Bioshock Infinite was a game that almost couldnít help but suffer from the amount of hype and expectation it received before I even opened the box.
The original was one of my favourite games of this generation, and itís follow up, whilst lacking in the originality and innovation that marked out itís predecessor, was still competent and atmospheric, and a welcome return to the underwater world of Rapture.
On setting foot into the sky city of Columbia, the first thing that hits you is the colour. IN a world of brown and muddy shooters or the claustrophobia of the original Bioshock, the open skies and sweeping vistas of Infinite are almost literally a breath of fresh air. I found myself wishing that I had a voided trailers and screenshots completely, just so I could have come to it fresh. The girl who sold me the disc in my local game store said she was enjoying the game, as just turning it on brightened up a dull day, and I could certainly see what she meant.
Much has been made of the disparity between the narrative of the game, and the gunplay. Terms like ďdissonanceĒ have been bandied about with gay abandon, and people have criticised the gameís reliance on violence contrasted with the mature themes on show here. At its core, the franchise has always been a shooter, and nowhere is that more true than in the frenetic fire fights on show here. A lot more open and chaotic than anything you will have found ion the halls of Rapture, the battles here are hard, and remind you more of the Crysis games than anything in the series previously. There were times where I felt like I had more than enough of the shooting and was happy to just carry on with the narrative. Often it seems like the model of the FPS is being used here as a tool to get the broader work into the hands of as many people as possible. An attempt to bring mature themes and narrative to a broad audience.
Speaking of the themes of the game, itís approach to tackling racism in Columbia is refreshingly direct and un-muddied, with a brutality of tone that is immediately shocking and all the more effective because of it, while steering around the thorny problem of seeming preachy or self-righteous. Infiniteís re-telling of American history is sharp, acerbic, direct and confrontational, tackling some of the darkest chapters of history with a bravery and openness that many developers and writers could learn from.
Whilst Columbia can seem like a real breathing and living world populated by believable characters, is can equally sometimes feel like an amusement park when the illusion shatters, populated by automatons with preset patterns and speeches, all directed towards giving you the experience the writers and director wanted to funnel you through, and in these moments you feel like a passenger on a ride where the only real interaction you have with the story is to move forward or press a button.
The real star of the show is Elizabeth, the first AI companion that you can really build an emotional bond with. I challenge even the hardest hearted gamer not to develop an affinity for the character, such is the excellent combination of voice acting, animation, AI and artistry that have been woven together to bring her to life. Her story and place in the world is the core of your experience in Columbia. Where we are so used to dragging around a vulnerable character in tedious escort missions, here, your AI partner is invulnerable, throwing you ammunition or health and calling out targets. She truly is the core of the game, narratively and game play wise.
There is a secret at the centre of Bioshock Infinite, and that secret is that itís an Art Game. Under all the layers of shooting and ultraviolence there is a core of artistic intent as strong as The Path, or Dear Esther, but where these games rely on obscuring their ideas under layers of whimsy, Bioshock dares to face up to itís own potential pretentiousness and offers you a real conclusion and solid resolution to itís tangled web of narrative. This is a game that not only has something to say, but that isnít afraid to say it, and spell it out, not in a dumbed down way that spoon feeds you, but equally without resorting to the vague head scratching symbolism that many turn to when real ideas run dry.
What we have here then is a complicated beast, a hybrid of different styles. If you push through without stopping to admire the sights and sounds around you, what you have is a very competent fantasy shooter that will satisfy the most trigger-happy FPS veteran. If you are more curious though and take the time to admire the complexity and rich tapestry of the world, the over-arching themes and the deeper elements of the story, then you have a game that stands head and shoulders above itís contemporaries in terms of narrative in games, and the progression of the medium as a genuine avenue for artistic endeavour. Much of it is up to the way the player chooses to approach the game, but then ultimately, isnít that the way it should be?
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