameplay, but does something interesting with it, or around it.
In 2007, that was BioShock. The game spliced solid shooting mechanics with an interesting world– the city of Rapture, built under the sea on a foundation of objectivism – in an attempt to subvert the conventions of traditional FPS games. The “Would You Kindly” scenario is one of the medium’s best known and most eloquent comments on player control and choice.
BioShock Infinite is the third game in the series, swapping its setting from sea to sky. Despite the drastic change in aesthetic, Infinite definitely feels like a BioShock game at its core, refining the defining elements of the series.
As such, expect a spectacle-spotted shooter game with solid combat mechanics, wrapped in a unique world that’s built on a foundation of philosophy and history, and explored through the stories of several compelling characters.
The year is 1912, but not quite the one we know. The game’s timeline branches off in 1893, where the real-world Columbian Exposition was the setting for the launch of the fictional flying city of Columbia.
The story within that setting initially seems like a massive cliché: There’s a girl locked away in a tower, and you take the role of the boy riding in to rescue her. It sounds routine enough, but don’t fret - it develops into something far more interesting.
You, the boy, are Booker DeWitt, sent to Columbia to guide the girl, Elizabeth, safely back to New York, to wipe away a debt. But of course, it’s not as simple as that. Zachary Hale Comstock, father of Elizabeth, builder of Columbia and self-proclaimed prophet, has declared Booker a “false shepherd”, looking to lead their little lamb astray. And the residents will have none of that.
Booker is greeted with a utopian society upon arrival, but after a little bit of exploration, splits in the seams begin to show. Columbia is on the cusp of a civil war, and the player’s actions might just change the course of history.
The theme of a city built by an idealistic man, as a utopia away from the problems of the world, which then falls to corruption, is just one of many parallels in the fascinating relationship that BioShock Infinite has with the first two BioShock games. In terms of social values, Comstock’s city of Columbia is almost the polar opposite of Andrew Ryan’s city of Rapture, but both capture the nostalgic wish to return to simpler optimistic times, and contrast it with a deep sense of dread and foreboding.
Others comparisons are more direct: The original BioShock opened with the player entering a lighthouse and riding a bathysphere down to the bottom of the sea. Infinite opens at that same lighthouse, some fifty years earlier, with an opposite journey flinging players into the sky. The exact nature of the relationship between the two cities may crop up later in the game - but that’s a mystery I’ll leave for you to solve.
And that’s just one of the game’s many mysteries. We don’t fully know Booker’s intentions or the details of his debt, or exactly why or how Elizabeth can open tears in reality, but all is revealed as the story unfolds.
Since your job is to rescue her, Elizabeth follows the player for most of the game. It makes sense story-wise, but mechanically, she doesn’t do a whole lot. She functions as essentially one long escort mission, one of the pet peeves that gamers are most vocal about. But the developers are obviously familiar with the infamy of the escort mission,and have taken the liberty to ensure her constant presence isn’t a constant source of frustration, like so many other AI companions.
It’s handled somewhat cheaply though: Elizabeth is welcome because she stays out of the way, rather than contribute to the combat. She spend most of her time hiding from enemies, crouching behind cover. Sure, she tosses you the odd bundle of ammo, health or salts (used to power Vigors), but on those occasions when she’s not around, her absence hardly registers. Outside of the narrative context, she doesn’t need protecting: enemies inexplicably ignore her, even when she’s mere metres away.
It’s a small issue though, and one you’ll likely forget as the combat grows to be a hell of a lot of fun. It starts off feeling pretty typical: you use a range of pistols, shotguns and rifles to shoot dudes, and complement it with the franchise’s signature elemental attacks, this time called Vigors. These potions grant various powers of fire, electricity, water, telekinesis, etc, which spice up the combat with spectacle and strategy.
Much of the fun comes from experimenting with combinations of dual-wielding weapons and Vigors. Maybe try chaining electrocutions to paralyse enemies, then run in close with a shotgun to finish them off. Or flick them off the edges with a quick blast of telekinesis, for an easy instant kill.
Elizabeth’s main ability – opening tears in the fabric of reality – plays an interesting role in combat. Dotted around the environments are fuzzy, greyed-out objects that Elizabeth can call into being for Booker to use. Conjuring what you need for each situation throws some variety into the combat. Sometimes it will be a specific weapon, or a generous stash of health, ammo or salts. Other times it might be a well-placed piece of cover, a friendly turret or a hook to allow aerial attacks.
Those hooks grant a vertical element to combat and exploration, as do the Skylines, aerial rails that weave around Columbia. The city’s residents – including the player – can use them to zip around, via personal grappling devices. Dropping onto enemies from above is an effective way to initiate combat with a surprise attack.
That’s not all your skyhook is good for. It has a deadly second application as a melee weapon, and the game wastes no time in getting you to try using it to finish enemies in gory executions. As all these elements are gradually expanded, and strategic combinations open up, the firefights thankfully become more welcome as they become more prevalent during the last third of the game.
The excessive violence can clash a little with the narrative though. Sure, it fits in the context of an aggressive upheaval of the social classes, but you will kill a LOT of people.
Of course, it is still a shooter game, and the pulse of the Unreal engine under the surface is all too familiar. That said, it does serve to create a familiar framework of solid mechanics, with a BioShock-flavoured twist, and builds on that with an entirely unique world that is an absolute pleasure to explore.
It might not be the most elegant handling of the subject and themes, but BioShock Infinite is definitely one of the most interesting, unique, beautiful and entertaining games of this generation.
A gamer since the days of Lemmings and Wolfenstein, and a writer since Scamper the mouse in Grade Three, my two passions only met after a freak accident left them surgically inseparable. Follow @MikeIrvo.