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Wot I Think - BioShock: Infinite

There we were, now here we are

BioShock: Infinite is a new first-person shooter from Irrational, creators of BioShock, System Shock 2 and SWAT 4. It's set on a flying city in 1912, where racism and religious fundamentalism dictate society. You're up there, wielding guns and magic, to bring someone the girl and wipe away the debt. Here's what I thought, spoiler-free.

The thing about fantastical fiction is that you're completely at the mercy of the author. You're paying for them to share the contents of their head with you, and in any setting not bound by the rules of our Earthly existence, they can do and justify whatever they want. The right buzzwords, pseudoscience and space-magic, and anything can be achieved, any discrepancy simply waved away.

That's something the consumer of such tales must be prepared for, and will so often feel let down by, but conversely the author has to deal with the fact that the offerings of their own imagination may not possibly be able to satisfy someone who's become invested in the tale they began. That must be a bitter pill to swallow: how can they possibly meet such an undefined expectation? I doubt that someone who took issue with the ending of Battlestar Galactica or how Stephen Moffatt often papers over Dr Who's many plot holes with the loosest possible interpretation of temporal causality knew quite what it was they wanted to hear and see instead - they only knew what wasn't it.

Right now, still trying to absorb the giddying clusterbomb of condensed exposition, subtle emotional clout, incredible spectacle and get-out-of-narrative-jail-free cards which hits in the final minutes of BioShock: Infinite, I just don't know how people are going to take it. I don't quite know how I feel about it, either: some aspects work very well and demand further analysis and retrospection, a thoughtful piecing together of what led up to it and dawning realisation of how everything connects; others are frustratingly the result of deus ex machinas and quasi-magical convenience. I can't imagine there won't be shouting. Then again, the shouting is arguably as component a part of a BioShock game as is the success. I think, though, that BioShock: Infinite might be a victim of its storyline to some degree: though more complete than BioShock's, and far more fleshed out than Dishonored's, it's in the way of the game, this fantastical movie plot and its rollercoaster spectacle arguably transforming the mechanics of combat and exploration into something just to be got through in the hungry pursuit of Finding Out What Happens.

That wasn't the case with the original BioShock, where the narrative, its twists and its statements almost arrived as a surprise part-way through a strange, only-in-videogames world we'd primarily plunged into because of that tantalising underwater setting and its curious denizens. The backlash that hit after the last hours of the game didn't live up to the powerful twist beforehand seemed to be a surprise even to game director Ken Levine, who initially claimed that most players didn't care about story and that was why the game ended a little incoherently. With Infinite, he seems to have changed his mind - story is all here, a finely-crafted web which spans from the very first second of the game to its very last, with strands reaching out to the many audio diary-based vignettes to the sides. I went into this game expecting a mystery from minute one, and craving answers to it, and that's a very different state of affairs to Rapture's initial tale, where the sense of mystery was initially built from atmosphere rather than brazenly teased exposition.

Here too, the mystery is corporeal, all contained within the alternately fragile and powerful form of sometime damsel-in-distress Elizabeth. Who and what is she, what can her reality-bending powers do and why can they do it? What does the floating city of Columbia want with her, and who sent you, as guilt-wracked private investigator Booker DeWitt, to retrieve her for them? What's with that thimble on her finger? Why does she get a new haircut part-way through? She is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, occasionally wearing a low-cut dress. I notice Ken Levine occasionally shows Twitter-frustration at how many story spoilers fans ask for, but frankly he's only got himself to blame for making Elizabeth so evidently intrigue incarnate. Like watching a movie whose poster bears a quote from some rent-an-endorsement reviewer screaming "look out for the killer twist!", here you go into the game actively searching for narrative duplicity.

Elizabeth is a highly likeable, compelling, well-performed and human character despite being the game's primary mouthpiece for exposition, and I did find myself sincerely missing her during those times when, for various reasons, she took a hiatus from her role as AI-controlled sidekick. She deftly avoids many of the irritations we've come to expect from such NPCs - no escort missions, no getting in the way or stuck on scenery, no robotic repetitions. The game's animators have done great work with her, bringing her to life in ways both overt and subtle, though oddly some of the facial expressions she pulls make her look like someone's been mucking with her eyes in Garry's Mod.

That aside, she can certainly be hailed as one of the game's greatest successes and perhaps the best FPS companion character since Alyx Vance. At the same time, she just might be Infinite's greatest shortcoming. She, and the halo of mystery she wears, stands in the way of Infinite's other main non-player character - the City of Columbia. Despite being an ever-present and visually remarkable - stunning, even - backdrop, its airborne nature and the society it holds is given shorter thrift, because Elizabeth and the quest for answers she represents steals so much focus.

