“Bring us the girl, wipe away the debt.” These are the words that follow former Pinkerton agent Booker DeWitt as he takes on a mission in the city of Columbia, in the latest game from Irrational Games and Take-Two, Bioshock Infinite. The year is 1912, and Columbia is an incredible marvel of engineering, a city that floats among the clouds. The city is presided over by self appointed prophet Father Zachary H. Comstock, and presents itself as an idealized version of Americana, with its citizens revering the founding fathers of the United States, primarily Washington,Franklin, and Jefferson, and elevating them to divine status. Booker has been tasked with finding a girl named Elizabeth and bringing her back to New York. Who has hired him is a mystery- all Booker knows is that by doing this his substantial debts incurred by gambling will be erased. The mystery is just one of the things that players will unravel over the next 15-20 hours spent in Columbia while trying to escape with both the girl and their lives.
I won’t reveal much more of the story here, as this is a game that should not be spoiled for anyone going in. There are plenty of twists in the excellently written story, many of which you won’t see coming. The ending in particular is already sparking numerous discussions across the internet, and is sure to be discussed for years to come. It’s an incredible, satisfying conclusion, and that’s all I will say. This is also a game you don’t want to rush through, as exploration is particularly rewarding. Telescopes offer different views of the city, and kinetiscopes and voxophones provide plenty of history and background on the various characters you’re going to meet throughout the game. As in the original Bioshock, finding these goodies expands on the depth of the game-world, and they are well worth your time to seek out. True, you can simply rush through and finish the story in around 10-12 hours, but you’ll be missing out. Plus, the city of Columbia is just gorgeous to look at, with rich details in the environments. There is a carnival complete with minigames, arcades, and a museum to explore, as well as the various sections of the city where the action will take you. Listening to the various conversations between the NPCs also adds to the rich detail of Columbia, giving you glimpses of the darker undertones beneath its idyllic veneer. Movement is fluid and smooth, and a button prompt in all difficulty levels except the 1999 mode (more on that later) helps you find your way should you be unsure of where to go.
Also helping you on your journey is the Lamb of Columbia, the girl Elizabeth. Once you free her from her tower on Monument Island she accompanies you throughout the game. Unlike many games where escort missions can be more of a chore than a joy, Elizabeth is an absolute delight to have along for the ride. Her AI is well designed, as she never gets in the way, and provides plenty of assistance both in and out of combat. Elizabeth will show you where to go without incessant nagging if you choose to explore, never lags behind, founds coins that aid in upgrades, can lock-pick doors, and provides you with health, ammo, and salts during battle. She cannot die, as enemies will not target her, so you never have to worry about her survival while you’re fighting for your own. Elizabeth also has the power to open up Tears, rips in the fabric of space-time, through which she can bring things like extra health, ammo, or even cover to aid you. She can also bring in things such as turrets to help turn the tide when you’re being swarmed. Along with being so helpful, she is a fully developed character, and provides much of the emotional content that runs throughout the game. You end up truly caring for her, taking joy in her delights as she observes the world around her and feeling fear and the need to protect her when danger is present. Elizabeth is truly one of the best characters to come along in videogames, and Courtnee Draper’s performance is fantastic. Troy Baker as Booker is also terrific, and the interplay between the two is natural and never seems forced.
The other thing that aids in your travels through Columbia are the various Sky-Lines that connect parts of the city. You can travel along these with your Sky-Hook, a handy implement you receive early in the game. Your Sky-Hook allows you access to various points across divides that you couldn’t otherwise cross, and makes for a brutally satisfying melee weapon as well. Melee combat works well, though it’s best left to enemies you can take on individually rather than in groups. You can also perform some nifty executions by leaping from the Sky-Lines at your enemies, and these work well in your favor, giving you at times the element of surprise.
Guns also figure into combat, and there are a decent variety to choose from throughout the game. You can only carry two weapons at a time, making it necessary for you to think on how you outfit yourself. Early on, your standard pistol/shotgun/machine gun works well, but larger enemies later in the game require a bit more firepower to take down. Fortunately, the game does a nice job with providing you access to the appropriate weapons at the right time, so you never feel outgunned or outmatched. That’s not to say these enemies are a pushover- even on the easiest difficulty they provide a challenge and generally behave intelligently, using grenades and flanking maneuvers to take you down. Firefights can get intense at times, so you need to keep on your toes. Even with Elizabeth’s help you can die, though she will revive you. Be aware that revival costs you some coin and enemies regain a portion of their health as well. In the 1999 mode, if you don’t have enough money, it’s game over, so playing on that difficulty makes you take extra care.
In addition to your guns you also acquire powers called Vigors. Replacing the Plasmids from the first Bioshock, Vigors give you various abilities such as Possession, Devil’s Kiss, and Bucking Bronco, among others, allowing you to possess enemies, set them on fire, bounce them into the air, shock them, or sic a flock of murderous crows on them. Vigors are powered by salts (replacing EVE from the original) and the can be found fairly easily. Some foods and drink provide both salts and health, and your meters will fill depending on what you need most. While you can only carry two guns, you have access to all Vigors you find, and it can be fun switching between them to take out your foes in creative ways. You can also lay traps with your Vigors, helpful when facing larger groups of enemies. Explore rooms for bottles of infusion, which you can use to increase your health, your level of salts, or the strength of your shields. This adds a layer of strategy as well, and you can adapt it to your style of play. Controls are responsive and intuitive, and work much the same way as the original game, except you don’t store health kits or salts in reserve. These need to be found by searching the area or looting enemies, and of course Elizabeth helps you out in this regard.
The enemies you meet are varied, from human police and soldiers to some beings that utilize Vigors to much bigger foes, such as the Handymen and the Motorized Patriots. And then there is Songbird, Elizabeth’s protector who is none too happy about you springing her from her tower. Encounters with Songbird aren’t frequent, but when they occur provide for some suitably tense segments. Later in the game you encounter a couple of more creepier foes, but I won’t spoil them here. Suffice it to say they rival some of the Splicers from the first game.
All in all, Bioshock Infinite is one of the best games to come out this year so far, and Ken Levine’s return to the franchise is a welcome one. The story is incredibly written, and tackles such themes as nationalism, religious fundamentalism, and quantum physics. The game is intelligent and assumes the player is as well. It also gives you an emotional anchor in Elizabeth, and gives you plenty of reason to return to Columbia for additional playthroughs. The 1999 mode may not be for everyone, but for those looking for a good challenge it’s worth the time to check out. This is a worthy successor to Bioshock, and is not only a must play title but in my opinion a must own as well. For PS3 owners, there’s the additional bonus of getting the first game on the disc, so you can make nice comparisons between the well lit streets of sunny Columbia and the darkened halls of the more claustrophobic Rapture. It’s worth noting the despite the sunshine in most of Columbia’s settings, that feeling of dread that pervaded Rapture is still present. This game is simply a masterpiece, and definitely an early contender for GOTY. The bar has been set very high for the games to follow.
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