Bioshock: Infinite is an impressive game, and one of the best examples of video game storytelling in recent years. Its similarities to Half-Life 2 are striking, not just in how well it tells its interesting story, but in the freedom it allows you when interacting with its world. Infinite doesn’t feature anything as revolutionary as HL2’s Gravity Gun, but its Vigor spell system does give combat enough variation and colour to keep things interesting.
The Vigor system is important because Infinite’s gunplay is one of its weakest elements. Combat is always hectic and enjoyable enough, but you can get through the whole game with a couple of basic tactics, and enemies never really feel like they present much of a threat. The only exception are the Handymen, man-machine hybrids who are like this game’s answer to the Big Daddies from earlier in the series. Handymen present the game’s only serious challenge and are quite under-used; they also have an interesting backstory which doesn’t really come across very much. It’s a shame, as most of the rest of the combat ends up feeling quite repetitive. There is a reasonable variety to the game’s weaponry but combat often lacks weight and the explosive weapon types all feel very underwhelming, meaning you will normally end up sticking with a few of the available options throughout the 12-hour campaign.
Elizabeth is at your side for most of the game and is a brilliant companion. She behaves very intelligently and her pacing and positioning are flawless throughout. Although never involved in combat directly, Elizabeth does provide health and ammo supplies, picks locks, and can open ‘tears’ in reality which do things like establish friendly gun emplacements or provide cover. She’s a pivotal part of gameplay and the main reason the game remains fun to play for more than a few hours.
Elizabeth is also central to the story. Bioshock: Infinite is a model of narrative exposition, and Columbia’s peculiar environments are beautifully designed, well conceived and internally consistent. The personal drama at the centre of the story is interesting throughout, although I can take or leave its exploration of metaphysics and the nature of reality, which I felt was ultimately light-minded and casual. That said, this is a mainstream video game, so we shouldn’t expect too much I suppose.
But I do have one major objection to the game’s story. Columbia is a dystopian state run along the lines of a fascistic, white-supremacist, fundamentalist Christian ideology, where the poor and ethnic minorities are kept under constant, brutal subjugation. A major part of the game’s early stages see the popular, multi-racial ‘Vox Populi’ democratic movement rising up against the dictatorship of Zachary Comstock. Although it is never explicitly said, the imagery associated with the rebellion all comes from socialist and trade union movements. As the game progresses the rebellion swiftly degenerates into a campaign of indiscriminate murder and bloodshed, and the player is tasked with killing wave after wave of Vox Populi zealots. Essentially, the game portrays the two sides of the conflict–the fascist dictatorship, and the popular movement against it–as the same thing.
The first game in the Bioshock series made significant use of the cynical, individualist philosophy of Ayn Rand to shape its world and story. Although Infinite does not explicitly refer to Rand’s ‘Objectivist’ philosophy, I found the way the game demonizes collective action for progressive social change to be distasteful and offensive. This is a matter of personal taste, of course, and many people will be either indifferent to this aspect of the game, or even positively embrace it. But for me, it means that while I can appreciate and respect the game’s artistry and craft, this is not a game I like, nor is it one that I will come back to. Considering how much I liked the game when I started playing it, that’s too bad.