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BioShock Infinite Review

Sparky Clarkson's picture

Schrödinger's Dunk

BioShock Infinite Screenshot

HIGH The classic revisionism of the Hall of Heroes.

LOW The lazy, pointless, and offensive "equivalence" narrative that opens the second half of the game.

WTF I've been finding machine-gun rounds in pickle barrels the whole game, but there's no ammo in this armament crate?

Like its series's progenitor, BioShock Infinite starts with a man visiting a lighthouse.

Booker DeWitt owes a debt to someone powerful, and to get rid of it he must visit a skyborne city and retrieve a girl named Elizabeth. BioShock's city of Rapture lay fathoms beneath the lighthouse, and the player had to fight metal "daddies" to (possibly) rescue little girls from it. BioShock Infinite's city of Columbia floats in the sky, and its ruler and prophet, Zachary Comstock is Elizabeth's father. The conflict between Booker and this "big daddy" drives BioShock Infinite, but this take on BioShock's concepts is more of a jumble than a remix.

The opening areas are marvelously designed and scripted, quickly giving a sense of the people of Columbia, the rhythms of their daily lives, their religious devotion to the founding fathers and the prophet Comstock, and the callous monstrosity of their racist beliefs. The independently floating segments of the city provide a reason to show a world in constant motion, and the brilliant, saturated colors of the levels do more to make the world feel alive than the NPCs, who almost always remain rooted to a single spot unless a fight has broken out. And a fight does break out in short order—one problem with taking on a prophet is that he can see danger coming.

As in previous games of the series, combat revolves around the use of of magic powers (here "vigors") in concert with weaponry. Similar to BioShock 2, both can be used simultaneously. Unlike the earlier games, Infinite balances a regenerating shield that must be recharged by hunkering down in cover against a health bar that can only be replenished through exploration and scavenging. The game makes mobile hip-firing a valid tactical choice but balances that against significant benefits for stopping and aiming for weak points. By supporting both mobility and cover, the combat system develops tactical tension that produces interesting decisions for a good portion of the game.

BioShock Infinite Screenshot

The core combat design does suffer from having too many vigors with the same set of tactical effects (damage + immobility + vulnerability) separated only by "elemental" affiliations. BioShock Infinite also makes the mistake of assigning the functions of reloading, grabbing weapons from the environment, and scavenging resources from corpses to the same button, resulting in a number of occasions where I accidentally ate a can of beans when I wanted to swap magazines. This choice is especially mystifying in light of the decision to assign a face button to the almost unused—and in the context of the game's mobile combat, unusable—"crouch" function.

Given his marvelous arsenal of powers and weapons, Booker has little trouble reaching the tower where Elizabeth has been imprisoned and extracting her. From this point Booker must accompany Elizabeth in an escape from the city.

This sounds like an escort mission, but in functional terms, it is not. Elizabeth assists Booker by finding ammo and healing items in the world or by bringing resources and combat support into the battlefield. If Booker dies, Elizabeth resuscitates him. Despite all the scrambling around she does, Elizabeth is never in any danger during combat. While this prevents the game from being a frustrating 10-hour exercise in protecting a hapless AI companion, it completely sunders Booker's view of Elizabeth from the player's.

To Booker, Elizabeth is a responsibility, someone he must protect from the dangers of Columbia. To the player, however, Elizabeth is an asset. In combat, when Booker's anxiety should be at its peak, the player knows Elizabeth is completely safe—indeed, that she will be helping him defeat his enemies. It is only when non-interactive sequences start and Elizabeth's fate is left to the developers that the player needs to fear for her.

This tension reflects a widespread and fundamental weakness in the game's construction—BioShock Infinite is strewn with poorly-tuned and irrelevant mechanics. The inability to carry health supplies and the tiny peripheral areas make the classic scrounging mechanics feel useless. The strict two-weapon carry limit makes the game's menu of overlapping weapons and their multitude of upgrades seem at once overwhelming and irrelevant. The lockpicking system feels completely superfluous, in part because side areas are so small, and in part because the only locks that really matter don't require lockpicks.

