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BioShock Infinite review: Of lions, lambs and liars

Xav de Matos
Xav de Matos|March 25, 2013 8:00 AM
BioShock Infinite weaves a complicated and intricate plot around ever-changing variables. Not only is it an evolving story that sees protagonist Booker DeWitt and the mysterious Elizabeth grow closer, but Irrational's latest deals with the hubris of a society built above the clouds, its ideals inflated with so much of the same hot air that propels it above the world below.

Though it touches on topics revolving around racism, religion, rebellion and revenge, these themes take a backseat to BioShock Infinite's primary topic: Love. Whether it be a society in love with its own patented brand of American Exceptionalism, a leader in love with his own self-appointed immortal image, or a pair of people that come together to care for one another, BioShock Infinite is a love story.

And it's an easy story to fall in love with.%Gallery-183702%Taking place in 1912, BioShock Infinite follows Booker DeWitt, a man with a mysterious past charged with ascending to the once-iconic but now forgotten city of Columbia, a floating city in the sky. Once there, DeWitt must find a woman named Elizabeth and bring her to New York to wipe away his debt. DeWitt, who first appears to be without a vestige of sympathy for the plight of the woman, complies. To describe details any further would only serve to eradicate BioShock Infinite's exceptional ability to surprise.

Unlike the undersea city of Rapture – the setting of Irrational's critical and commercial smash BioShock – Columbia is a living world. Players won't draw blood from enemies for quite some time when they arrive in Columbia, a world established and ruled by a figure known as Father Zachary Comstock. Rather, DeWitt and the player are introduced to the technology and ideals that power the city as they move across its interlocking sections; and as gorgeous as the world of Columbia is, it's a horribly grotesque place. DeWitt learns that the city is fueled by racism, misplaced loyalty and morbid patriotism, and it quickly becomes a joy to know the game will eventually allow him to pull it down from the sky, arrogant brick by brick.

When players first arrive on Columbia by way of being rocketed into the sky, the focus is a civil war between the "White Power" fanatics led by Comstock and a rebellious group dubbed the Vox Populi led by a strong black woman named Daisy Fitzroy. While this story weaves in and out of the overarching narrative, it eventually takes a backseat to more pressing matters: Elizabeth and DeWitt's search for the truth about their existence on Columbia.

BioShock Infinite review Of lions, lambs and liars
BioShock Infinite's core gameplay mimics that of Irrational's previous effort: a first-person shooter with a magical component. The "magic" in Infinite is composed of collectible vigors, potent elixirs that grant DeWitt special powers, like the ability to electrocute enemies or lob fireballs. Each of the vigors, and all weapons, can be upgraded to increase their power and properties – longer ability duration, extra ammunition, etc. Where things begin to diverge for Infinite versus the original BioShock is in collectible gear, which can be mixed and matched to grant special buffs, like headgear that allows DeWitt to leach health for successfully performing brutal melee execution kills with his skyline hook.

The hook is used to traverse Columbia's skylines, a network of massive, suspended mechanical rails that connect different parts of the city. While both DeWitt and Elizabeth can use them to travel the city, they serve as more than just a simple means of transportation. As the game progresses, the pair will encounter arenas with varying levels of terrain with enemies attacking on all sides. Though you can pick each aggressor off from a static cover point, it's far more fulfilling to zip around on skylines and fight from multiple angles.

Elizabeth provides DeWitt with valuable resources like ammunition, health packs and salts (which are the fuel for vigors) during battle. Beyond scavenging, Elizabeth can also modify the properties of the battlefield by playing with pre-determined "tears" – splits in the fabric of time she has the ability to open. These can introduce things like cover, turrets, and even motorized allies to help DeWitt come out on top.

Tears also play a crucial role in the narrative. Elizabeth has been able to open them since early childhood, though as a young adult she's lost some of her grip on her ability. DeWitt, understandably, is terrified of Elizabeth's power, unclear of the true intentions of everyone involved in her life, including Comstock and his own employers. The tears add to the mystery, sometimes appearing with music from the wrong decade spilling out of them, raising immediate questions as to the true nature of the phenomenon, Columbia's place in history and even Elizabeth herself. Though their relationship is quickly strained upon first meeting, with neither truly trusting the actions of the other, Elizabeth and DeWitt become allies and even friends, a relationship made possible by BioShock Infinite's superb voice cast.

BioShock Infinite review Of lions, lambs and liars
Engagements are typically a fun dance between mixing weapons and abilities while utilizing the environmental possibilities to cut down Infinite's assortment of enemies – snatching powerful weapons from tears, leaping onto skylines and fighting as you glide across the sky. Some of the battles, however, drag on too long and interrupt the flow of story-telling, especially toward the end of the game.

In terms of its immediate adversaries, Infinite lacks any foe as terrifying as BioShock's Big Daddy; though the aggressiveness of the Handyman – a robotic behemoth with a human head that literally begs for death – can be a daunting challenge to manage. Both standard and special enemies, even the mini-gun toting Motorized Patriot, eventually become just another thing to shoot at, never reaching the same dangerous heights as BioShock's giant, iconic protector.

Nearing the game's conclusion, DeWitt is sent off on what essentially amounts to a fetch quest, which also puts a lull on the overarching narrative. Though it helps detail some finer points of the story, getting to those details introduces a few speed bumps on the way to what is, overall, a marvelous ending.

But the ending is marvelous, and you'll have to trust me when I say that BioShock Infinite's final section – dedicated entirely to its narrative – handily disposes of any minor gripes. There is not only one twist to the tale, but many entrances and exits to a wide array of secrets, diving deeper into the past of the primary cast of characters and the world of Columbia itself. The greatest discovery, however, is the love that blossoms between Elizabeth and DeWitt, and how far the pair are willing to go to protect each other.

While the end of 2013 will be filled with talk about a new generation of video games, BioShock Infinite's narrative will stand out as an achievement, helping put a cap on a generation that propelled narrative as a focus for the industry. Undoubtedly the finest game crafted by Irrational Games, BioShock Infinite is one of the best told stories of this generation. It simply cannot be missed.

This review is based on a final, review version of BioShock Infinite for PC provided by 2K Games.

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BioShock Infinite review: Of lions, lambs and liars