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Friday, August 1, 2014

BioShock Infinite

By on 10:09 AM

Back in 2007, the underwater city of Rapture made waves, joining a mature narrative with thoughtful, interesting action. BioShock was widely successful under the sea, and now stands Columbia, a city in the sky, built on jingoism and quantum physics. Have we found the Higgs Boson particle of video games in BioShock Infinite?
Columbia is a brilliantly realized flotilla of airships and bobbing hamlets, cross-stitched with steel railing acting as its sinew. The bourgeois live lives of leisure, partaking in parades, arcades, and sojourns to the beach while the rest of society suffers. Columbia’s privileged citizens might be racist dandies, but unlike Rapture’s deranged splicers, they aren’t all insane killers. This affords Booker DeWitt, the down on his luck, debt-owing main character, an occasional chance to play tourist and breathe in the wonderful atmosphere. Though the city is more façade than simulation, the effort to create something that feels like a real place pays off. Dividing combat from the plot swells lets Infinite maintain its quick pace without resorting to constant action, and allows room for exploration despite a fairly critical path to the finale.
Booker’s mission and background are as foggy as the opening boat ride, but you immediately know he has to retrieve a girl, Elizabeth, to clear debts unknown. Elizabeth seems to be the key to the kingdom, protected by her watchful guardian, the Songbird, and somehow tied to Zachary Comstock, the perceived hero of Columbia embroiled in battle with a revolutionary group called the Vox Populi. She’s a living illustration of the Pauli Exclusion Principle which states that two particles can’t occupy the same space at the same time. In this case, Elizabeth can’t simultaneously be the damsel in distress while she’s helping Booker kill people en masse. She’s more Alex Vance than Yorda, immune to the plights of any unscripted assault. The fact that she doesn’t really need your protection creates a noticeable gameplay disconnect, but it’s for the greater good of the overall flow. A near constant companion, Elizabeth is a great anchor in and out of combat, delivering delicious quips, riding the rails, or simply leaning against the scenery as you pillage everything in sight. Booker is cast not as a babysitter, but as a one-man army -- Elizabeth is his secret weapon.
Just as the story is always pushing onward, layering in nuance and backfilling with audio diaries, the combat also takes strong strides, with Elizabeth acting as a regulator of sorts. Her unique abilities that make her so vital to Columbia are also a great boon to Booker. She’ll throw him ammo and salts, which power Booker’s abilities, and tear the fabric of reality to bring in weapons, supplies, and physically change the battelfield, often turning the tide of battle. It’s still possible to run out of resources, but the extra help allows more fluid, reckless play, which feels liberating with all the options at hand. Likewise, while Booker’s health doesn’t regenerate, an early vigor provides a shield which does. You can’t hold curatives in reserve, so health and salt must be found or purchased when you need them.
Guns and vigors (think spells, or plasmids for BioShock vets) are numerous and upgradeable, making combat a chemistry lab in which you can play the sick puppy pulling the wings off of flies. Infinite isn’t particularly challenging at the default difficulty level, and death when it comes is only a minor setback, but this doesn’t make the game less enjoyable. With Elizabeth’s powers acting as a safety net, you’re able to fight with a fearless, cocky edge, experimenting and improvising with different guns and vigors. Many fights take place in large areas, ripe for the tearing by your gifted partner and with twisting sky-line rail running across the horizon. The rails can quickly take you up and across the environment, making position an important element as you attack and escape as necessary. Firefights are further enhanced by musical accompaniment, with audible stings and stabs awarded for kills and headshots.
Booker is limited to carrying two weapons, though he can stockpile ammo for any, often making a recently disposed foe’s firearm an appealing swap. The weaponry isn’t as inventive as the alternate history setting, with typical pistols and rifles you can upgrade for damage, capacity, and recoil reduction conveniently available for purchase at vending machines. The many vigors enable more creative carnage, though you’ll need to upgrade your salt capacity before they’ll become a regular part of your repertoire. Along with elemental projectiles and traps, they offer interesting upgrades like the possession ability letting you eventually control humans as well as machines. Vigors can also be used in tandem. Electric Crows might sound like an 80’s synth pop band, but here it’s an amusing offensive combo, again lending Infinite a playground feel.
Gear also augments the game, so styling yourself as a Dapper Dan means you’ll be literally dressed to kill. Standing in for BioShock’s tonics, the hats and shirts you’ll come across impart defensive bonuses, modify vigors, and may even change what happens when you disembark from the sky-line. Booker feels pretty capable no matter what he’s wearing, and even the scenarios that play out without Elizabeth’s assistance aren’t overly challenging. The bravery instilled by the shield lets you easily dispatch dozens of engaging but simple-minded enemies. Tougher foes like the ape-like Handyman are few and far between, and even a small armada of airships attacking from the sky elicits a rallying cry of “bring it on!” Upon completing the game, 1999 difficulty mode is unlocked, where difficulty spikes and game over is a real possibility. Infinite is so enthralling, and it’s ending so ambiguous, it’s worth revisiting a second time to soak it all in.
Infinite’s virtues are expansive, but it’s not without its quirks. Some mechanics feel underdeveloped, such as brief decision moments with an accompanying timer and consequences for stealing that are introduced and quickly forgotten. Battles in which you fight alongside allies, while appropriately chaotic, feel undercooked. While areas are large enough to explore, backtracking is limited, so it’s possible to miss gear, power-ups, logs, and films as you’re pushed along by the powerful force of the story. Opportunities to pick up cash are everywhere, but both ammo and health are purchased cheap, and Elizabeth is always throwing you spare change to the point of annoyance.
Despite the fact that Columbia’s story is more character-driven, it feels less flesh-and-blood than Rapture’s, with many of the finer points of Columbia remaining murky and ethereal, perhaps held in thrall to the lengthy ending that’s sure to spawn many a forum thread. On that note, while Infinite isn’t a short game in and of itself, it does feel like it ends before it should.
BioShock Infinite is both art-house and grindhouse, managing to offer something for everyone. There’s drama, philosophy, and shocking violence, then there’s combat, abilities, and gear -- there’s even numerically quantified damage for the stat-obsessed. It’s enhanced by thoughtful plotting and great characters and wrapped up in a beautiful world and calamitous physics. Heady and bloody, it’s a tesseract worth tackling, and even if you can see its seams from time to time, its ambition cannot be denied. Suspend your disbelief, and you can soar to the sky.


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