Best of 2013: BioShock Infinite
It’s been incredibly difficult for me to narrow down the best game of this year. I’d imagined earlier this year that I would be talking about Watch Dogs today but since that game was delayed there’s only one game left this year that I can talk about. It’s a game that itself, was delayed multiple times and came out a full year after its originally planned release date. BioShock Infinite is more than just a great game, it’s a work of art both mechanically and visually. It oozes style and visual flair while depicting interesting characters in an even more fascinating setting. BioShock Infinite was the best game I played all year.
While technically a sequel, BioShock Infinite is more of a reimagining of the original BioShock than a proper continuation. Like its predecessors, Infinite is a first-person shooter mixed with RPG elements. The original BioShock was set in an underwater city called Rapture, the brainchild of a single man looking to escape the doctrines of Capitalism, Communism and religion. BioShock Infinite instead rockets upwards to a floating city called Columbia; also the brainchild of a single man. If Rapture is an example of what happens to a society with no restrictions on scientific progress, Columbia is an example of what happens when Religion is allowed to progress unrestricted. Columbia is the result of one man attempting to create heaven and it depicts the fallibility of this idea; Columbia is a lot closer to hell than heaven.
BioShock Infinite is set in 1912 and follows a man named Booker DeWitt, a former Pinkerton who’s racked up gambling debt, who has been ordered to retrieve a girl in Columbia named Elizabeth. Upon arriving in Columbia, nothing seems to be amiss but things quickly take a turn for the worse and it’s not long before Booker is fighting off the entire city. He eventually retrieves Elizabeth. He then discovers she has the ability to open doorways, called tears, into other worlds. This can provide access to simple objects from weapons and first-aid kits to complex machines such as turrets. Booker and Elizabeth spend the rest of the game looking for a way to escape Columbia. The entire story is told through Booker’s perspective with no cutscenes or quick-time events to speak of.
The pair is also pursued by a giant mechanical Songbird which is a truly terrifying creature though it has few appearances in the game. The plot might seem a bit thin to some of you but keep in mind I’m leaving out of lot of key points to avoid spoilers. The story makes use of Elizabeth’s ability to open tears in ways you won’t expect. In fact, the entire narrative goes in unexpected directions but I was glad this game did. It’s refreshing to play a game with a story that’s truly impossible to predict. Much of the game’s backstory is filled in by voxophones, which are Columbia’s version of audio diaries. A big complaint I have is that you can miss a lot of interesting plot points if you don’t collect every one of the 80 voxophones spread throughout the game. I missed less than 10 voxophones but still had a few unanswered questions upon completing the game.
Like The Last of Us, I can’t talk about BioShock Infinite in any sort of detail without, at some point, mentioning the ending. This is still a spoiler-free article so I’m not going to tell you what happens but I guarantee that you will not see it coming. This is the best twist ending in any game I’ve played, perhaps the best ever. This ending puts the “Would you kindly?” twist from the first BioShock to shame. It rewrites your understanding of the entire plot and it’s one the few times where a story (from either a movie, a game or a book) has completely screwed with my head yet somehow made total sense while doing so. The Last of Us is worth playing for how it begins, BioShock Infinite is worth playing for how it ends.
There are plenty of gameplay features that stand-in for mechanics from the original BioShock. Early in the game Booker gains access to Vigors, Columbia’s version of Plasmids, which allow him to shoot lightning bolts, fireballs or send a pack of crows to feast on enemy flesh, just to name a few. Vigors consume Salts, the same way Plasmids consume Eve. Each vigor also has an alternate use, usually as a trap and certain vigor effects can be combined. Instead of Gene Tonics, the player can collect Gear which is essentially clothing that gives Booker certain abilities. For example one gear will give you Salts every time you kill an enemy, or health when you melee kill an enemy. The game also features sky-lines, which are overhead rails that allow Booker to quickly traverse an area. You can also perform deadly attacks from above, giving a small element of stealth to the game. Infinite doesn’t have regenerating health (a feature far too prevalent among military shooters) and instead goes an old-school health bar. The player also has a regenerating shield, although it much less effective than other games; it allows breathing room but don’t expect it to take much of a beating. BioShock Infinite is the strongest argument against regenerating health since Left 4 Dead,
Many of the features in the original BioShock have been stripped away. Weapons only use a single type of ammo, hacking is gone and Booker has only four slots for gear and can carry only two weapons at a time. However these limitations actually strengthen the game because it gives more weight to your decisions. Your choice of weapons, upgrades, gear and vigors are all equally important and require a lot of thought to be effective. A good build is easier to use on the hardest difficulty than a bad build on the easiest difficulty. Best of all, there isn’t a build that’s vastly superior to others. You can focus on chaining elemental vigors between enemies, pulling enemies into traps or equip gear to augment use of sky-lines. It’s one of the most replayable first-person shooters I’ve ever experienced.
