BioShock Infinite

Somewhere Over The Rainbow…

 

Platform Reviewed: PC via Steam / Price: £29.99 / Time Played: 18+ hours

I do hope Anita Sarkeesian plays this game.

Elizabeth may not be the controllable character, but there’s no question that the tale being told is hers and hers alone. Elizabeth Comstock is the most curious of video game ladies; a victim who refuses to be victimised, a female whose purpose is to be free and assist in everything that Booker does, but never feels enslaved to his will. She is weak, and yet she is also very powerful. She is a million shades of a human being, wrapped in an enigma that only blows wide open in the closing segments. She is a complicated, fascinating woman. Women in video games? Elizabeth is one of the finest modern examples of how to depict women, because ultimately she is not an object, she is not merely a tool or a construct to further the narrative. She walks. She breathes. She reaches out. She is there where no-one else is. She is your mission, your saviour and to the end, she is much more than that.

BioShock Infinite is, in itself, complicated. It’s a mesh of so many genres and so many stories that it can be overwhelming, even when the game drops in a few cheeky jokes along the way, it’s easy to miss them in the muddle. One part fantasy fiction, one part American destruction, one part time travel, one part multiple universe theory and all this before you get to the fascinating segments that come along briefly, with a compelling ghost story, a betrayal story – the game never stops telling you its tall tale in the fascinating skyworld of Columbia, a place where the American Dream is born – and dies – in spectacular style. It starts slowly, gingerly, trying not to overload the player but before long, it is ultimately overwhelming and becomes a complex narrative that weaves itself into something without ever seemingly getting stuck in a knot. The mission – to save Elizabeth – is much more complex than it first appears, and Elizabeth herself never stops changing, as through it there are segments in which she goes missing, only for another version of her to reach through the void. Booker’s determination and focus on his mission seems crazy – and strange – but there is an ultimate conclusion and reasoning for this. In spite of all that goes on, it would appear that nothing is done without consequence, and nothing is flippantly thrown aside in the quest and thirst for knowledge.

If the story is deep, rich and complex, the visuals and sound are stunning. Whereas BioShock was dark, drab and grey, Infinite is bright, vibrant and alive – the very things that HD was made to deliver, and the game never ceases to stop delivering it. So much is individually made and rendered, placed so perfectly it seems to natural. You run and jump and hit the skyrails and take in the breathtaking scale, even though the game is ultimately very linear. It doesn’t matter, because the story is the key, and the world around is a device in which to render you in awe and ask you to gingerly look about, explore the few nooks and crannies available for hidden items, little treasures, fun stuff that adds to the whole experience. And even here, the game has some genuine surprises in store for you; ever thought you’d hear Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun in the game? You can! Musicians are hearing future music through the tears in the fabric of reality, and making it more tolerable for the Columbia you are in. It’s an incredible angle, that someone may have been making profit on such an outrageous universal cock-up, but it doesn’t feel cheesy. It reminds you that this is business; and they just used it to get ahead. The joke is primarily hearing Cyndi Lauper in the game and you do double-take for a moment as the tear closes up. Did that just actually happen? I’m pretty sure I didn’t imagine it! And no, but it’s more than that, I heard her much earlier and didn’t even realise it!

The vigors are a much-needed improvement on the old plasmid model, both inventive and dangerous in equal measure. Power comes at a cost, after all; and it’s here that the combat quickly stops being a simple run and gun affair and becomes something much more tactical. You can use crows, which are very powerful, but they don’t really distinguish friend from foe – meaning that you could make more work for yourself in the clean-up. Similarly, the charge is more direct; but depends on line of sight, and even then, get it wrong and you can find yourself in a precarious position thousands of feet in the air with nothing but gravity below. Most players will find themselves sticking to a set few vigors and weapons – personally, I favoured the Carbine and the Handcannon, with Possession and Charge on tap in the vigors department. But with so many options, you can play through in various ways and there is little punishment for it. Scavenge areas and there is plenty of ammo, plenty of coin and plenty of mechanised vendors to keep you stocked up on the important things, so it becomes more of a case of enjoying the experience.

