This is a spoiler warning!!
When Bioshock Infinite first came out, it was heavily praised for it's storytelling and it's signature "Irrational" twist. Years later, the games flaws have been heavily examined by the gaming community, and Infinite isn't seen in quite the same light as it was at the time of it's debut. At this point Bioshock Infinite seems to be a love-hate title, one that when brought up in conversation incites one reaction or the other. After replaying the game and it's DLC, I find myself settling somewhere in the middle.
The opening of Infinite is fantastic. It's very reminiscent of the first Bioshock, though significantly longer. As Booker Dewitt, you've been given a simple job; "Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt." The girl being referred to here is Elizabeth, a religious icon in the world of Columbia. She's being held in a tower deep in the city, and you must free her to clear your ledger. Here you get a chance to explore the world free of combat, and it's easily the highlight of the entire campaign. The world is fascinating, and there is a ton to see and experience in this opening bit. The environment is very well crafted, posters and statues help to convey the philosophy of the world, and you can overhear residents conversing as you walk along. You find you first audio logs here, a Bioshock tradition, along with short movies called kinetoscopes. These simple vignettes are usually only a few still frames with text and music, but they add to the universe significantly. Hearing a barbershop quartet sing an old-timey rendition of The Beach Boy's God Only Knows is a real treat. It's too bad that this strong prologue chapter soon takes a turn for the worse.
While you're walking through Columbia, you do get the sense that things are "off" so to speak. This strangeness comes to light at the annual Columbia raffle. You win the lottery, and your prize is first throw of a baseball at an interracial couple. Racist undertones float in and out of the story seemingly at random. It feels like this theme was supposed to be more front and center, but it ended up being downplayed in the final product. Regardless, this is where you stop being a Columbian tourist, and start to carve a bloody path towards your ultimate objective.
Bioshock Infinite's combat is flat out boring. At first, it's interesting to experiment with the weapons and vigors, but it really doesn't take long before you realize that the combat isn't going to evolve any further. Irrational seems to have gone out of it's way to make Infinite play more like it's FPS contemporaries. Instead of a health bar and health packs, you get a recharging shield. Instead of having a separate melee weapon, you have a dedicated melee button. Instead of a weapon wheel, you carry two weapons at a time and switch with a button push. That last change is arguably the worst, because it's completely at odds with the upgrade system. It's really odd to me that you can spend money to buy weapon upgrades for guns you might not see for hours. For example, if you invest in upgrades for the revolver and sniper rifle, you can go stretches where you won't be able to utilize those upgrades because the only weapons available are machine guns and shotguns. I remember the skylines being shown off as a big system in previews, but in the final game they're really only needed to travel between a few areas. Some combat arenas have skylines that encircle them, but you'll never need to utilize them. Sometimes I would jump on them and circle around enemies for the sake of variety, but the game is so easy I usually ignored them. The last piece of the combat infrastructure comes in the form of "tears" in reality. Elizabeth can open them to bring in some cover or ammo. Every once in a while you can pull in an AI ally or turret as well, but they tend to get destroyed before doing any damage. They really feel like a missed opportunity to me. They could have gotten a little more creative with the fact that Elizabeth is literally bringing in stuff from another universe, but it's almost always a boring wall or barrel of guns.
Exploration is a staple of the Shock series, but Infinite is totally lacking in this regard. Most of the game is fairly linear, with a few side areas that you may find an audio log in. Due to the two gun and shield systems, you really have no incentive to explore much outside of collectibles that are almost always in obvious places. You may run short on ammo for your favorite upgraded guns, but exploring the world rarely gives you more. Instead you usually end up picking up whatever the enemies were using before you brutally murdered them. There isn't a crafting system, so no need to find crafting items. Instead you find money, and that's about it. Compounding this is the fact that almost everything worth anything is put behind a locked door that you can open using lock picks. There isn't a mini-game to go along with this, it's just pushing a button if you have enough picks and picking up your reward. Gone are the days of searching for codes in the environment, unlocking doors by hacking them, or finding key-codes in audio logs. The environments themselves are beautiful, but the environmental storytelling is a huge step down from previous entries. There are 2 fairly large areas in the game that serve as temporary hubs, but these locations are even worse than linear environments. Finkton at least had the common courtesy to just bore the shit of me, but Emporia is instead infuriating. It features one of the most annoying boss battle in all of gaming, and you have to fight it three times in a fucking row. First of all it's ghost creature which really seems out of place in this world, but more importantly this boss raises the dead against you. If you don't take her out before she revives her first wave of corpses, you're in for a slog of repeatedly killing the same enemies while chipping down the ghost and praying for Elizabeth to throw you some salts.
