the artistry and psychology of gaming


Bioshock Infinite Review: Part 1

Bioshock Infinite Review: Part 1

Patriot’s Day. For those of you outside the great state of Massachusetts (and… for some reason Wisconsin), Patriots Day commemorates the battles of Lexington and Concord; the “shot heard ’round the world” beginning of the American Revolutionary War that ultimately led to the founding of these United States. Patriots Day is an annual institution for us here in Massachusetts, where we can reflect on our pasts to see just how far we’ve come as a union; reexamining what exactly that small oppressed militia was fighting for all those years ago, and reaffirming our own beliefs and ideals as constants, despite the ever changing-world of variables around us.

Another more recent institution within the great state of Massachusetts is Irrational Games; subsidiary of 2K Games, and creators of Bioshock Infinite. Actually… they’re about 3 blocks away from my house, so unless anyone notes otherwise this will effectively be the closest review of Infinite available by proximity to the game’s origins. That’s not really relevant; I just find it funny.

Whether convenient to my own narrative or not, Bioshock Infinite actually shares a lot in common with the battles of Lexington and Concord; they are both deeply rooted in American history, they were by no means perfectly executed, they each were the result of a plan a long time in coming (good lord, delayed 3 times?), and each are representative of change to their surrounding circumstances; both mechanically and symbolically to similar effect.

To avoid unwanted spoilers, I’ve decided to break this review in two; this part will be written for those that have and have not yet experienced the game. To save you some confusion at the outset; while not without its own flaws, I adore Bioshock Infinite, and encourage anyone out there to give it a try, even if it falls in a genre you don’t always care to play through. The rest of this article will try to help tell you why I believe that on a mechanical/thematic level.

Part 2 is of course an unapologetic spoiler-fest where concepts in part 1 are expanded on, focusing heavily on story, meaning, and key inclusions along the journey. Would you kindly avoid it until you’ve played the game?

With that out of the way, let’s begin!

A City Upon Above a Hill

It may be a bit too early to dive into religion just yet, but it’s helpful to note the phrase “city on a hill” originates from the parables of salt and light (two concepts also familiar to Infinite‘s story) as part of the Gospel of Matthew, referring in many ways to an ideal governing state. Well, technically Jesus (by way of Matthew) meant something else, but that hasn’t stopped the term from appearing in American politics; the earliest use coming from Governor John Winthrop (a founding member of the Massachusetts Bay Colony) in his 1630 sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” in reference to Boston. It is this same principle that fuels the floating city of Columbia (named after the female version of Uncle Sam), albeit to an extreme; a beacon of light to shine over the world, designed to spread American exceptionalism and morality across the globe.

Columbia  is in many ways the “Anti-Rapture” (Rapture being the location of the first Bioshock); a setting not just physically divided (one floating among the clouds, with the other at the bottom of the sea), but founded on opposing ideologies to form a perfect society. Whereas Rapture was the product of Laissez-faire economics and opportunism, Columbia is principled by entitlement and fatalism (… and yes, that also means that like Boston’s Puritans, they’re a bunch of racists). Where Rapture was built to hide itself away from the world, Columbia was originally constructed with outward expansion in mind. It’s fascinating to observe the intricate details that separate the foundations of these two settings, almost as equally as it is to observe that looming behind their ideals awaits a similar outcome. Of course, another thing Columbia has going is it’s also a lot prettier.

Take a guess at who has the larger statue…Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, or Comstock?

Columbia is about as vibrant as any FPS will ever get; a geometrical marvel to observe with gorgeous splashes of color and cheerful adornments in every direction. The game world is constantly moving, even when you are not; with people walking the streets, conversations you can overhear starting in mid-sentence, disconnected buildings bobbing to and fro in the air, and docking at locations on schedule (although time is more or less an illusion in the game; you’re free to take as much or as little time as you’d like without any nasty side effects). While Rapture has already fallen to its dystopian state, Columbia offers a fully functioning civilization filled with shiny happy people (it’s somewhat refreshing that not everyone you meet wants to kill you) that make the surreal setting of the clouds seem almost obtainable; maybe a go at being a little less super-racist, but under the right settings, it might actually work out… provided we can muster the science to “figure out the floating city bit,” as Booker puts it.

The spectacle of Columbia is one that never grows tiresome either, as its scenery offers welcome changes from area to area. Your campaign through Columbia will bring your through several larger areas, each with their own aesthetic designs, color schemes, and brightness filters unique to that location; and while you will only be journeying through each of these areas once, they are no less memorable for the experiences they provide.

Red…is the price of liberty

Of course, the game is by no means roses and sunshine alone. The bright colors of Infinite are not always put to happy use; the game is also vividly grotesque during times of combat, as our own Ali Nazifpour has previously mentioned. Blood splatters everywhere, necks will snap, heads will explode, bodies will char, bits of flesh will be torn by ravenous birds… the game is gorgeously violent. The Bioshock series has always at some level dealt with the concept of extremism, to the point where I personally wonder if its focus on violence has become simply another avenue to exploit its extremist tendencies outside of the story and setting.

