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BioShock Infinite PC Review

By Jeff Buckland, 3/27/2013

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Most big-budget action games will eventually try to push forward a little moral to the story, but the message is rarely very useful, isn't it? Do you really take away anything from a Call of Duty game, something that really adjusts your worldview? Does Borderlands instill in you a feeling of brotherhood? There are a few exceptions to this rule, but generally I think most people see most action games as entertaining experiences that don't really affect the player in any meaningful way. BioShock wasn't like that. It was different. It challenged you to think about how society works when isolated with a laissez-faire policy that created chaos and lawlessness, especially in a high-pressure environment - and I'm not just talking about Rapture's bottom-of-the-ocean location. It made you think about how often you blindly follow orders in video games, and despite a weak final boss battle, its ending asked you how many innocent souls you should be allowed to smother before you can no longer find redemption.

It's my opinion that few blockbuster action games affect us quite as much as BioShock did. But with a bigger budget and and an even more complex and diverse setting, I'm happy to say that Irrational Games' BioShock Infinite is even more interesting and thought-provoking than the original.

BioShock Infinite tells the tale of ex-Pinkerton agent Booker DeWitt and his adventure up to Columbia, a floating city originally built using crazy sci-fi tech to show off American exceptionalism during the World's Fair-esque era of the early 1900s. Booker is trying to erase a debt by completing one simple goal: rescuing a young woman named Elizabeth. This fantastic world of steampunk contraptions, high-flying skyline movement, and magic-like Vigor abilities make for a much more fantastical adventure, though, one filled with hard-hitting combat, wonderful senses of scale, and some amazing visuals. But when it comes down to it, lots of action games have stuff like this, don't they? There are two things that set BioShock Infinite apart: the depth of the Elizabeth character and Irrational's commentary on how fanatical religion tinged with racism can turn a well-meaning society astray from the path they originally sought. (You might also be surprised at just how much some parts of Irrational's vision of Columbia can mirror some conditions in America today.)

The game starts you out alone, mostly to set up the basics: who you are, why you're here, what Columbia is, how they got to where they are, and the general atmosphere, which is just dripping in symbolism and Victorian-steampunk-meets-art-deco style. The rescue of Elizabeth comes pretty quickly after that, though - not right at the end of the game like most "rescue the princess"-type games - and you'll soon find out that she's far from a helpless damsel or part of a stupid escort mission that's just waiting to ruin your fun. Elizabeth has been stuck in Columbia for quite a while so all this new stuff can sometimes evoke bewilderment, amazement, or just plain terror, but she often finds strength and becomes bold and powerful, and her amazing abilities to do things like tear holes in space-time fabric make for some great setpieces - and they can also help the player greatly. It's clear that Irrational spent a lot of time and effort working and re-working the game to make sure that as a companion, Elizabeth is placed as prominently as possible, but with a full range of emotions and variety of powers that make her a joy to have around, not annoying or burdensome. She'll open rifts to bring in helpful automatons or change the battlefield in mid-fight, and she'll toss you supplies here and there as well. She doesn't fight on her own and she can't die, and yes, she'll do that weird video game buddy AI thing where she magically will appear directly behind you after falling behind, but I found it completely forgivable since she's such a key part of the game. The whole thing could have easily gone off the rails many times in a bunch of ways - even one five-minute sequence could have ruined all the good will that Irrational built up with the Elizabeth character - but in my opinion, this never happens. (Your mileage may vary, of course.)

Combat is played out just like in many of today's first person shooters, with a wide range of hard-hitting guns that can be aimed down the sight and permanently upgraded. Here, though, you'll also be equipping upgradeable Vigors, which work like Plasmids from the original BioShock or a mana-fueled magic spell from one of many games. Most Vigors are unique in some way (all have a secondary function, and at least one has something like a tertiary option), and all are useful and entertaining, but sometimes it'll take you some trial and error to figure out which Vigors do the most damage to the game's mini-bosses and tight groupings of enemies. All the while, you'll be scavenging enemy bodies and the environment for ammo, weapons, money, health vials, and Salt which is used like mana to power your Vigors. Vending machines have been placed throughout the city and serve as the place to buy ammo and upgrades.

