[Article originally published at my Examiner.com PC gaming column – Note that all links go to my column at Examiner.com]
Irrational Games’ Bioshock Infinite may be among the most over-hyped games in history, but thankfully it lives up to the hype. It may not re-define the FPS (first person shooter) genre, but it certainly raises the bar sky high.
And if you’ve got the PC horsepower to run it at its highest graphics settings, Bioshock Infinite is one of the most gorgeous games you’ll see in 2013. (If you’re curious, I ran the game pretty flawlessly with the highest settings at 1920×1200 on a 3Ghz Core i7-950 with a Geforce 660ti and 24GB of RAM).
Welcome to Columbia
Welcome to the year 1912 and the floating city of Columbia, a majestic, steam punk style utopia in the sky—well, as long as you’re a white, racist, ultra-nationalist religious zealot. If you’re not, Columbia may be a little less than hospitable.
You play the role of Booker Dewitt, a roguish fellow with a dark past and an addled memory. Booker goes to Columbia to retrieve a girl named Elizabeth and satisfy a gambling debt.
Or at least that’s what he thinks; little if anything in Columbia is what it seems to be. And even thoughBioshock Infinite relies on some fairly tried-and-true plot machinations (mysterious past, murky memories, revealing story through audio recordings to name a few), it still manages to defy expectations.
A brighter past
Columbia is everything the city of Rapture (in Bioshock 2) is not. Whereas Rapture was dark, haunted, and claustrophobic, Columbia is colorful with majestic spires and platforms spread across an ocean of sky and clouds. From the moment you set foot in Columbia you’ll want to explore it. Citizens converse, pray, and generally go about their daily lives as you walk through beautiful streets to the din of early 20th century music.
One thing that particularly impressed me is Bioshock Infinite manages to naturally draw your attention through its prologue (once you’re set free of the ‘on rails’ sequences) without fish-hooking you along too much. Once you’re in Columbia you can explore freely, and after several minutes of wandering about sheer curiosity drew me to a stage where a crowd had gathered. This sequence also happens to lead into the tutorial for melee combat—the turning point where the prologue ends and all hell breaks loose.
As a quick aside, for the love of all that’s holy if you have kids in the room make them leave before pressing the “V” (melee) key when instructed to do so. My kids (7 and 9) just wandered into my office prior to that point, and though I expected a simple right cross I instead disarmed a guy and stabbed his own spinning-hook device into another guy’s face—complete with a volcanic eruption of blood, not to mention my immediate forfeiture of any chance for “father of the year”. I may need to run a Kickstarter campaign for my kids’ therapy bills.
What’s the same, what’s new
Once the melee combat begins it’s a short, slippery slope to picking up a pistol, and then the bullets and blood starts flying. Columbia was a nice place until you got there and started shooting the sh*t out of everything.
Assuming you played Bioshock or Bioshock 2, you’ll recognize many of the same mechanics and game play elements in Bioshock Infinite.
First, you can carry any two firearms (in addition to your hook) from a vast, steampunk-style arsenal that includes: a pistol, hand cannon (6-gun), carbine rifle, shotgun, sniper rifle, repeater, machine gun, rocket launcher, and grenade launcher (Volley gun). There’s also the Heater—an especially powerful, flame-spewing shotgun, and a hand-cranked chain gun.
And then there are the superpowers, which you gain by drinking potions called Vigors. Each Vigor generally corresponds to some type of elemental attack—electrical, fire, wind, etc. Vigors are powered by ‘Salts’ (your mana).
Also like previous Bioshock games, your powers can be combined and interact with each other and the environment to provide even more strategic options. Blast an enemy into the air with a water spout, and then fry them with electricity for extra damage. Or you can shoot a firebolt into an oil spill to light things up. Every Vigor also has 2 different modes, some of which lay traps on the ground.
In addition to the vast arsenal of weapons and Vigors, you can also find and equip 4 types of gear, each of which provides additional bonuses. Some improve your melee combat capabilities, others provide bonuses to your Vigor powers, and still others can augment your abilities with specific weapon types.
