Bioshock Series Takes A Turn to the Skies, will we miss Rapture?
When we last visited the world of BioShock, we were treated to an underwater city with a mysterious past and an eerie sense of foreboding. This was a city of hushes and whispers, where demons lurked in the shadows and artifacts spoke of great inventions and terrible tragedies.
Rapture wasn’t just a city, it was a character. And the new game in the series, BioShock infinite, aims to literally turn the game on its head by taking the action to the skies. Yes, this time the game is set in a floating city among the clouds. And since this is BioShock, you know there is going to be a twist to the story. And yet, when the said twist does occur, you are completely shocked. That is the power of BioShock Infinite – a game that has all the characteristics that make an instant classic.
Developers Irrational Games have been known for creating dark storylines with troubled heroes and demented villains. In the same spirit that they sold us on the existence of an underwater city in the first two games, they make us believe a city can exist in the clouds. Even though the game starts with this fantastical premise, it never skips a beat. Columbia – the city that you will be exploring throughout the game, feels like it’s been there for many, many years. There are people abuzz in the city’s centers of business, talking to each other and going about their lives, unmindful of your existence. The city has banners everywhere that describe the fanatic nationalism of the prophet that inhabits the town. Columbia is a daring, stunning feat of writing and design. It is a huge experiment, and Irrational Games has nailed it. They have managed to create a city that doesn’t just feel like one big map, but one that has regions and clusters and communities.
You will be playing as Booker DeWitt, a private investigator who returned from a war many years ago that convinced him that heroes exist only in stories. The game introduces his character nicely, showing rather than telling how he came to find himself in this city – in search of a girl named Elizabeth. Depending on how you choose to play him during the game, you will either become a paragon of justice, or an anti-hero believing in nothing but himself. Whichever path you choose to take, you will be thoroughly satisfied with the results.
Slowly but surely, as you play through the game, you will come to understand Columbia better. It has been crafted with the same care and amazing attention to detail that made Rapture such a compelling place to be in. in time, you will be introduced to the character that forms the soul of your journey – Elizabeth. She is an eccentric character that will accompany you till the end of the game. She doesn’t need you to look out for her and in fact, she will help you during crucial battles by throwing ammo and health packs your way. She also has some pretty cool portal abilities that allow her to warp the physical layout of any given space. This means that occasionally you’ll be able to call to your side turrets, walls to hide behind, weapons and even health packs – all courtesy of Elizabeth. The way she acts during the game is one of the things that makes combat in BioShock Infinite feel different.
After you partner up with Elizabeth, her presence becomes a comforting element as you journey through the mysterious places in Columbia. So much so, that you will start to miss her every time she leaves your side for a while during a stage. Whenever Elizabeth leaves, the game becomes a straight-up shooter. When she’s by your side, BioShock Infinite becomes one of the rare breed of shooting games – one that offers a strong, emotional component to the combat. She’s a technical marvel, and conveys a myriad of emotions convincingly, aided by some fantastic voice acting. Your relationship with her in the game mirrors the dynamic between the Big Daddies and the Little Sisters of earlier BioShock games. You will want to protect her from any harm as far as possible. She is the first purely AI character in gaming who doesn’t get in your way while performing any task.
In addition to the two central characters, you are introduced to ‘The Prophet’ who is a truly memorable villain, and an easy one to hate because of his stilted views on race and religion. He will remind you of the great villains of gaming history. During the course of the game, you will fight a lot of different enemies, the most formidable of which is the Songbird. He is a constantly unnerving presence, much like the Dahaka from the Prince of Persia games. The other enemies you will be fighting against range from common soldiers to robots that’re modeled after George Washington.
The game gives you a variety of abilities to help you defeat these bad guys. An ability called ‘Bucking Bronco’ allows you to launch opponents in the air, leaving them defenseless while you pummel them from the ground. Other abilities will instantly be recognizable to you as being similar to the previous games. This time around, you can use vigors as mines, charging them up and laying them around the battlefield in strategic locations. You will be fighting with normal weapons in your left hand, and the special abilities will be on your right. The weapons are familiar, with pistols, grenade launchers and other antique guns making a comeback.
The combat is satisfyingly gruesome and allows you to take different approaches depending upon your playing style. You can use your Skyhook’s close range attacks to impale and dismember enemies in spectacularly gory fashion, or you can hang back and pick off enemies with a combination of your guns and vigor abilities. What makes the combat feel different is the setting of the game itself – the skies. All over the city, there are Skylines which travel over different areas of Columbia. You are able to hook yourself to these contraptions and fly around over the map. Moving from one floating island to another never stops being exhilarating due to the sheer sense of scale and height that the game’s visuals convey. You are never forced to use these during the game, but they are handy to get from one place to another quickly.
While the gameplay itself is capable of elevating BioShock Infinite to hall-of-fame status, since this is a BioShock game, returning players will be expecting a similarly mind-boggling twist. And as mentioned before, the twist does not disappoint. In fact, it even manages to top the earlier games due to the sheer narrative pressure of delivering a noteworthy twist a third time around. But the story isn’t all about the twist. The world of Columbia seems more and more organic as you explore it. Every little signboard or audio tape you come across will give you a more evolved perspective on the world and its characters. The themes explored here are often uncomfortable, but the game never gets preachy, and forces you to think for yourself. The game doesn’t feature any multiple endings or major choices that impact the story one way or another, but you won’t really miss these mechanics.
The pace of the game is fairly good, although some sections will make you feel like you are playing for time. This is probably because the game soars to such heights in the combat sections, that the mellower, exploration-based missions feel like a drag by comparison. That being said, the game could’ve shaved at least a couple of hours off its running time if it chose not to add some of these padding missions. Even after you finish the game once, you will be tempted to revisit the world of Columbia to explore more of its mysteries. You can choose to perform different actions or react differently to certain situations during a second playthrough, making the game feel like a different entity. And of course, there are lots of collectibles and audio tapes to hunt for. After you’ve finished the game once, you will unlock a mode suitably called ‘1999’ which limits your finances, forcing you to take combat and dying a lot more seriously. You will also take more damage and the game will turn off a lot of its navigation help.
The control scheme lends itself more naturally to the PCs, which is true of almost all shooting games. The console versions such as the PS3 & Xbox 360 the games suffer from cramped controls, which only allow you to equip two weapons and vigors at any given time. Graphically too, the game suffers on the Xbox 360 and the PS3, where Irrational has had to cut corners to allow the console’s aging hardware to maintain a playable framerate. Animations look stunted, textures are less detailed and Elizabeth is the only NPC who doesn’t look completely mechanical. In the six years since the first BioShock made a triumphant debut on consoles, PC graphics technology has advanced by leaps and bounds, and the visual quality of console games has suffered as a result. As is the norm, to behold Columbia in all its glory, you should play it on a PC. With today’s monstrous graphic cards and processors, if you have a recent gaming rig, your machine should be able to handle all that BioShock Infinite throws its way comfortably. Textures are uncompressed, making everything from the characters to the environments look much, much better on the PC.
All in all, BioShock infinite is a true classic and a benchmark for the shooter genre. Irrational Games made a bold leap by choosing to abandon the city of Rapture with its already established mythos by basing this game in the skies, but the game is better because of it. Columbia is a fantastically realized world, brimming with personality and life. With its complex story, memorable characters and gorgeous visuals, BioShock Infinite is one of the best first-person shooters of all time.