One really can’t get too far in a video game review without talking about game play, although in terms of praises, this may be Infinite‘s weakest link, while still being a net positive overall. The game frequently jumps between tranquil exploration and frantic combat, which is beneficial to a degree (it helps the player to take in the beauty of their surroundings after all), although for a large portion of the middle most every room you visit will require you clear out enemies before you can wander some more (a plus for some, a minus for others).

Combat I view as improved over the original Bioshock, shifting priorities to better focus on combo and choice-based tactics as opposed to the duck and cover standard of many other FPS games. While both Bioshock games feature guns and “magical” attacks (Bioshock‘s plasmids, and Infinite‘s vigors), they each value one over the other. Bioshock lets you hold on to every weapon type at once while needing to approach stationary machines to swap out plasmids. Infinite, on the other hand, allows you to hold on to each of your vigors (and on the PC they’re even readily interchangeable!), while limiting your weapons to your melee ‘skyhook’ (which is capable of some truly brutal kills), and two available weapon slots.

I’m a full advocate of Bucking Bronco, btw

I may in fact be in the minority here, but I’m actually in favor of the 2-weapon approach. I’d mentioned this earlier in a comment I made towards Gunstar Heroes, but I find value in providing an umbrella set of options to the player, but at the same time applying limitations to those options so to not burden the player in making strategic planning overly complex when the situation doesn’t necessarily call for it. Infinite maintains 13 different weapon types. Having all 13 of those weapons on hand can result in unnecessary pauses mid-battle; cycling through to pick a weapon of choice, seeing where you have the most ammo to spare, and then moving into a position that would benefit that weapon. Since none of the weapons really prove advantageous over others in any given situation, I think the limit is safely applied so that the urgency of the situation isn’t decreased, allowing the player to jump right in with the weapons they’ve grown most comfortable with. Vigors, on the other hand, I can see the benefit to keeping them on-hand at all times, as not only are they more entertaining to fire off than bullets, but there are also enemies immune to certain vigors (don’t use Devils Kiss on a Fireman, for example), they can be combined with other vigors for some inventive mischief, and vigors come with situational benefits as well (if you see soldiers standing in a puddle for example, hitting them with Shock Jockey will fry them).

Those same situational benefits extend to the rail system (where you can use your skyhook to hop onto a speedy track to either continue fighting, escape so your shield can charge back up, or make fantastic airborne melee strikes on unwitting enemies below), and Elizabeth’s “Tears” (which pull in other-dimensional objects that alter the battlefield, like cover spots, weapon/health stations, and robotic allies). Both of these inclusions offer some creative solutions to fighting outside the standard running and gunning, however they (along with incorporating a more dynamic need to change vigors) are somewhat underdeveloped in their overall use. The roller-coaster railways are terrific fun, and a welcome treat especially, however their presence doesn’t come up in the level design as much as I would’ve liked; just as there aren’t as many gasoline puddles, or water puddles, or electrical conduits in so many scenarios to make environmental use of the vigors as one would hope. These are all nice touches to help separate Infinite from standard FPS play, however that they all can be pretty effectively avoided (except perhaps on 1999 mode) still will likely leave many to resort to the duck & cover tactics the genre already employs so well.

This theme of underutilized functionality also spills over to enemy design (In particular the final uses of the Songbird and Boys of Silence come off as somewhat of a let-down, and I feel Handymen should’ve appeared more often), as well as to the non-combat exploration aspects of the game, where vigors only interact with the world in rare occasions (as opposed to the frequent machine hacking, rubble clearing, ice melting and more found in Rapture). The linear progression of the game limits much of the exploration to the immediate area through lockpicking, as well as slight backtracking to overcome several obstacles (locked chests, cyphers, secret switches). The game does not incorporate many puzzles into its game play, but one might also question whether or not the end product would be better off if they were present considering the mysterious “puzzle” of Columbia is far more interesting than any contrived lock & key mechanisms.

Really this may sound negative, but in reality many of these quibbles can be overlooked, as the end result is entirely serviceable, and still quite fun in most cases. In fact, it could be argued that many of these drawbacks I mention are in place to give the game its biggest chance at success. In an era where blood and guns take up the lion’s share of the games industry, incorporating them in Infinite may have given the game the freedom it needed to carve out its own complex narrative without great concern for its plausible market share. In structuring the game to provide tastes of so many ideas, players interested in experimenting will find an exciting set of tools to wreak havoc in a variety of exciting ways, while those that never fully diverge from a core FPS experience will be competent/invested enough to continue through the game, allowing it to maintain its strong focus on the game’s impressive narrative and major characters.

