BioShock Infinite Review: Cloud Nine

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Written by Jason Nawara, @JasonNawara

Is the artist the sum of his collected works? Is Ken Levine himself the Andrew Ryan, Comstock or god forbid Shodan of the System Shock universe? Is Levine trying to create that truly great game, something more than just an exercise of the thumbs, an undeniable work of art to hold up to the naysayers? There are so many false prophets of the Hollywood religion that fear the rise of gaming and what it can do to narrative as we know and accept it.

No one wants to see their Pantheon torn down and then rebuilt by the foreign invaders, but with the fervor Ken Levine has attacked the gaming and film industries, he has become like the antagonists of his best works, a Comstock or Ryan, not seeing the forest for the trees.

I can only place conjecture in this humble internet post, but let it be known that I care deeply and passionately about the worlds that Mr. Levine has created, and that’s why Bioshock Infinite is going to elicit a passionate response from me. The fact that a video game can even bring such feelings to the surface is a step in the right direction, but in stating that, I feel about fifteen years behind the times. We gamers already know that certain titles have been just as capable at tugging at the heartstrings or evoking a sense of horror as well as movies or a TV show for years.

Some games have even rivaled great books (I’m looking at you, Elder Scrolls). I’m sure Ken Levine believes that by creating a game, a work of art, that creates discussion is job done well enough, but in the case of Bioshock Infinite, I feel like he’s perverted the vision that was so perfectly executed in Bioshock.

Yes, he probably got more money and even more freedom to create Bioshock Infinite, and it’s obvious that Ken is going all-out on the story here (no spoilers, don’t worry), but maybe having restrictions are better for an artist like Ken? Hmph. Let’s get into the game first and talk about that later.

In Columbia, you are Booker DeWitt, a former Pinkerton who is sent to Columbia via somewhat mysterious circumstances to not-so-simply “Deliver the girl” to erase some unknown debt. It’s gripping, and the production values ooze out of every pore. The action is fast and furious, with the newest gameplay feature coming by way of Columbia technology called the Sky Hook. You’ll be traversing across the clouds in this God-like device that very rarely will ever put you in danger, despite your precarious position of dangling far above the clouds from each floating section of the city to the next. It’s fun, but nothing special.

The gunplay is arguably the best in any ‘Shock’ game, which is part of what bums me out. I’m just a guy who wants Ken Levine and co. to make a game with no action whatsoever, but that’s my cross to bear, and I’m not reviewing that imaginary game (but I’ll admit, that imaginary game would be scoring through the roof, no doubt). The Tonics, which are Bioshock’s plasmid and System Shock 2′s psionics, give Booker a set of interesting powers such as possessing machines, sending a rush of energy towards your opponents or flocks of crows to pluck out their eyeballs. They are basically plasmids, you if you’ve played Bioshock, you know what you’ll be dealing with here.

Unfortunately, I feel that despite being able to access all of these different powers at any given time (without having to set them in a slot like Bioshock) the want to experiment is lacking. Later on, when Elizabeth joins you in the Battle of Columbia, you get further gameplay mechanics called ‘tears,’ which are basically rifts in time space that you can choose to manipulate your environment. It’s just a wrinkle in action game design in my opinion, as all it really comes down to is pressing a button to gain this advantage over the computer.

Sometimes you can open a rift that will be a friendly turret, or hook to latch onto for a quick escape. The system woks well within the plot, but as a gameplay mechanic, it’s nothing special.

In Bioshock, you knew you were taking on a city of psychos, but at least most of them killed each other off in the years before Jack’s arrival in Rapture. In this title, you’re taking on a veritable army. The kill count is rather ridiculous.

It must be repeated, amongst my negativity, that the guns really feel great, and powerful. Blood splatters are unique and the enemy AI is passable as fodder, but the real brilliance is in Elizabeth. Yes, she’s constantly finding you money and ammo, or healing you, which I found a little overpowered, but her pathing and combat instincts are incredible. 2K really did an amazing job with Elizabeth.

Running the game on mostly ultra settings on my PC is awe-inspiring. Leaves fluttering down through the air, or the sun reflecting in a puddle down a lonely Columbia alleyway are brought to life with a gorgeous attention to detail. The juxtaposition of Columbia’s vibrant colors and wide open spaces, compared to Rapture’s dank, tight, passages is obvious, and admittedly cool. Several jaw dropping set-piece moments will really get the heart pumping, and as I said before, the game oozes production value. The voice acting is fantastic, as is the writing. Everyone is hitting on all cylinders and the characters really come to life with some of the best performances of the year.

I really, really want to talk about the plot now, so would you kindly avert your eyes from these SPOILERS that will be in the following paragraph? Thanks, mate.

I’m a time travel dork, and I absolutely marked out when Elizabeth opened the tear to Paris in the 80′s with Tears For Fears playing and Return of the Jedi on the marquee at a local theater, but as far as the infinite loop we are supposedly closing, it just doesn’t make much sense at all. When an entire journey, as fun as it is, is predicated on a punchline that doesn’t work, for me, it doesn’t matter how pretty or fun the journey is – it just doesn’t work.

I could get over Atlas as a silly boss in Bioshock, because I don’t think it really ‘ruined’ the game in any way. As far as the way the loop is thought to be closed well, I’m going to leave it to this guy, so I don’t give away too many spoilers in case someone is wanting to ruin it for themselves. Besides, he explains it better than I ever could.

I could go on about Comstock vs. Ryan, but I think that should be saved for another post. There really is too much to say, and I’d rather read what you guys think in the comment section.

When it comes down to it, Bioshock Infinite is a lot like Looper, a fun movie that doesn’t really make much sense, even though it’s appeal is to be ‘smarter’ and more complex than most other shooters. In the end, it’s just more indulgent and touching themes that are found in most cookie cutter releases. It was close, though. So close. It’s clear Levine wanted to make the grandest statement possible, much like Ryan or Comstock, but in the end he’s ending up falling like those men and turning into the all-powerful leader, who created something great, then turned cliche.

Now, of course there is 1999 Mode, which will make the game infinitely harder (pun intended) and will make your choices of tonics and other powers more permanent, which solves all of my gameplay complaints (yay). I’m glad they implemented it, but it feels like a Director’s Cut, and clearly that’s not the way they want the game to be played the first time through, so I can’t review that, can I? And obviously, the plot still has its issues even in 1999 Mode (a nod to System Shock 2).

After playing through System Shock 2, Bioshock and now Bioshock Infinite, I find Infinite to be the least engaging of the three. Ironically, it’s the most action-oriented, but the least satisfying on a gameplay level. The story is the most daring and stupendous undertaking Ken Levine has ever woven, but they all fall short and end up being shallow in my opinion.

The Final Word: As a video game, Infinite is great — though not by doing anything very new — and as a storytelling experience, it’s overwrought and bordering on ouroboros status. With that said, it’s still better than most video games out today, and with the promise that Booker and Elizabeth will be visiting Rapture in the upcoming DLC, it’s a game worth enjoying as long as you don’t analyze it to death like I did.