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BioShock Infinite (PC) Review

Excellent Game

BioShock Infinite Review

I’ll state it upfront: This game will be on my Game of the Year shortlist without a doubt and it’s set a very high bar for the remainder of this year across the board. I know that’s a bold claim and challenge considering this only March as I write this review but that’s the kind of impression this game has left with me. I have the same feeling coming off this game as I did after I had finished playing the first Bioshock. I’d played a game that almost transcended the genre and was something special. Different. Bioshock 2 was a solid game but felt an overglorified excuse to revisit Rapture which was fine by me.

You see all those high review scores and such out there right now? Believe them. My review will be added to that pile.

You see my friend and colleague Gary’s review of the console version?

I could easily co-sign that, copy and paste it, add a few PC centric comments and a few additional thoughts and call it a day but I’ll try and do better than just that.

He and I both agree that this game met all expectations and at least equaled if not surpassed the original Bioshock across the boards.

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The developers made a very wise decision opting to go in a completely different direction with location and time period vs the previous games. It’s fresh and different but it’s still Bioshock.

It’s tempting for me to sign off on this game right now as Game of the Year but that may very well be premature. It’s going to take something very special for me to unseat this by year’s end but you never know.

With this game, Ken Levine and his team of developers weren’t kidding. They went from something new and different while still keeping the broad concepts of what makes a Bioshock game in tact.

Instead of the dark and often times confined spaces of the underwater world Rapture, this games takes us high up into the cloud into the gorgeous flying city of Columbia, a city that’s a cross between Bespin, cyberpunk, and the World Fair’s of yesteryear. Think circa 1890 thereabouts in terms of appearance.

 

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GRAPHICS:

Incredible art direction and downright gorgeous attention to detail. There are a number of times where the player will be encouraged to take their time, soak it all in, and take it all in and that’s welcome. More than once I felt my jaw involuntarily start to part when I took in some of the diverse and vast skyscapes and areas. The best news of all is: Every area you go in to is distinct and different. Characters in the game are well drawn and distinct and it’s clear every character in the game was shown some tender lovin’ care but no character stands out more than Elizabeth with her facial reactions and body language throughout the game. She has moments throughout the game where she reacts like a real person would.

Columbia is a gorgeous and diverse place begging to be explored. This is a place and concept that could easily be expanded for an in depth, Elder Scrolls style role playing game. It’s that impressive. Lots of gorgeous color, different areas, jaw dropping skyscapes and vastness. I was in no hurry to move on because I was just enjoying taking in the myriad of different sights. I can’t say enough about the attention to detail in this game.

The game looks good on the consoles. The game looks absolutely incredible maxed out on the PC and it’s one of the best looking games the PC has seen yet summed all up. The art direction is as good as it gets.

This game is an eye candy show off piece but thankfully there’s so much more under the jaw droppingly gorgeous surface. All the menu options PC gamers look for are here. No quickie console portitis anywhere to be seen here with this title.

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AUDIO:

The sound design is critical for Bioshock games and this one doesn’t disappoint. They’ll be winning awards for this from the top flight voice acting of the leads to the source music (including some deliberate anachronisms) to the creaking of wood. There’s an incredible attention to detail in this game and the audio was not skimped. Series veteran Garry Schyman returns for the musical score duties.

Like the previous games, audio is critical whether it be talking to characters, listening to NPCs dropping hints, and the aforementioned critical “listen to voxaphones and watch kinescopes” to really get a full sense of the story and the location. Source music abounds and it’s use and application are genius.

They nailed the 1912 period with the music except for some humorous and deliberate anachronisms on the music that are jarring when they show up but remember, this is Bioshock, it happens on purpose and when you hear these instances it’s an immediate tip off to the player that things aren’t what they seem.

The music direction couldn’t be executed better. The game knows when to let the music work (source and score) and it also knows when to be silent. “Judicious silence” is a dying art form in movies and games so the music and sound direction on this really impressed me.

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GAMEPLAY:

It’s Bioshock refined and in the best form yet.

Vigors replace plasmids, Gear replaces Adam all broadly speaking. Satisfying FPS gameplay that admittedly doesn’t break any new ground but thankfully doesn’t spoil the ground, either.

