I’m walking through a park and I hear something familiar; something that sounds proper for the period but doesn’t seem to really belong. A barbershop quartet is belting out something in typical four-part harmony, perfectly normal for 1912, except that the tune is that of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows”.
Stunned, I stopped what I was doing and listened to the rendition. It was a complete anachronism. Of course, standing in a city kept aloft some twenty-thousand feet in the sky by the sheer will of steampunk-tech in the middle of 1912 wasn’t quite out-of-place enough. They just had to throw in that little musical cue which had me tilting my head like a confused puppy while simultaneously bringing a sly grin to my lips.
Little details like this only slightly increase the already rich experience that is BioShock Infinite.
Though we’re no longer in Andrew Ryan’s underwater dystopia of Rapture and the days of “would you kindly” are far behind us, this is very much a BioShock game. I heard complaints that it shouldn’t be called BioShock since it distinctly lacks the submarined setting and early photos showed a distinct lack of the dark, dingy settings to which we had become accustomed. I believe it was a perfect avenue for change. It was nice to run around a slowly decaying dystopia in the daylight and the open air for once.
Yes, we’re above the clouds now. Replace Rapture with Columbia, the promising utopian brainchild of a religious zealot, one Zachary Hail Comstock – this version’s Andrew Ryan with different non-Randian baggage.
You play as Booker DeWitt – a member of the 7th Cavalry who served at Wounded Knee and a former Pinkerton detective-cum-private-eye. In his depression following the “horrible things [he’s] done”, he ran up a large gambling tab. In order to satisfy this, he is sent to go to Columbia to “bring us the girl and wipe away the debt.” This statement is a key theme to the game, especially upon meeting your co-protagonist, Elizabeth (“the girl”).
The relationship between Booker and Elizabeth is a very interesting sort of reverse Stockholm syndrome in that he kidnaps her from captivity and she sticks with him, forming a quick if not tenuous friendship with him. This bit seems a bit rushed if you’re not taking into account psychology of the fact that Elizabeth has been held in a tower all her life and not allowed into the outside world, even within the constructed utopia.
As she is with you, she scouts around for items and money pickups you may have missed leading to the mechanic shown in the release trailer where she throws Booker a shotgun just in the nick of time. These sort of things (kinda) happen in the game; she’ll throw you health or Salt (the new EVE or MP for those not familiar with the other entries in the series) or ammo when you’re running low.
Her true power, however, adds a much more interesting mechanic to the game. Elizabeth can open what are referred to as “tears” to other versions of Columbia, allowing her to throw cover into an open kill-zone or draw weapons, ammo, health, or even a friendly turret or automaton into battle. You choose what she draws over and most battlefields are literally littered with useful tears. Consequently, this telegraphs when a major attack is going to take place, as it’s usually only the battlefields where there are numerous tears available for your reality-warping pleasure.
My only disappointment with combat was that, unlike the originals, there was no constant roaming threat, like a Big Daddy.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some severe heavy hitters in Columbia like the Motorized Patriots and the Handymen, but they are not as abundant and random as the Big Daddies which, to me, was part of the challenge of combat in Rapture. At any point in the originals, a stray shot could turn a routine firefight into a life-or-death situation if a Big Daddy happened to be moseying through.
Aside from that small loss, there are still Plasmids (known as Vigors here) and a variety of firearms as well as upgrades for both enough to keep things fresh right until the very end.
You are limited to carrying two weapons in a sort of Left 4 Dead style, making you think about what’s around the corner and whether or not you should pick up that RPG when you’ve already got a sniper rifle and a machine gun available. The interesting part comes when you run out of ammo for your favorite weapons and you’re forced to improvise with whatever has been dropped by the enemies you’re fighting. It pays to familiarize yourself with each gun as you never know what you’ll have to fall back on should things go dry.
Also, in place of some of the utility plasmids, there is gear – four slots (hat, shirt, pants, shoes) that add different effects when equipped. Simple, yet effective.
Columbia starts out as a bright and shining beacon – a place that, unlike Rapture, appears to be an actual utopia – and gets darker and darker as the story goes on. Things turn from a brighter Boardwalk Empire look to something more akin to slums of Victorian London and every setting is masterfully done. Columbia appears even more grandiose than Rapture with its amazing architecture and gigantic monuments.
The plot here is thick, which made me very thankful that the protagonist actually has a voice unlike Jack or Subject Delta. The banter between Elizabeth and Booker gets to be very organic and makes them feel authentic. Also, there is no radio to constantly bark objectives (would you kindly?) into your ear, giving you instructions. When you talk to someone, it’s usually in person again adding to the authenticity of the characters.
Jumping back to the beginning of the review, the barbershop Beach Boys moment was not the only time familiar music shows up. Keep an ear open for 1912-styled versions of other modern songs (it makes sense in the end, trust me). It’s funny when you realize what you’re hearing. It sounds vaguely familiar then you hear the lyrics and you are spellbound and you won’t move from the spot until the song is over.
The rest of the soundtrack is haunting. Be prepared for chills when you hear “Let the Circle Be Unbroken” during your first moments in Columbia, it really sets the tone for the game.
My main problem with this game is that it seems far too short. I clocked in somewhere around 12-15 hours and I was stumbling around every nook and cranny, opening every single container I could, as I typically do in games such as this. Also, the game promised that you could return to previous areas, however, I didn’t find myself wanting to veer much off the path because the plot is so compelling. I suppose it’s the gaming equivalent to a page turner and, in the end, you realize you spent a decent amount of money for a relatively short amount of time and even though you got the payoff you were looking for, you’re still somewhat sad that it all ended so soon.
The only other problem is that this game is governed exclusively by AutoSave. There is no manual save feature which means that, if you want to quit in an odd spot, you can’t just put it down and walk away without potentially losing some progress. You need to make it to the next checkpoint before you can drop it and walk away. This is likely to lose some casual gamers (who Ken Levine said they were trying to attract) but isn’t likely to cause much issue for the intermediate to the hardcore.
There’s also some DLC in the works as they’re offering the newly popular “season pass” option for US$20. It’s a linear story but, in the end, you find out why DLC will be cruicial to expanding that story. That means there’s a crazy twist. It is a BioShock game, after all. I wouldn’t expect less.
I believe that this is almost assuredly going to be Game of the Year award-winning over multiple publications. It is an absolute must have and, although there are a few easter eggs thrown in for you Rapture veterans, it can easily be played and thoroughly enjoyed by the five or so people who didn’t play either of the first two BioShock games.
I’ll shut up now so you can go play.
Bidula’s Last Word – 9.9/10. I just wish it was a little longer…
Keep fighting the good fight, would you kindly?