Thursday, 10 March 2016

Game Review - 'BioShock Infinite'

I don't care much for first-person shooters. That might be an odd way to start a review of one - but, it's true. For every one that I've willingly played over the years, there are a handful of others that I avoided like I might catch something from them. And, for those that I enjoyed? I enjoyed them in spite of the fact that the were FPS games - not because of it. So, why am I owning up to this in the opening paragraph of this review? Well, so you know where I stand, obviously. It's not just that I don't enjoy the game-play, either (I do, at times) - it's just that FPS games don't usually offer what I tend to look for in the games that I play.

Some have, though. The original BioShock, for example, was one of those that I did enjoy - so, that seemed like reason enough to spend time with BioShock Infinite.

The year is 1912. Cast in the role of Booker DeWitt, an ex-Pinkerton agent (what's a Pinkerton, you ask? Come on, this is the Internet - look it up) who is currently struggling under the weight of crippling gambling debts, you will find being taken to a mysterious lighthouse in a clearly deliberate parallel to the opening scenes of the original game. Booker has been given one last chance to clear his debts by rescuing a young woman from a strange city. Moments after arriving at the lighthouse, Booker finds himself shot into the sky - getting his first glimpse of the flying city of Columbia in a reveal that easily rivals that first underwater view of Rapture.

Unlike Rapture, Columbia is a place that still seems fully functional by the time you are able to visit. Your first hour, or so, in the game will be spent simply exploring. You can see the citizens of Columbia simply relaxing and enjoying a seemingly perfect life in the clouds, attend a fair and play a few games, or catch a performance by Columbia's 'gayest' barbershop quartet (the time and place of the setting allowing 'gay' to be used in its original context, of course - though, I'm sure that there must have been a little snickering involved in the decision to display it so prominently). But, of course, this early peace can't last - as you walk the streets of Columbia, you will notice signs warning citizens to be on the look-out for the 'False Shephard', who can be identified by a mark which just happens to be identical to one which Booker carries on the back of his hand. Not to mention the eventual realisation that things just aren't quite right in Columbia.

Naturally, Booker is eventually identified - and the party is, quite literally, over. The peaceful walk through the streets of a beautiful city is interrupted, and Booker finds himself forced to fight his way to his goal.

Everything leading up to your meeting with the young woman, Elizabeth, ultimately proves to be little more than a long and elaborate tutorial level - as the game does not truly begin until Booker and Elizabeth join forces. Rescuing her from the tower where she is kept isolated, you barely escape from the Songbird, a mechanical monstrosity charged with 'protecting' her. And, from there, you find yourself drawn into a brewing conflict between the Founders, led by the cities ruler, Zachery Comstock, and the Vox Populi, a resistance movement made up of the oppressed lower classes.

Then, things start to get weird.

Booker DeWitt may be the character you control, but it will become pretty clear early on that he is not the game's true protagonist. That honour goes to Elizabeth herself - the mysterious young woman with the inexplicable power to open tears into alternate dimensions. She will be your companion for much of the game - and, despite the warning bells you might hear at mention of the words 'escort mission', you will quickly come to appreciate her presence. From a pure game-play perspective, the game itself will make it clear, within moments of first meeting her, that Elizabeth can take care of herself. Rather than having to protect her, you can just focus on the combat, while she will dash about scrounging up ammunition and health packs for you to use. More than that, her ability to open tears will allow her to bring in anything from previously non-existent walls to provide additional cover, gun turrets that fight on your side, and additional supplies. Out of combat, too, Elizabeth will even find money for you, or point out interesting items that you might have missed. On top of all that, too, is the simple fact that Elizabeth is simply a fascinating, complex and extremely likable character.

A fairly big deal has been made about the amount of effort that went into creating Elizabeth - The way that she will cross her arms, and pointedly turn her back to you, during points in the game where she is angry will contrast quite nicely with other moments of naive curiosity or nervous fidgeting. Regardless of whether this scripted behaviour could be considered 'revolutionary' in any way, it does an impressive job of humanising her. Which is arguably important since, without her, we would be left with Booker DeWitt - a complex and fascinating figure in his own right, of course, but one who is clearly disturbingly comfortable with violence, and who occasionally seems to lack the moral compass that Elizabeth provides.

Game-play will seem instantly familiar to fans of the previous games - though, whether that counts as a positive or negative for the game may be a matter for debate. You will, once again, be relying on a combination of mundane weaponry and supernatural powers to overcome the challenges you will be presented with. The weaponry on offer will be the standard assortment - pistols and rifles, along with the occasional high explosive. The powers on offer (called Vigors here, though they are functionally identical to the Plasmids of the previous games) is where things get most interesting - fire and electricity are acquired early, along with the ability to possess enemies. You will also acquire the ability to fling your opponents into the air, pull them toward you with tendrils of water, or send a swarm of summoned ravens to distract your foes (because, who wouldn't be distracted by angry birds trying to peck at your eyes).

My own natural tendency when playing first-person action games is to try to get hold of a sniper rifle (or its nearest equivalent, depending on the setting of the game) as soon as possible - then, spend my time skulking about going for head-shots. It's not the most exciting way to play, I admit - and, especially in a game like this, it could mean that I miss out on some of the more entertaining possibilities offered by the action set-pieces. But, it works for me - most of the time, anyway. I will admit that I began to feel a not quite healthy love for the hand cannon within moments of getting my hands on one. And, the varied powers you can collect practically demand experimentation. Whether you're turning an enemy to your side with the 'Possession' Vigor, or flinging fire and electricity about, or even summoning a flock of murderous crows, each Vigor has a clear use in combat. But, many also have a secondary feature that allows you to lay down traps by simply holding down the attack button. You'll quickly come for form your own preferences as to which best suits your play-style (or, which you think is the most fun to use).

If you prefer to get up-close in combat, then you'll be happy to know that the sky-hook makes for a particularly effective melee weapon, also. Though it probably wont surprise anyone to know that fighting with a weapon that basically consists of spinning blades tends to get pretty messy. The sky-hook will also allow you to make use of another of the game's more unique features - letting you ride on the sky-lines which are spread all over the city. Mostly used as a quick means of transport from one area to the next, the sky-lines also feature prominently in a handful of the larger action set-pieces you will find yourself involved in (though, only if you choose to make use of them). A quick leap onto the conveniently placed sky-lines can give you an easy escape from tough situations, or allow you to find to quickly find a more strategic position for your own attacks - or, even, launch yourself at surprised enemies who can only watch in stunned silence at the sight of you hurtling toward them.

All of this works well, of course. The action is often epic in scale - exciting and occasionally genuinely tense (though, how well it compares to the best FPS games is a question I can't really answer. See the opening paragraph of this review). But, it was never the action that held my attention. It was Booker and Elizabeth. It was the conflict between the Founders and the Vox Populi, and their opposed ideologies. It was the intriguing complexity of alternate dimensions. All of this is what compelled me to see this game through to the end - the fact that the game plays as it does is important, of course. But, on its own, that wouldn't have been enough to keep me playing. And, when I actually reached the end? Well, I probably shouldn't say anything about the ending. If you've played it, you know what I mean. If not, than you really don't want it spoiled for you.

I'm sure there are games that do first-person action better than BioShock Infinite - but, there aren't many that would tell a story that is as compelling as this one. Or, that would feature a cast of characters that is as fascinating. That's what makes this game special - and, that's why you should play it.

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