Though not a direct sequel to either of the previous BioShock games, BioShock Infinite shares many of the same gameplay elements, and gives us a fantastical realisation of life in the clouds. And good god, is it beautiful.
You know you’re in for something special when you’re impressed by the animation in the background of the menu screen.
It’s very much a BioShock game, which ultimately means exploring a lavish environment filled with foes to kill, unusual superpowers to collect, desks and dustbins to raid for cash, junk food and booze, and cigarette-smoking kids. It’s a little different this time around, firstly because we’ve swapped the ocean floor for clouds, with the game’s location of Columbia comprised of buildings atop hot-air balloons, but also because the city itself is populated with people who aren’t all out to kill you..
The setting is certainly an interesting one, with Columbia having seceded from the rest of the United States because of ideological differences. Here, John Wilkes Booth is revered, people travel from place to place by cable car, there’s some sinister quasi-religious overtones to everything, and not a little racism.
The city in the sky aspect is intricately realised, although with the exception of some spectacular views and slowly undulating buildings, Columbia could really be any other city, albeit one with permanent sunshine and elevators that go down instead of up. Everywhere feels a little bit like a diorama, a little bit too showy and deliberate, even when you get to see the seedier parts. There’s an overarching theme of dystopia, of course, with Columbia having retained young America’s patriotism and capitalism, but foregoing its sense of liberty. It’s hard not to feel uneasy right from the outset, with rather abhorrent views on labour and equality present everywhere, but it’s all done without exposition, and I was reminded of Mad Men a few times. As the story develops though, the writers seem to put the idea across that it doesn’t matter who’s in power, that replacing a racist, autocratic government with one hell-bent on vengeance is just as bad, but I was left with the feeling that anything had to be an improvement, and as such, the political themes to the story ended up feeling a little robbed of their initial power.
You play the character of Booker Dewitt, tasked with extracting a girl by the name of Elizabeth from the city. Right from the start, everything feels a bit disjointed, from the very first conversation that takes place in your presence to the visions you experience throughout the game. We don’t know anything about Booker, and the game is very reluctant to tell us, with his few voiced thoughts mainly concerning pressing matters as opposed to any sort of reflection, which constantly nagged at me as it was clear throughout the game that access to more of Bookers thoughts would help me unravel the game’s mysteries.
Mostly though, the game is about shooting. There are lots of shooting galleries, but as seems to be a staple of the BioShock series, the steampunk weapons throughout feel weak and surprisingly uninspired (the two weapon limit annoyed me a great deal too, as it meant you couldn’t really have a favourite weapon, because there were times you needed to rely on whatever weapons were lying around). The salt-powered “vigors” (special powers) that you can acquire on the other hand are excellent. There are some duff powers of course, and to be honest, I find little difference between the fire, shock and crow (yep) powers, beyond different enemies being resistant to each of them. But on the whole, there are variations on what each power can do (by clicking the button or holding it down) and various upgrades you can get from vending machines. For me though, the real joy was discovering a new vigor for the first time, because the design of each bottle was just so marvellous, and you’re treated to a slightly horrifying, and yet rather wonderful animation each time.
Combat also tends to be rather easy compared to other games in the genre, and I only really died through my own carelessness, of really wanting to cause mayhem just with fire traps, or seeing if I can possess that one soldier even at the cost of exposing myself to a couple of rocket turrets. Death in the game is little more than a door you walk through (the death sequences are brief but fantastic). Really though, this isn’t a complaint, I could have turned the difficulty up, but I was glad that the game was letting me try out these mad experiments, which I found more enjoyable than thinking tactically and always using the best weapon for the job. It’s also the first game of its ilk where I’ve enjoyed using melee attacks more than the guns, even though these are extremely graphic (and they really, really are– the first time you even kill an enemy in the game, the brutality of it borders on disturbing) than taking shots from afar.
All the violence in the game seems to be unsettling to some extent, from the possessed soldiers who commit suicide, the predisposition to setting people on fire, to the up close and very personal executions (not to mention the frequent vending machines that are apparently just selling this stuff to anybody), and I do wonder if there’s some meta-commentary in there about violence in video games, or if the developers genuinely thought this is what people would enjoy.