Ultimately Bioshock Infinite provides nearly infinite strategic options for you to use, and then it gives you plenty of challenging, hectic, multi-level skirmishes in which to use them. No matter your preferences you’re certain to find strategies that suit your play style.
City of secrets
Columbia is ripe for exploration. You can rummage through garbage cans, desks, corpses, and countless other nooks and crannies for ammunition, money, supplies, etc. There are also plenty of recordings, short videos, and other elements that divulge the story as well as the history and culture of Columbia that truly immerse you in the story.
Occasionally you can find a code scrawled on a wall, which Elizabeth can decipher if you find the code book (usually located fairly close by). Crack the code, and you’ll open a secret area typically filled with money, ammunition, weapons and other goodies.
The real ‘prize’ for finding secret areas is a permanent power up that you can apply to either your health, your shield, or your salts (mana), or a piece of new gear—you can wear up to 4 pieces of gear at a time, each of which provides additional bonuses and provide yet another way for you customize and refine your preferred method of dealing death and destruction. Not all secret areas have them, but they’re worth going out of your way for.
There’s also no shortage of vending machines available where you can purchase supplies like health, ammo, and permanent upgrades to your Vigor powers and weapons.
On and off the rails
Although Bioshock Infinite is still heavily built upon the same mechanics as its predecessors, it also changes enough of the formula to keep things feeling fresh.
The first new twist is the sky rail system that runs throughout Columbia. The rails are used for getting around the city in a rollercoaster-like fashion. More importantly, the rails play a strategic role in combat. You can use them to gain high ground so you can attack from a better vantage point, or quickly jump onto one to make a quick escape.
You can also attack from the rails, jumping down onto enemies for an instant kill if they are lightly armored. And enemies will use the rails as well—so any respite or advantage gained is usually short-lived before you have to scramble to a new position or change tactics.
It’s exhilarating to say the least, and definitely the most fun you’ll ever have playing a ‘shooter on rails.’
Tearing up Columbia
Once you rescue Elizabeth early in the first act, she adds even more strategic options to combat.
In addition to tossing you ammo, health, and salts during combat, she can tear open the fabric of the world and pull things from an alternate reality into yours—things like turrets, walls (for cover), sky hooks, weapons, stashes of salts and health kits, and more.
All you need to do is to tell her what to pull through; if there is more than one tear available you can switch between them on the fly, but you can only have one item pulled through at a time. For example, you might have her pull through a turret first for some added firepower, and then switch and have her pull through a wall for added cover, and then maybe some health kits if you’ve taken a beating.
Elizabeth will also be your sugar momma and toss you money out of combat now and again. She’s also conveniently invulnerable, so you don’t have to worry about trying to keep her alive —she takes care of herself.
Infinite choices, finite time
Suffice to say the sheer variety of combat options, environments, and the equally diverse enemies make for combat that is fast, ever-changing, strategically diverse, and always challenging. Enemies are smart and come in many varieties, from lightly armored thugs with clubs to heavily armored Firemen throwing fireballs or shooting rockets at you. Some enemies also use Vigors, such as the Crow—who teleports around and tries to engage you in melee.
Then there are the Handymen—giant, heavily armored steampunk Cyborgs—and the Patriots, which are steampunk mechs typically armed with chain guns or rocket launchers. Handymen take more damage if you shoot them in the chest, while Patriots take more damage if can shoot them in the back.
And yes, you frequently (later in the game) will face one or more of each in the same fight, backed by a small army of support troops and auto turrets.
Stay awhile and listen
Bioshock Infinite takes about 10-12 hours to complete (on medium difficulty), but you can take longer if you explore the city thoroughly or play the Hard difficulty setting. I think I’d recommend playing on hard and regret that I didn’t. (Also, finishing the game with Hard difficulty also unlocks a new difficulty mode—1999 mode.) Columbia is a fantastic FPS playground and the game’s story is worth experiencing at a leisurely pace (at least in between firefights).
Bioshock Infinite is hands-down one of the best shooters, best games, and best stories I’ve ever experienced on the PC, and it’s probably cemented itself in gaming history as one of the best games ever made (probably alongside its predecessors). I’m already anxious to see what DLC lies in wait for us in the coming months.