BioShock Infinite Screenshot

At least the combat feels like it belongs in this world and says something about the characters. Particularly when Booker fights his way through Comstock's "Hall of Heroes" propaganda park, the level design and combat encounters feel like they're addressing the heroic face Infinite's characters have put on their various atrocities. Unfortunately, this moment comes only a third of the way into the game, and afterwards the sloppiness increasingly comes into every aspect of its make. For example, Infinite's late-game combat zones tend to be large and open arenas with minimal cover and defilade. With enemies inserting and firing from all directions, battle becomes increasingly chaotic and lacks any narrative feel. Without interesting secondary antagonists or strong level design, combat feels directionless and perfunctory—an emotionless exercise in elimination, even when an evocative enemy does show up.

Booker's detour through the industrial area of Finkton is a particular disappointment. The industrialist Fink himself feels like a retread of ideas examined in Rapture, and when his downtrodden workers successfully revolt, they almost immediately become villains. The game's attempt to establish an equivalence between angry laborers and the dehumanizing system of oppression that produced them is lazy and unmotivated. Worse, it unavoidably endorses the views of Columbia's racist elites, for apparently no better reason than to give Booker differently-colored enemies to shoot at.

As the story progresses, Infinite gets bogged down in the quantum mumbo-jumbo it uses to explain itself, losing track of the details as it barrels onward through an ever-less-interesting landscape. The striking color palette of the early game fades, becoming more desaturated and oppressive the closer Booker and Elizabeth get to freedom. The game's locations become less evocative of the Columbian way of life, and their design contributes to the combat's decline, particularly in the meaningless battles that conclude Columbia's story. Increasingly, the porous logic of Infinite's story doesn't hold up under examination, and the game undercuts its attempt at a neat, tidy ending by preceding that with a twenty-minute explanation why it doesn't work. Skillfully-used plonky piano music and the shock of the final words and images carry the closing scene, and the impression it leaves is strong. The emotional connection it trades on, however, has almost nothing to do with the game's actual play.

The hiccups in its final moments makes BioShock Infinite feel like it's suddenly lost the thread, but the problems actually start far earlier. Fuzzy-headed narrative and thematically irrelevant auxiliary mechanics make Infinite feel sloppy even when it's working. Combat increases in frequency and decreases in impact after the Hall of Heroes, so for most of its length the game sinks towards a deflated ending rather than rising towards a climax. However, that slow descent starts from a great height, so there is still much to value in Infinite even as it drowns in its own shortcomings. Rating: 7.0 out of 10.

Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail purchase and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 30 hours of play was devoted to the single-player mode, which was complete once on easy and twice on normal difficulty.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood and gore, intense violence, mild sexual themes, and use of alcohol and tobacco. All these things are true. Enemies will burn to a crisp, and their heads will sometimes explode if they are killed by an electrocution. There are also scenes of children smoking "Minor Victory" cigarettes specifically blended for kids.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing: The game has subtitles available for most critical dialogue. However, when the screen gets very busy in combat, the ability to hear what Elizabeth is shouting and what sounds the enemies are making can be very helpful. As such, a reduced ability to hear will modestly increase the difficulty.

Category Tags
Platform(s): Xbox 360   PS3   PC  
Developer(s): Irrational Games  
Key Creator(s): Ken Levine  
Publisher: 2K Games  
Series: BioShock  
Genre(s): Shooting  
ESRB Rating: Mature (17+)  
Articles: Game Reviews  

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Was fully expecting this to

Was fully expecting this to be a literary wall of gushing passion for Infinite, so am pleasantly surprised to be proven mistaken in this instance.

This is a good, insightful review, in a medium were honest informative criticism of such games are hard to identify. Along with Tom Chick's, this is the only review I have read wherein the reviewer actually had a critique lens attached when playing the game.

I have not played Infinite, nor do I intend to in the near future, however, in the original BioShock I found the combat to be close to abysmal. The guns felt far too 'floaty' and lacked the satisfaction one would gain from firing a weapon in, say, Half-Life 2. It doesn't help when the AI becomes largely predictable, repetitive and irrelevant before reaching even the halfway mark. You seemed to enjoy combat until a certain point, but then my highlighted gripes seem to become all too famailiar again; can Irrational do combat? It appears not.

