Sunday, 26 May 2013

Bioshock Infinite

Developed by: Irrational Games/ 2K Marin

Published by: 2K Games

Available on: Xbox360, Playstation 3, PC (Xbox360 reviewed)

“Bring us the girl, and wipe away the debt.” With that promise – or maybe a threat – former Pinkerton agent Booker DeWitt is dispatched to the floating city of Columbia, a serene, all-American utopia ruled over by the Prophet, one Zachary Comstock. However, it quickly becomes apparent that retrieving the mysterious Elizabeth will be more complicated than Booker anticipates; Columbia is a powder-keg of racial and ideological tensions, and there is the small matter of the Songbird, Elizabeth’s mechanical guardian with a thirty foot wingspan…

‘Infinite’ is the third game in the ‘Bioshock’ franchise, and as the above summary may suggest, it is a little different from the average ‘Halo’ game. The first game received innumerable plaudits for its plot, ethos and atmosphere; while the gameplay was perfectly good, it is a game better remembered for the city of Rapture that served as the setting, and an astonishing, deconstructive twist in the last hour or so of the game. Not many first person shooters set themselves up as examinations of Objectivist philosophy, and fewer still would have the skill and intellect to achieve it (the sequel approached Rapture from a Collectivist point of view; broadly speaking, the exact opposite).

Much the same is probably true of ‘Infinite’, although it is not really a sequel, more a successor. While the gameplay is really rather good, the main draw here is the plot and the world. In this instance, the driving force behind the plot is religion, for the most part, although it can perhaps be more accurately described as an ode to the notion that extremism is bad (actually, all three games essentially boil down to this). That said, as the game progresses it begins to take in some extremely bizarre and thought-provoking concepts; it is a narrative that could be pictured alongside a jar of Marmite in a dictionary in terms of audience response – I loved it, for the record – but what is absolutely unquestionable is what it will keep you talking about it for a long time afterwards.

In a marked difference from previous instalments in the franchise, the stories success is in large part due to the protagonists. In previous games, the player characters have been voiceless, somewhat akin to someone like Gordon Freeman of ‘Half-Life’ fame. Booker DeWitt though is a fully articulate, thinking individual with a dark past and, just maybe, a good heart underneath it all. Although that last bit is very much open to interpretation. However, even more important, arguably the actual central character, is the girl in question; Elizabeth, heir to the throne of Columbia and possessed of the ability to rip holes in reality. For the vast majority of the game, this functions as a handy way of keeping your health and ammunition topped up during shoot-outs, although many set pieces also feature tears which allow something more exotic, such as summoning friendly gun turrets. She’s a fascinating, loveable character, and the relationship between the two of them is the heart and soul of the game, in stark contrast to previous games which were really more about the setting than the actual characters.

In terms of gameplay, ‘Infinite’ feels much more robust than the previous instalments, although the core features are broadly the same. Once again, you have a choice between shooting people with a variety of guns – although you can now only carry a chosen two at a time, rather than shove rocket launchers, crossbows and machine guns in your pockets – or you can abuse them with the Vigors, which replace Plasmids. Essentially, these are magic powers. They might allow you to push people around, possess them, set fire to them, or fire murderous crows out of your fingertips to tear them to shreds. Some are more useful than others, all are fun to use, although they don’t seem to be integrated into the game world quite as well as Plasmids were. There was a clear explanation for the existence of Plasmids, which was admittedly nonsense, but while one can be inferred for Vigors, nothing is actually stated, leaving them feeling a little like they’re around because it’s a Bioshock game than because there’s a strict need for them. That little nitpick aside though, the combat is excellent. This is a good thing, as there are roughly four people in the entire game who don’t try and kill you on sight. If you don’t like shooting, even the quality writing may not be enough to sway you on this particular game.

It isn’t all good; there’s a lengthy section mid-game which has you going back and forth over Columbia looking for first a person, then said person’s belongings. It’s one of the worst examples of fetch-and-carry gameplay I’ve seen in a while, and while it is dressed up in an important part of the plot and backstory, it’s still a little lazy. The final half hour or so, while thought provoking and (in my humble opinion) rather brilliant, it can be seen as perhaps a bit too much of a shock; much of it is built up, but not all of it, especially since much of the background is learned through audio recordings that you can find lying around the levels. Atmosphere is split more by location than in previous games; Rapture was a haunted house turned up to eleven; while Columbia is revealed to be a deeply scary place, it’s much more on the nose. And…that’s basically it. Really, the only other issue is the plot, and that’s an obviously subjective thing. I loved it, but I know others who thought it pretentious nonsense.

So. Tight gameplay, thrilling action, an enthralling, intelligent story, and an endearing partnership at the heart of it all. If you’re looking for evidence of games as art, this is an excellent place to start. Highly recommended.

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