Voice of the people

Those characters are ultimately the glue that hold the experience together, and without them Infinite‘s floating city would simply come crashing down. With equal praises to writing, rendering, and voice acting, every character is wonderfully brought to life with emotive expressions, outstanding dialogue, and detailed backstories that are slowly expanded upon through in-game actions, and the aforementioned voxophone recordings (replaces Bioshock‘s audio diaries). Elizabeth is a triumph for video game characters, the Lutece twins are a whimsical mystery whenever they make an appearance, and Comstock is a man players will love to hate. Even Booker, who could’ve easily come off as the typical brooding gun-toting protagonist (or hell, an entirely silent protagonist like in Bioshock), comes off as endearing and likable. While I initially had my doubts about his mutterings, I immediately turned pro-Booker as soon as he learned what a voxophone was, saying “Just so we’re clear, I’m not paying for this.”

No really, thank God Elizabeth wasn’t a game-long escort mission

While there are other rewards with tangible benefits to the player scattered throughout Columbia (gear augmentations, ammo, money, infusions), it’s the voxophones that prove the most enjoyable to find, as they each reveal a tiny bit more insight into the greater mystery at hand. This devaluation of physical aid for expositional material is truly remarkable for how successful it becomes; far greater than the effect of the audio diaries prior. Of course, like Bioshock people may question Infinite‘s mode of storytelling, suggesting it may be better served as a movie, however this notion perhaps overemphasizes the game’s narrative (which is admittedly fantastic) without considering how so much is ultimately expanded on through interactive progression and discovery within the world at the hands of the player. Everyone has a stake in offering a deeper understanding of Columbia, from faction leaders like Fitzroy and Comstock, to a simple chef at the Blue Ribbon Restaurant, and such a feat wouldn’t be achievable in quite the same way in other mediums. Through your own interaction with the world, you really come to understand how the many citizens of Columbia live their lives, and under what morality.

Tear it all down

Morality really is a key theme in Bioshock Infinite despite that it doesn’t factor too much into the game play. Sure, morality is a key plot point within Columbia, in the founder’s attempts to protect the city’s “purity,” or in the reciprocal hatred feuling the Vox Populi rebellion, but these are just quality story beats. More importantly, morality is a concept that will impact the player in a few large ways before the game ends.

Much like Telltale’s Walking Dead from last year, Infinite is proof that morality in video games is one that is learning to evolve past its punishment/reward-based origins. A morality system typically includes a series of choices, the darker ones typically yielding a more profitable gain at the cost of your characters virtues, and good behavior likely rewarded with an alternate ending; such was also the case for Bioshock, where the player is confronted with the rather black and white decision to either save or harvest the little sisters. There is no alternate ending for Bioshock Infinite, and there are really only 3 decision points Booker is confronted with, each of which will not significantly alter the experience. They do, in fact have meaning, of which I will be addressing in Part 2, however it can be known that the outcome will remain the same.

Sure there are factions, but your own morality is not so clear cut.

Moreso than your actions, morality is something to react to when Infinite chooses to present it. Your first moral decision is (hopefully) obvious, making the less likely choice only attempted by those who would want to see what happens if they went along with it (likely on their second playthrough, no less). Perhaps both may be justifiable due to unforeseen complications, however that does not make the initial testing of one’s morality any less meaningful. Infinite proves that you don’t need a follow-up scene to be told that you had the right reaction to a decision; the important function was that you had a reaction, and a powerful one at that. Infinite offers such a subtle deconstruction of conventional morality in a video game while at the same time achieving its desired effect better than a bit of gold, or a special piece of gear ever could!


Bioshock Infinite is proof positive that an artistically-inclined video game experience doesn’t need to be limited to art-house games along the sidelines, and that games can still put their AAA-budgets to good use. Bioshock Infinite is not just a good game because it looks pretty, or has a neat plot twist, or incorporates some novel approaches to combat; it’s good because it does all that and more, weaving a narrative that builds with every step and action, not only foreshadowing its inevitable conclusion (oh, we’ll talk a lot more about the game’s extensive foreshadowing in part 2), but also by feeding off of the player expectations to think otherwise. Many of Infinite’s concepts will trade their meanings, defying not only their setting, and the series’ past, but their implications for video games as a whole, becoming as introspective as they are revolutionary in the process.

While the M rating is most assuredly accurate, Bioshock Infinite‘s story is truly one to behold for anyone wanting a compelling narrative, and the game itself isn’t too bad either. That’s it for Part 1 of my review, please be sure to check back on part 2 once you’ve completed the game, where I’ll be discussing story spoilers, creative exposition and fulfillment, and how one little pendant managed to change absolutely everything!

One Comment

  1. What’s up, of course this article is in fact pleasant and I have learned lot of things from it about blogging.

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