Revisiting Bioshock Infinite

The best games, to me, are the ones that are able to transport you to another world. A world that you can get lost in for hours and forget about the essay that’s due at midnight. Bioshock has always been one of those franchises for me. The first time I played an entry in the series was 2010’s Bioshock 2. I loved the underwater setting of Rapture so much I would wander the glass encased hallways staring at the fish swimming between buildings while I sat completely lost in the wonder at the leaky dystopia. Rapture became a place where I could go to get lost in a world that was worse than the one I was from but one where my imagination could run wild. Irrational games was able to craft one of the most memorable worlds in gaming history with their classic 2007’s Bioshock and it has had a profound influence on my taste in video games.

For their second outing, Irrational Games decided that Bioshock Infinite needed to mix things up and remove the player from the underwater city of Rapture. Instead, choosing that the game takes place in the flying city, Columbia and instead of selfish objectivist ideology the game grounded its failed utopian philosophy around religious fanaticism and quantum physics. Released in 2013, Bioshock Infinite was received with strong critical and general audience reception. I loved the game so much I obtained all the achievements twice but does Bioshock Infinite live up to its legacy 8 years later?

“Just ’cause a city flies don’t mean it ain’t got its fair share of fools”

The concept of Columbia is actually really interesting and probably could have been just as interesting as Rapture in the other two Bioshocks, if the same cohesive care has been taken. A floating city fueled by quantum levitation with a Chicago World’s Fair vibe? To me that sounds like a fantastic follow up to Rapture. The problem stems from the fact that Bioshock Infinite does not take the same amount of care with the setting’s DNA as it does with the rest of the overall story.

The first two Bioshock games left a lot for the player to look at and get a sense of the lives that people could have had in Rapture until its fall. This perception of the city of Rapture continues to evolve as the player explores further into the city. That same level of progression in understanding is not present in Columbia. Columbia feels like the developers at Irrational Games gave up trying to flesh out its setting by the time Booker and Elizabeth meet for the first time. The first 20 minutes or so of the game shows a flourishing Columbia with examples of parades, moving portions of the city, and vigors as assistance in every day life much like plasmids. The issue is that the game largely stops developing the setting instead choosing to spend all its time in fast placed combat or developing Elizabeth’s story.

You might ask what about the shanty town or Fink’s factory? These areas of the game might seem like examples of showing different parts of the world but there is an issue with the delivery. A lot of the areas in Bioshock Infinite feel more like sets that were created. They don’t feel like living breathing worlds that exist when the player isn’t looking. Rather these areas seem more like they pause in time after the player leaves. Only to come to life again if the player backtracks looking for an audio dairy that they overlooked.

Columbia may not be as realized as it should have been and that might be because of the change in direction that the game took somewhere in development. Maybe the reason was thematic. Maybe it was low on the priority list. Either way, Columbia does not feel as real of a place as Rapture did. We hear so little from the regular citizens who have little to do with the main plot. It feels more like a convenient fictional fantasy dreamt up by writers rather than a dystopia brought about by a zealot. Which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if the same franchise had not set a different standard for itself. Columbia is still a fun backdrop and allows for variations in the gameplay formula that Rapture never allowed. However, when it comes to world building, Columbia does not reach the heights that a floating city should.

“If you don’t draw first, you don’t get to draw at all.”

Bioshock Infinite chooses to stick to its first-person shooter roots and for the most part it works really well. The gameplay remains guns in the right hand and various superpowers, called vigors, in the left hand similar to the first game’s power division.

The guns are fairly basic in offering with must haves like a high powered handgun, sniper rifle, and shotgun to the more niche offerings like the burst rifle or carbine. None of the guns are necessarily bad. The guns just feel lifeless. In the original Bioshock, the guns could look like they were repurposed for the civil war and could have physical alterations when upgraded by the player. In Bioshock Infinite, all the weapons are standard affair and will not change beyond how they were introduced even when upgraded. This is a tiny detail sure but it makes the game feel less impressive.

