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Another Ark, For Another Time

 

The first Bioshock released to critical acclaim, an inventive FPS that introduced us to a dystopian underwater world unlike any before, rife with its colorful characters, depravity, and equally influential philosophical theme that brilliantly deconstructed the vision of Ayn Rand using Andrew Ryan as its conduit. It perhaps had one of the most astounding plot twists in any game this generation - and most before it - had ever seen, that asked this probing question: "Are you a man, or a slave?" Few games had ever ventured into subject matter as complex, and its narrative raised the bar for storytelling, proving that successful games could be fun and thought-provoking at the same time.

Then came the first sequel to Bioshock, which tried to capitalize on the previous game's engrossing environment, but failed in many ways to enthrall its audience. The game had its merits, with players able to take on the role of the iconic Big Daddy of the series, yet Bioshock 2 felt like it was riding on the coattails of the former's success and never quite achieved the abject wonder of the first until it had nearly ended. The addition of a rather lackluster multiplayer system only dumbed down the franchise further.

Bioshock Infinite, however, returns to its roots, choosing a new subject to explore in American Exceptionalism with biting insight. It's a spectacular gaming experience with yet another powerful message to deliver, captivating characters, and a new and incredibly fascinating world, known as Columbia. With a bevy of entertaining features, in addition to one of the best AI ever created in a videogame, Bioshock Infinite reminds us not only of the glorious past the franchise had, but also poses new and fascinating possibilities for the future.

Bioshock Infinite begins in darkness and mystery, much like the first. You are Booker DeWitt, a man with a sinful past and a large gambling debt embarking on what seems like a routine mission: rescue a woman being held captive named Elizabeth in the city of Columbia, and return her to New York. A series of unusual events lead to Booker being branded the False Shepard - as predicted by the game's antagonist, "Prophet" Zachary Comstock - and an enemy to Columbia, with Elizabeth wrapped in the center of a Civil War, and that's not even the tip of the iceberg. However, let's talk about Infinite's technical aspects first.

In terms of gameplay, Bioshock Infinite is similar to the first entry, with a few subtle as well as significant differences: in place of the iconic Plasmids, gene-altering fluids players could inject themselves with to learn new powers, we have Vigors, special elixirs that grant Booker unique skills. Instead of Adam being used to purchase abilities, you pay with regular currency - in this case, coins called Silver Eagles that Booker will find as he explores Columbia. Eve isn't used either for Vigors - "Salt", as the energy is referred to as, is harnessed to use Booker's special abilities. Items like medkits or Eve hypos that players could previously stock up on to replenish their health or energy cannot be stored either, and are automatically used as Booker finds them. Certain foods and beverages can still be consumed though, with the usual varying effects on your health and Salt level. There also aren't any hacking minigames of any sort for players to use when trying to hack turrets.  Players expecting to hoard a slew of deadly weaponry will be disappointed that they can only carry two weapons at a time, but with all these alterations there are plenty that compensate.

New to the series is Booker's ability to equip up to four pieces of gear - in form of hats, shirts, pants, and boots - that he finds while exploring the vast locales of Columbia, which essentially replace the tonic slots of the previous games in their function. Pieces of gear each come with their passive abilities Booker can use when equipped, from gear that increases the effectiveness of melee attacks to gear that adds additional damage when certain Vigors are used. Since Vigors, in contrast to Plasmids, can be purchased and upgraded with regular currency, customizing these powerful - and somewhat costly - abilities isn't as restrained as before. Upgrades for weapons can also be purchased at special vending machines, removing the tedium from the process, and any upgrades purchased for weapons will be applied to all weapons of that type as you find them, allowing you change your loadout as you need without fears of being punished.

Vigors automatically come with two set abilities as well: a basic use, and an alternate power that can be deployed when your attack is charged, usually in the form of traps that players can set on the field. The ever-popular Murder of Crows' alternate power will ensnare enemies in a mob of crows that brutally eviscerate them. Shock Jockey, on the other hand, will deploy small clusters that electrocute enemies that step on them; upgrading this ability can even create a deadly field of electrical energy. Devil's Kiss, a personal favorite of mine, will allow Booker to plant explosive mines on the field, and there are many other abilities that never feel useless.