The skyrail system plays a big part in both BioShock Infinite's exploration and in its often open-ended combat. There's an easy interface for using your hook to zip around in either direction on these rails and attack from on high when dismounting, but what's more interesting is how you can completely change the complexion of a firefight with these. Pop around, behind, and up to pay a couple of enemy snipers a little personal visit, fire rockets down on enemies while sliding from the rail itself, and pounce on a powerful enemy that's near a ledge to dump them off of it in one hit. Not all firefights involve hooking onto rails, but many of the game's best firefights feature it. You'll also find some gruesome and bloody deaths with the use of both the Vigors as well as up-close melee attacks and more damaging guns, and you'll see these especially with some of the little perks that are added with your Gear - simple pieces of clothing that change your combat abilities. There are four unique slots for Gear, and items will give you extra critical damage, stuns, life steal, and other benefits that aren't locked to a certain gun - although specific Vigors can be modified by some Gear items.

Many very adult-oriented topics come up in Infinite - religious zealotry, racism, class warfare, and American exceptionalism - all flavored in that crucial turn-of-the-century era language and imagery. Irrational had a lot to say about the United States with this game, and the biggest thing probably has to do with the contrast between the real 1912, the Columbia of 1912, and our modern life right now - what's changed and what has stayed the same, even today. I'm positive that all of these elements will be studied for years to come, but what I can say right now is that Irrational Games intended for us to see an incredible world that is still rooted in the prejudices and problems of yesteryear - and by setting their game in a fantastical city floating in the sky, they've made it easier to see what problems Columbia has that many Americans still have today.

But there's another theme here, something smaller at first yet much more key for a company like Irrational, and that's the friendship Booker and Elizabeth build. If you're a veteran of first person shooters dating back to the early 90s like I am, you'll remember how unrestricted the early games felt, with you being the lone space marine or slick-haired badass unleashed on a level full of monsters without any dependents in tow or commanding officers barking in your ear. You might also feel like things have gotten bogged down in the years since, especially when a developer only partial successfully shoehorns in believable character interaction, emotions, and dialogue into what is otherwise an action-heavy shooter. Rarely do FPS developers get this kind of thing right. Irrational Games have taken everything they've learned in their fifteen-plus-year existence and made a game that's the best of both worlds: it's frantic and large and open and hard-hitting during its impressive action sequences, but it is also often quiet, small, and emotional, all without leaving the viewpoint of Booker. I can start naming big-budget first person shooters that I felt also did this same thing well - and every game Irrational has made would also get counted - but that list would still wind up pretty small. And with the quality of Infinite's art, aesthetics, music, writing, and voice acting all being so high, you'll understand why you've had to wait five and a half years for this game. You can't just throw money and manpower at a game and have it turn out like this - it also takes immense talent and considerable time.

On PC, BioShock Infinite absolutely shines. The use of the venerable Unreal Engine might surprise you, considering just how stunning this game looks, especially with the high-res textures exclusive to the PC version that balloon the game to about 15GB in size. You'll know where your hard drive space went, though, as the supreme texture resolution helps deliver the wonderful art, design, and architecture that Irrational Games has been putting together over the last half-decade. (There are still a rare few mildly-muddy textures and low-res objects, but they're almost always out of the way or hard to notice.) You'll get a pretty solid range of detail options, an FOV slider, toggles for mouse-smoothing and VSync, three difficulty modes, toggles for showing damage numbers over enemy heads and floating health bars, and finally, you can play on three difficulties plus a fourth "1999 Mode" that changes the nature of upgrades and the death system. (I am a little disappointed that I can't quicksave, and instead have to rely on very sparsely-laid-out checkpoints, however.) Triple-monitor modes are supported perfectly as well. Sure, if you dive into the internet's deepest depths of curmudgeonry, I'm sure that to some there's some deal-breaking option missing which makes this a terrible game in their eyes, but for the vast majority of players, this will turn out to be an excellent port that can run on a mid-range gaming PC very well and scale up to the highest end nicely.

So does BioShock Infinite live up to the hype that Irrational Games and publisher 2K generated? Easily. Will it exceed your wildest dreams to become the Best Game Ever Made, Hands Down? Probably not, but I think it might actually wind up being that exact kind of game to some. For the rest of us, know that this game will take you on the full range of emotions you feel playing video games, and it delivers everything with near-impeccable quality and the most polish you've likely seen in quite a while. Simply put, BioShock Infinite is definitely worth the wait and I consider it to be one of the first - and hopefully one of many - must-have action games of this year.

Disclaimer: This review is based on a final PC version provided to us over Steam.

Overall: 10 out of 10



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