The rollercoaster that has been the development of BioShock Infinite has at times been more interesting than the actual news about the game. From the exciting initial trailer through the trying delay and questions about quality, through to a rather understated launch that had the bad fortune to come right as Tomb Raider and SimCity both arrived on the scene, we’ve never really known what to make of the steampunk series’ latest addition. Unfortunately, we still don’t.
Unlike its subaquatic stablemates, Bioshock Infinite doesn’t take place in the underwater city of Rapture, but in the skyfaring land of Columbia, which is composed of a multitude of buildings suspended by hot-air balloons and zeppelins. After seceding from the United States in 1901, Columbia embarked on travels around the world, devolving into a low-level civil conflict between the well-to-do classes who live on the surface and the anarchist group Vox Populi. At this point, along comes Booker DeWitt, a detective who has managed to run up some debts to a mysterious character and must hunt down a girl named Elizabeth within the city’s towering buildings.
Here the plot takes a turn for the crazy, as Booker is almost drowned by a priest claiming to baptise him into loyalty to the prophet Comstock – an autocrat who oversees the running of the city through a fierce propaganda campaign and heavy doses of xenophobia. The idyllic, turn-of-the-century land is really borderline fascist, with public executions of union agitators and mixed race couples put on periodically to placate the people.
The Vox Populi, mind, aren’t much better. Once you’re in a pocket universe (oh yeah, did I mention there are pocket universes?) in which they’ve become armed, they’re brutally violent, summarily executing a soldier pleading for his life as Booker and Elizabeth rush through the melee. There are really no truly sympathetic characters in the game besides Elizabeth, who can’t really be evil thanks to having been raised in a contained environment.
So far, so Fallout, with its critiques of both extreme nationalism and communism, but the fun part of Bioshock games has always been their innovative powers (called vigors in this game) which allow the player character to perform extraordinary feats. Whether it’s setting a flock of birds on your enemies, flinging lightning Emperor Palpatine style or lifting your foes into the air where they’re more vulnerable to your weapons, there’s quite a lot of combat flexibility and a magnetised hook allowing booker to ride the rail system around the city is innovative and further expands combat to include brutal melee takedowns.
The game makes some pretenses towards having an open world, including collectibles and sidequests, most of which involved locked chests, but in practice it’s a linear game. There’s nothing wrong with that of course, but I feel like we were sold something that didn’t turn out to be what was promised. For its linearity, it’s not always that clear what you’re supposed to be doing, although, having said that, the hint system which avoids the patronising player-guiding arrow of so many other games while assisting the truly stumped is a work of genius and something I’d recommend more games take up.
There are problems outside getting lost, though. The controls when using a mouse and keyboard are easy to get lost with and after several hours of gameplay I still hadn’t broken the habit of using right-click to aim, which led to several unwanted fireballs being launched across the room. Furthermore, aiming is not exactly easy and it’s a complete crapshoot whether or not you’ll be able to hit anything with the awkward sights. The AI don’t exactly do themselves many favours, using the Serious-Sam style tactic of charging headfirst towards the man with the gun and wondering where all their limbs went. As a matter of personal preference, I would have preferred if they’d used more elements to do with the time period or ideology, but then I’m a history and politics geek.
The graphics are rather nice, at least as far as they can be with the aging Unreal 3 engine. Bloom is everywhere, and while it can be a bit distracting the lighting effects are generally really nice, evoking the mood of each scene brilliantly, whether it’s the hellish slums of lower Columbia or the green and pleasant parks up above. It rather eerily resembles Dishonored sometimes, which is disappointing, because that game wasn’t all that fun and the particular leaves it has taken from that book – the rubbish stealth, the slightly dodgy melee combat – are decidedly the wrong ones.
If you enjoyed either of the previous games and want something in a similar style, give Bioshock Infinite a try. It’s not really as clever as it thinks it is, but if you like shooting and steampunk it may well give you a kick. 6/10.