I also appreciate your finding of faults with the narrative. Other reviewers seem to think that any mention of history or politics, or play on emotions, should give BioShock a free pass; that a narrative beyond the usual Call of Duty guff warrants unlimited praise, even if the same historical, political and/or emotional narrative is flawed (which, in this case, it clearly is). So again, fair play for that.

Anyway, full respect to you Sparky. This is a genuinely good review, and my opinion of you has increased substantially.

Walk a mile...

Crofto wrote:

This is a genuinely good review, and my opinion of you has increased substantially.

You admit to not having played the game, so how can you judge if this review is good? Do you assume, just because it's more negative than others, that it's automatically better?

While I do agree with some of Sparky's criticisms, I found the story to be engrossing and I really feel Irrational deserves praise for taking some very big risks. It may not be the best *shooter* around, but it still pushes the bar for games in a lot of ways.

1999 mode

JP wrote:

You admit to not having played the game, so how can you judge if this review is good? Do you assume, just because it's more negative than others, that it's automatically better?

My thoughts precisely.

It's unfortunate that Sparky didn't play the game on 1999 mode, or even Hard mode. I'm playing it on 1999 mode for my first time through, and I think the gameplay is fantastic. It really forces you to make consequential gameplay choices in the same way (to a degree) that System Shock 2 did. By the same token, the lack of consequential gameplay choices made Bioshock especially disappointing.

Here's a good PC Gamer article on why it's so important to play Bioshock Infinite on Hard difficulty.

And here's an interview with Ken Levine from Rock Paper Shotgun on why the addition of 1999 Mode is significant.

what exactly is 'normal'?

sleeve wrote:
JP wrote:

You admit to not having played the game, so how can you judge if this review is good? Do you assume, just because it's more negative than others, that it's automatically better?

My thoughts precisely.

It's unfortunate that Sparky didn't play the game on 1999 mode, or even Hard mode. I'm playing it on 1999 mode for my first time through, and I think the gameplay is fantastic. It really forces you to make consequential gameplay choices in the same way (to a degree) that System Shock 2 did. By the same token, the lack of consequential gameplay choices made Bioshock especially disappointing.

Here's a good PC Gamer article on why it's so important to play Bioshock Infinite on Hard difficulty.

And here's an interview with Ken Levine from Rock Paper Shotgun on why the addition of 1999 Mode is significant.

In this age of dumbed-down difficulty, playing games on 'hard', has become somewhat de riguer, especially for the many accustomed to FPS. With this in mind it mystifies me as to why developers continue to make the easy-normal-hard-impossible distinction.

If the argument is that 'normal' suggests that is the way the game is 'meant' to be played, then the counter-argument is for who exactly? For those new relatively new to FPS or those brought up on a diet of CoD and Halo? Or for which age group?

Or it could be that system is just an arbitrarily relative measure of balance between story and fps-action, in which case what exactly does 'normal' mean?

Regardless, developers should take cue from games like Mass Effect 3 where, gameplay could be explicitly adjusted in certain directions - in the case of ME3, to balance between story and action. The crux is that there needs to be an industry wide move away from the archaically meaningless standard of easy-normal-hard with each game mode being tailored for a specific user-base that is made explicit in the description of that mode.

I think it's a good game,

I think it's a good game, but your criticism is spot on. That middle part of the game was a real slog. The original BioShock handles the story and scavenging aspects in much better fashion, in my opinion. Maybe the DLC will spice things up a bit.

I played on hard but could

I played on hard but could not get past a Siren battle. It drove me INSANE. I had to tone it down to normal to move on... still feel guilty about doing it.

I'm perfectly within reason

I'm perfectly within reason to state that the review is good despite not playing the game. The reasons are simple: Sparky has written about the game in a way that reflects good critiquing. In contrast, IGN, Eurogamer, or any of the other 'big' reviewing websites are unmistakably ignorant to what reviewing media entails; they have essentially written a glorified preview; they are no more than a mouthpiece for the publisher. Sparky is in exact contrast to that, and I acknowledge and appreciate that.

