BioShock Infinite Review: A Gleaming City of Unrealized Potential

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Posted on March 29, 2013, Phil Hornshaw BioShock Infinite Review: A Gleaming City of Unrealized Potential

Columbia is Rapture. BioShock Infinite is BioShock.

This is a central conceit of Irrational Games’ follow-up to the oft-lauded first-person shooter that took place in a city built at the bottom of the ocean. It’s not a sequel to BioShock. It’s another, similar title with the BioShock label. It is BioShock Remix; BioShock Clear; BioShock But What If the City Could Fly Instead.

The tragedy of BioShock Infinite is that it’s a game of big ideas saddled to what amounts to a rehash of the experience of that first time you entered Rapture some six years ago. The architecture is different, the underlying philosophies espoused in audio journals tweaked, but the sum of the parts is the same, if delivered less well. Where BioShock was a frightening, oppressive experience that coupled the fear of what lurked around the next corner with an unquenchable desire to explore around that corner, BioShock Infinite’s Columbia lacks that magical draw. Infinite is not a bad game — it’s an extremely competent FPS that must be commended for sometimes taking on hard topics, creating an often beautifully realized world, and pushing the envelope of polish and story in video games in some important, key ways. I think you should play it.

But it’s too bad Infinite wasn’t released from the cage that is the BioShock label and freed to realize its own potential.

BioShock Infinite
Platforms: PC (Reviewed), Playstation 3, Xbox 360
Developer: Irrational Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Released: March 26, 2013
MSRP: $59.99

Booker DeWitt owes. The former Pinkerton agent, U.S. Army veteran of the Battle of Wounded Knee, and player character, has fallen into a bottle and piled up gambling debts. His last, best shot of digging his way clear is to venture to a strange city called Columbia to rescue a girl named Elizabeth and return her to New York. Like BioShock, Infinite starts with a lighthouse, some cryptic words scrawled on wall hangings, and a beautiful ascent (rather than descent) to an impossible city glittering with potential.

The opening hours of BioShock Infinite suggest that incredible potential. The 1912 city echoes with uncanny, anachronistic glimmers of something strange lingering beneath the surface. A statue changes from the visage of a man to that of a woman before Booker’s eyes. A barbershop quartet serenades market-goers with a rendition of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.” Columbia feels…wrong. It’s a city that floats among the clouds, a feat its inhabitants take for granted, but something here is not right. When players finally get to where Elizabeth is held, they discover a facility treating the young woman as a dangerous scientific anomaly, and when Booker manages to free her, she serves as an AI-controlled companion for most of the duration, but we’re left to wonder why the Columbians feared her so — and whether we should too. When Booker passes a sign warning off the so-called “False Shepard,” who Columbians will know by a brand on his hand — the same brand Booker has on his hand — we know we’re in for a surreal experience.

And Infinite does sometimes manage to be surreal and fascinating in an intellectual, story driven way. At its best, the city, like Rapture, suggests what can happen when an ideologue goes off the rails and convinces thousands to follow him. Columbia is a cult unto itself, and the game often looks as if it’s poised, like the original BioShock, to make a serious comment on reality. The city’s patriarch, Father Comstock, is a self-proclaimed prophet who seems to have the chops to back up the claim. His brand of religion is a mixture of intense Christianity, the literal deifying of the American creation myth, and institutionalized racism. Writer and Director Ken Levine looks as if he has something to say.

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