It may seem a little strange writing about my first impressions of a game that came out four years ago. Having previously played Bioshock and Bioshock 2, I would’ve loved to have played Bioshock Infinite when it first came out. Unfortunately, my choice of computer, a 2011 MacBook Pro, didn’t have the capability of playing such a graphically demanding game. I upgraded my computer a while back (another MacBook Pro – I’ll never learn) and finally can play a number of games that I’ve been itching to get my hands on since they were first released. So when Bioshock Infinite went on sale on Steam late last week I couldn’t resist buying it.
I’m about nine hours into the game so far and plan to write a full analysis of the many IR related themes and concepts once I’ve finished the game. In the mean time though, these are some of my initial impressions of Bioshock Infinite, relating more to the game’s setting, mechanics and story.
Columbia is an incredible setting but it feels hollow
One of the main reasons that Bioshock and Bioshock 2 remain two of my favourite games is the setting of Rapture. I honestly don’t think any other game I’ve played evokes as strong a sense of place as this series. The fallen underwater city of Rapture is creepy, intriguing and incredibly detailed. It somehow manages to be far more immersive than many open-world games, even though it actually follows a fairly standard linear level design.
Bioshock Infinite takes the series in a very different direction. The utopian air city of Colombia, ruled over by religious fanatic and ‘prophet’ Father Comstock, is a Rapture that hasn’t fallen (yet). It’s a breathtaking realisation of turn of the century America complete with steampunk technologies, nationalist propaganda and beautiful architecture. It’s certainly a departure from the dark and depressing feel of Rapture, although there’s still plenty of horrors below the surface of Colombia.
As beautiful as it is though, it does feel a little hollow. Many of the character models for non-playable characters (NPCs) are continuously repeated, especially in the early game, which detracts from the level of detail in the rest of the world. The mechanics also don’t always fit with the setting. Whereas scavenging through shops and trash cans for coins and supplies made sense in the ruins of Rapture, doing the same in Colombia as people go about their daily business didn’t really make much sense.
In a lot of ways Rapture works better as a setting because it doesn’t have to try to make the world feel lived in. Rather than NPCs providing insight into the world, it’s the objects and recordings you discover that provide Rapture with such a compelling backstory. Colombia applies a similar approach with voxophones (audio logs) and kinetoscopes (short films) but relying on these to bring Colombia alive means that the city can often feel like wallpaper. Beautiful wallpaper, but still wallpaper.
Where Infinite does a better job is in its level design. Many levels, especially towards the end, are open environments with lots of areas to explore along the way. This is a commendable achievement, especially as many more recent first person shooters (FPS) are still boringly linear.
The violence can be confronting and jarring
Let’s be clear – Bioshock and Bioshock 2 were both extremely violent games. The violence in these games, although intense, fit with the chaotic setting of Rapture where society had completely imploded and only the most anarchic, brutish elements remained fighting for power. In Bioshock Infinite, Colombia has not yet made this descent, although the story quickly moves in that direction. What results is a jarring experience in which the beautiful vistas of the city are offset by excessive acts of violence. Sometimes this seems to be a thoughtful contemplation of how extreme violence is possible in any society, no matter how supposedly utopian it is.
This is particularly demonstrated early on when you arrive in Colombia and after being blown away by its beauty are suddenly confronted with overwhelming brutality (spoilers ahead). You rock up at the annual ‘raffle’ and are (unsurprisingly) announced as the winner. The prize though turns out to be throwing a baseball at a defenceless pair of slaves. You then horrifically dismember several policemen and flee as all hell breaks loose. This abrupt change in the story is shocking but it also makes a strong point about how fragile human society can be. From this point on though, the violence is almost unrelenting and somewhat undermines this initial point. I’m not sure whether the contrast between the utopian setting and the violence is a clever commentary on human nature or simply a function of the game’s FPS roots but I’m not completely comfortable with it and I think the emphasis on killing actually undermines the depth of the story.
Elizabeth is an excellent companion
Early on in the game your character, private detective Booker DeWitt rescues Elizabeth, a young woman with supernatural powers who is being held captive by Father Comstock. Elizabeth isn’t your typical damsel in distress and quickly becomes a valuable partner in your efforts to escape Colombia. In addition to her help in combat opening ‘tears’ that allow you to access resources from parallel universes (yes it’s as silly as it sounds), the dialogue between DeWitt and Elizabeth is actually thoughtful and well written. Elizabeth has been locked up her whole life and is extremely curious about the world around her. As she tries to make sense of the violence and chaos that’s occurring, she looks to DeWitt to provide insight.
It’s refreshing to see a female video game character who isn’t simply set-dressing but rather a strong, independent individual who adds real value to the story.
There’s a lot more I’d like to say about Bioshock Infinite – it’s exploration of American exceptionalism is particularly compelling – but I’ll wait until I’ve finished the game to do this justice. Overall, Bioshock Infinite probably isn’t my favourite in the series but it is an ambitious and largely successful attempt at video game storytelling that tries (and sometimes succeeds) exploring some pretty big themes.