Vigors on the other hand are just as fun as plasmids were in the other games. The only issue might be how few options there are in mutant powers. There are only 8 vigors and they are familiar to anyone who has played a Bioshock game before. Shock Jockey is Electro Shock, Devil’s Kiss is Incinerate, Murder of Crows is Insect Swarm. The rebranding of powers is not a bad thing. All those vigors are still relevant however they don’t feel as inspired as the other 5 vigors in Infinite. The other powers are some of my favorite abilities in a Bioshock game. Undertow, for instance, shoots water tentacles that can grab enemies from afar or can shoot a pressurized blast of water to knock people off the edge of the city. The Charge vigor allows the player to tackle an enemy at high speeds and is one of the only ways I could defeat one of the bosses on the hardest difficulty, 1999 mode. There may only be 8 but all the vigors feel capable in a battle unlike some of the powers present in the other two games.

The guns and vigors are the two core gameplay elements but Infinite introduces two new mechanics to the battles. The player’s companion through the majority of the story is Elizabeth and she has the ability to open tears when they are available. Tears are essentially something from another timeline/dimension peeking through to the one you are in. Elizabeth is able to pull that object into your reality to aid you in the game. Whether she brings in skyhook or a robot companion to help you stay alive in battle, Elizabeth’s tears offer the potential for interesting gameplay variation opportunities. I just wish the tears could be randomized during play throughs or that more opportunities for unique environmental tears. For example, imagine if a tear that Elizabeth could bring in could incapacitate a skyline in some way? The enemies would fly off and potentially be lost in the clouds below. Little opportunities like this would make the gameplay feel a lot more varied.

Finally, the best addition to Infinite’s gameplay, the skylines. The first item that the player finds upon entering Columbia is a skyhook which is a fancy contraption that allow the player to ride the metal lines around Columbia. Essentially, the player is able to zip line around the different arenas while fighting enemies. The fights that effectively implement skylines are the best in the game in my opinion. The feeling of verticality and speed are perfect for the game. Like when the player must take down a zeppelin. Zipping around buildings and dodging mortar shots, the player charges into the zeppelin, takes out the enemies, jumps out of the burning blimp onto a skyline to the celebratory shouts of the Vox Populi. It’s one of the ways that Infinite’s gameplay can make the player feel like a true hero.

The skylines aren’t perfect though. For instance, the presence of skylines is not as frequent as I would like them to be. The combat peaks when the player is jumping on and off the lines and dodging incoming enemy attacks while at the same time managing ammo, salts, and the various tears that are available in any given area. It makes every moment of combat feel more intense. These intense battle moments are limited when the skylines are not present. If skyhook lines ever return in a Bioshock game, I would hope that they would allow more dynamic gameplay by jumping between different heights with ease and maybe an enemy that specializes in line fighting. A man can dream.

The moments where skylines and tears are not as emphasized feel much more dumbed down in comparison. Which is okay if the difficulty of the AI is appropriate. Bioshock games are a mixed bag when it comes to difficulty and Infinite is no exception. Infinite employs another checkpoint system that effectively eliminates enemies coming back after you die. Instead, the player returns to the fight they were having before with little consequence. This makes the majority of the game easy to eventually get through unless you are playing on 1999 mode. The most difficult mode in Infinite eliminates the checkpoint handicaps and makes the player restart after losing too much money, as well as a host of other difficulties. The most standout modifier being that the enemy health recharges over time.

