Bioshock Infinite

April 15th, 2013

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.


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.


Posted in games by Joe Abercrombie on April 15th, 2013.

19 comments so far

  • samuel says:

    Agree 🙂 gameplay was lacking but the story more than made up for it!

  • Andy says:

    Also agreed on both counts about the stories of both Bioshock Infinite and Tomb Raider; it’s a golden age of games we live in. I felt Elizabeth was easily on a par with Alyx from Half Life 2 in that she’s a great focus to articulate and react to.

  • spoon says:

    I’m just about finished with Tomb Raider and have to say it’s been a complete joy from start to finish. I really hope Crystal Dynamics get to make another.

    Next on the list will definitely be Bioshock Infinite though. For all the talk about games needing multiplayer to compete, this generation of games has had some of the most compelling and engaging stories to ever be told in game format!


  • innokenti says:

    The metaphysical plot was certainly extremely well-done, but I am not sure that the mundane plot and themes entirely held up. The treatment was certainly a lot more mature than in many games, but I am not sure that they entirely succeeded with providing an enjoyable basic plot.

    (I am here making the division between the more mundane – it is a place with an oppressive class of people and an oppressed class and then the oppressed revolt, and in the middle there is a woman who has been imprisoned and groomed for leadership and then you rescue her because you are a hero with a troubled past, and the more out-there – dimension-skipping, alternative-reality, timeline-chopping shenanigans that culminate in a pleasantly blunt conclusion. The former is surprisingly unchallenging and a bit simple in treatment and the latter is well-thought-out and while not entirely robust, is a significant attempt to have it make sense from a lot of different angles.)

    While I loved all the ideas that Irrational poured into Elizabeth-as-protagonist and Elizabeth-as-gameplay-companion I don’t think they quite pulled the latter off. They’ve gone a long way in making it right, but there were too many things that shone light on the puppet-strings. It’s definitely some things that I sort of accidentally stumbled across early on that ended up making me look closer at other things that broke the illusion and you could go the whole game without noticing any of it. Nevertheless, fairly early on I experienced a couple of moments where if you changed the direction you were going, you could get stuck running into Elizabeth and she into you, for a few brief seconds neither budging and her carrying on with the run animation. Likewise, I also noticed that in the cases where Elizabeth ran ahead, she was simply following the same ‘plot guide arrows’ that you could summon to direct you onwards. And the thing that annoyed me the most was her unflinching, unreacting stance in lifts where she would simply stand there, neither reacting to Brooker nor really doing anything else (comparisons to Alyx Vance came to mind where it seems Valve were at pains to make sure Alyx was doing something all the time, even if you were moving in a lift).

    I wasn’t too upset by that though – what really bugged me was the utter shocking nothingness from Columbia’s people. You ran around with a gun in your hands and… nothing. They never really reacted, a few had a canned line or two, but largely they were scenery. Columbia never felt like a place people lived – it was a puppet theatre for our benefit.

  • innokenti says:

    (Whoops, that came out much longer than I expected…)

  • Gaby says:

    I had a problem with what I perceived to be the implication: that sometimes the only way to redeem yourself is to die before you can make a mistake. Whereas it seems to me that there can be no redemption without sin- while our Booker “does the right thing”, they were not his sins to cleanse, but Comstock’s. Other than that I agree completely with this review, particularly with the information dump at the end. And it’s a shame some of the really interesting conflicts seemed to be there for atmosphere more than anything. And it bothered me that “Yes, anyone with power will abuse it, but hey at least the white man abuses it in a nice way, and doesn’t right out shoot children like Fitzroy!”

    It was still a very enjoyable experience.

  • JonathanL says:

    I really enjoyed the first BioShock and found the second to be something of a weaker copy, a bit of butter scraped over to much bread, if you catch my meaning. BioShock Infinite is a tremendous amusement park ride that occasionally has some combat that wasn’t terrible usually, but also generally annoyed me because I wanted more of the story, not another ten minutes of fighting whilst fleeing from a Handyman. Also, the “boss” fights near the end of the game were often very frustrating, and I wanted to be able to hold a third weapon and more ammunition.

    But talking about it with others, comparing notes, getting into what it succeeds and fails at, at what it has to say, has been intensely enjoyable. It has been ages since the entire critical field has engaged in a single game with such widely varying opinions. I personally best enjoyed Alex Navarro’s piece on it over at Giant Bomb, but a great majority of them has value as jumping off points for discussion.

    And that ending….

  • Ads says:

    I recently just finished my play through of it and I rather enjoyed it. I found the combat not quite on par with the previous games, but it was still a really great way to spend a few hours.

  • The Grumpy Buddha says:

    Spot on. I thought that while the FPS shooting wasn’t as good as in Bioshock II (though the skyline stuff was different and fun) and the story, while jaw-dropping at moments, doesn’t completely hold up upon reflection …


    I started my 2nd playthrough, and you know that moment where she’s spinning around dancing on the pier, and you need to snap her out of her reverie? Just thinking about what was going to happen, and the places she was going to end up, how’d she change … heartbreaking, man. Heartbreaking.

    To think that early on it was all about “Will we get to Paris”? Ha.

  • Tony says:

    Great review!
    Honestly, aside from how crunched the ending felt in comparison to the rest of the game, which was beautifully paced IMO, I feel it was the best ending in recent times.

