Will the Circle be Unbroken: A Bioshock Infinite Review
Loss, regret, religion, bigotry, revolution, quantum physics, hot dogs in trashcans. Not exactly subjects that most video games choose to tackle. But they are all themes found in Irrational Games’ Bioshock Infinite; a game of stunning beauty, shocking violence, and surprising intimacy. While I’ll avoid major spoilers, this review will discuss the game’s overall story, and some of its key themes. So if you want to experience the game completely spoiler-free, turn back now. Otherwise, to fully understand Bioshock Infinite, it is necessary to go back to franchise’s beginning. And it begins, naturally, with a man and a lighthouse.
The opening moments of Bioshock Infinite hearken back to the original game, which was something of a revelation when it was released back in 2007. Bioshock’s journey through the undersea metropolis of Rapture set new standards for both narrative and design. It redefined what a first person shooter could be, and made celebrities out of Irrational Games, and its creative director, Ken Levine. It was so successful, in fact, that Irrational viewed a return to Rapture as a mistake. They were proven right when a direct sequel, developed by 2K Marin, failed to garner the same praise as the original. For their own encore, Levine and company decided that if they wanted to leave Rapture behind, there was only one place they could go: the clouds.
The year is 1912. You play as Booker DeWitt, former US Army Cavalryman and Pinkerton agent, who has spent the last few years drinking, gambling, and running an unsuccessful private investigation business. You’re offered a job to rescue a girl named Elizabeth, who is being held in the city of Columbia. Deliver the girl, you’re told, and your debts will be wiped away. Sounds simple enough. There’s just one little catch. The city of Columbia, you see, is airborne.
You can picture happy gatherings…
My arrival to Columbia was one of the most stunning introductions to a game world I’ve ever experienced. It reminded me of Halo: Combat Evolved, and emerging onto the Halo ring for the first time. My perception of what a virtual environment could be had changed, and everything that came after it would be measured against those initial, euphoric moments. Walking out into the city of Columbia gave me that same feeling. This was something new, something beyond what I had experienced before, and I was instantly hooked. I strolled along a sunlit cobblestone street, and soaked in the beautiful architecture. A happy couple cuddled on a park bench, children laughed and played on the sidewalk, fireworks flashed against a sapphire blue sky. It was like stepping into a storybook version of early 20th century America, albeit one that floated above the clouds, and had a leader named Comstock who worshiped the founding fathers of the United States as gods, and considered himself some sort of prophet. But honestly, for the first hour or so, I didn’t care about Comstock, or how everything floated on air, or why the barbershop quartet was singing a song that shouldn’t exist in 1912. I was too wrapped up in the beauty of it all. I even played through a tutorial without realizing it was a tutorial. Everything you see and hear is meant to sell you on the idea that Columbia is perfect, and I was sold. But the perfection doesn’t last. The illusion of storybook America is soon shattered, and the game makes it’s first of many profound shifts in tone as it thrusts you into combat for the first time.
The transition from peaceful exploration to fighting for your life is shocking both in its context, and in its brutality. Combat in Bioshock Infinite is a frantic, bloody pastime that can be both exhilarating and frustrating. No one strategy ever works for long, as enemies quickly adapt to your attacks, and you’ll find yourself getting overrun and flanked constantly. Human opponents of varying strengths are often supplemented by so-called “Heavy Hitters,” special enemies who can turn the tide of battle against you in an instant. From a hulking giant who bellows in agony, to a mechanized George Washington with a gatling gun, these opponents pose a considerable threat, and you will always be on the lookout for them. Luckily, your arsenal of weaponry is (usually) up to the task of defeating them. An early selection of pistols, shotguns and machine guns gradually expands to include more powerful options, all beautifully designed with an early twentieth century aesthetic in mind. Your collection of guns is made a lot more interesting by an in-game economy that allows you to purchase upgrades for your weapons of choice.
The second major component of combat are Vigors; liquids which, once ingested, grant you special powers. Acting much the same way that Plasmids did in the original Bioshock, Vigors open up numerous offensive and defensive options in battle. From hurling fireballs and bolts of lightning, to turning enemies into temporary allies, Vigors are incredibly fun to use, and add a much needed layer of strategy to every engagement. Vigors draw from a mana bar, which is replenished by consuming “salts,” colorful bottles which can be found scattered throughout the game world. Much like weapon upgrades, Vigors can be enhanced through vending machine purchases.
Also aiding you in your quest to rescue Elizabeth are infusions and skyhooks. Infusions are power-ups hidden throughout Columbia which allow you to increase your maximum shields, health, and salts. I would recommend maxing out your shield first, since you will be taking a lot of damage in this game. The cover system is rudimentary, and Heavy Hitters rarely let cover stop them anyway. Skyhooks allow you to leap great distances, hang high over a battlefield, and quickly move from one area to another. While skyhooks helped to expand combat vertically, the system felt a little underdeveloped to me. The controls were a bit cumbersome, and riding on a skyrail lacked any sense of risk or reward. But all of this; guns and Vigors, skyhooks and infusions, were all just a prelude to the real adventure. For not only does rescuing Elizabeth turn the story on its head, it also changes how you play the remainder of the game. She can, quite literally, open up whole new worlds of possibilities.