After rescuing Elizabeth from her tower, you and her complete a series of tasks to try and secure an escape from Columbia. The biggest task involves getting weapons for the Vox Populi, one side of a roaring Columbian civil war. Getting the guns turns out to be a big hassle involving jumping through multiple dimensions and majorly fucking everything up. By the time you're done an alternate version of Booker apparently became a hero of the revolution and died a martyr. It's fun finding posters praising Booker as a hero, and you get treated to a sweet acapella version of Fortunate Son. It's here that Elizabeth evolves from a naive girl to a more hardened woman, as she if forced to kill the revolutionaries leader to save a young boys life. After fighting the annoying ghost boss in the richer part of town, you come face to face with Songbird, a human-machine hybrid that serves as Elizabeth's bodyguard and prison warden. He takes Elizabeth away, and after a short chase you find yourself in front of Comstock House. Comstock House is the home of Columbia's great leader Zachary Hale Comstock. He serves as the primary protagonist of the game, consistently attacking the player and Elizabeth in the hopes of taking her back from you.
Inside, you quickly realize that things are not as they should be. You find statues of Elizabeth as the savior of Columbia, and hear recording of Elizabeth speaking the way Comstock usually does. She talks of destroying the Sodom below Columbia, and how Columbia is another ark for another time. In a twist everyone saw coming the moment they saw the Elizabeth statue, you find an older Elizabeth at the end of your journey leading an attack on New York. She gives you a note and some advice on how to stop Elizabeth from becoming her, and sends you back to your world. You quickly rescue Elizabeth and continue on, but now Elizabeth wants to kill Comstock before escaping. Good times ensue as you cut down dozens of rubes on your way to Comstock's airship.
This Airship serves as the last level of Infinite, and it is a slog. You have to fight a ton of enemies on your way to the top of the airship. When you reach Comstock, Booker kills him in a fit of rage while a horrified Elizabeth looks on. Before he died though, he let on that Booker is not what he claims to be. To get the answers, you need to destroy the tower you rescued Elizabeth from early in the game. The tower serves to dampen Elizabeth's reality warping powers, and by destroying it Elizabeth should be able to travel freely between worlds. Sounds good, but before you can get the answers you have to fight one final battle, a wave based survival battle against the Vox Populi. It's not exactly a hard battle on normal difficulty, but it's way too fucking long. You also have to protect the airships drive core throughout the battle, and it gets destroyed easily. So there's a good chance you'll have to play this battle multiple times to get the core through unscathed. It's a fucking disaster.
Finally, you command the Songbird to destroy the tower using the handy note future Elizabeth gave to you, and you end up being transported to Rapture. This reveal is fucking awesome. When I first turned around from the window and saw that opening room from the original Bioshock, I lost my fucking mind. Of course this time around I knew what to expect, but I was still elated to be able to explore this little chunk of Rapture once again. Unfortunately, this is where the game starts to fall apart a bit narrative wise. The Infinite in the title of game comes full circle as Elizabeth explains that there is always a man, always a city, and always a lighthouse. There are millions of worlds telling millions of stories like the one you just played through. Booker and Comstock are in fact the same person, one being from worlds where Booker got baptized and became Comstock, and the other being the Booker we know and love. Both Elizabeth and Booker agree that Comstock should not be allowed to live in any world, and to achieve this Booker must die before his baptism can take place. So you watch as Elizabeth drowns you, echoing the false baptism you receive from the preacher when you first entered Columbia. The ending leaves a lot to interpretation, but we won't have to wait long for clarity, because we have DLC to talk about.
Clash in the Clouds is the first piece of DLC for Infinite, and it's terrible. It's a series of combat challenges set across 4 arenas themed after areas from the main game. You play 15 rounds in a row to finish a level, and collect money to buy upgrades by looting enemies and completing challenges. The challenges are complete bullshit, because if you miss one in a later round, you have to play through all the waves before once again to get another shot. I was so sick of the combat by the end of Infinite that the very thought of having to play 60 plus challenge rounds made me want to die. Still, I soldiered on because there is one redeemable aspect to this DLC. You can spend the same money you do on upgrades to unlock a bunch of concept art, music, and work in progress kinetoscopes in a sort of museum. A lot of this stuff was super cool to see, but having to play combat challenges to unlock it all is bullshit. Just look the museum up on Youtube if you're interested.