Unlike the previous games, the wider and expansive areas of Columbia mean more intense fights many of which take place during the course of flight and on skyhooks which is just an awesome addition to the game.

I found it quickly addicting and satisfying to swoop down on targets from the skyhook. There’s a much wider and more open dynamic to the fights and overall gameplay in this game vs the previous Bioshocks. Enemies have no problems trying to use the skyhook angle on you as well so be warned.

Many players will gravitate towards their favorite gun and vigor combos. I LOVED the crows but you really get a neat bag of tricks to play with and there are enemies and circumstances that will dictate the need to alternate abilities.

No regenerating health but regenerating shields. I’m happy to see that since too many games rely on the easy regenerating health concept.

Elizabeth is going to get mentioned in every section of this review because she contributes something meaningful to every aspect of this game.

In the gameplay sense she will scout and find items that you may not have seen “there’s a lockpick over here” and occasionally she’ll find health, money, and ammo for you that she’ll toss at you and catch even in mid fight. She saved my skin more than once. I missed her during parts of the game when she was not present.

Growing consensus on this game is that “Hard” is actually the best difficulty to play at for the best give and take balance. This is unusual. Typically “Normal” or the equivalent thereof is the sweet spot for most games. Take it under advisement.

BioShock Infinite Screenshot 05

STORY:

There’s no way I can describe this story without writing a phone book full of spoilers and riddles.

In typical Bioshock form you start with a deceptively simple looking narrative. You’re Booker DeWitt being sent to go catch this girl to pay off a gambling debt. The girl lives in a sky city named Columbia and off you go to fetch her.

Believe you me: That’s not even scraping the tip of the iceberg.

It’s an overwhelming, convoluted, complicated story line loaded with political and religious satire and commentary as you’d expect from a Bioshock game. The overall story is very wide sweeping and satisfying but admittedly there’s a point in the story where you have to deal with a certain gun dealer and it’s at the point for a lot of people including me that the story tends to go off the rails a little bit. When the multiverse, parallel worlds, and time travel concepts all come out you’d better hold on tight, take your time, and pay very close attention to everything that’s said and done. As is typical for a Bioshock game: Nothing is trivial. Everything matters. Everything you see, hear, touch, or do matters and means something.

It ultimately comes together quite well given all the “throw this at the wall and see what sticks” concepts the game throws at you but I wouldn’t have minded seeing the writing and narrative tightened up a bit more.

Certain concepts that get employed by the time you get to this gun dealer section, and I’m trying to present this as spoiler free as I can, almost offer too convenient of plot devices to suddenly change certain characters on a whim and so forth to shoehorn you down a certain path that the story demands.

It ultimately works and if you’re paying attention and picking up voxaphones and watching kinescopes to get more depth and backstory, and I can’t recommend this highly enough. It’s critical to avoid being utterly baffled and clueless otherwise. The more you have a basic grasp on what’s happening the more impact the “big Bioshock-esque” reveal ending will have for you. You’re shortchanging yourself if you rush and blaze through this game like it’s a Call of Duty game. Don’t do it!

It will be interesting to see what the planned single player DLCs will do for this game in terms of fleshing out some of the story and narrative and frankly it needs to some for the sake of coherency.

BioShock Infinite Screenshot 06

I can’t say enough about the strength of the characters and especially the two leads: Booker your character and Elizabeth who is far more than just some sidekick. Her character’s facial animations alone make you empathize with her to say nothing about the stellar voice acting. The devs deliberately had the two voice actors spend time together and built the game around them and their dialog and it shows. There’s a natural and organic flow of dialog between the two characters that I’ve never encountered before in a game.

Elizabeth is a special character that I actually felt bad during one point during the plot when she she rightfully got angry with Booker aka “me.” So that’s telling that I actually cared about the character that much. Well done!

Another difference is: You aren’t stuck protecting some wimpy sidekick which can be an annoying contrivance when it shows up in some games.

Elizabeth takes care of herself just fine although the enemies really don’t attack her directly which is a missing dynamic although based on the story itself it makes sense.