Skills like Possession will prove useful by temporarily turning any enemies - including turrets and other mechanical foes - into allies. You can even use it to loot a few extra coins from vending machines! In tandem with these skills comes a rechargeable bioshield that Booker will acquire to soak up a limited amount of damage at no risk of being physically harmed. Once it's depleted however, Booker will be susceptible to damage and have to take cover to recharge it. Last but certainly not least, special vials known as Infusions that players will find scattered throughout Columbia will allow you to permanently augment one of three stats of Booker's, be it his health, Salt, or shield levels, tailoring it to your style of gameplay.

The weapon arsenal is also impressive and diverse, with traditional weapons like pistols and machine guns to Huntsman carbines, volley guns, and the Pepper Mill, a Gatling gun players will always enjoy using. Each comes with their own strengths and drawbacks, and in some cases is tailor-made for certain enemy types that players will encounter. The game's signature Sky-Hook, a melee weapon that doubles as a transportation apparatus, is no simple replacement for the wrench; this tool can be used in combat for gruesome finishers and was a personal favorite of mine to use in close combat. This tool also diversifies the battlefield with the ability to connect to hooks and special rails called Sky-lines Booker can use to reach higher altitudes. It works rather seamlessly and isn't as complicated as it looks; you'll find yourself pouncing on enemies from above as well as escaping to different positions for tactical advantages. Otherwise, some of these weapons are only attainable as you progress to certain points in the game, but with all the skills at Booker's arsenal, you'll always welcome rather than shun the challenges that Infinite tosses at you... when you aren't marveling at how impressively the world of Columbia and its denizens have been crafted.

To say that Columbia is breathtakingly rendered is an understatement, especially on PC. A steampunk-inspired aesthetic transforms the Americana iconography into something simultaneously fascinating and bizarre; for every wonderfully designed spectacle, from a jubilant carnival rife with attractions for players to marvel in, mechanical horses, automatons, and airships soaring throughout the sky, there's racist propaganda and hints of inequality just beneath the veneer of perfection. Infinite brilliantly showcases just how isolated the majority of Columbia's citizens have become in its atmosphere, from a holy trinity of statues made in the visage of the Founding Fathers to a statue dedicated to John Wilkes Booth. Glowing and sanitized bathrooms for "whites" further emphasize the racial inequality when one compares them to the filthy and decrepit bathrooms reserved for "coloreds", and there's nary a person of color you won't meet forced to handle otherwise unappealing chores while the Angloid crowd revels in excess. A wealth of silent films promoting racist stereotypes and anti-intellectual messages of conformity epitomize the vision of Comstock, who created Columbia as an "ark" to escape the "Sodom" below, as the Union is constantly referred to as.

Powerful mechs called Patriots, fashioned in the visage of George Washington, roam the streets, with angel wings made from the American flag, and spout pseudo religious quotes while unloading dozens of rounds on Booker in combat. There are gigantic mechanized blimps called mosquitoes that fire volleys of powerful attacks, as well as the traditional turrets Booker will have to deal with. The signature Handymen - hulking cyborgs that seem like an analogue for Big Daddies - will pursue you relentlessly in combat. The war-ravaged districts of Columbia will astound and horrify, as the toll of the war between Comstock's ruling party and the rebel Vox Populi begins to transform the once extravagant supremacist utopia into a desolate wasteland.

Unlike the previous entries in the Bioshock franchise, the inhabitants are far from mindless rogues and splicers, but an organic community that responds to Booker's actions realistically. Most NPC's that Booker will encounter, be it bartenders, vendors, or random inhabitants crowded up next to a bonfire, will remain neutral and in some cases interact with Booker as he passes by them. However, if Booker steals an item or starts a fight he will find himself in an action-packed brawl. Little moments like these will bring life and focus to Bioshock Infinite that some have argued was missing from the first entry, in spite of its impressive environment. However, nothing brings more life to Bioshock Infinite than Elizabeth herself.