BioShock Infinite encourages experimentation which is something that the first two games never did. There’s less of arsenal to rely on, making player skill and strategy more crucial to success and not simply having a stockpile of weapons. This is even more important when you encounter one of the four types of heavy-hitter enemies which serve as stand-ins for the Big Daddy encounters from the original but have much more variety in this game. BioShock Infinite always feels fresh and challenging, even later in the game. There’s no point where this game slowed down or stopped being fun.
Booker’s companion Elizabeth is the best part of BioShock Infinite and the best character in any video game this year. She also happens to address my biggest problem with the first two BioShock games. In the original games, the player didn’t have repeated contact with human characters outside of communicating through a radio. While this added to the feeling of isolation, it meant that the characters in those games were nothing more to me than voices on a radio. It didn’t help that both of those games had silent protagonists which made every conversation one-sided. It’s hard to be invested in a character when they little more than give you instructions. There isn’t a strong motivator in either of the first two BioShock games either.
Elizabeth fixes theses issues in BioShock Infinite. It’s not just the in the way she’s written, the excellent voicework by Courtnee Draper, or even chemistry she shares with Booker, who himself is a very interesting character. She’s effective both as a character and a game mechanic. Elizabeth accompanies Booker throughout the game and much like Ellie from The Last of Us, enemies can’t harm her. However instead of simply waiting for you to clear an area of enemies, she participates in the gameplay by throwing you health, salts and ammo exactly when you need it. She points out enemies and can open tears to provide weapons and ammo, create obstacles for cover or even bring in allies to assist you. Unlike Joel and Ellie from The Last of Us, Booker and Elizabeth are a team. It would impossible to beat BioShock Infinite without Elizabeth which makes her more important to the player.
It also helps that Elizabeth is very well written, going through her own arc as the game progresses. She starts out almost identical to a fairy tale Princess. She’s an innocent girl locked in a tower guarded by a great beast and once free of her cage she becomes wide-eyed and eager to explore. She quickly departs from this trope however once she’s exposed to the violence that’s running rampant in Columbia. She initially rejects Booker once she learns of his motives but their relationship grows as she evolves into a stronger person. Booker and Elizabeth’s relationship is analogous to an older brother and a younger sister however by the end of the game the roles are reversed. She’s a wonderfully realized character and her AI is a technical marvel.
It’s clear to me that BioShock Infinite is an outstanding game, but given how close it is in quality to The Last of Us, I feel the need to explain in further detail why Infinite is a superior game. The Last of Us is similar to Resident Evil 4 and BioShock Infinite is comparable to Half-Life 2. In both cases, the latter game is superior and it’s for similar reasons. Like Half-Life 2, BioShock Infinite never takes the game away from the player; it’s much harder to tell a story this way. The Last of Us is closer to a product of its time. It has quick-time events, motion-captured cutscenes and that cinematic style that just about every blockbuster game this year tried to emulate. That’s not to say that The Last of Us failed but BioShock Infinite took more chances with a more old-school approach. Even though it borrows heavily from the original BioShock, in the six years since that game out a lot has changed. It would have been easy for Irrational Games to conform and even though that can still lead to great game as Tomb Raider proved, it doesn’t make for very inspired game design.
Much like the Walking Dead game, The Last of Us owes its significance to the dire state of writing quality in video games but what does it for me is that BioShock Infinite is slightly more focused than The Last of Us. I’ve written before about the importance of minimalism in video games and I feel that Infinite has a better idea of this than The Last of Us. There were times during The Last of Us where I felt like I cleared an area because I had a stockpile of ammo, but almost every major area in BioShock Infinite gave me a feeling of achievement. That can go a long way and for me that’s just enough to give BioShock Infinite an edge.
I won’t look back on 2013 and call it a blockbuster year in video games. There were plenty of decent games this year but not a whole lot of amazing ones. When I look back on this year I will remember BioShock Infinite more than any other game. You should get your hands on all three games I’ve mentioned this past week if you haven’t already but if you only have only time or money for one game, then it’s clear to me what you should choose. Out of all the games released in 2013, BioShock Infinite is the most worthy of your time and money.