Columbia doesn’t feel all that familiar at first. Zachary Hale Comstock’s secluded slice of Americana promptly presents itself as a sunbaked tapestry of carnival attractions and hallowed gardens; a blue skied paradise basking in the ideals of a prophet bold enough to secede from the sodom of the corruption lurking below, and set up a new home in the silver lining of the clouds. You, a former Pinkerton agent by the name of Booker DeWitt, are the anarchist; a false shepherd sent by the shady suits of the underworld to lead the floating city’s flock astray. But not everything in BioShock Infinite – the latest entry in the first-person series by creative powerhouse Irrational Games – is as it first seems.
You’ll learn that the moment that you meet Elizabeth, the game’s primary companion character, and the beating heart of the adventure’s pulsating campaign. Locked in a bronze observatory with little but the companionship of books and a mammoth mechanical minder known as the Songbird, you first encounter the teenage heir as she’s experimenting with tears, windows into other worlds that exist within different subsets of time. As she unzips an opening into a parallel universe, you find yourself standing outside a rundown Parisian theatre, waiting for a late night showing of Return of the Jedi while a nearby boom box feeds Tears for Fears directly into your ears. It’s a temporary transition from the opulence of 1912 to the grimy back alleys of the early eighties, but it sets the tone for the rest of the plot.
As with the very best adventures, your motives aren’t entirely clear from the offset. You’ve been sent to rescue the aforementioned damsel in order to repay a debt, but it quickly transpires that you wear the symbol of a sinner, and are the subject of much anguish among the people of Columbia. It takes the entirety of the title’s 15 hour running time to explore the exact root of your quandary, and while the narrative does occasionally get lost in its own admirable ambitions, there are more than enough twists and turns to keep you magnetised to the action throughout. It may not boast the dilapidated art deco setting of its predecessor, but it still manages to tackle some sinister subject matter – often in spite of its radiant setting.
Much like in the isolated corridors of Rapture, you’ll spend most of your time exploring. The opening hours of the campaign are perfectly paced to simply let you wander, as a fairground filled with shooting galleries and puppet shows relays the history of the stark city around you. Things devolve a little too heavily into the customary gunplay of the first-person genre towards the end of the adventure, but the game never loses its penchant for exploration. While the release is deceptively linear at its core, there’s always somewhere else for you to pillage – even if your investigative efforts will almost always culminate in little more than a pocketful of coins and a recorded message to fill in some of the back story.
Fortunately, combat is fun – and it’s aided by Elizabeth once you’ve broken her free. Unlike the escort mission horror stories of old, the blue-eyed accomplice is actually more of a help than she is a hindrance. Using her aforementioned ability to unlock other worlds, she’s able to aid you in your plight by scouting battlefields for ammunition, health, and salts (or magic) which keep you replenished in a fight. She can also open up bigger tears around the environments to create temporary support fire and cover, all the while keeping out of the way of enemies so you don’t have to resurrect her every ten seconds. She’s, in short, a genius piece of design, and while you can occasionally see the lines of code that are warping her around the world to keep her by your side, the developer manages to mask it just enough to make sure that you don’t care.
She’s also a brilliant character, who’s enhanced by some outstanding voice acting and animation work. Rather than just play a laborious game of follow the leader, she’ll actually interact with the world, pointing out areas of interest, reacting in surprise to things that shock her, and leaning against walls while you scour every last desk, drawer, and cabinet for supplies. The performances throughout are sublime, with Troy Baker putting in an equally impressive shift as protagonist Booker DeWitt – and subsequently, you really feel the growing sense of camaraderie between the two characters as the narrative wears on.
However, while Elizabeth does undeniably elevate the combat out of the drudgery of iron sights and triggers, the Vigors also play a part too. These are essentially Plasmids under a new name, and augment you with the ability to excrete salts in a variety of different ways. Devil’s Kiss, for example, allows you to toss explosive grenades at your foes, while Return to Sender works as a shield that’s charged by the artillery of your rivals. As with previous entries in the series, you can combine magic types to create devastating attacks; Shock Jolt and Murder of Crows, for instance, fires a cloud of electrified birds at your unsuspecting targets. Send the sizzling fowl flapping while your enemies are stood in a puddle of water, and the effects of your attack will be unsurprisingly amplified.
Despite this, your combat options do feel diminished compared to previous entries. The almost mouse trap-like gameplay of BioShock 2 has been completely dialed-in, in order to open up arenas beyond anything seen in previous releases. Magnetic skylines linger overheard, allowing you to race around environments targeting antagonists with well-aimed sniper shots and submachine gun fire. Possessing enemy turrets turns the tides of battle in your favour, while the arrival of a Motorized Patriot – a sort of mechanical riff on North America’s founding fathers – or a Handyman is enough to instil a sense of dread similar (but perhaps never quite as pronounced) as a Big Daddy.
The action’s enjoyable, then – but as you sprint towards the title’s closing chapters, it’s hard not to long for the serenity and solitude of the adventure’s opening moments. Exploring the architecture of Columbia’s floating archipelagos alone is more than enough interaction, and it’s unfortunate that creative director Ken Levine and crew didn’t have the fortitude to keep combat to a minimum. Still, there’s almost always plenty of time to drink in the stunning scenery, and while the later environments never quite live up to the bronze beaches and carnival-esque constructions of the opening hours, there’s always something stunning on the horizon to draw your attention.
The attractive art direction is accompanied by sturdy performance, which is particularly reassuring given the first BioShock’s woes on the PS3’s problematic architecture. Smeared lines of sunshine, detailed textures, and a reasonably rock solid framerate are only really let down by frequent bouts of screen tearing, which is a nuisance, but nothing game breaking. It’s pretty impressive how well the action holds up while you’re accelerating along skylines, picking off targets, while clouds race by, and enemies fire at you from the safety of the ground below.
The title sounds incredible too, with an eclectic mix of period appropriate audio and exotic instruments complementing a more traditional orchestral score. Elsewhere, weapons feel appropriately punchy, while the excellent sound effects work lends a sense of immersion to the whole experience as your footsteps transition from puddles to wooden floorboards and so on.
Furthermore, there’s a lot of mechanical meat hidden beneath the complex plot and dark narrative themes. Collecting and equipping gear – such as hats and shoes – augments you with additional elemental powers, such as the ability to set your foes on fire when you strike them with a melee attack. In addition, vending machines sell upgrades for all of your artillery and Vigors, offering an outlet for your reserves of cash.
And, as promised at E3 all the way back in 2011, the title is fully playable with the PlayStation Move motion controller. While the action is clearly designed with the DualShock 3 in mind, Sony’s illuminated wand offers a competent alternative, allowing you to reap the rewards of more accurate pointer controls if you prefer. The title ships with a selection of sensitivity pre-sets, or you can craft your own, allowing you to customise bounding boxes and auto-aim levels to happen upon the perfect solution for your play-style. The implementation never does any more than the bare minimum – adjusting the controller’s colour to represent different Vigors would have been nice – but it works effectively, and will come as an appreciated option for those eager to get more use out of the underused device.
BioShock Infinite is a sublime shooter set in a magical world. While the campaign’s final third never quite lives up to its breathtaking opening, there’s more than enough intrigue imprisoned within Columbia’s curious suspended districts to keep you compelled from the beginning right through to the very end. Irrational Games has once again proven that it’s a very special developer, and if there’s any silver lining to the adventure’s complex conclusion, it’s that the studio is certain to take us somewhere equally endearing when it returns in a few years’ time.