After a spectacular, edge-of-your-seat rescue of Elizabeth, the game does something unexpected: it slows down. Way down. Just as it gave me time at the beginning to appreciate the scale and beauty of Columbia, Bioshock Infinite pauses again to introduce Elizabeth. And I’m grateful that it did. As I watched her experience freedom for the first time, it quickly became apparent to me that Elizabeth was unlike any AI character I had ever encountered in a game before. She is a fully realized individual, brought to life with stunning animation and voice acting, and the connection I felt to her was immediate and powerful. But she is no mere damsel in distress, or a sidekick designed to follow orders. She is an equal to Booker in every way, and a vital asset once the game erupts back into violence. She’ll guide you to destinations, point out items and areas you might have missed, and bring you ammunition, salts, and health when you need them most. The most important asset she brings to combat is her ability to open “tears,” holes in the fabric of space and time which you can use to bring useful items from parallel universes into your own. It’s an incredibly useful game mechanic, and becomes vital in the later stages of the game, as the struggle to escape Columbia becomes more and more desperate.
And you think of tearful partings…
As any fan of science fiction knows, once you start toying with alternate realities, bad things are bound to happen. Without giving much of Bioshock’s story away, events in Columbia begin to spiral out of control. Booker and Elizabeth face setbacks, double crosses, and a seemingly endless pursuit by ever more powerful enemies. They encounter racism, religious zealotry, corruption and betrayal, but none of those issues are ever allowed to take the spotlight. Instead, they’re used to push Booker and Elizabeth closer together. As Columbia descends into chaos, they realize that the only people they can rely on is each other, and the bond that develops between them is compelling. They are two lost souls, searching for redemption and renewal, who each find something in the other; some piece of themselves that they didn’t know was missing. They need each other, but in ways that neither one fully understands. It is a truly unique dynamic, realized through brilliant writing, acting, and animation. Their bond is the beating heart of Bioshock Infinite, and you’ll find yourself caring for them just as much as they care for each other.
Will the circle be unbroken?
In case I hadn’t made it obvious enough already, music is an essential part of Bioshock Infinite. A superb orchestral soundtrack is supplemented by covers of famous pop songs, ingeniously rearranged to fit in with the time period. You’ll hear them everywhere, from a barber shop quartet, to a disembodied pipe organ, floating on the breeze. The old Christian hymn “Will the Circle be Unbroken?” plays a particularly important role, and shows up multiple times throughout the game. Whether it’s resounding through the halls of a candlelit cathedral, or being strummed on a guitar in a darkened cellar, the song follows Booker and Elizabeth on their journey, and echoes one of the story’s central questions: are we doomed to repeat past mistakes? Is free will an illusion? And If it isn’t; if you believe that we all have the power to change our destinies, how far are you willing to go to prove it?
Sadly, there are no easy answers for Booker or Elizabeth. After one last frenzied battle that felt artificially difficult and out of place, the game regains its footing for a spellbinding finale. The ending of Bioshock Infinite is epic in scale, but also profoundly intimate. While there were moments when these two extremes eloquently complemented one another, they ultimately pulled my heart and mind in two different directions. I was simultaneously fascinated and devastated by the events on screen, and when it was all over, I honestly didn’t know what to think or feel. A poignant epilogue which takes place after the credits helps a bit, but I was still left with far more questions than answers. How you view the ultimate fates of Elizabeth and Booker will likely depend on how you view life in general. Optimists will likely see a hopeful ending, while pessimists will find enough evidence for something darker. And while a thought-provoking finale that promotes discussion is never a bad thing, I think the ending of Bioshock Infinite tries to jump through too many intellectual hoops. In doing so, I lost a bit of that bond the game worked so hard to create.
Is a better home awaiting in the sky?
In some ways beyond the ending, Bioshock Infinite might be too much of a good thing. There is a lot of loot in this game. A lot of loot. So much so that collecting it all became a chore after awhile. Some items are worth the effort. Audio diaries from many of the game’s characters lie hidden throughout the game, and are essential to filling in the story’s holes. On normal difficulty, however, I probably used less than half of the stuff I found by checking every barrel, crate, dead body and piece of furniture I could find. So do yourself a favor: don’t play this game staring at the ground, always on the hunt for the next stash of junk. Look up and enjoy the beauty all around you. Games this gorgeous don’t come along very often.
Combat is somewhat burdened an overabundance of options as well. The selection of firearms will grow as you progress, but their variety doesn’t keep pace with their number. Many guns that become available later in the game mimic or outright mirror the properties of weapons that can be found throughout the campaign. So do you risk spending money on upgrades for slightly fancier weapons that might only appear a handful of times? Or do you stick to the basics which, while less powerful, will be far easier to hold onto? Combat also suffers from a lack of surprises. Certain areas in each level scream “big fight about to happen in here!” The thrill of beating back an ambush is greatly diminished when you know the ambush is coming.
Ultimately, though, these are minor issues. Bioshock Infinite a monumental achievement; an instant classic which will easily take its place among the very best games of this generation. It is a game of sweeping scope, thrilling action, and compelling drama. But for all of its grandeur, the game’s true beauty is found in the quiet moments. Whether it’s watching dust float through a ray of sunlight in a darkened room, or looking into the eyes of Elizabeth, and seeing your own emotions reflected back to you. They are moments when the console and controller disappear; when you are no longer playing the game, but existing in its world. They are moments of magic, and Bioshock Infinite is full of them. 9.5/10