Friday, April 5, 2013

Infinitely Biological

I just finished BioShock Infinite an hour or so ago and wanted to at least get this article started while everything was still very fresh in my mind.

BioShock Infinite is an amazing game, an amazing experience, and everyone should play it.

I would absolutely say that BI is right up there with Portal 2, Deus Ex: Human Revolution and the original BioShock as one of the best games made in the past ten years, easily.

I ordinarily do not pre-order games anymore, post-Brink (of which I shall never speak again), but when the first reviews started to roll in on the Monday (for the Tuesday release), specifically 10 / 10 on Destructoid and 91% at PC Gamer (honestly I think that's a tad low, but it's still a great score), I figured that since it was going to be a light gaming year (unless TESO or Neverwinter rocks then this is basically it until Watch Dogs and South Park: The Stick of Truth at the end of the year) I would go in on it, especially since GreenManGaming were doing a very nice deal of $60 + $15 credit + X-Com: Enemy Unknown + The Darkness 2.

That first night I loaded it up and expected to do what I usually do which is mess around for a few minutes, have a bit of a look around and then put it to bed with an expectation of picking it back up again in a few weeks or maybe a couple of months.  As someone is fond of constantly reminding me, I have yet to finish BioShock 2 and that came out several years ago.  I figured BioShock Infinite would probably go the same way.

It did not.

Once I started playing I just could not stop.

BioShock Infinite is a breathtakingly beautiful game.  Visually, the art style just pops and has sex with your eyes everywhere you look; from hummingbirds buzzing around, to intricate signs and paintings, to the buildings slowly moving up and down, there is always something new and vibrant to look at.  The floating city of Columbia is nothing less than a feast for your eyes.

Gameplay-wise, there isn't much different here from the original BioShock, at least not initially.  One hand carries your weapon du jour (you can have two equipped at once and switch from one to the other via a hotkey), whilst the other houses your current vigor (like weapons, you can have two equipped and can swap at will).  Vigors are essentially plasmids from the original BioShock (now powered by salts, not Eve), fantastic abilities which verge on magic in some cases, with varied effects.  I don't really want to spoil these here because they are quite fun, but broadly you can lift enemies in the air or surround them with a murderous...murder...of crows, for two examples.  In addition, if you hold down the button for them it will instead place a "trap" version of the power on the ground which will then trigger the next time an enemy walks over it.  This is fairly useless early on, but becomes more important down the line when it helps to at least have a basic plan other than running into the middle of a pack of enemies, shouting "Leeroy!" and toting your gun.

With the introduction of the skyrails though, all bets are off.  These are essentially train tracks in the sky, and you can zoom along them (forward or back, fast or slow) using your skyhook (which also nicely doubles as your melee weapon) and even land on enemies when you dismount, which will usually kill them or at least make them think intensely about their chosen career path.  This element of verticality literally brings a whole new dimension to combat, and changes zones from being simple straight progressions to something much more open and engaging.

The real standout aspect of the game though, as with the original BioShock, is the story.

You play as Booker DeWitt, a disgraced former Pinkerton agent (think Blackwater but turn of the century) down on his luck, hired by persons unknown to retrieve a woman called Elizabeth which will erase some rather considerable debts you have incurred.  I am certainly not going to spoil the story here, other than to say it is mind-bending, intricate, and nothing other than a masterpiece.  I think it is something that will be the new gold standard when it comes to story-based shooters, and perhaps just stories in games altogether.  If I have one criticism (and this seems to be a common point shared by others) it's that you get the story doled out in pieces fairly regularly for the first 3/4 or so of the game, and then in the last thirty minutes the narrative just goes into overdrive and it's story, story, story, thrown at you left and right.  For someone like me, who is a sucker for a good story that is well told, then it was less of an issue, but even so it still felt a little jarring in places.  Moving some of the story elements a little further back into the game might have helped a bit with this sense of overload near the end.

Coupled with the story is Elizabeth herself, arguably the best part of the game and perhaps more important than Booker himself.  She is with you for most of the game (with some notable exceptions), and might be one of the best characters I have seen in any game.  Her mannerisms, her facial expressions, everything about her screams that she is just a person and not a character in a game.  She is not targeted in combat (other than some scripted sequences) so you do not have to babysit her, and she will assist you when engaged against enemies.  If you are taking some hits she will sometimes toss you health, if you are low on salts she will often find some for you, and she can also find ammo and sometime even money.  In addition, she will spot the more powerful enemy types and mark them on the screen for a short time so you know where they are.  She can even pick locks for you, revealing hidden areas.  In short, she is a delight, to the point where you genuinely miss her presence during those periods of the game when she is not with you.

Elizabeth's other main ability is the ability to open tears into other universes and bring things through to help you.  These could be weapons, cover, sometimes even guardians that will protect you for a short time.  Making the best use of these tears can sometimes be challenging, and while there is no limit to the amount Elizabeth can open for you, she can only open one at a time.  Of course, you also need to find out why Elizabeth has this ability in the first place...

I also want to mention the voice acting, which is phenomenal.  Veteran voice actor Troy Baker voices Booker, and newcomer Courtnee Draper is the voice of Elizabeth; both turn in accomplished performances.  Draper particularly shines as Elizabeth, bringing true depth and emotion to what could have been just another generic game companion.  Jennifer Hale, better known as the Female Commander Shepard from the Mass Effect series, also makes an appearance as Rosalind Lutece, and a personal favourite of mine, Keith Szarabajka, plays Cornelius Slate (but to me he will always be Holtz from Angel).

As I said I am not going to spoil anyone here and reveal any plot details, but the ending of the game really elevates it from being great to truly exceptional.  BioShock's ending was criticised quite heavily in some quarters for being something of an anticlimax and Irrational have not made the same mistake twice, crafting a story that twists and turns but has real impact and a genuine resolution at the end.  It is so good that I am considering buying the season pass for the DLC (which is unheard of for me), because if all the three announced pieces of content are up to the standard of the main game then I have absolutely no problem in doing so.  Like Oliver Twist, I just want more - more Columbia, more Elizabeth, more Booker, more everything.

In an era where some game companies are happy to produce shit and then try to charge you through the nose for it (looking at you EA), BioShock Infinite stands out as one of the best games I have ever played.  I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Would you kindly go pick it up?

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