Beyond that, a 7/10 is a good score, so I'm hardly heaping praise on this review for that reason. That said, I tend to find, in almost all circumstances, that the reviews listed lower on a Metacritic's game page are more accurate a portrayal of the quality of a game than those populating the top. This has nothing to do with being cynical and enjoying games getting stamped on; it's simply a reflection of rose-tinted gamers contributing 95% of the reviews available on the internet, as opposed to the 5% of critics.

The top listed reviews for BioShock Infinite on Metacritic are clear proof of what I'm saying: read them, and see. Sparky's is much, much better.

Sparky Clarkson

Sparky Clarkson wrote:

quantum mumbo-jumbo

For a SF story about the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics and time travel the game's amount of technobabble is actually quite small. A contrasting example would be the movie 'Primer' or any 'Star Trek: TNG' episode dealing with the same topics (which isn't to say they aren't good)... Maybe I missed it, but the only 'mumbo-jumbo' dialogue I can remember at the moment didn't even have anything to do with the parallel universe story, but was about the floating city itself.

Sparky Clarkson wrote:

Infinite's story doesn't hold up under examination

Neither does any other story about time travel... As 'Infinite' contains everything from parallel worlds to magic, ghosts, zombies and Minigun George Washingtons, perhaps the creators never intended the superficial story to be all that watertight? They are named 'Irrational Games' after all... It's actually refreshing to see a game studio take the risk of defying most of what the FPS genre stands for, which is gray-brown boredom and 'realism'.

What's important is that the main point works, which is the (simultaneous) demonstration of the outcome of two possible choices Booker had to make in the past. It is quite clever to hide the basic story under a cacophony of metaphysical nonsense, as one possible interpretation could be that Booker invented all these fantastical elements to avoid having to deal with reality.

Sparky Clarkson wrote:

once on easy and twice on normal difficulty

Normally I'd say the game is immensely more fun on 'hard' or '1999'. Which is even true for 95% of the game. But on the downside, one particular boss fight becomes so insanely difficult and frustrating that you wish you could go back to an easier setting (which isn't possible on '1999').

Crofto wrote:

I'm perfectly within reason to state that the review is good despite not playing the game

The review is well-written, even if I wouldn't necessarily agree with everything in it. But you're missing one really good game...

Very interesting critique

Very interesting critique and one that strays a bit from the vast majority of review sites. I thoroughly disagree with the reviewer's point of view, but it nevertheless throws out some questions that are worthwhile to look into.

The X button being assigned to multiple functions never bothered me, because I never tried to reload my weapons while trying to pick up stuff and etc. I thought that Elizabeth's presence added a lot to the story, and even if she was invincible from being harmed, she still made me feel like I really had to protect her. The immersion was superb in that regard. Graphics and art design were inspiring from beginning to end, although nothing beats the very first time you enter Columbia and marvel at the sight of the city built up in the sky. As for combat? Although it was slightly disappointing not to have as many "vigors / plasmids" as the previous games, they were fun to use and designed well enough to create some oddly amusing and entertaining combos of different variations to kill the enemies. Guns were fun to use, and the skylines, skyhooks, and tears made combat even more interesting.

Story is very well written, and pretty straight forward to understand and appreciate. For a video game, this is a top notch story telling. You may not enjoy the story, but that doesn't make it a bad game. The story in this game beats any kind of story telling being thrown out in numerous other 1st person shooters out there.

As for the comment about how this review is so much better because it was more critical of the game and did not praise it like the others... I'd have to say that many other review sites like IGN was more thorough in reviewing more aspects of the game and explaining why that reviewer did or did not like certain aspects of the game. This review, while making a good case for the arguments that it throws out, isn't as thorough in "reviewing" many other aspects of the game. It seems to be concentrating on what the reviewer did not like... in other words, he seemed to have picked his spots carefully and chose to only focus on those.

If you haven't even played the game, then you have no grounds to say which reviews were written better or not, because you simply have no idea what the game is like. And this game surely is different from the first 2 games, that it does warrant a playthrough to truly appreciate it on its own. You can't form an opinion about something unless you experience it. You can only form an assumption.

While it is true that the voice of the minority should be respected, that doesn't translate it into "better."

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