Balancing somewhere between retro and steampunk, Bioshock confronts us with disturbing dystopias that viciously find their way under your skin. In the first two games we explored Rapture, a city at the bottom of the sea. Bioshock Infinite takes us to a city in the clouds, Columbia. But that’s not the only difference.
“Bring us the girl, and we’ll wipe away your debt.” Booker DeWitt is being escorted to a lighthouse by two chatty persons in raincoats. This is where his mission starts. A flight of stairs and a not so subtle threat later, he reaches the top. It appears this isn’t just any lighthouse; it’s Booker’s ticket to Columbia.
After this first impression I was a bit disappointed by the graphics, in particular the textures. Exploring the world in detail doesn’t look as pretty as trailers suggested. It was, however, instantly apparent that this city in the clouds shares the typical Bioshock feel; even though brightly lit, its dark atmosphere is ever present. The inhabitants bring this city to life, almost like an incarnation of the American Dream, with their pastel clothing and almost nauseating sense of community. But you just know something’s horribly wrong, and it won’t take long before it shows its ugly face.
It turns out Columbia has an unhealthy devotion to its leader Comstock, who’s also referred to as The Prophet. He has visions of the future and has seen The False Shepherd will be the demise of Columbia as they know it, to be recognized by a mark on his hand. You’ve probably guessed it: Booker’s got this exact mark. If anybody finds out, there won’t be a warm welcome.
I can’t tell you much more about the story, since that would spoil the whole experience. Bioshock Infinite’s charm relies heavily on how the story unfolds, including learning more about Columbia’s history and politics. That doesn’t mean it’s ‘just’ a story-driven game. In fact, it relies more on shooting than its predecessors.
Bioshock Infinite’s game mechanics haven’t changed that much; basically it’s still mainly shoot ‘n loot with light RPG elements. The scale of battles has increased, though. Columbia is a much more open environment in comparison to Rapture, which was quite the claustrophobic experience. Not only do you fight more enemies simultaneously, you also face a bigger diversity of opponents.
Other than a wide range of guns to wield, you’ve got special powers and abilities at your disposal as well, respectively ‘Vigors’ and ‘Gears’. You can only carry two guns at a time, forcing you to consider your load out being capable of handling both long and short range battles. Vigors, too, can only be equipped in pairs, but are interchangeable at any moment. Like in Bioshock 2, they can be used at any time, and can be combined for devastating effects. Gears are special types of clothing that give you an edge in battle by enhancing strength or damage resistance. Four of these can be equipped at once.
Another addition that makes battles more diverse is the use of the railway system Columbia has for transport between different segments, using a grappling hook. This is also your melee weapon, capable of gruesome finishing moves. At high speeds you jump between rails and platforms, giving you the edge you’ll need.
The aforementioned girl also has a big part in fending off your opposition. After you’ve found her, she’ll give an extra dimension to your battles. Literally. She’s capable of opening ‘tears’, rips in reality that are portals to alternate universes. Among other things, allies and equipment can be brought from another dimension to ours. She’s also very helpful in finding health, salts (used for Vigors), cold hard cash, or lock picking. Probably the best use of a non playable partner in games so far, especially since the girl rarely blocks your path.
That being said, weapons and Vigors aren’t particularly well balanced. You’ll soon find your favorites and use these as much as possible. Bioshock Infinite never forces you to use a specific kind of strategy in certain occasions, other than enemies having weak spots or being resistant to some kinds of Vigors. This does numb down the experience to less than its full potential. Nit-picking maybe, but one does question if half of the Vigors wouldn’t have sufficed.
All you loot fanatics will be happy to know exploring every nook and cranny of the world will give you a great advantage in money, ammo, and equipment. I mentioned the textures not being fantastic, but the vivid setting of Bioshock Infinite and the striking soundtrack completely wipe away this first impression. False notes and spastic atonalities tie your nerves in a knot, while retrofied pop songs (think a jazz version of ‘Tainted Love’, or an old school orchestral version of ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’) add flavor to Columbia.
It didn’t take me more than half an hour to be completely engulfed by Bioshock Infinite, to the point to being almost unable to turn off my console. It’ll take about twelve hours to complete the story, leaving you with an unequaled sense of gratification after the grand finale. The ending literally gave me goose bumps – no game’s ever done that.
As far as I’m concerned, Bioshock Infinite surpasses its predecessors in terms of story, atmosphere, and gameplay. The setting and soundtrack swallow the player whole, nullifying the few minor flaws and missed opportunities, reaching an unequaled climax at the end. This is game of the year material – an instant classic.
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