For much of the game, I held in check my worries about why civilians were so few in number, why they'd suddenly disappear entirely, why so many of them share the same faces, why we're given little sense of where they live, why we see or hear almost nothing of how the practicalities of living in the clouds work. So evident it was it that something strange was going on, that there was far more here than met even a far more credulous eye, that I couldn't rule out the whole city being some character's flight of fancy, or an elaborate hoax. But Columbia is, it transpires, very much a real place, at least as far as the game's fiction is concerned. In terms of being a real, or at least convincing, place in a more external sense, it's no more so than Rapture was. This is despite its still being a functioning society as the game begins, as opposed to Rapture's post-collapse ruination-in-progress.

There are alternately wonderful and chilling scenes of this society in action, before the bubbling anger caused by the open racism its leaders mandate inevitably boils over into civil conflict. From the family funfair (very cleverly holding an optional tutorial) shortly after the game begins, to the Victorian beach-in-the-sky a few hours later, to the racially-segregated toilets and the distressingly servile attitudes its subjugated black population are ordered to demonstrate to their white 'masters', and to a harrowing visit to the poverty, fear and resentment Columbia's underclass lives in, we definitely get the greatest hits of the both idealised and oppressive America the leaders of the real-world Confederacy hoped to create if they won their Civil War. I'm just not sure we get the detail, at least outside an abundance of wry, careful details in the scenery and those convenient audio diaries wherein characters both encountered and never seen share their thoughts, secrets and outrages.

The choice to include civilians who cannot be interacted with in any way, aside from occasional opportunities to murder them for no reason and without real consequence, does wind up dragging us on a visit to the uncanny valley. There they stand, doing their little routines, paying little or usually no attention to the man with the enormous gun and the hand surrounded by magical crows who's jumping up and down on things and rummaging through the bins for coins.

Perhaps it's a statement on how the far reaches of the upper class treat anyone who isn't like them as too far beneath them to warrant even recognition. But I think it's just because they're glassy-eyed automatons sharing a surprisingly small handful of faces and voices - very much at odds with the luxuriousness shown in the rest of the game's art - and who are conveniently made to vanish immediately and without trace as soon as the game decides it's time for the shooty-bang-bang. And that is the truth at the heart of BioShock: Infinite: whatever it's trying to say, whatever else it hopes to be, it ultimately speaks in the language of guns. I'd anticipated and accepted that long before going in and so was never going to complain that a first-person shooter was a first-person shooter, but I did feel frustrated that these hints of the game being something more don't bear out.

Infinite offers long moments of observation when you can't shoot, and shorter moments of navigation when you can choose not to shoot. Even if you do choose not to, guards will often spring into action anyway if you get too close, at which point most of the civilians pull a Batman-style disappearing act and you're forced to fight. Columbia's social tale, meanwhile, happens around you, regardless of you, as you wander through it, flitting between superhuman combat and hands-off sightseeing.

There are extensive scenes of society, yes, and engrossing ones at that - but they are only scenes to be seen, glass cases in a sprawling museum, and they are all too easily and all too often replaced by sudden ghost towns haunted only by men (and women) who scream blood and fury as they aim their guns at you. Enemies are Splicers without the masks, essentially - and sometimes with them, in one of many, deliberate examples of resonance with BioShock. With just a few scripted exceptions, a convincingly human policeman, soldier or guerilla rebel you will not find here: they are bellowing monsters, without the excuse of backfired genetic experimentation.

Between this and the casting of lead antagonist, Columbia's self-deified ruler Zachary Comstock, as an out-and-out villain (unless your sympathies lie with racists and/or people who imprison their children, at least), there's a little less nuance to this society than I'd hoped for. Rebel faction the Vox Populi, determined to free the city from its racist shackles, don't wind up faring much better despite their cause being an infinitely more sympathetic one than Comstock's prejudice-led despotism. It continues BioShock's tradition of trying (not always successfully, of course) to avoid moral black and white, but at the same time there is something odd about making people with an overwhelmingly correct grievance as monstrous as those they oppose. It's balance, yes, but almost artificially so.

I fear being guilty of an If Only You Could Talk To The Monsters moment here, but the degree to which the city's non-military inhabitants are phantoms and its military ones psychotics is consistently distracting. I absolutely appreciate Infinite for striving to add life and depth to its battle arenas, and without a doubt there's much there to burn itself into the memory and emotions in ways that other shooters don't even begin to, but there's a real frustration in being teased with a city that appears to offer interaction only to prove simply a spectacular veneer.