That said, the game – via Elizabeth – often asks the important question; how can you enjoy violence? Whilst it is an ever-present force within Columbia, Elizabeth constantly asks the questions that most people wouldn’t dare ask. It is through her that the games violent revolutionary undertones become something more than just a convenient plot device; they become questionable, actions and consequences. As one character in the game falls to their own darkness, Elizabeth is herself called to kill; and this affects her deeply. We feel shocked. The victim has claimed a victim. The role is destroyed, the canvas ruined. It’s a bitter moment, but even later on, Elizabeth is forced to confront her own dark demons. Some of her own creation, some which were created for her – such as the gorgeous Songbird, a gigantic flying construct that is both beautiful and terrifying, and whom Elizabeth has a very complicated relationship with. You are shocked at every turn – not least the story but the racism, the subjugation, the slavery and the cruelty of it all. You learn that the Patriot machines may not be entirely mechanical, and your stomach turns. You go through a hallway into a propaganda-laden exhibit, and it’s frankly appalling to see the depictions, not least the language on offer. Racism is an ever-present subject as well; as well as an ever-present commentary on religion and politics and the way the two mingle so recklessly.

It’s asking the questions which makes the game come alive, because it challenges and wants to provoke discussion and debate. It’s not just another brainless shooter, not another pretty FPS – it’s so much more.

The supporting cast is enthralling, and the Lutece “twins”, Robert and Rosalind, are witty and clever without being overly dry and obvious. An ever-present anomaly, they deliver narrative, exposition, assistance and humour with devastating efficiency. The Voxophones provide a collection element both in terms of expanding the narrative and as items you want to hunt down, and the constant nods and winks to more modern music being sucked into such an era deliver something that most people will find amusing and charming in equal measure, with solid performances throughout. There’s no sense that anyone phoned this one in – they gave it their all, more than the hundred percent, and you quickly find yourself forgetting that Rosalind Lutece is voiced by Jennifer Hale, she of Female Shep in Mass Effect. You forget these are voice actors because they are so convincing and so polished that you can’t help but believe in the wild rollercoaster the game provides.

Even this doesn’t really end up scratching the surface of BioShock Infinite and even after two completions, I feel I’m in no position to say that I understand it all either. The ending is tragic, but not for the reasons you’d think, or expect, or predict. It’s a satisfyingly blunt conclusion that doesn’t shy from its ultimate goal to ensure no sequels can be possible. BioShock Infinite is what it is. It’s a one-off. It’s not meant to be repeated, or dragged out, merely… concluded, and you nod and accept the conclusion and all its inevitability.

There’s nothing much wrong with BioShock Infinite either, and what flaws there are feel much like nitpicking. Occasionally, very occasionally, Elizabeth gets in the way. Sometimes she’s unpredictable. Sometimes the skyrails aren’t quite as smooth, and sometimes the game can get its challenge level wrong (though fortunately, the penalty in normal mode is miniscule at best). Sometimes the game doesn’t prepare you for a long stretch without supplies. But it’s all very minor and doesn’t really last long enough to create a huge annoyance, just a minor slip on the floor before balance is regained.

It’s hard and hurts to not give this game a ten, because BioShock Infinite is one of those rare things; a game solidly built, well-designed, gorgeous to behold with an adult, intelligent narrative throughout and voice acting which is simply top-notch throughout. But there are flaws; and they do stumble the game, and must rob it of a point because it’s not entirely perfect and smooth throughout, even if it is only off by a fraction of a percent overall. In spite of that however, BioShock Infinite is probably evidence that the industry itself can do artistry and do it with a sublime, tongue-in-cheek sensibility. It’s always fascinating, always alive, bright and colourful. The world of Columbia is a frantic, fascinating place to be and at the heart of it lies not Booker, whose role is relatively straight-forward, but in Elizabeth – the victim, the idealist, the introvert, the anomaly, the woman which the world hinges on. Without her, without her constant presence, without her influence the game might have been good. With her, the game is utterly astounding. She defies subjection, a character who cannot be pinned down under a simple label. She evolves, she changes, she grows up. She is absolute; and her role in the end is as far more than the girl travelling with you.