If anything, the case could be made that she protects you and Booker is almost more her “sidekick” than she is his. Sidekick really doesn’t apply honestly and that is also a refreshing change in dynamic.

Overall I want to emphasize that the story is top notch and better than what I see coming out of Hollywood or many books written these days.

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COMPLAINTS:

Quibbles and observations. No serious complaints except for this:

Save system. A nebulous automatic checkpoint save system that you have to keep a keen eye out for on the upper right corner of the screen or risk losing some progress. I know that some people think auto saving is lame but surely a more coherent and useful save system could have been/could be incorporated into this game than this.

Too much fetching and back tracking. It’s not the end of the world because there’s sidequests and optional missions but some of the fetching and back tracking definitely had the feeling of “let’s artificially bloat this game time” to me.

As stated before, some of the story telling narrative could have stood to have been tightened and refined a bit more. There’s an obvious point in the game when you are dealing with a certain arms dealer and after Elizabeth rightfully gets angry at you where the story threatens to jump off the rails and flirts with it several times from that point forward before somehow gathering itself together well enough for the big payoff reveal ending.

Somehow they make it all work despite itself and despite a mishmash of multiverse, parallel universe, time travel, and a partridge in a pear tree hodge podge of concepts crammed in for good measure. It’s honestly too much at once and I’ve seen too many lazy writers in the past use those concepts for easy cop outs and backdoors. So far I can’t level that charge at the writers of these games although there are certain characters who change and have their base motivations seemingly change thanks to those machinations that I could make the case for an easy cop out and I’m hoping the DLCs will address that.

The storyline is complicated and convoluted enough that the devs back themselves up against a wall. Alternate endings would have been a nightmare to try and pull off coming out of the story that they tell through the course of this game. So there’s only one ending no matter what. That doesn’t bother me in and of itself.

What does disappoint me is that there’s at least one deliberate choice that you make as Booker fairly early on after meeting Elizabeth that in most games and especially in Bioshock games you’re thinking “Wow, this choice is going to affect the ending and affect things that happen from here on out. Which should I choose?” That deliberation is what the devs were shooting for. Unfortunately, it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans worth of difference and that’s not what I expect from a game named Bioshock.

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The last fight. Nothing wrong with it except for an obvious and sudden steep increase in difficulty for it vs everything prior to it. The steepness varies depending on the level of difficulty you’ve chosen but it’s still steep and significant.

Expect to die many times during the course of that fight. To be fair, I played at the hardest difficulty, 1999 mode, but I’ve heard from plenty of people playing at the other difficulties that a very noticeable spike took place for them when it came to that fight. One can look around at other reviews and on gaming forums and see that get mentioned quite a bit from people playing on all the difficulties so it’s a known quantity.

Bottom line: That fight is considerably more challenging than anything that happens prior to it. Think J Curve in terms of difference.

The two weapon limit. It honestly didn’t bother me but I can sympathize with the folks from whom it did. For example, Gary here at TVE who wrote our console version review of BI wrote:

“There is one thing I dislike though, that the previous games in the series had: the ability to carry more than two weapons. I liked being able to pick up every weapon type I saw and being able to hold on to it for use later. No, that may not be realistic, but then this is a game set in 1912 that takes place in a floating city where people can hurl crows out of their hands and eating a hot dog helps heal gunshot wounds.”

I can’t dispute that. I’m not sure why they limited the player to two guns at that rate except perhaps they figured it would make the game too easy and make the character too much of a Superman. It didn’t really bother me although there were times in the game where I wouldn’t have minded the convenience of switching off on the fly.

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CONCLUSION:

I’m tempted to make this my Game of the Year right now and call it a day but I write this review only in March so that would be silly and premature since there are many more good and possibly great games coming out in 2013 but I will say this: Those games have their work cut out for them to equal let alone surpass some of the gaming moments that happen in this that people will be talking about for years to come like they still do on the original Bioshock.

Story, strength of characters, gorgeous production values and attention to detail across the boards make this one of the best games to have come out in a long time and something that will have lasting value for gamers for years to come.

It’s a special experience that exemplifies all the best things about video games and entertainment in general.

BioShock Infinite gets a five out of five: EXCELLENT.

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