By Marty Mulrooney
BioShock Infinite is a first-person shooter developed by Irrational Games and published by 2K Games. Although BioShock Infinite is the third game in the BioShock series, it is actually a spiritual successor to the original BioShock (BioShock 2 was developed by a different team without the involvement of Irrational’s creative lead Ken Levine, who returns here), as well as being a standalone game in its own right. Taking place in 1912 within the floating city of Columbia, players take control of disgraced ex-Pinkerton agent Booker DeWitt as he attempts to track down a mysterious young woman named Elizabeth, a message repeating over and over again in his head: bring us the girl and wipe away the debt.
1912. The coast of Maine. Sat in the back of a small rowboat, Booker DeWitt slowly approaches an island lighthouse. He can see its rotating light shining brightly through the continually pouring rain as his two companions do all the rowing. Booker doesn’t help at all, despite the choppy waters – he doesn’t row. Disembarking from the boat onto a wooden jetty, he is left to approach the lighthouse alone. A blood-spattered note nailed to the door reads: ‘DEWITT – BRING US THE GIRL AND WIPE AWAY THE DEBT. THIS IS YOUR LAST CHANCE!’
Stepping out of the rain and into the lighthouse, things only get worse. As DeWitt ascends the lighthouse via it’s spiralling metal staircase, he comes across the dead body of a man tied to a chair, a blood-soaked sack over his head and a note attached to his chest. ‘DON’T DISAPPOINT US.’ Climbing further still, Booker reaches the top of the lighthouse and rings three bells, turning the clouds a deep shade of red as a bellowing reply issues from the heavens. Taking a seat in a chair that appears before him, it soon transpires that the top of the lighthouse is actually a rocket-powered vessel. Accelerated into the sky far above the clouds, Booker is transported to the floating city of Columbia, basked in golden sunlight. The impossible made possible. Hallelujah.
Although Booker initially passes unnoticed whilst wandering through the streets of Columbia – allowing the player plenty of time to soak in the truly breathtaking sights and sounds of the floating metropolis – he soon starts to draw unwanted attention to himself. Propaganda plastered throughout the city by Zachary Hale Comstock, Columbia’s founder and a religious fanatic who claims to see visions of the future, speaks of a ‘False Shepherd’ with the letters ‘AD’ branded on the back of his hand. The exact same letters that are on the back of Booker’s hand…
Fighting his way through the streets of Columbia, DeWitt eventually finds the woman he is looking for and – after getting several books thrown at him – the game begins proper. Getting into Elizabeth’s tower is the easy part. Getting out whilst avoiding her guardian, a 30-foot giant mechanical ‘Songbird’, isn’t quite so straightforward. It’s an epic escape that involves clever use of the city’s ‘Sky-Lines’. Throughout the city there are various Sky-Lines (suspended mental rails) that are used to transport cargo. Using his ‘Skyhook’ – which can also be used to gruesomely bludgeon enemies to death – DeWitt can traverse a level quickly and often gain a strategic advantage during combat.
The combat itself is fast and furious. Booker’s right hand controls the various guns found throughout the game (such as a pistol and a machine gun), whilst his left hand controls the psychokinetic powers (bolts of electricity, balls of fire, a murder of crows) bestowed upon him by drinking ‘Vigors’. Various ‘Gear’ (Hats, Shirts, Pants and Boots) can also be found and equipped to offer the player additional abilities, such as decreasing gun reload times and increasing weapon damage after each successive kill. Sometimes the combat can be almost too hectic – especially when zipping along skylines during battle – but thankfully Elizabeth is no mere damsel in distress. She can open ‘tears’ that offer additional support – a turret, some health kits, a high vantage point platform with a sniper rifle – whilst never being in danger herself. The enemies don’t want her. They want you, dead. When faced with a ‘Handyman’ – BioShock Infinite’s equivalent of BioShock’s Big Daddy – the skylines become absolutely essential. Going toe-to-toe with these leaping fusions of damaged man and powerful lumbering machine guarantees a quick death along with a respawn where your enemies regain some health and you lose some cash.
