Tuesday, April 9, 2013

BioShock Infinite - Quick Look

BioShock Infinite Raises the Roof
BioShock Infinite is a high-flying adventure with a compelling story, a unique setting and engaging characters. It's a first-person shooter and an ethereal fantasy at the same time. It's sort of historical, but the history is of an alternate reality. It takes on some thorny social issues, though mostly in a nuanced way. BioShock Infinite is for gamers who want to do a lot more than aim.

BioShock Infinite, developed by Irrational Games, is available for Windows, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and OS X as a digital download or a physical disk for US$59.99.

Video game franchises typically run a predictable course. Create something that is -- or seems -- unique, and if it's a hit, crank out a few more of the same. This is why some good series eventually stumble. Irrational Games likely pondered this when it began developing the second sequel to the groundbreaking BioShock.

How do you follow-up a smash game that takes players to a strange and fascinating underwater city, mixing action with mystery? Instead of going deeper under water, the latest title in the series goes to new heights. The action takes place in Columbia, a city floating in the sky.

In BioShock Infinite, players take the role of war veteran and disgraced Pinkerton detective Booker DeWitt. The somewhat reluctant hero heads out on a mission to find a teenage girl named "Elizabeth" and in the process redeem himself -- or at least wipe away a debt.
bioshock infinite
Sky City With Serious Issues
While the game begins on a rainy night in a rowboat heading toward a lighthouse -- no doubt to make the game somewhat reminiscent of BioShock's watery setting -- players soon are rocketed to Columbia, an idyllic floating city in the clouds. It certainly seems inspired by the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, with neoclassical architecture from the White City -- and for good reason.
The game is set in 1912, and beyond the fact that this city is pure fantasy, there are plenty of anachronistic elements that DeWitt takes pretty much for granted. Radios are pervasive throughout the city and there are firearms that are years ahead of their time, but this is a gaming world and not necessarily our history, of course. All this helps create an otherworldly effect that seems inspired by steampunk as well as the works of Jules Verne, H.G. Welles and Edgar Rice Burroughs.

All of this is layered -- quite successfully -- on the 1912 setting, an era in the real world that was one of both great hopes and deep fears. 1912 was the year the Titanic sank, war was on the horizon, and yet in the United States there was a feeling that anything was impossible. While this likely didn't include a floating city, the game developers do play into the general feeling of hope. It was the tail end of the era of American Exceptionalism, which lives on in Columbia to disturbing levels.

At least for some people. BioShock Infinite takes a unique approach of tackling some issues of the era, including sexism, racism, nationalism and religion -- themes that ring true even today. It addresses topics that might not be brought up in polite conversation, and for this reason, the game might turn off some players. It is a little heavy handed at times, but for the most part, the messages are subtle.
Heroes and Villains
It is common in video games to play an antihero, and that's really the best way to describe DeWitt in BioShock Infinite. He has his flaws, and how pronounced they become depends very much on the player. There are a few cases when clear choices are offered. Unlike such recent titles as Dishonored, there is no way to go through this one as a pacifist -- but there are times when it is up to the player to decide what is the right thing to do.

The villains are better defined in BioShock Infinite than in the two previous BioShock installments. The central villain, Zachary Comstock, is referred to by residents as "The Prophet." He makes no attempts to hide his views on race, and early into the game starts taunting DeWitt incessantly over a loudspeaker.
bioshock infinite
Henchmen include the 10-feet tall half-robotic Handymen who are tough to take down, while the common cannon fodder includes the city's policemen and other militia. DeWitt is portrayed as being upset over his past activities, but he has no trouble blasting away endlessly at people. In a sense, it seems that he is numb to it all, and he is an antihero on a mission.

That mission is to rescue that aforementioned Elizabeth -- a young woman with some tremendous powers that this reviewer won't give away. Suffice it to say that she's much more than a mere damsel in distress. She serves as a good sidekick, and where many games tend to get bogged down by providing an AI companion, this is hardly the case. She can take care of herself and sticks by DeWitt.

Where the Magic Happens
BioShock Infinite is a fantasy game. It isn't exactly our reality, and it offers up a bit of magic in the form of "vigors," which DeWitt drinks to gain special powers. This gives him some alternate weapons, but more importantly, some of the vigors are crucial to advance the plot. The result is an Alice in Wonderland-type of twist -- DeWitt needs to drink up.

Instead of the traditional fantasy "mana" for magical powers, DeWitt has salt. Players must monitor both the characters' health and salt. Eating food can increase health, while drinking a beer in the game can raise health but lower salt. Grabbing cigarettes will increase salt but lower health. This game is built on 1912 sensibilities, it seems.

As with most linear-action games, this one is about exploring the world and deciding how much exploring is necessary. If you stay on course and grab only the essentials, it should take about 10 hours or so to play, but to go on every side quest and investigate absolutely every corridor, room, etc., would increase the game play quite a bit.

Graphically Speaking
BioShock Infinite is visually breathtaking. While it is still very much a linear "dungeon-crawl" type of game, the world feels very open. It is refreshing to get away from gloomy corridors and dystopian settings. The game should run smoothly on mid-range PCs, and provides plenty to do and see.

The interface is quite straightforward as well, with the usual first-person shooter control scheme. This can all be completely remapped as needed. If I have one complaint, it is that the zoom feature for firearms is set to the "Z" key by default, while the vigors' attacks are controlled by the right mouse button. More than once, I used the right mouse button to get a closer look with a sniper rifle only to shoot off a vigor and bring down the salt. Some remapping solved that problem.

The only other issue is that this game requires saves at chapter breaks. While none of the chapters are that long, there were moments where a save anywhere might have been the better way to go, especially because a lot of action happens at the beginning of some chapters -- meaning it can be all too easy to get sucked in.

Although BioShock Infinite can be thematically heavy-handed at times -- and it is by no means a historical game -- it delivers as an alternate-history action adventure that offers something different, and it is quite a thrill ride in the skies.

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