“I've seen things you people wouldn't believe....all those moments...lost in time, like tears in the rain”. Roy Batty's final line from Blade Runner, slightly misquoted, captures with accuracy the spirit of BioShock Infinite. This game is gasp-inducingly amazing because the developers had the confidence and chutzpah to be bold and controversial, yet there is always something intangible and melancholic that pulls on your emotions to draw you deeper into this weird and brutal world. Infinite delivers almost without quibble on all fronts: a plot that slaps you in the face and leaves you grateful for it, gameplay so visceral it will turn the healthiest of adrenal glands into shrivelled walnuts and a setting realised with gorgeous, magnificent, obsessive detail.
Infinite is a steampunk science fiction mystery story masquerading as a video game. At its heart is a superb narrative which poses big questions about the nature of power, memory and love. The game opens with an exposition that boggles both the eye and the mind, thirty minutes of extraordinary context before a single shot is fired; an opportunity to see the mighty flying city of Columbia in all of its smug, white-picket fenced glory. Unlike the deep-sea warrens of Rapture in BioShock Columbia is an open, airy, bright place: Main Street USA from Disneyland Los Angeles writ large, looking far too good to be true. Aerial photographs of Walt's theme parks show that behind the façades of the fake buildings are grey storage areas where staff smear on fake smiles in preparation for another shift in hyperreality. As the game opens, the same oppressive sense is garnered from your initial encounters with the locals and from the environment, all of this hints that things may not be as they seem. The escalation of tension and its release in an explosion of very bloody violence is arguably the best beginning of a videogame in this current generation.
Once settled in the game reverts to BioShock staples, a combination of exploration, gunplay and special powers. Of the weapons there are a wide variety, from the basic Luger-like pistol through carbines and snipers to more exotic temptations. The heater is an overcharged combination of a shotgun and blunderbuss, good for clearing busy parties of guests who have overstayed their welcome. The repeater is a machine gun apparently made out of tin cans and insulation tape. The RPG makes a lot of mess. You can carry two guns and weapons are scattered or dropped by enemies with sufficient regularity that you will not be found wanting. Unlike previous titles where some weapon improvements were in hidden areas, in Infinite any weapon can be sharpened at commonly found 'Minuteman Militia' vending machines. Each improvement – be it to damage, clip capacity or stability – comes at a price, paid for in Silver Eagles, the currency you will find as you battle and loot your way through the city in the sky. Of minor annoyance is the fact that you might pay to fully upgrade a weapon only to run out of ammunition and need to discard it in favour of something else that you have not upgraded from the basic level – however, if you have spare change other vending machines can sell you ammo aplenty.
The special powers, called Vigors, come in eight varieties, some similar to those seen in previous BioShock games. There's Shock Jockey (formerly Electrobolt), Murder of Crows (much like Insect Swarm) and Possession (a combination of previous control powers) but others are new: Bucking Bronco for instance is similar to the biotic power Lift in the Mass Effect series (and is very effective) whilst Undertow might have you shouting ‘Get Over Here!' in the manner of Scorpion from Mortal Kombat. These can be fired for their primary effect and most can be charged to lay a trap for unsuspecting passers-by. The ammunition for Vigors are called 'salts' and can be found in stand-alone phials as well as in various foodstuffs present throughout the world. Like the weapons these are upgraded at their own vending machines for cash and most have two levels of improvement – one to increase the damage and the other to add some additional effect or reduce the mana cost.
So, with hammers cocked and a cloud of angry corvidae in your arteries, you're ready to rumble. The malcontents come in a wide variety, from billy-club wielding policemen who jump to attack with the athletic arched back of a Splicer (the twisted addicts from earlier BioShock games), through harder special forces to a variety of mechanised and semi-mechanised mini-bosses. Of these the 'firemen' (fiery, fireball-throwing humans) are reminiscent of the Alpha-Series Big Daddies from BioShock 2 whereas the Handymen are a human-headed hybrid of robot and person who loudly (and repetitively) declaim the pain of their own existence. Sadly, the enemies do not come across as that clever: the stupidest ones are happy to pile in as you camp around a corner with a shotgun, the harder ones advance with a dumb assurance of victory and the smartest ones hold back a bit, but their AI feels rudimentary in comparison to other games out there. This can give some scenes a shooting-gallery quality which is a shame as the level design is good and frequently offers several routes to approach a battlefield. Whilst there's nothing wrong with clanging rounds into tin ducks (albeit with added spice from combinations of Vigors) this brings an occasional sense of repetition which is only partly relieved by the variety of the environments across which you engage the foe.
The combat is different from previous BioShock titles in several ways. Because Columbia provides open spaces and long lines of sight there is a greater use for ranged weapons than in Rapture, the carbine (i.e. semi-automatic bolt-action rifle) being particularly satisfying. Adding to the excitement of the fight is the sky-line system and in many situations you can grab on and slide, taking pot-shots at enemies as you do. On the hardest difficulty setting this is essential, allowing you to combine high-speed air attacks and bursts of hot lead with close-up Vigor powers and whites-of-the-eyes melees before jumping back onto the sky-line to avoid damage. At points a combo system similar to the recent Batman games would have been suitable as chaining attacks together is both possible, frantic and brilliant fun. Another addition to Infinite is that you now have an overshield which can absorb several hits and, if you take cover, will recharge. This is accompanied by an unnecessary 'cracked glass' effect when it is depleted, which considering the shield is meant to be electromagnetic doesn't make sense. In terms of difficulty, on the highest setting the game is a real challenge since enemies take a lot of hits to despatch, making large fights a grind (which some will thoroughly enjoy). If you die you’re brought back to life nearby, with a small deduction from your cash reserves - the very hard 1999 mode will chuck you back to the title menu if you have less than $100! If only life was so simple. The medium difficulty setting feels more natural, presenting enough of a threat to make you cautious about ammo and sensible about use of cover.
