By AARON YNCLAN, Staff Columnist
As a sequel to what is considered one of the greatest games of all time, Bioshock Infinite has a lot to live up to. For creator Ken Levine and original Bioshock developer Irrational Games to try and expand on the story-driven game by incorporating the concept of alternate realities into the narrative only adds to the ambition and raises expectations even higher. It is with that in mind that I am pleased to say that Bioshock Infinite is, like its predecessor, one of the greatest games of this generation.
In Bioshock Infinite, players are cast in the role of Booker Dewitt, a guilt-ridden former soldier who is charged by those to whom he is indebted to find and rescue a girl from the city of Columbia, a metropolis in the sky that stands (or floats) as the embodiment of America, in an alternate reality 1912. Its ruler, Zachary Hale Comstock, is a self-proclaimed “Prophet” who has transformed American ideals into a religion with the Founding Fathers revered as near-deities. To prevent Booker from rescuing Elizabeth, the “Lamb” of Columbia, Comstock brands Dewitt a false prophet and an enemy to the people of Columbia. I can’t really go into further detail without ruining the story, but what transpires is a twisted tale that will leave players shocked and confounded.
The city of Columbia is like nothing I’ve ever seen in a video game. The streets and skylines of Columbia are lush and bright, with phenomenal lighting effects that make everything from the streets of the city fair to the shady alleys of the Shantytown come to life. Certain textures up close do get somewhat muddy and clumped, but they are easily overshadowed by the beauty and grandiosity of the world at large.
Equally impressive are the NPCs that inhabit Columbia. Children play in the streets, citizens dance to music along the beach boardwalk, hummingbirds fly among the flowers and trees; Columbia is filled with a level of bustling activity and life that I’ve rarely seen in a video game, and as a result makes you feel like you are truly traveling the streets of a real world.
Simply standing in the street just admiring the scenery also proved a wondrous time, as it was frequently punctuated by a truly beautiful and mesmerizing score. Composed by Garry Schyman, who collaborated with Irrational Games for the previous Bioshock titles, the music is a collage that transitions perfectly with the game, providing time appropriate themes of awe-inspiring scale, small scenes of serenity, and hauntingly gripping moments. It is further enhanced by a soundtrack filled with the classic music of the era as well as incredible renditions of songs that include “God Only Knows” and “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”
With so much energy and beauty surrounding you, it’s easy to forget that you’re still playing a video game. Thankfully the developers didn’t, and as such have provided one of the best first-person shooter experiences in years. With almost a dozen weapons varying from the Volley Gun and RPG to the Carbine and standard Shotgun (I call it the “Boomstick”), players are limited to carrying only two guns at all times. The weapons are all appropriately balanced, and the abundance of weapon/ammo drops from downed enemies ensures that players are never left unarmed. The Plasmids of the previous Bioshock entries are replaced with Vigors, liquids you obtain throughout the game that give you powers ranging from an electric blast to summoning crows that attack your enemies. Of equal importance to the combat is Elizabeth, who is able to create “tears” in the world that open voids to other dimensions. These tears can drop everything from health crates to cover and gun automatons, all of which can aid the player during combat situations. And, unlike most companion NPCs in games, Elizabeth cannot be harmed by enemy soldiers, which thankfully prevents the game from feeling like one giant escort mission.
Combat is fun and challenging (particularly at higher difficulty settings), and the abundance of weapons and powers affords you plenty of opportunities to try out various combinations to find out which strategy is best against certain enemies like the Motorized Patriot or the Handyman. While these tougher enemies are used a bit less frequently than I would have hoped, the AI for the standard troopers easily makes up for this as enemies will frequently try and rush or flank your position, forcing you to remain mobile while under cover. Easily the best feature is the Sky-Hook, a windmill styled claw that enables players to ride the Sky-Lines of Columbia as though they were on a rollercoaster. Players can fire their weapons from the Sky-Lines as well as perform a leaping strike on enemies with the Sky-Hook, which also serves as the primary melee weapon. Engaging enemies while riding the Sky-Line at breakneck speeds was one of the exhilarating moments in Bioshock Infinite for me, and was easily the most fun I’ve had from an FPS in a long time.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t the sublime gameplay or the wondrous score that truly impressed me, but rather it was the setting itself. The city of Columbia is a breathing entity that speaks not just to its depiction of an ideal America, but also to the reality of what America once was. Walk into a building and you will see a hall with segregated bathrooms. Enter the boiler room of an island and you’ll see Irishmen tending the pipes. Leave the beautiful streets of the upper class and you’ll find yourself in the slums of the lower class. It’s this attention to detail that makes Columbia feel like a distinct world, yet one that is still familiar and rooted in history.
What is ultimately the greatest feat within Bioshock Infinite, however, is the portrayal of Booker Dewitt and Elizabeth by their voice actors Troy Baker and Courtnee Draper. These veteran actors breathe life into their characters with such power and emotion that the dynamic is palpable. The transition made from strangers to uneasy partners to allies is perfectly paced, and the story details not just the bond that these two share, but also the growth of these characters as individuals. To physically see a care-free Elizabeth shudder at her first encounter with death transform into a woman that desires to kill Comstock by the end of the game is haunting and will stick with you long after you have finished the game.
Bioshock Infinite is an incredible feat. The game features an incredible gameplay experience in a gorgeous city, with a story that climaxes with such a twist that few will expect and some may find unsatisfying. For me, this was a gaming experience that left me speechless, and I truly cannot sing any higher praise of it.