Let's talk about that spectacle though. Infinite is a game ruled by artists at least as much as it is by its writers. It's the ultimate answer to the question of whether art or technology is the most important part of creating a visually excellent game - Crysis 3 might have far more going on under the hood, but its uninspired paintjob makes it seem so dull compared to Infinite's vaguely Pixar-esque fusion of the photoreal and the colourfully unreal. Much of its magic is conjured by backdrops and other disguised static elements, smoke and mirrors are often employed to make what are ultimately enclosed spaces feel like dramatically larger, open ones, and close inspection of textures will cause grumpiness for some, but to me it didn't matter what trickery the conjurer behind the curtain employed. Put together, and clad in all that lovely soft lighting, this Oz is a truly beautiful one to behold.

Some of the scenes it offers are outright majestic, catnip for any game photographer, and even had me nodding appreciatively at my screen, convinced they were the finest sights it had ever held. Characters are perhaps the sacrifice made to achieve these superb environments: as well as their non-interactive nature, I'd encounter oddities such as a group of three chatting women all bearing exactly the same face. It all adds to that nagging sense this isn't a real place. But the architecture is magnificent even if the population isn't.

Areas which aren't, if drawn on a map, anything much more than a collection of corridors and plazas with a few offshoots and loops, are here bounded by towering buildings and open skies, and an almost overwhelming barrage of visual flavour that helps to flesh out Comstock's creed and the exaggerated 1912 aesthetic. While a certain commonality of art style, especially in terms of characters, and the use of another pre-digital era means it certainly reminded me of Rapture, the preponderance of brass and wood, stone and sunlight and the judicious use of vibrant red gives it a very different feel. If anything, it can all be a little too much at once, with wonderful elements risking being overlooked because the eye's trying to take in so many things simultaneously.

What's odd is how often I almost forgot that Columbia was a city in the sky. Yes, huge roaring engines, balloons and the regular, sudden appearances of the horizon at the end of a street meant the proof of the city's improbable nature was ever-present, but strangely I felt no sense of the vertigo I got from, say, those initial outdoor forays in Half-Life, I saw surprisingly few scenarios where either an enemy or myself was hurled into the great beyond, and I experienced little that made the way this floating metropolis' function feel different than, say, Dishonored's Dunwall or Thief's City. There are the Skyrails, but I'll talk about those, and combat in general, shortly. There's something to be said for the comparatively buttoned-down nature of Rapture, where pipes, glass, gloom and water kept things kept things stylistically contained, all cleaving closely to that one single idea of being underwater - here, the airborne concept is almost drowned out by the barrage of spectacular architecture and colour.

The same might be true of Infinite's enemies - there's so much going on, both ornate and strange, that even a 10-foot robot George Washington or a guy with two huge trumpets for a head somehow doesn't stand out as much as he should. By contrast, that first encounter with a Big Daddy, amidst the solitude, the silence and the murk of Andrew Ryan's mouldering utopia, was an instantly arresting one which deftly established that character as iconic. I'm not sure Infinite can generate such enduring figures - Elizabeth maybe, but its monsters perhaps seem a little contrived, too look-at-me in their oddness. It's also less clear what role they serve in Columbia - where Big Daddy was a janitor with a tragic backstory as well as a fearsome fighter, Infinite's odder foes are largely teleported-in freakshows there purely to present heightened challenge. Even then, the significantly more open spaces mean they can't manage the sheer terror of being trapped in a claustrophobic corridor with an enraged Daddy. In fairness though, this is a game which shoots for spectacle rather than scares, so it's unfair to judge it by BioShock's more horror-inclined yardstick.

What is a far less ambiguously excellent achievement is Infinite's level design. This is a broadly linear game, in terms of events and the sequence you encounter Columbia's various areas in, but there's so damn much packed into its areas. They are timesinks in the best possible way. The relatively small number of loading screens is as much to do, I think, with not an inch of virtual space being wasted as it is the actual size of the maps, and what I suspect from very occasional juddering is some degree of background streaming.

Multi-tier buildings, multi-tier roads and the skyrails which oddly infrequently thread over the rooftops make these maps into generous lasagne-layers of exploration and action. That I spent so much time rooting through trashcans for coins and ammo, or breaking into offices in search of audio diaries and secret health/mana/shield upgrade-potions, is because so much of that sort of thing abounded thanks to the wealth of digital real estate on offer, and not purely because I'm a packrat and kleptomaniac.

