Saturday, April 20, 2013

Bioshock Infinite Review

The Lighthouse

     Bioshock Infinite is a wonderful, beautiful, finely crafted masterpiece of a game. That may come across as hyperbole, but it isn't. The bottom line is that Bioshock Infinite raises the bar for what games can be. It shows that the medium can be more than mindless, bland shooters that look and feel nearly identical to one another. Everything about this game raises it above the pack. Its world building and artistic design are miles ahead of what anyone else is doing in the genre. Its sound design and music go beyond simple ambiance to reinforce the narrative, cement the player in the world and most importantly, is so damn good as to stand on it's own. And the story is a touching journey of a broken man perfectly wrapped together in themes of religion, patriotism, obligation, and the limits of reality.

    Everything about this world pops. The introduction to the floating city of Columbia, the games setting, takes place during a fair. We are exposed to this society during one of it's most colorful and joyous occasions, while its darker prejudices are swept away in the shadows. Posters and displays perfectly echo the time period as simple carnival games not only endear us to the town and its people, but serve as a brilliant tutorial that is both hidden and optional. The game's operators call to the player to test their skills and destroy the wooden representations of the evil Vox Populi as an a cappella group sings from a floating barge. Simply walking around in the world made me feel like a kid in an amusement park. I am not the kind of person that smiles easily, but walking around in this wonderful land of early Americana gave me no choice in the matter. I couldn't help but stop and look around at the shop displays, posters and fine detail that marks ever corner of this world. The full realization of this game's world building serves not only as an example to every other developer out there, but creators in any medium.

    The themes goes beyond simple window dressing, they permeate every fabric of the society, from the songs of playing children, to a store run on the honor system in a religiously motivated society. On the surface is a world of affluent, god fearing whites of proper heritage. Underneath is a land of segregated bathrooms, servants and Irish factory workers. One of the most memorable moments for me was walking through the squalor of the under city. I stopped and listened as a poor black woman sat on a stage used for prisoner stocks. She sat on the edge and bellowed out a beautiful and haunting version of CCR's Fortunate Son that is bound to stick with me for quite some time. The slight touches of futuristic technology and tears in the fabric of space time create wonders that leave the player breathless, such as mechanical horses, a robotic chaingun wielding George Washington and Cyndi Lauper's girls just wanna have fun being pumped through an old gramophone. Every part of this game leaves and impression on the player, from  the stark contrast between the bathrooms of whites and blacks, to the sounds of Chopin warped through loud speakers of the oppressed workers of Fink Industries.

Bring Us The Girl and Wipe Away The Debt

    The original Bioshock was known for its incredible story of a man washed up on a lighthouse, sent below the waves to a magical city under the city that had been ravaged in a civil war by the very people who built it. In the original the player was a voiceless puppet, proceeding through the game at the behest of Atlas with no voice of their own. Bishock Infinite bucks the trend of the silent protagonist in casting the player in the shoes of Booker DeWitt. A washed up veteran who's seen better days. The mission to wipe away his debt takes him to a lighthouse where the atheist is launched into the clouds. Instead of finding God, he finds himself surrounded by the religious iconography of a madman and is branded with the label of false prophet. While the city's propaganda proclaims itself a paradise in the sky, Booker sees clear signs of racism that was all too recently an everyday occurrence in America. While the town's people speak of an economic land of plenty, Booker witnesses the starving poor and workers at Fink's Industries forced to bid in an auction for jobs, not for how much they will do the job for, but in how fast they can do it.

    Having Booker DeWitt as an actual character, as opposed to a silent protagonist allows for a commentary on the events, as opposed to the player quietly moving between each vignette. Booker feels like a real character in a real situation, as opposed to a floating camera along for the ride. While the game does offer limited choice, in having the main character be an actual person it leads to a great consistency in their actions and stronger impact on the narrative. I saw this while playing Sleeping Dogs as well, and hope it catches on.

Damsel in Distress

    The game's narrative revolves around Booker rescuing a girl locked away in a tower, and bringing her back to his client in New York. The idea of a game long escort mission left me with a sense of dread, but I'm glad to report that Bioshock handles this quite well.

    When you first meet Elizabeth, your head is swirling from all the things you observed in Columbia so far and the rumors of the "lamb" and her place in society. Instead of finding some defenseless fairy tell princess, you find an actual person with her own desires and personality.  Irrational made a very smart decision in never forcing you to protect her. Elizabeth is immune in combat, can never be hurt and actively aids the player. Both in bringing in allies and supplies through "tears" and in throwing Booker ammo and other supplies in combat. Through the story Elizabeth is elevated from a simple errand to a partner, and eventually into an individual agent with goals and desires that separates her from and in some ways conflicts with Booker's.

    Most importantly, she's a real person. A fully realized character that the player feels increasingly attached to during the adventure. She serves not only as a model for a strong female in games, but as a wonderful supporting character that is every bit the hero in her own right, as opposed to be constantly downgraded to the level of sidekick for the player's enjoyment.

More To Life Than Carrying A Gun

    What's most telling to me about Bioshock Infinite is we're at the end of the review I haven't even brought up the shooting, Infinite's primary combat feature. The shooting, whether with guns or vigors is fun, and tighter than in the original Bioshock. But really, it's the least interesting part of the game. And really, how often do we say that? Normally the combat is just the biggest selling point, it's the only selling point. The music, the art direction, plot and world building are all secondary. A coat of paint to make the core experience more compelling.

    This is what makes Bioshock Infinite more than a good game, more than a great game. Every aspect is of the highest caliber. No one part stands above the rest. In most games the combat and graphics may be great, but the music and plot lacking. Or the parts may be really good individually, but disjointed. Bishock Infinite not only maintains the highest quality in its components, but weaves them together masterfully into a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It is not only one of my favorite games in the past year, it is one of my favorites for this generation. My only regret was this I didn't get to spend more time in its world, more time exploring Columbia and its people. This is one game I wouldn't mind seeing a sequel too.

    If you decide to pick up this game, and you should, take your time with it. Walks around and smell the roses. Read the posters and listen to the town folk's dialogue. Rushing past it would cause you to miss one of the finest crafted world's in all of gaming.

I played Bioshock Infinite on a PS3.

I'd like to make a special thanks to my Brother, who got me Infinite for my birthday.

You can follow me on twitter: @MadnessSerenade

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