There are some truly remarkable set pieces, as you might expect from the series; there’s an escape sequence early on that manages to be rather dramatic, even though it posed no real threat at the time. The game also makes great use of so-called “sky-lines” which are rails that you can jump on to whip you up and around the city. It took a bit of getting used to at first, but the experience as a whole was not unlike being on a rollercoaster, and given that you can shoot (but not use vigors) whilst on sky-lines will mean a lot of fun for those with sufficient hand-eye coordination to shoot at things whilst on the move.
There are some more optional “gamey” bits within the game, such as needing to find a codebook to decipher a scrawled phrase on a wall in a couple of places, but there’s nothing like the puzzle-solving that has featured in the previous BioShock games, and I did feel that the vigors were never really put to any use outside of combat. There are dozens of kinetoscopes and voxofones to find to reveal more backstory, as well as an assortment of “gear” to collect, such as hats and shoes that will give you passive bonuses, like the ability to replenish health after a melee kill, and choosing between these lets you tailor the game to your playstyle.
Often I found myself wishing for a touch more downtime; a corner to turn that didn’t give me some new spectacular view or more of a glimpse of life above the clouds. But even though there are plenty of diversions to be had between waypoints, all of them have a tendency to feel deliberate, to serve only for your viewing pleasure, and on the whole felt theatrical rather than organic. At times, this worked against the atmosphere the game was trying to create, and could feel immersion-breaking.
Also immersion-breaking is the decision to give voice to Booker, but then still rely on a first-person perspective. This probably deserves a more in-depth analysis at a later time though, I wouldn’t describe it as being something to influence someone enough to not want to play the game.
Ultimately though, it’s the story that might well be the predominant reason to play the game, but to go into more detail on that front would mean ruining it, but suffice it to say it has one of the most satisfying conclusions I’ve ever experienced in a game (even though the main beats were somewhat predictable).
Special attention must be given to Elizabeth, who serves as your companion for the majority of the game. She has been supremely well-realised, both in terms of her animation (where she’ll saunter about the place, scamper off ahead of you, and stop to investigate paintings and so on), how she reacts to things that happen in the game, and how she actively helps you out without managing to get in the way. The first of those is probably the most striking whilst you play, and it becomes something of a joy to just pay attention to what you do. But where the developers really deserve credit is in resisting the temptation to make her a “girl with a gun”. Elizabeth abhors violence, and her assistance to you is merely in spotting points of interest, and scavenging and providing you with support. During a heated battle, she might yell that she’s found something, and throw you some ammunition or something to replenish your health or salt levels. Outside of combat, she’ll frequently throw you a coin she’s found somewhere (which happens too frequently for my liking) or spot a lockpick (which you can have her use to pick locks for you when you find them).
One particular moment (involving a guitar) strikes me as being one of the most poignant experiences I’ve ever had during a game, in part because it just sort of happened spontaneously, and in part because it was entirely optional, and felt “discovered”. That was in stark contrast to the nearby kid sleeping under the stairs, which again only served to remind me that the level designers must have had some sort of directive to make sure there was “something everywhere”, and as such, couldn’t have felt any less like discovery.
Ultimately these are only quibbles because the game set it sights so high (if you’ll pardon the pun). Really the only thing that felt wrong about the game was that you’d quickly escalate from having no threat to suddenly everyone wanting to kill you. These changes could happen frequently and without warning, and I never really felt sure whether that guard in the distance was likely to attack me on sight or not. The game itself tells you that “not every situation needs to be a fight”, but in truth it almost always did. It’s not like I was walking around attacking ordinary civilians, so it just felt odd. Likewise, the amount of backtracking you have to do is astonishing. It ends up being a bit like a first-person metroidvania, and given that my tendency was to thoroughly explore everywhere as soon as I’d found a new place, I quickly got annoyed at seeing the same places over and over, and particularly, having the same battles in the same locations (or knowing that I’d be returning to do battle there later, given the level design).
Then there’s my personal bugbear: the checkpointing system, which is pretty awful. There’s often fifteen minutes or more between saves, which is too much (also the game only tells you what time it last saved, rather than how long ago). I’d end up rushing through certain points just because I wanted to reach a checkpoint so I could quit without having to replay a sizeable chunk. The game never crashed on me in my 16 hours of playing, which is a good sign at least.
