Ken Levine is a champion of this medium. I’ve been touting him as such since he wrote the wonderfully memorable Bioshock, released six years ago in 2007; and whether he simply stumbles into his genius accidentally due to excellence in execution, or realizes his fresh, poignant plot devices through an exorcise in intended intellect, it is no matter. No one does what he’s able to do. Levine, twice now, has profoundly changed the way we view and discuss plot in video games. He understands the interactive component of the medium so well, his incorporation of it into his stories is foremost in his telling, and are deft to say the least.
Never in my professional career have I awarded a perfect score to any game I’ve ever reviewed. Not at GameFan, and not here, at ++Good Games. Finally a game takes that honor, and Bioshock Infinite is it. I couldn’t be happier to award it to Mr. Levine, and his band of hard working developers. His brand of story telling is something I aspire to in my own writing career.
Bioshock Infinite (PC, XBOX 360 [reviewed], PS3)
Developer: Irrational Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Release Date: March 26th, 2013
I could take up this entire space discussing plot, but since you, you know, PLAY video games, I’ll start with the controls and mechanics… which are, honestly, pretty tried and true. It feels like Bioshock, and that’s to say it feels like a first person shooter with a great deal of diversity in how you choose to tackle any given situation. There is a wide array of standard weapons, from pistols to shotguns, rocket launchers to bolt action assault rifles, as well as some additional unconventional weapons that are not entirely realistic, but fit the setting as well — the Heater is a single blast weapon that lights people on fire; like if a shotgun and a flame-thrower had children, but nothing too outlandish. The “magical powers,” and the equivalent of Plasmids, are called Tonics. Tonics all operate in the same way, either a single press to produce a targeted effect, or a held press to toss a trap on the ground. This is a good move away from the trap-only Plasmids (Cyclone Trap, Target Dummy) of the original game, and it gave Irrational more room to give us some interesting abilities. For example, Return to Sender allows you to catch all incoming bullets and toss them back as an explosive, and Undertow allows you to lasso an enemy, and reel him in, MK Scorpion-style, to deliver a much more intimate killing blow. There are the staple fireballs and electric bolts, but there’s some keen base-broadening when it comes to gameplay… but not too broad. And the sound that’s incorporated into combat is amazing. Fast, random violin chords every time you unleash Murder of Crows; a violent single BANG on a piano when you connect with your skyhook.
Speaking of the skyhook, the wrench/drill issue has been handily taken care of. Previously, in both Bioshock and Bioshock 2, your melee weapon was far too powerful. Even in Bioshock 2, when an attempt was made at balancing melee combat by introducing the fuel requirements on your drill, it didn’t really work. Even without fuel, the drill was still the best weapon in the game. You could go thump-thump-thumping to your heart’s content, with little to no consequences. If you try to melee everyone to death in Infinite, however, you WILL die. The game throws scores of enemies at you all at once, and if you expose yourself to get in for a skyhook decapitation, the rest of the pack will cut you down, and swiftly at that. Even on the normal difficulty setting it’s no joke.
Columbia lives and breathes. It isn’t a dying derelict, rife with disease from the overuse of DNA altering drugs, as Rapture before it. It has an entire population bustling about. It feels lived in, and it creates a wholly different experience than its predecessor. Mechanically, it’s nearly identical to Rapture, which was unexpected, but not unwelcome in the least. It showed you everything you would have access to, but kept it out of reach across an ocean of sky (I’m sorry, I won’t ever pun like that ever again… also, I’m lying), but what you do have access to at any given moment perfectly outlines the time period. Corner stores filled with books or general produce, towering buildings done in that distinctly Philadelphian style, cobblestone roads, (robot)horse drawn buggies. Heck, you even arrive in July during the celebration of the emancipation of Columbia from the Union! Carnival games, raffles, side-show barkers, it’s all there, it all looks like a Norman Rockwell original, and it all feels authentic. All of this authenticity is married quite nicely to myriad fictitious technological and scientific advancements, making this setting something all its own. It would be a wonderful place to reside, so long as you’re white and affluent… another of Columbia’s traits. It’s just as filthy as Rapture is, but while Rapture’s grime is external and on display, Columbia’s is far more insidious, hiding its hideousness in storm cellars and broom closets, forcing all non-whites to a life of overworked, under payed indentured servitude and vile revulsion. Even the technology is mostly geared toward imprisoning the denizens of Columbia via Handy-Man autobodies, fireman rigs, and even the city itself. All cages in which their residents will eventually die. As you might expect, revolution threatens to break out at every turn. You can hear the whispers grow to booming chants of freedom and equality… and violence.
The characters easily have as much bringing them to life as the city, herself. Booker is a schlep, but you want him to succeed because, deep down, he’s a good man. Elizabeth is strong, and helpful, turning your unlikely friendship into a true partnership (she’ll even spot and mark targets in combat [as previously mentioned] and anything she finds while scavenging she offers to you; be it money, health packs, salts [a.k.a. Adam, a.k.a. mana], or ammo), Comstock is a condemnable bastard who you want to see murdered in the most painfully slow way possible, and Fink is as believable a scummy business man as ever there was, drawing comparisons to who I believe to be his real-life inspiration Henry Clay Frick. And then there’s Songbird.
Songbird is terrifying. Terrifying. When he (it) was first revealed, Ken had mentioned that whenever you encounter the Big Daddy-like behemoth, you’d fear him. I scoffed at this when I first heard it, which is a testament to nothing more than the typical gross exaggeration that goes hand-in-hand with most video game preview pieces. The fact that it was coming straight from the creator’s mouth isn’t necessarily anything new, but I should have realized that the impact of a Levinian statement carries weight, because of the painfully low profile he tends to keep. In fact, he might just be the anti-Molyneux! I’ll hold my tongue discussing Songbird further. Sufficed to say, I was actually fearful of him (it?). Something I’ve not felt in recent memory. And the final conflict with him is absolutely, jaw-dropingly incredible.
The writing sticks to its theme, too. Redemption is this story’s particular flavor, and everything and everyone is involved. People are seeking redemption, skirting redemption, and finding it all throughout. Sometimes it’s cleansing, and other times it’s far more condemning than any judgement that could possibly be rendered. The story, and all of its characters, walk this path. The reinforcement is necessary, and also well executed. It’s perfect.
Not everything is rosy, though. There are plot holes I can’t seem to fill, no matter how hard I look, and some of the detail seems to be more convenience for the writer than believable, soundly constructed story beats. Also, I found myself often waiting for the bad guys to shoot at me in the middle of an onslaught to try and get an opportunity to actually see where they are; a problem caused, I’m pretty sure, by the excessive use of bloom. Everything glows. Everything. And had Elizabeth’s aid not been rendered, I’d have died to far many more snipers than I did when she was spotting them for me. This, believe it or not, isn’t nearly enough to detract from the perfect score. Honestly, no game is without its flaws, but it is the rare game that can not only make up for them on the back end, but completely exceed expectation by escaping them altogether. Bioshock Infinite does this.
Verdict: 10/10 ++Good – Does the game have its issues? Certainly, but I cannot overlook my own feelings of surprise, awe, and satisfaction when the dust had settled. I felt completely contented when it was all over. Everything promised by Irrational up to release was made good on, and I was left wanting for nothing. Every time Mr. Levine gets involved, he pushes forward what we’re to expect as players, as well as what we previously thought was narritively possible as an industry. Buy this one. It is, in a word, perfect.
Words by James Bacon