She is absolutely brilliant. And if the industry doesn’t learn from this how women can be powerful, strong and exceptional characters in video games – then they all deserve to lose money and go out of business. Because I want more like Elizabeth. I want more powerful, strong, independent and free-spirited women in video games. They don’t all have to be ultra-feminist carpet-munching action clones of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Alien 3. Strong, powerful and wilful women can skip along in a tight corset and a blue dress, and not be typical female archetypes. They really can. Elizabeth does it.

So let’s have more like her. The gaming world would benefit greatly with a few more gates opened in that regard. You are the muscle, she is the magnificence.

It’s her game. And damned be any who say otherwise!

SUMMARY;

YAY!;

  • Astounding game overall.
  • Some of the best humour in a game in a long time!
  • A decent length campaign as well.
  • Elizabeth is one of the finest characters in gaming in a long, long time!

NAY!;

  • When Elizabeth isn’t there, the game falls a bit flat.
  • A few little reckless and overzealous difficulty spikes at times.
  • The skyrails aren’t quite as smooth as you’d like at times (no matter how awesome they are!).
  • Melee strikes are clunky, more clunky than you’d expect really…

Ey?;

  • Even after two completions, half the plot makes not a lick of sense.
  • I think some may find the racist comment in the raffle a little… disquieting.
  • Not really much punishment for dying until you turn on 1999 Mode.
  • Possession is nine tenths of survival and wealth in Columbia.
  • Oh, and I kept thinking of Columbia in Rocky Horror as well at times. That worries me deeply…

 

OVERALL CONCLUSION – Heads – or Tails? Heads – or Tails? (9 out of 10)

Forget I knocked off a mark because I found a fair few nitpicky faults. This is a truly fine, fine game and if you can overlook a few very minor complaints, BioShock Infinite is evidence the industry can, and does, provide quality content and can represent women in a fantastic light. The whole game is a star; just Elizabeth is the North Star, the brightest and the one that the journey simply cannot be possible without. A true potential future classic!

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3 Responses to “BioShock Infinite”

  1. dap005 says:

    'Oh, and I kept thinking of Columbia in Rocky Horror as well at times. That worries me deeply…' well you just sold the game to me. Honestly speaking though I am still reluctant. Whilst I find the fact that the game does a great thing by introducing these themes, well written characters and questioning the player's actions, I'm still unsure about the violence. I've always find better use of violence in non-interactive media, the best one that commentate on violence manages to detach its audience from the actions of its characters (Brecht style).

    Games no dealt have the potential to be just as thought provoking but I just find it hard to detach myself if I'm pressing the buttons to gorge an guy's eye out or dismembering on screen characters. It makes it worst that I'm suppose to have fun acting out the violence (it's essentially the gameplay after all). I get the same feeling from platinum's Madworld and Metal gear rising. Those games all intrigue me because they tackle the theme but as I get older (still have no idea why I enjoyed gory flash games and anime when I was younger) I'm finding violent games more the uncomfortable. Though pacifist options does help me get around this issue it isn't available in every game or it just won't make sense for a character (like booker in this instance).

    It is just strange how I only feel this way towards games and not films or comics etc, even if the game is smart and commentative in its handling of violence. Maybe I'm just being too pessimistic?

    • KamiOnGames says:

      I think sometimes being made to think about the violence is uncomfortable, but I am appreciative that they're trying to sort of give perspective on it. It's baby steps – we can't always have games like Shadow of Memories (aka Shadow of Destiny).

      I don't think you're being pessimistic. I think we all react differently when confronted with "consequences", or the perceived notion of it. Games aren't quite there with it yet, and perhaps that is the hurdle to overcome next; making it natural, rather than a forced juxtaposition.

      • dap005 says:

        I've no dealt that games will get there. They've already been some great example already like Shadow of Memories as you mentioned (which I've still yet to play, it's one of those games on my rare-games hunt radar) and another one I can think of, called 'I have no mouth, and I must scream.' Heck even Ebert's favourite game Cosmology of Kyoto has achieved a great feat with its handling of violence and poverty/disturbing imagery. These games maybe obscure and unknown to a lot of people but their existence shows that games truly can give another, thought provoking, perspective on violence (or just use it for non thrill-inducing needs) and hopefully will do so in future.

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