There's a particular level about three quarters of the way in, and coming off the back of a few no doubt carefully-sequenced smaller, more indoor-centric maps, that's so wonderfully enormous it's almost exhausting to traverse. It can be roamed out of order too, raided for secrets and supporting cast backstory before being revisited later in the narrative's more fixed progression, by which point it's been repopulated with new foes and a sort of roaming bossfight.

Combat, then. Infinite is a game with two brains - one the virtual tourism of this lavish setting and the ever-present, ever-teasing narrative, and the other the loud, explosive and highly violent action. It alternates between these rapidly, as and when it feels like it, and in a way that can often feel disjointed or even like the non-sequitur events of dream logic, but the fighting is thrilling, highly customisable stuff. Oddly, it reminds me more of the original Doom than the tense, slightly clumsy back-against-the-wall skirmishes of BioShock or even the ratatatat man-popping of a Call of Duty. These large, multi-level spaces, the amped-up colours, the preponderance of explosions which could level a house, the veritable armies of freaks and fanatics you face: it's much more cartoon absurdity than it is macho fantasy. That said, the gore of melee kill moves and the fire-based Vigor is pretty extreme stuff, of the sort you wouldn't find in cinema outside of the most malevolent grindhouse flicks.

The gun in one hand, magic power - here named 'Vigors' in the other system is extremely similar to Bioshock 2's, though the sense of impact and destruction is amped up to almost Itchy & Scratchy levels even though enemies take an FPS-standard amount of battering before they fall over. There's an odd lack of distinction many of the weapons and even some of the Vigors - while there are getting on for a dozen guns, there isn't much to distinguish between them on a level beyond long range, short range and rapid-fire explosions. Granted, the waters were muddied in my review copy by the Industrial Revolution DLC throwing even more variations on the few themes in there, but even so the bulk of the arsenal comes off like general purpose killing tools rather than distinctive, specialist devices.

I always hung onto the sniper rifle, partly because I prefer to pick enemies off from a distance and partly because, once upgraded via the in-game vending machines, it can basically operate like a shotgun too, but other than that I didn't much care about which other weapon I carried. I suspect the strange homogeneity between weapons is a response to grumbles about the wrench being so overpowered in the first BioShock - here, everything is overpowered. This is reflected in the enemies, who gradually start donning helmets and armour which require a little more precision or a lot more pummelling to take out.

As for the Vigors, they too are faintly absurd in the level of devastation their animations imply, even if the reality of their damage output isn't quite so devastating. The pure damage powers - fire, electricity, crow swarm - seemed a bit much of muchness, but my suspicion is they'll be more individually useful at harder difficulty, or the 1999 mode unlocked upon completion (or with a cheat code), where the odds against you are higher and you'll need to make much more use of the flammable oil slicks and pools of water scattered about, or kite enemies over careful networks of 'traps', Vigors' in-situ, mine-like alt-fires.

My Vigors of choice were Possession, initially able to temporarily convert turrets and robotic defenders to my side, and then humans once upgraded, and Charge, which hurls me and my Skyhook into the nearest enemy at high speed and high damage. In combination, I felt that much more in charge of what were often very busy battlefields - some mind-controlled guy keeping one side of this pocket war pinned down for me while I hurtled fatally around the other. There's none of the hacking minigames of the earlier BioShocks here, so Possession was an instant effect, in keeping with the general frantic pace of combat. I suppose I miss the slightly more tactical, slower-paced fights of Rapture a little, but for all-out, adrenalised spectacle Infinite knows exactly what it's doing. It feels so flexible too: bodies to be managed and mangled in a manner of your choosing, approaching the conflict from multiple angles of attack in what are often sizeable, open battle arenas and very rarely corridors with pop-up monsters.

Two new elements make this stuff even more flexible - Elizabeth, and the Skyrails which loop over the top of some areas. The plot hinges around Elizabeth's ability to access alternate realities, and in combat this plays out as summoning up cover, turrets or ammo and health drops into places where before there was nothing. It can feel a little too restrictive - impossible not to hunger for a game where you could essentially assemble the ad-hoc battlefield of your bloody dreams - but it's a welcome and suprisingly natural addition. Like the Vigors, it's about flexible fights and maintaining high-action at all times.

Being able to summon up a pile of health kits in a particular spot, for instance, makes a big difference from rummaging desperately through crates while bullets fly and your HP meter blips ominously. Elizabeth also lobs any health or mana ('Salts') she finds at you unbidden as she skips between cover, and the attempt to make her believably alive is bolstered by small touches such as her apologising if she's not found anything in a while. As I said earlier, I missed her when she wasn't there, both as a combat aid and as convincing companion through an unsettling world.