Burial at Sea is the second and final piece of DLC for Infinite, and it comes in 2 distinct parts. Part 1 has you once again taking the reins of Booker Dewitt, though this time he's a hard-boiled Rapture detective. Once again, Irrational has nailed the opening. Just like the main game, there is a fairly significant portion of the opening that's spent just wandering around and experiencing the world without combat. It's really interesting seeing Rapture before it's fall, and it adds to the lore of the first Bioshock significantly. A prominent feature in this section is Sander Cohen, the crazy artist you meet and potentially kill in the first Bioshock. You'll find kinetoscopes of his art littered around Rapture, and they are so bad they're amazing. The gameplay of Episode 1 is fundamentally the same as the main game, but a few key changes make it much more fun to play. For one, the weapon wheel is back, and with it comes the introduction of resource management to world of Infinite. You have to make every bullet count here, and using plasmids willy-nilly is out of the question. Enemies generally drop only a couple bullets upon death, sometimes none at all. This redesigned combat system plays hand in hand with a return to the more traditional Bioshock level structure. Instead of being funneled around corridors, you once again play around in large environments full of hidden areas and secrets. The story of episode one follows Booker and Elizabeth as they hunt down a missing little sister named Sally. Upon finding the girl, Elizabeth turns on Booker, who is revealed to be Comstock once again. Not much really goes on here narratively, but that's rectified in Episode 2.
Episode 2 picks up right where 1 left off, with Elizabeth waking up after Booker's death only to see Frank Fontaine, the big bad from Bioshock 1. Fontaine and Elizabeth make a deal to save Sally's life, and so you finally get to play as Elizabeth as you hunt down a means for Fontaine and his army to escape the building you've become trapped in. The gameplay of Episode 2 is a complete shift from the main game or even episode 1. Elizabeth isn't a warrior like Booker, and so you have to play stealthily to survive. Being seen is basically a death sentence even on normal difficulty. Luckily, the game gives you tools to fight from the shadows. A brand new crossbow comes with two different bolts, a sedative and a gas bomb. You get a revolver and shotgun as well, but I found myself never using them. The biggest help comes in the form a new plasmid called Peeping Tom, which allows Elizabeth to see through walls and turn invisible while standing still. It's overpowered, but it's a lot of fun using it to sneak around and knock people in the back of the head with a sky hook.
As you wonder around the world, you pick up a ton of lore connected to both the original Bioshock and Infinite. The sheer amount of information you can find by looking around is staggering, and greatly helps in filling in the gaps the main game left behind. By the end of the DLC you'll have answers to almost every question you could have about the world of Bioshock. You can tell Irrational really put their whole heart into this last piece of DLC. You can hear Elizabeth sing a full song on a random radio in a room that you never need to go into, and that's the only place you'll hear it played in the entire DLC. This event itself is reference in the game by posters of Elizabeth around Rapture, calling her "Cohen's Songbird." There are a handful of little, easy to miss details like this that really set this DLC apart from it's base game.
You end up having to go back to Columbia to solve your Rapture problems, and this revisit is chock full of lore on Fink, the Vox Populi, and the connections between Big Daddies and Songbird. You're ultimate goal is to retrieve a Lutece Particle, which will allow you to send the sunken building you're trapped in back towards the surface, close enough for Fontaine and his army to launch an attack on Rapture proper. You succeed, but are only rewarded with betrayal, as Fontaine tortures you in one of the most uncomfortable first person sequences I've ever experienced. You have one last task to accomplish before you can save Sally's life; find the "ace in the hole." This ace in the hole turns out to be the protagonist of Bioshock 1, thus completing a full circle of narrative across the Bioshock Universe. While I do have some reservations about Elizabeth's story only serving to set up the first game, I think this twist is done well enough that I can't help but love it. Burial at Sea as a whole is a much more compelling experience than the main game, but without the context of Infinite proper it won't make much sense.
The Bioshock franchise is one of the most beloved in gaming, but that love stems largely from a strong debut title. Before Infinite came out, I expected it would be a Bioshock title only in name, and in many ways I was correct. The game doesn't play anything like it's predecessors, and quickly becomes a chore to play, but the narrative is worth pushing through for. It's first DLC isn't worth the 5 bucks it costs, but the remaining 2 surpass the main game in nearly every regard. It's the weakest game in the Bioshock trilogy by a good sight, but still a game I'd recommend almost anyone play through, especially with Burial at Sea tacked on.
"There's always a man, there's always a city, and there's always a lighthouse."