BioShock Infinite Review: A Gleaming City of Unrealized Potential
But BioShock Infinite never quite says anything. At least a full third of the game concerns the tensions between the white-bred power brokers of Columbia — Comstock the prophet and Jeremiah Fink the industrial robber baron, espousing the furthest exaggeration of modern far-right politics and movements such as the Tea Party — and the Vox Populi, a people’s movement ostensibly consisting of non-white ethnic groups under the boot-heel of the rich white folks (that could easily be related to modern movement such as Occupy Wall Street, although with a great deal less accuracy than the conservative characters). Players find themselves on the side of the Vox by necessity early on, and a period spent venturing through the Ku Klux Klan-like Fraternity of the Raven during the first level will likely incite you against the racist jerks on Comstock’s side, but it’s not long before Infinite goes with the idea that Everyone With Any Power Kinda Sucks. Rather than make any true comment about populist movements, racism or fascism, the game and Levine opt not to pick sides, and thus not potentially offend anyone.
Unrealized potential marks the entire Columbia experience, as if the game was always poised to act, but as you get close to its walls and characters, you realize you’re on a movie set and it’s all a big illusion. There are a few (great) moments in which Booker and Elizabeth wander through Columbia and find it lived-in, either by the comfortable or the downtrodden. These moments, however, inevitably turn to big shootouts with police or other enemies with the citizens abruptly vanishing, and the potential energy of any given scene never really becomes kinetic energy. When the revolution happens, you mostly hear it in the distance, or walk past its fires and its bodies (which lose a lot of their emotional impact when you’re constantly rifling through their pockets). You’ll spend the game pursued by the enigmatic, robotic Songbird, for example, without the creature ever engaging you outside of a cutscene. The majority of your time in Columbia consists of walking around having conversations with Elizabeth and looting things, before stumbling on a large group of enemies for something of a lackluster battle.
It’s not that combat in Infinite is bad. Players will find a number of interesting weapons that can be upgraded over time, but can only carry two at a time — they range from machine guns and pistols to shotguns that spray fire and RPGs. Compounding that, like in BioShock, is the addition of “vigors,” which convey superpowers to the player like the ability to set people on fire, electrocute them, or suspend them in the air for easy shooting. The eight vigors you eventually get allow for some free-form combat opportunities that can sometimes be very fun to experiment with and utilize.
The problem is that we’ve been here already. Six years ago, BioShock put the very same power in players’ hands, mixing shotguns with throwing lightning bolts, machine guns with launching killer bees at people, and grenade launchers with the ability to possess the weak-minded. Though the vigors are slightly different in appearance and action from BioShock’s plasmids, the overall effect is the same.
Meanwhile, enemy AI and variety feels lifted from BioShock almost verbatim. You’ll fight police officers who: come at you with billy clubs; shoot at you with pistols; shoot at you with shotguns; shoot at you with machine guns; and fling fire your way. These enemies don’t differ meaningfully from BioShock’s splicers at all, down to the fact that they’ll often take bullets to the face and keep coming with no real regard for their personal safety. Six years ago, we could buy that these folks were crazy and that they lacked personal control. In 2013, this just feels like lazy AI design.
Combat in Infinite does often excel with its two new mechanics: skylines and tears. Skylines are tracks that sometimes encircle battlefields, giving Booker the ability to hop on and use them, rollercoaster-style, to move around the environment, gain elevation, drop on enemies for powerful melee attacks, and relocate quickly. Skylines can often change the tenor of a battle from forcing players to hide behind cover to stay clear of enemy fire, to being incredibly kinetic and vertical. Fights on skylines, in which players hang from one hand and fire guns from the other, make for some of the best and most intense moments in Infinite, although the mechanic suffers severely from the fact that once you’ve gone around a track twice, you’ve pretty much experienced the highlights of that particular fight.
The second mechanic is Elizabeth’s ability to open holes between your dimension and other, parallel universes, often bringing objects that don’t exist in Infinite’s ostensible reality into being. In practical terms, that means you can be fighting in an open area and command Elizabeth to warp in a turret or fresh supplies or a chunk of cover, and that can often change the battle.