The short version – though not without some significant shortcomings, this is an often spectacular, occasionally stunning, in many ways groundbreaking piece of work with some of the wildest ideas and design – and definitely the best companion – I’ve ever seen in a video game.
If you’ve got the slightest interest in games you really should play it.
The longer version might take a while…
The first two Bioshock games both take place in the amazing undersea city of Rapture, and though I very much admired the ideas, the unique design and loopy characters, the unpredictable, mystery-based plotting and the attempts to examine some properly adult themes (not adult in the sex and gore sense, but in the political and philosophical sense), I wasn’t quite as taken with them as others have been. Partly it was because, beneath the admittedly spectacular dressings, I found them rather limited and dreary as first person shooters, which has never been my favourite format anyway. The gameplay didn’t inspire me particularly, and there was a claustrophobia about the whole thing I found, I dunno, a bit wearying.
And though it’s no sequel, exactly, the DNA of those two previous Bioshocks is very much present in this one. Again you fight your way through a beatiful yet corrupt impossible city controlled by a sinister idealogue in which you get the sense that everything is a metaphor but you’re not entirely sure what for. Gameplay is very similar – gun in one hand, magico-biological power of some kind in the other – and the arsenal is maybe less varied than before, if anything. Enemies aren’t all that exciting or intelligent either, and the stealth elements have disappeared entirely. Indeed one could make the rather bizarre assertion that Bioshock Infinite is at its least interesting in the midst of combat. The original Bioshock at least paid lip service to some moral choices – use the helpless or save the helpless, fight the monster or become the monster. Here the moral choice tends to boil down to – gun down the indoctrinated masses or bludgeon their heads off – and the gung-ho splatter seems a little at odds with the much subtler things the game aims to achieve. At times it’s a little like two games forced to exist unnaturally within the same dimension – one a rather mediocre first person shooter in which you rummage through crates a lot, the other an evocative character piece in an amazing setting, filled with nimble ideas and a wonderfully realised co-star.
The graphics are beautiful, but in a painterly, impressionistic, unreal style, packed with powerful imagery, the score is fantastic, featuring late twentieth century classics reimagined to suit the 1910s mood – a barbershop quartet version of the Beach Boys’ God Only Knows has been haunting my dreams ever since I heard it. The sense created of an utterly other world set partly within our history, really is … well, something else. In spite of being a blockbuster in scale and quality there’s an arthouse feel about the whole thing, full of clever asides and self-referential touches. It dabbles in physics, determinism, spirituality, prejudice, politics, and though there’s sometimes a bit of a lack of depth – I’m not sure it has much to say about many of its more controversial themes beyond HERE THEY ARE – at least they’re making the attempt.
There are some really stunning set piece moments – falls from floating buildings, giant clockwork robots smashing through windows, airships going down on fire – but some really affecting and emotional moments too. Dialogue and voice acting are very, very good, the voice recordings scattered about the city – as in the earlier games – add to the background, though you might say the secondary characters don’t quite have the zing of the first Bioshock.
The crowning glory though is Elizabeth, co-star, companion, axle of the plot and emotional anchor of the story. Generally speaking, in video games, no one likes an escort mission. Companions are dumb, boring, get in the way, get themselves killed, undermine any sense you’re in a real place containing real people. This is the first time I’ve ever seen one work anywhere near so well. She’s superbly designed – hitting that spot between realism and cartoon-i-ness, actually useful from a gameplay standpoint, and highly expressive (especially about the eyebrows), her reactions adding extra emotion to the events, providing a naive counterpoint to the used-up pessimism of the central character. In a way the whole plot (and indeed experience of the game) is based around their relationship. On occasion you’ll see the joins – she’s got a habit of flicking coins at you when you’re concentrating on something else, sometimes not looking right at you during an emotional speech, but overall she’s a pretty amazing achievement.
IT’S TOUGH TO DISCUSS THE PLOT WITHOUT SOME MINOR SPOILERS. THIS ISN’T GOING TO KILL THE GAME FOR YOU BUT IF YOU’RE PRICKLY AND HAVEN’T PLAYED IT YOU WOULD BE WELL ADVISED TO LOOK AWAY NOW!
In general I think the plotting is bold, mind-bending, and fully immersive when you’re in it, but I also think, with hindsight, it sets up some problems. The basic conceit of multiple alternative dimensions in which every possibility is played out allows some really clever things to be done with the gameplay mechanics and the setting, and sets up some strong plot twists that I have to admit I didn’t see coming (for all everyone else on the internet apparently did). But the writers follow the concept only as far as they need to to make the plot work and supply the fireworks, and refuse to go the rest of the way – that in infinite dimensions every possibility must occur, and therefore there is no meaning to preferring one outcome over another. There’s a price to be paid in this, I think – if you can always slip into another dimension where one or other problem is solved, where’s the drama in solving the problems you’ve got here, now? Where’s the drama in any given result since there will always be a place both where it happens and where it doesn’t?
There’s also, looking at it from the end, a rather lumpy progression to the storyline, in which things seem (relatively) normal for most of the game, with the foundational mystery being drip, dripped through to you, then towards the end the revelations come thicker and faster until there’s finally a hefty sequence where they really give up on gameplay altogether and spoon up undigested plot for fifteen minutes. I mean, it’s an incredible and ambitious sequence in many ways but I still think it could have been more artfully done, more spread out and organically revealed within the rest of the game.
But I feel bad, now, because the failures, such as they are, are the sort common to a lot of games or born of high ambition, and the successes, of which there are many, tend to be unique and groundbreaking. In the end, Bioshock Infinite delivers a feel, vision, and intelligence you just can’t get anywhere else. I found it to be a throughly enjoyable, thought-provoking, and at its best a truly magical experience.
I find myself in a strange position, because I’ve often argued that gameplay is always king, and then I’ve found myself greatly enjoying and admiring two games in a row in which gameplay is actually a relative weakness. But both Bioshock Infinite and Tomb Raider are triumphs in their own ways even so, because they score very highly on things that are a lot harder to come by in video games – story and emotion. In Tomb Raider it was a strong central character, a powerful driving narrative, crunching violence and cinematic sequences, and a real sense of threat and physical danger. In Bioshock it’s the wild ideas and the unravelling of the mystery, the way that music, design and pacing create a unique sense of place and moments of high drama, all given energy and purpose by an amazing secondary character.
Fine, fine times to be a gamer, my friends.
OH, BY THE WAY, BIG, BIG SPOILERS IN THE COMMENTS!