I start every play through of Bioshock Infinite planning for the fight against Lady Comstock. I am forever scarred after having restarted the entire game twice while attempting a 1999 mode play through and getting soft locked at the Lady Comstock fight. It can be so frustrating to get to the fight only to realize that all the weapons that you have on you at the time are not enough to overcome the health regeneration of Lady Comstock. However, since I have already learned this logistical error long ago, I was more than prepared to take Lady Comstock out with a few good hits of an upgraded Charge vigor. It can be frustrating that a boss fight in the game might require someone to restart their entire run just because they didn’t know they could be severely under upgraded by the fight. Which again would not be so much of an issue if earlier points of the game could have the same effect. It would be a better way of allowing the player to watch how they are progressing by giving them other tough enemies earlier on.

I think the biggest issue with Infinite’s gameplay is that it doesn’t make the player change up their plan of attack much at all. Like I said earlier, 1999 mode forced me to plan ahead for the one fight against Lady Comstock but besides this moment Infinite lets the player slide. There is little challenge in the majority of the game and the player can get by with just their favorite vigor and whatever guns are nearby.

“There’s always a lighthouse, there’s always a man, there’s always a city.”

The story of Bioshock Infinite is one of my favorites told in a video game. We can argue whether the gameplay genre was appropriate for the narrative but nevertheless the story concepts introduced in the game are a great follow up to the original Bioshock game created by Levine’s team.

If the story of Bioshock Infinite is anything, it is self-aware. The opening of the game has the player, in the shoes of ex-Pinkerton Booker Dewitt, land on dock of a lighthouse, much like the first game. The game wants the player to begin to draw parallels to the other game. These connections don’t stop as the player notices a lot of similarities between Infinite and the previous games, like the presence of vending machines that talk, and the return of powers powered by blue substances. Everything appears to make a return but in a weirdly different state like Infinite is the off brand Bioshock game.

However, this is where the genius of the developers shines. It turns out the tears in reality that Elizabeth can manipulate have allowed Comstock and other Columbian leaders to communicate with scientists and leaders in other cities in other universes, like Rapture. The sharing of knowledge is partially the excuse as to the similarities between the cities. The other excuse being “constants and variables.” Universes will be similar in some ways while in others being different. Infinite is making itself familiar to returning players while at the same time giving narrative reason as to why the mechanics of the game are so similar. It can still call itself a Bioshock game while trying to make itself different tonally.

The original Bioshock delivered one of the single greatest twists in all of video games. I assume that Irrational Games sees the property as one that must deliver these twists or Ken Levine is gaming’s Christopher Nolan. Either way, Infinite attempts several twists/revelations for the player to discover. None of the early revelations feel like they carry much weight, until Elizabeth is able to gain complete control over her abilities. The last twist in the game still to this day gives me goosebumps. There are few properties that make me stop and think about the ending after several completions but Infinite certainly accomplishes that.

There are several plot points that are just such massive missed opportunities. Playing through Infinite this latest time, I couldn’t help but think how wasted Songbird’s incorporation was to the gameplay of Infinite. Songbird was teased from the beginning as Elizabeth’s guardian angel. It is the closest thing in Infinite to the equivalent of a Big Daddy. Yet, the only times we “fight” Songbird are in cut scenes. Even at the end, where it would have been the most appropriate time to fight Songbird we instead gain control, over him. On top of Songbird not being any real challenge to the player, his death could have been more in line with the themes of the game. Elizabeth feels chained down to Columbia thanks to the silo in the Columbian statue as well as because of Songbird trying to abduct her. At the end of Infinite though who gives Songbird his final orders? Booker does. And for what? Just so that the player could feel powerful for a moment. It should have been Elizabeth who gave the final order and then drowned Songbird like she eventually did in the finale. Songbird had such great potential as an entity even more oppressive and powerful than a Big Daddy but unfortunately that potential was never truly reached.

Infinite is so stuck on trying to deliver multiple narrative twists throughout its story that none of them feel very surprising or, in some cases, earned. However, I do enjoy the story and it’s really because of the ending. The ending wraps everything up really nicely so, though the game appears to get a little lost in itself in the middle, the beginning and end cement Bioshock’s identity. “There’s always lighthouse, There’s always a man” and there’s always a story to tell.

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