As the daughter of Comstock, she's been locked in a tower and guarded by a mechanical abomination known only as Songbird for mysterious reasons, one of them being her ability to open "tears" in reality that lead to other dimensions. However, Elizabeth is far from a damsel in distress, and will be a critical ally to Booker during their misadventures throughout Columbia. She'll comment on various things she notices, as well as find useful items for Booker to use, from lockpicks to health items, even money. She'll point out unusual objects for Booker to examine, interact with the inhabitants of Columbia and never feel like a nuisance. In combat, her usefulness shines: she'll find ammo and toss it to Booker when his clip runs low, as well as medkits to replenish his health and even Salt to replenish his energy. She can even follow Booker when he uses the Sky-Hook, preventing players from feeling inhibited by her presence when exploring the locales of Columbia. Her most useful skill however, involves the strange power that she possesses.

Tears, or rifts in spacetime, function both as an important narrative component and as a gameplay aspect that can dramatically alter the battlefield. Players will spot objects that would otherwise exist in a different reality that Elizabeth can unveil with her powers for Booker to use at his exposal. Some of these, like crates carrying medkits or large obstructions that function as cover, provide great defensive use. Others, like friendly turrets and Patriots, provide Booker an offensive edge to turn the tide against a normally overwhelming wave of foes. To prevent the ability from being abused however, Elizabeth can only open one tear at a time. Nonetheless it's an incredibly useful ability that players undoubtedly will need to use wisely when the action reaches a fever pitch later on in the game.

In spite of all these interesting positives, what Bioshock Infinite will be remembered for most of all is its thought-provoking and mind-bending story that evolves from a tale about the demise of an idyllic society into a metaphysical journey of cause-and-effect that brilliantly shows both sides of the war in all its nuances in several different perspectives. While it presents a fair view in its dissection of political extremism and avoids taking the bait numerous critics have accused the game of, the material nonetheless can become controversial and more potent elements like race relations and religion aren't necessarily given the depth the game seems to promise in the beginning, although the voxophones you'll find - audio logs - will provide a rich sense of backstory and insight into the mind of its pivotal characters, as well as Columbia in general. The set pieces that Booker will discover - especially a museum devoted to two reimagined historical events - will capture the spirit of the game's central themes.

The player is rewarded in little moments throughout the game where Booker's choices have an interesting effect on the events occurring, but nothing game-changing should be expected; the relationship Booker shares with Elizabeth, and her reactions, only serves to complement it. The incredibly complex narrative also seems to get lost within metaphysical arguments about reality and existentialism that nonetheless can become convoluted and stretch its believability thin. Yet, Infinite manages to remain cohesive, no matter how loose the threads tying the events together seem to become.

In closing, I must say that I finished this game and remained speechless for several minutes, pondering all that I'd seen in the game's final events. While Booker was clearly a catalyst in this narrative, one could not help but realize through their interactions that Elizabeth, in all her glory, was the constant. The ways in which she evolves among an otherwise exceptional cast of characters proves that she's more than a gimmick or MacGuffin. She's the heir to a new legacy and you've witnessed her arrival. An equally awe-inspiring world, entertaining gameplay mechanics, and a profound story that subverts all that we took for granted with aplomb reminds us of why we loved the first Bioshock. Infinite never tries to recreate that magic though, instead soaring on its own terms while paving new ground for the franchise. It's the same, yet it's different, and will have its audience talking long after the next generation of games have hit the shelves.

9.75/10

Comments
  • Wow. Great job, Levon. You're review is one of the best I've seen here for any game, period. Great job, again.

  • Cube said I'd like this review, and he was right.

  • Mod

    Brilliant, brilliant review! And exceptionally in depth.

  • a great review man

  • a great review man

  • Really great review man! I honestly wish I was able to write reviews that sounded as professional as this! :D