Saturday, April 13, 2013

Bioshock Infinite

the magic is back!

Bioshock has returned with a vengeance! The original Bioshock was, and still is one of the most original games of this generation. Bioshock Infinite is right up there with it, possibly even higher. While there are similar themes to the original and some connections can be drawn, this is a completely different game. Instead of taking place in Rapture, deep under the surface of the ocean, Infinite's environment is high above the clouds in a dystopian city called Columbia. This picturesque metropolis is populated by followers of the Prophet Comstock, a former American patriot who seceded from the Union and took his city into the sky along with his devoted followers. Before we get too deep into this, let me just say that Infinite brought back that sense of wonder and discovery I felt when I played the first Bioshock. It is unique, original, deep, challenging, imaginative, beautiful, and frightening, all at the same time.

the basics

I don't want to spoil a game this great so the amount of information I include about the story will be very limited. To include too much detail would be tantamount to telling a four-year-old every last gift Santa was going to bring him the night before Christmas. Not cool. Still, I have to include a little bit of background so I'll do my best to cover the necessities without giving away too much. It's a fine line I'll be walking, so please forgive me if I step a little too far to one side or the other. I'm trying here. Cut me some slack!

You play this first-person shooter as Booker DeWitt, a former member of the 7th cavalry at the "battle" at Wounded Knee. Most Native Americans would describe it as the Massacre at Wounded Knee, but suffice it to say he isn't the most heroic of protagonists. After that, he worked for the Pinkerton Detective Agency as a union buster. Again, not exactly a saint. Upon arrival, he is given this box and a message, "Bring us the girl, wipe away the debt." 

As I said before, there are some similarities between this game and the original. In Bioshock, the leader of the dystopian underwater city Rapture was named Ryan. In Columbia, the man's name is Comstock. He has led his followers "out of the Sodom below" and up into his perfect city in the clouds. However, as events progress, it becomes more and more clear that Columbia is no utopia. Well, it might be considered utopia by pre-Civil War plantation and slave owners in Mississippi, but in today's terms, it's kinda racist. Columbia runs on slave convict labor and interracial dating/marriage is forbidden. They're even racist against the Irish, as you learn in one of Columbia's many Kinetoscopes. These reminded me of the Penny Arcade at Disneyland and their flip-card movie machines from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

You are tasked with finding Elizabeth, "the girl", and bringing her back to New York City. Elizabeth is Comstock's daughter. He has trapped her in a tower and expects her to follow in his footsteps and lead the flock after he dies. That's about all I'm going to say about the plot because I don't want to ruin it for any of you. Suffice it to say the story is deep enough to write a book or two about. Unlike Bioshock, which starts you off in an immediate state of terror, Infinite begins idyllically and slowly devolves into an horrific nightmare. It is the type of game that you will have to play twice in order to have a chance at catching all the details. In fact, I'm already about five hours into my second playthrough. I started it within minutes of finishing the game the first time and watching the credits (be sure to watch until the end). I suspect you will too, if you decide to pick up this masterpiece of modern gaming. 

the soundtrack is a character

One of the first inklings I had that there was more going on here than a simple rescue mission was the music. It begins in total agreement with the period in which the game takes place. The music for the loading screens is Solace, a piece written by Scott Joplin in 1909 and used by Marvin Hamlisch in the movie The Sting. However, as you get deeper into the game, you start to get musical hints that there is something screwy going on. First, I heard a calliope in the distance playing Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, the Cindy Lauper classic from the 1980s. Then I passed by an area that was clearly blasting Creedence Clearwater Revival. My first thoughts were that they had some serious continuity issues they simply expected a musically uneducated audience to miss. 

Finally, when I came across a 1912 version of Painted Love, I realized these tracks were most definitely placed with more than a smidge of thought behind them. They point to one of the themes of the game: the space-time continuum. I won't go into that particular aspect any further so as not to spoil it, but it was quite the epiphany when I figured out that they were using the music to hint at later events in the story. It's just one of the many bits of brilliance contained within Bioshock Infinite. 

elizabeth and the rest of the npc cast

The non-player characters' (NPCs) realism and their addition to the completeness of Columbia can only be compared to those in Grand Theft Auto IV. Of course, the characters and the subject matter of their conversations were completely different, but it is the only other game I've played where they took such time and effort to add detail to the NPCs. Remember the crazy street-preaching bum, the people on cell phone conversations, the groups of girls talking about their dog boyfriends on street corners in Liberty City? They served to make the GTA4 universe feel all the more real and helped with player immersion in the gaming experience. The NPCs in Bioshock Infinite are no less effective at bringing you into their world and making it believable. 