As for the Skyrails, though their purpose in navigation is strictly an A-B one, with a few optional stop-offs to pick up audio logs and other secrets, in combat they essentially add a revolving Z-axis. Height is so rarely used in modern shooters, a sad side-effect of their usually being made with sluggish gamepad sticks in mind, but Infinite finds a high-speed compromise. You can shoot from the skyrails, you can drop onto enemies from on-high for insta-kill melee attacks, you can get to high-up cover or out-of-the-way ammo caches, or you can just zoom around frantically while Possessed foes and summoned turrets clean up the mess for you. Unless there's a Handyman around, Infinite's rarely-seen Big Daddy analogue.

They're the game's fiercest foe (there's no direct conflict with the more terrifying, more mysterious Songbird I'm afraid) despite cartoonishly yelling about how unhappy they are to have been made into Frankenstein's monster, and as well as being able to soak up all the bullets in the world they can also electrify Skyrails, forcing you to get off them unless you fancy becoming a kebab in a waistcoat and spats. There are surprisingly few Skyrails or Handymen in the game, it generally preferring ground-based combat against traditional human foes, but the upside of this is that they're a real pleasure/terror when they appear rather than becoming routine.

In any case, like everything else in the game they're increasingly sidelined by the plot. The compellingly dark race issues, civil war and discomfiting politics of Columbia rather fades away in the latter half of the game, as a more overt vein of fantastical science fiction and cutscene-based super-event takes hold. Obviously I can't say much, but the reality-shifting stuff escalates in ways both intriguing and narratively convenient, while the supporting cast almost evaporate in favour of the plot's singleminded obsession with Elizabeth.

While there are a handful of decisions to be made earlier in the game, these are really only about salving your own conscience or indulging your own bloodlust - the plot tells itself regardless. Player agency is heightened in terms of the fighting, but in terms of the storytelling you're a mere witness to fixed events, and that does feel at odds with the BioShock series and its heritage.

It's not for me to judge the denouement - as I say, there's something deeply peculiar about offering a verdict on the consciously fantastical offerings of another human being's imagination - but I will say that involves 15 minutes in which you can only walk, the game's most stunning environments by far and a reveal that initially made me feel hoodwinked but later had me thinking back at length on the 15 or so hours which led up to it, how carefully it had all been arranged and also how meaningless the game's entire events could potentially be interpreted as being in light. But it had me thinking, speculating and deciphering, and I value that enormously. I guess, personally, I'd have preferred more sustained world-building and less mysticism-tinged science fiction, but the wikis and armchair theorists are going to go nuts chasing all the permutations and interpretations which spin out of what happens and what's implied.

By the standards of mainstream first-person shooters, I'm not sure what there is to rival BioShock: Infinite. It's a true giant among story-based games which revolve around targeting reticules, and I'm going to have an exceptionally hard time getting much out of one of those grimly photoreal, tiresomely macho-posturing gun-worlds after the soaring colours, explosive combat and impossible structures of Columbia. By the standards of BioShock, and by the standards of what Infinite teases but doesn't quite deliver because it's so caught up in telling its fantastical, reality-distorting tale, I'm not quite so agog. Despite being first encountered on the other end of a civil apocalypse, Rapture was a place first and foremost, but despite its initial hours of compelling social politics and religion-led villainy, Columbia winds up feeling more like a construct to house an elaborate sci-fi auto-mythology.

While the links between BioShock and BioShock: Infinite are thematic rather than narrative, this game makes no bones about the fact that both revolve around a man, his city, and how it all went wrong - indeed, it winds up lionising this concept, this self-made archetype arguably at the ultimate expense of tackling the darkness in Columbia specifically. Elizabeth is fine company indeed, but the burning desire to find answers to her riddle incarnate both disrupts and railroads our journey through BioShock's remarkable worlds of skyscraping ambition and ocean-deep folly. I much preferred the smaller stories of unseen Columbians' tragedy and ambition, told richly in background detail and audiologs, but perhaps left a little disconnected from the main game.

Infinite's a triumph in terms of fantasy-architecture spectacle and bringing superb flexibility to the modern rollercoaster shooter, but in other respects it's a small step down from the player agency and even the singular aesthetic of BioShock. Not that it necessarily needs to, as it is most certainly a high-aiming game in its own right rather than mere offspring, but I'm not convinced it will live quite as long in our collective memory as did/does its parent. It sure does make me want to use superlatives like 'majestic', 'lavish' and 'spectacular' over and over again, though.

BioShock Infinite is released later today.

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