The aforementioned ‘tears’ feature prominently throughout BioShock Infinite, both during its combat and throughout its labyrinthine plot. So… what exactly is a ‘tear’? Elizabeth seems to have been locked up because she has the ability to open portals – ‘tears’ – to parallel dimensions. DeWitt isn’t afraid of God, but he’s afraid of Elizabeth. Elizabeth is one of the most convincing and believable non-player characters in video game history. She reacts credibly and dynamically to the world around her, and makes a great companion no matter what is happening around you. She often throws DeWitt ammo and ‘Salt’ – which refills your Vigor powers – at just the right moment during combat. She is also fond of flipping you coins she has found, and pointing out items and areas of interest that you might have missed. She’s charming, beautiful and occasionally downright terrifying. You’ll learn to love her and whenever you’re torn apart, you will be faced with the gaping hole left behind by her absence.
It’s no real fault of the game that despite its enjoyable – albeit occasionally clunky – combat, its greatest pleasures are to be found whilst simply exploring the world and getting to know the characters of Elizabeth and Booker DeWitt. The graphics are stunning and exploration is never a chore. There is always something new to discover and the various Voxophones – aka audio diaries – scattered throughout the city do a great job of fleshing out the story further still. Columbia doesn’t feel like a series of video game levels – it feels like a real place steeped in history and built upon misguided beliefs and plenty of bloodshed. Much like Elizabeth and DeWitt, the city breathes.
The setup is fantastic but the story only strengthens as the game progresses. Everything is present for a reason – the instances of anachronistic music aren’t featured simply because they’re cool, although they undoubtedly are. Near the beginning of the game, Booker ends up washed up on a beach where a steam organ loops a tune that sounds strangely familiar. It’s Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’… from 1979. There is also a barbershop quartet riding on a steamboat that performs a wonderful rendition of ‘God Only Knows’ by The Beach Boys. Garry Schyman’s original score (he also provided the score for the previous two BioShock games) perfectly matches the quieter moments of exploration along with the frantic battles, beat for beat. Near the end of the game, a single resonating piano note, perfectly placed, devastates.
The story is phenomenal and every last detail clicks into place as the plot progresses. BioShock Infinite could have easily coasted along with a perfunctory plot to accompany its beautifully realised floating city in the sky. Instead it incorporates real life history, fantastical science fiction, tears in time and space, eternal constants and the unforeseeable moments that define us. It’s unusual for a big budget shooter to have its gameplay outshone by its story, but that’s exactly what happens with BioShock Infinite. Elizabeth doesn’t need saving, or protecting. DeWitt kidnaps her under the guise of being her saviour. In reality, he’s a man who has plenty to answer for, both to the player and himself. Gameplay and narrative similarities to the original BioShock aren’t due to a lack of fresh ideas – they exist because Ken Levine and the team at Irrational have managed to connect both games in an ingenius way that you won’t see coming.
Holding all of these incredibly ambitious elements together is a pair of central vocal performances from two highly talented voice actors. Veteran voice actor Troy Baker portrays Booker DeWitt with equal degrees world-weary confidence, steely determination and puzzled bewilderment. Courtnee Draper as Elizabeth is the game’s (and Booker’s) secret weapon. You never feel like you’re talking to an artificial video game character – Draper’s performance is overflowing with genuine emotion and when Elizabeth talks to DeWitt (or places his hand around her slender neck to emphasise a heartbreaking plea) she addresses the player directly. Their chemistry is palpable and without it, BioShock Infinite wouldn’t have been half the game it is. You can tell that Baker and Draper recorded their lines together and that they had meaningful input into their performances. This might be a big budget, high-concept game, but you could never accuse it of lacking heart.
BioShock Infinite is not only 2013’s most anticipated game, but it actually manages to live up to the hype – it’s an early contender for game of the year. It looks and sounds stunning whilst retaining a depth usually reserved for lower budget indie endeavors. The ending is mind-blowing and will make you immediately want to pick up the controller and play it all over again from the beginning – as with the very best films, books and video games, people will be talking about BioShock Infinite for weeks, months and years to come. It has more magic in its severed little finger than any other first-person shooter released in recent memory. There is no such thing as the perfect video game – but BioShock Infinite aims for the sky and comes damn close.
10 OUT OF 10