Take everything I just said for the regular NPCs and multiply it by infinity for Elizabeth (see what I did there?). She is immediately sympathetic, locked in a tower like some early-20th century Rapunzel, being unknowingly monitored and experimented upon by her own father. She is a free-spirited innocent with absolutely no idea of the mess in which she's involved. Throughout the action of the game, she never got in the way. She constantly found useful items for you, especially during combat. She was able to open tears (rips in the space-time continuum) that allow for auto-turrets, weapons, cover, or automatons to aid you in combat. While this was one of the weak plot points (tears that release auto-turrets), in my opinion, I was very thankful for it at the time! Still, I would've preferred they leave them out for the sake of realism. I can always die a few extra times. That was literally one of maybe three minor imperfections in this game. It was that good. 

I read that programming Elizabeth was one of the most difficult parts for Irrational Games, the developers, and I can understand why. She is so lifelike that you feel like you're playing with another human being, not a computer-controlled NPC. There were stories of glitch after glitch with the heroine in the beta testing phase, but in the end they really got it right. She is the perfect partner: always helpful, never in the line of fire, never blocking your movement. Discovering the mystery behind Bioshock Infinite with her was a joy. 

gameplay and weapons/powers

As previously stated, there are many similarities between Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite. One of those is the powers that are available to use for dispatching enemies. In the first game they were called "Plasmids". In Infinite, they are known as "Vigors". Of course they had the obligatory fire and electric attacks, but some of the others were quite ingenious and creative. 

The Feast of Crows sent out a flock of flesh-eating birds that attacked enemies in the immediate area. Undertow would pull unsuspecting enemies off the side of whatever part of Columbia they happened to be standing on and plummet them to their death miles below. My favorite had to be Possession, though. It would take over an enemy and they fought on your side until they were either killed or all other enemies had been dispatched. If they managed to survive the onslaught, they immediately committed suicide upon coming out of the haze they were in and realizing what they had done, murderously turning on their fellow police officers. One guy literally bashed his head in three times with a baseball bat to get the job done because he didn't have a gun. That's dedication! 

Traveling around Columbia brought a completely new mechanic to gaming. There were tracks called "skylines" that connected the various sections of the floating city. They were used, along with floating barges and zeppelins, to transport goods and people between areas that weren't physically connected. They were also used to get Booker and Elizabeth further along in their missions. I'm not aware of any games that have used this roller coaster-esque mode of transportation before, so you wouldn't be out of your mind to expect a few glitches here and there. However, the programmers pulled it off without a hitch. It took thirty seconds to master and was an invaluable tool for both travel and combat.

You traveled on the skylines via a skyhook, which the soon-to-be-dead officer is so nicely modeling above. In a not-so-shocking addition, landing on an enemy when detaching from a skyline at 30 mph didn't do good things for them physically. It was also a great way to get out of the line of fire and let your armor re-charge if you were close to death. The use of skylines was a stroke of genius, and the skill with which the programmers pulled it off is no less impressive. Like so many parts of this game, the smoothness with which they instigate new gameplay mechanics like the skyhook is bordering on magical. Many fantastic games like Dead Space, Call of Duty, Gears of War, and Halo took a sequel or two before they honed their mechanics to perfection. Although this is technically the third installment of Bioshock, it is an entirely different game than the first two in many aspects, not the least of which being that it takes place miles above sea level instead of miles below it. The skyhook and Elizabeth alone are reason enough to play this game for yourself.

in summation

If you couldn't tell, I loved this game. Its combination of an amazing story with flawless gameplay mechanics and character development made for one of the most enjoyable gaming experiences I've had since the first Bioshock. It even managed to top it in many areas. The way that Columbia builds tension, starting out as a pleasant, Disney-like utopia and descending into a terrifying hell of racism and murder, presented more overall development than its predecessor. The addition of the best NPC I've ever encountered in Elizabeth and her childlike innocence only served to raise my regard for the game even higher. It is definitely not for children or the faint of heart as it contains many adult themes, not to mention the fact that the depth of the story is simply above the head of your average 12-year-old. Bioshock Infinite is one of those games you will have to play at least twice before you fully understand it. That depth of story is why I'm giving it my highest grade. I highly recommend this game to anyone that, well, to anyone that plays video games. You will not be disappointed.

the math

Objective score: 10/10

Bonuses: +1 for Elizabeth, the finest non-player character to ever be programmed into a game.

Penalties: -1 for the few stretches they made to help the action along, like creating tears with auto-turrets or weapons. They were helpful, no question, but they took me out of the realistic universe Irrational Games created for brief moments. 

Nerd coefficient: 10/10. Mind-blowing/life-changing/(one of the)!