It is important to consider for a moment how very good this game looks (reviewed here on the XBox 360). The visual experience is comparable to having one’s eyeballs extracted and soaked in a vat of psychoactive chemicals and replaced when you are in the middle of an Escher retrospective held in an early Twentieth Century zeppelin staffed by the Ku Klux Klan. This of course is an experience with which we are all familiar. The world of Infinite straddles the thin line between dream and nightmare, between angelic and diabolic vision. In its lighter moments, buildings bob in clouds like a glimpse of heaven, sunlight almost blindingly bright; huge bridges unfolding and meshing together like an opium fantasy of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Hummingbirds zip through the air and streets grow green with grass beneath your feet. Buildings span architectural styles, somewhere between Parisian boulevards and old town Prague, all imbued with American colonial clapboard nostalgia, all on a perfect afternoon in late summer. When things are not so rosy, smoke curls into the sky with a black and ghostly malevolence; banners whip in the wind like bloody shrouds and the movement of distant districts causes a queasy sky-sickness. Interiors are dark and threatening, the setting of an Edgar Allen Poe story crossed with the miserable despair of a ransacked and unsanitary vivisection lab that never quite went out of use. It is, simply, exquisite.
In Infinite, you are accompanied for large parts by another character, Elizabeth. For those who have been burned by poor sidekick design in previous games (I have written about this before), or those who did not like the Little Sister protection sequences in BioShock 2 be not afraid: this is something new and much, much, better. There are no sections where you have to defend Elizabeth; in fact she proves herself useful time and time again, finding money for you (perhaps slightly too regularly) and chucking you ammunition and salts (to recharge your special powers) during combat, producing many genuine 'thanks Elizabeth!' moments. Elizabeth's role in the narrative is worked well and her development as a character is thoughtful, her appearance and demeanour changing in response to events. Only a few times did she prevent me passing through doors, throw me a bit of spare change through a wall or stop to examine nothing at all; regardless of these miniscule snags Elizabeth represents a landmark in design. The motion capture and voice acting, including that of your own character who is straight out of a Raymond Chandler detective story, is very good and is vital to the telling of the tale.
A BioShock game wouldn't be complete without RPG elements and Infinite continues the trend. Off the beaten track of the main levels items of gear can be found (boots, trousers, shirts, hats) that give you a variety of ambient perks – such as additional damage when your health is low, or the chance to set baddies on fire when you melee. This aspect didn't feel as strong as in previous games and the difference between equipping alternative sets of clothes seemed to have a minimal effect on play. In earlier BioShock iterations, perks to assist in hacking machines (which does not feature in Infinite) or to increase movement speed felt vital and unlocking additional slots for these was important to make you harder, meaner and generally more fantastic. Here, the importance seemed less and this element of the game ends up being a peripheral part of the experience, neither substantially adding to or detracting from the whole. For those who enjoy exploration there are code books and secret messages (that tend to point to a hidden room of treasures) that require thorough investigation and some backtracking to solve. Throughout are hidden voxophone (i.e. portable record player) messages that flesh out the backstory along with some black and white mini-films that tell you more about Columbia. This is a significant part of the game which is key to the story. In terms of levelling your character, there are 'infusions' squirrelled away in places that are not always obvious and when consumed let you improve either health, shields or Vigor.
Infinite is brilliant but it still suffers from one of the problems of narrative-based video games that is also a challenge of narratives in general: the middle section. The game starts and ends with knock out blows (you will turn round even if there is no-one else in the room to exclaim: ‘O.M.G. did you just see that?!) but the central part of Infinite may not arouse the same strength of response. From a couple of hours in the game reverts to a well-trodden fetch quest format where you travel about the city undertaking quests for different NPCs to try and get them to help you. Yes, the narrative arc is developed in these sections but it is layered over generic 'kill all of the enemies to progress' sequences in levels that whilst pretty, are not all that novel. None of this makes the game dull - far from it - and there are many amazing locations you pass through, but the storytelling is so strong in some parts there is a notable absence when it is not so prominent.
Some games are flawless in their own right, in their own contexts, and Infinite very nearly achieves that. Perhaps it is due to sheer ambition that it is unable to reach a continuous state of perfection if such a thing is possible; arguably, the virtuoso sequences which are better than anything out there make otherwise strong sections appear of lower quality. If you like science fiction Infinite is one of the best stories ever told via a game. Without question it represents one of the most ambitious set of ideas developed for a mainstream multi-million dollar release. It always looks incredible and sounds good, the music in fact playing a significant part in the story. It will leave fans satisfied and hopefully will lead newcomers to pick up the first two BioShock games. I am certain that Ken Levine and his team can and will do even better. They will, nay must, find more tall tales to spin for a global audience left malnourished (though they may not be aware of it) by the gruel of too many run-of-the-mill Hollywoodized mega-games. This is a title to buy, to own, to think about and to play again to confirm that, yes: that did happen, I did see that, it really was that good. Columbia is a place that once you've visited you won't soon forget, despite the minority of moments that bump you out of the flow of play. To end it only seems appropriate to leave you with another slight misquote, this time the very first words spoken over the radio in BioShock: Would you kindly get this game now?