Ken Levine, creative director on Bioshock Infinite, once spoke to Cliff Bliszenski on a podcast about what a sequel could be. It wouldn’t need to be a direct sequel in the same universe or narrative, or even have the same characters. No, he said, it could be something else entirely. It’s a shame then, that the grand philosophical and narrative designs of Infinite rival those of its predecessors to the tune of its own familiar gameplay finally crashing in on itself.
The opening moments of Bioshock Infinite are promising. You arrive at a storm-swept lighthouse with about as much information as a drunken fever dream can afford when paired with a box that holds a gun and a photograph of a girl to rescue. A few more minutes has you rocketing into an interlaced caravan of floating buildings and cityscapes in the sunlit early 1900s former American city, Columbia. Cult-like hymns dissipate in your wake as you walk through the racist American exceptionalist city, all the while given subtle hints of the surprises the narrative has for you. Some things don’t seem to add up, and the rescue mission before you very slowly takes some radical turns, the primary and oft-advertised bit being Elizabeth, your charge, having the ability to open dimensional rifts to change the state of the game world.
Combat in Infinite also seems promising over the course of the first several hours of many. Magical “vigor” powers follow suit with the Plasmid powers of previous Bioshock games, letting you experiment with the otherwise familiar gunplay by summoning mobs of angry crows, fireballs, and more. The skylines, rails connecting the floaty city sections together, can be ridden freely with one hand as you’re free to shoot with the other; this feels as invigorating as any roller coaster ride and melds with the combat in a way that comes close to realizing a great sense of play and experimentation.
But the vigors turn out to be less open to experimentation than you might think, with only a few of the eight powers blending with each other in interesting ways. When the larger and supposedly more exciting set piece enemies come into play, most of the vigors don’t work on them well enough to be effective if they even work at all.
Similarly, the skylines don’t work very well against the aforementioned larger enemies, leaving you with only your guns – and usually a few warped in trinkets and hazards thanks to Elizabeth – to defend yourself. Even on the lower difficulties, it’s more economical and logical from the player’s point of view to clear out the enemies that can be affected by vigors first so you can go about wearing down the larger foes with whatever ammo is left in the guns on the floor.
These larger set piece enemies include mustachioed steampunk cyborgs and robo-George Washingtons that recite the Declaration of Independance while they gun you down with crank operated mini guns. Consider how fantastic that sounds and how well it fits with the idea of a radical flying American city; how depressing is it, then, that those combat encounters benefit more from a beleaguered exercise in exploiting the prominent weak points of bullet sponges than any significant degree of player experimentation? When you consider that more than half the game involves those foes and ones similar to them, that flaw becomes one that damages the fragile state of a combat system in its most idealistic development stage during Infinite, close to and often up to the point where the joy of combat is the last reason you’ll continue playing.
With the chief mechanism of player agency in Bioshock Infinite being the combat and the player’s exploration of it, it’s a pity that much of the game reduces the amount of effective tools to guns and little else – a shame when the shooting can feel a bit loose, made more aggravating by how accurate enemies can be in contrast.
Elizabeth’s ability to change the landscape of the battlefield comes close to being the saving grace of the combat in its worst moments, and one of the most important components of it whenever present. With no opportunity for stealth in most of the game, you are given a few moments before each fight to choose one element for Elizabeth to rip out of an alternate universe’s Columbia into the present. Bring in a powerful weapon and the gunfight will be easier. Create a flying gun-toting drone and you’ll have a powerful if fragile ally. What’s more, you can change your mind during combat so you’ll always have at least one extra tool to play with should your vigors prove useless against the larger foes.
Without spoiling the story and atmosphere of Bioshock Infinite, certainly its strongest trait, Elizabeth’s extraordinary abilities avoid being oddities that play into her value to the player’s protagonist Booker DeWitt. Rather, alongside her personality and Booker’s, they are developed in ways that make both characters believable. Although a few binary choices are presented to the player during the beginning of the game, it’s Elizabeth that holds Booker accountable for his own actions and motivation. Did you just kill an enemy with a brutal melee attack? Elizabeth will grimace in shock. Did Booker just tell her a lie? She’ll remember it later.
Sure, there’s a bit of dissonance when Elizabeth shrieks in horror at a single act of brutality and happily helps out during a fight with city policemen. I found it easy to forgive, given how well the game sticks to its themes, sells its atmosphere, and surprises the player. I won’t spoil those beats for you, but they rival the effectiveness of the first critically acclaimed Bioshock while going beyond what you’d expect for how crazy the plot twists can get.
Bioshock Infinite is worth experiencing for the strength of everything outside of its gameplay, which is a damning thing to say about, well, a game. Small set piece moments and areas free of larger enemies still eke out enough of a sense of play to satisfy until the next story beat; the lopsided quality of the combat when set against the strong atmospheric elements makes Infinite a must-experience, rather than a must-play. Expect the great atmosphere that the Bioshock series has been known for thus far, but be wary of expecting the sense of play and consistent satisfaction that Infinite should have, judged against the other games in the series or on its own merit.