Bioshock Infinite received glowing reviews when it came out in 2013, but my impression is that it wasn’t really the commercial success it should have been. I’ve only just got round to playing it, having picked it up for a fiver in a Steam sale last year, so I can’t exactly claim to have done my bit to support the franchise. Which is a shame, because a couple of hours in, I have to say this game seems absolutely outstanding.
The game makes a slow start, but soon delivers you to the fantastical, floating city of Columbia. Exploring the streets of Columbia for the first time is a jaw-dropping experience and sceptic that I am, I must admit to something of a sense of wonder here. This game’s opening reminds me of nothing so much as the beginning of Half-Life 2, and indeed that is a comparison that is bearing up throughout the early stages. The game has a deeply congruous and well-realized sense of place and it is obvious a great amount of thought and care has gone into designing this world. One of the first areas you explore is an entire, functioning amusement arcade which serves no obvious plot or tutorial purpose, but helps to flesh out the environment and the world you’ve entered. Columbia is quite well-populated by people talking and going about their business, and most of them have interesting dialogue to follow. It’s excellent.
Graphics are very colourful and the visual design is to be commended. The game is set in 1912 and there are impressive feats of mechanical and electrical engineering throughout the gameworld. But for all its Utopian pretensions, Columbia is a deeply sinister place, characterised by religious fanaticism and racial prejudice, and the game has a really creepy atmosphere. I was stunned at the point, very early on, when my initial exploration of Columbia came to an abrupt and violent halt. I don’t want to say too much, as this is a game that really should be experienced for yourself, but the narrative is well-paced and intense. There is an air of mystery and everything you learn seems to point the way to more questions.
So far, the weakest part of the game is the player character Booker DeWitt, a generic private investigator who took an assignment in Columbia to pay off a gambling debt. I’m sure there will be a few twists along the way, but so far he is a cookie-cutter character and I can’t help but think that featuring him so prominently in the game’s marketing was a mistake. This game has plenty of selling points but the protagonist is not one. Elizabeth, a mysterious young woman with supernatural powers, is much more interesting and indeed I remember her cropping up regularly in coverage of the game when it was first released.
The game’s combat is surprisingly deep. It has a number of features I remember from Bioshock 2, and in addition to melee and firearms you also get ‘Vigors’ which are equippable spells that allow you to do things like possess humans or machines or throw fireballs. The Vigor system is very cool, and combat is hectic without feeling overwhelming. On normal difficulty, the game’s challenge also seems relatively mild and frustration-free which is very welcome indeed.
So far, I’m really intrigued and enjoying Bioshock Infinite. The game blends a complex and interesting setting and story, great action, and stunning set-pieces and environments. I understand now why it received such wide critical praise; and I wish I’d played it sooner. It’s disappointing to learn that developer Irrational Games has since closed down, but I’m going to try not to dwell on that until I’ve finished the game, and just savour the experience while I’m playing it.