    The attachment you feel for Elizabeth/Anna at the end is truly disheartening when DeWitt finally realizes she’s his daughter. When the understands things, she becomes near-omnipotent and therefor hard to feel anything towards other than some sort of plot device. To be cut off from a character who my friends and I believe to be the best “escort quest” character ever, is such a depressing feeling, and in order to recreate that feeling you simply have to play through the game again, which fits in with the theme of being caught in a loop.

    Game-play – Good
    Story – VERY Good
    Conclusion- Excellent

    Also, how did you feel about her being DeWitt’s and Comstock’s daughter and that whole reality/tear-travel business? I had to take a solid day to just think about what just happened.

  • Tony says:

    Sorry for double-posting but that one part where DeWitt realizes what he’s done. “I… I sold you?”
    Almost shed a tear, that part was perfectly executed. :'(

  • Frank Fitzpatrick says:

    Jesus, you don’t half go through your games quickly. Then again, it is hard for me to judge other games when all I tend to play these days is Football Manager, and as far as I know, that goes on forever and ever…

    That being said, I’m looking forward to Rome: Total War 2 and the new GTA which both come out at the end of the year (I think).

  • Peter Davies says:

    I absolutely adored this. Redemption is a tough theme to do well and I think that B:I absolutely nailed it – and that it couldn’t have ended any other way. If Tomb Raider was the first game in a while I felt compelled to 100%, this was the first game in years which, on completing it, left me sitting in my chair for half an hour, thoughts in turmoil and flabber thoroughly gasted.

    None of the above reduces in any way, shape or form my strong wish to play through an alternate version in which Booker and Elizabeth, deciding that omnipotence means they have plenty of time to take a break, say ‘bugger this for a game of soldiers’ and spend a couple of years chilling out in Paris just before the grand denounement.

  • Nick says:

    Did anyone else notice the resemblance of Elizabeth to the little sisters?
    I read a theory that the first two games “universe” takes place in a time when Elizabeth might have been broken up, and her powers spread among all the little sisters.
    And that Big Daddys are a form of Booker, still with the need to protect Elizabeth

  • James says:

    Yeah pretty much agree with your review. The gameplay is good but nothing groundbreaking, and if you are being picky you can pull holes in the plot (I’m pretty sure at one point they decide to solve the issue of “moving some tools from one building to another” by “travelling to another dimension” as if it was the most natural thing in the world!), but really none of that matters in the final analysis. Its simply an amazing, deep, layered creative experience.

    I can’t think of another game like it, and I’ve played a LOT of games. Its been on my mind since I finished it. Like, say, watching Lost, you are driven to progress by the desire to solve the mysteries the game is slowly revealing to you, but totally unlike Lost, when the final scene comes it ties everything together in such a satisfying way, yet still leaves plenty up to interpretation and plenty to think about. As with Lost, its the metaphysical and philosophical angles which allow you to overlook the plot holes and enjoy it and find meaning in it regardless.

    The voice acting is really top notch, I think that helped a lot in selling the vision, and anyone not impressed by Elizabeth’s AI really can’t have played many computer games!

    No idea why I’m saying any of this here really, I’m just one more voice in a chorus of praise. But there you go.

    Buy Bioshock Infinite. Buy it twice to send the message that we want more games like it, and less brown shooters.

  • Chris M says:

    Yeah, I really enjoyed the game, particularly that skyhook mechanic and some of the neat vigor combos. Only gripe I can think of was when I was listening to a recording Elizabeth would start talking over it. :S

  • Viktor says:

    It´s interesting, you mentioned having two daughters.
    where do you take time for playing games and making that graphics of writing, no time for daughters there.
    sorry for bad english, but i´ve read your books in german 😀

  • TheFourthHorseman says:

    Infinite was one of the best video game experiences ever. As many people have said, it certainly wasn’t perfect, Bioshock 1 was probably even a better shooter, but the areas where Infinite shines really do radiate.

    The graphics are just brilliant, and I wish my desktop could run it at the maximum. The voice-acting was solid all around, the Luteces for example are just brilliant. But Elizabeth as a character really carries the plot. That scene in the Shantytown bar where Booker picks up the guitar was probably the single most moving moment in the whole game, though there were plenty of others too.

    The ending, despite being convoluted, was thoroughly emotional and gripping for me. I managed to hang on to the logic of it well enough on a dramatic level, even though at the end there was still that feeling of “what the hell just happened”. I was expecting some massive, obvious info-dump for the last few hours of the game, but it never really happened, which was pleasing. A lot of contemporary art suffers from spelling it all out to you.

    I took the ending as all the Bookers who would go on to become Comstock being drowned while taking the baptism, where as the Bookers who walk away try to deal with the horrors they’ve committed. It’s pretty much the only interpretation of the ending that works with my world view, and it ties nicely with the post-credits scene. Far from the definite interpretation though, and I think it’s positive that the game gives the player the possibility of more or less deciding it for themselves while still concluding the game in a satisfying manner.

    Just started a second playthrough on Hard the other day, with the hope of being a little more creative in combat. On the first playthrough I stuck to two or three weapons and vigors for the most part, which probably made the combat feel even more basic than it otherwise would have.

  • Ciaran says:

    Definitely a bit of the vox in the breakers and burners in “a little hatred”…. fantastic. I’m hearing that rendition of fortunate son while reading.

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