As a “game” BioShock Infinite is certainly excellent. Its linearity means I wouldn’t remove the crown from The Witcher 2, or Batman: Arkham City, but it’s most certainly up there on the podium with them. In terms of raw entertainment though, BioShock Infinite walks that fine line between cinema and video games, and is undoubtedly one of the most enjoyable and memorable experiences I’ve had from either medium.
Performance & Quality
If you’ve hurriedly skipped to this section of the review, you might want to take a seat; I’m afraid I have some bad news for you.
Graphically, the Mac version of the game has been neutered in comparison to its Windows counterpart. The options menu entirely lacks several options compared to the Windows version, and the options that are there have been capped, with settings like “high” and “ultra” completely removed. That’s forgivable to some degree of course, as the Windows version leveraged the eminent DirectX 11 library to properly strut its stuff, which Mac users have to live without. What’s less forgivable however, is the resolution, which is capped at 1600×900, regardless of the system you happen to be running on.
Yes, you read that correctly. This is the first mainstream game I’ve played on Mac OS X since we launched this site that doesn’t support full HD (1920×1080) resolution. That is going to upset people, and there’s just no way to sugar-coat this: the Windows version is graphically superior to the Mac version (indeed, running on the same hardware in Boot Camp allowed me to run the game at 1920×1080 with “ultra” quality levels with better performance).
So we’ve gotten a visually hobbled version of the game, but presumably that means at least the performance should be solid? Well sort of. Even with this lowered bar of graphical fidelity, the game still suffers from mediocre performance. Without v-sync (or “lock frame rate” as it’s called here) enabled (which is the default setting), there is a lot of tearing. Enabling the option to lock frame rate massively reduces the tearing, but you’ll have to put up with frame drop instead. Usually that trade-off is down to personal preference, but I’d say here it’s worth enabling it just so making quick turns doesn’t feel like you’ve got broken glass in your eyes.
But at this point I have to be pragmatic and ask the more important question: is it playable?
The answer, thankfully, is yes (at least, provided you have the requisite 512 MB graphics card). It’s a lot better than Black Ops (and certainly Max Payne 3 for that matter) was when it was first released, and though the performance is not as solid as Borderlands 2, it at least doesn’t suffer from the graphical artifacts that that game is predisposed to.
The other thing was that I personally preferred to max out all the available graphical options, frame-rate be damned, because the game is so beautiful, and for me, at least in the case of this particular game, quality trumped performance. Even so, I didn’t notice the frame rate dropping below 20 fps, and I played the entirety of it without complaint (other than wanting larger screenshots). Part of that might be down to the nature of the game of course, BioShock is a more sedate shooter than the others mentioned (and as with all of our reviews, we include a gameplay video to show the performance of the game running on a real Mac. I encourage you to take a look at the video and decide for yourself ). I’ve included more screenshots than usual too (partly because the game just demanded I press the screenshot key more often than normal) and looking at them now as I’m writing this (click them to view full-size) it just seems ludicrous to complain that the visuals don’t look great.
Graphics aside, the only other issue of note was the mouse, which seems to be subject to some odd acceleration behaviour on the menu screen. I can’t say for sure if this is down to the specific mouse I’m using (a Razer Deathadder), as I don’t have any different mice to test with, but it made navigating the menu feel sluggish (the mouse seemed to behave completely normally whilst in the game however). There was also an issue where the game would also reset all of its help messages every time you start the game (although these can be disabled entirely via the options menu).
The only other thing to note then is that though the game supports saving to Steam Cloud, as with Borderlands 2 you can’t pick up a game you’ve started on OS X and complete it in Windows (or vice versa).
Which is a shame, because I’m sure for some of you, all that will be enough to put you off the game completely. In all other respects, the port seems to have received a great deal of care and attention. The loading times seem short, you can cmd-tab in and out of the game smoothly, and the audio is perfect, with spectacular sound design (aside from the fellows who yell things like “there he is” when nowhere in sight), and absolutely excellent use of music throughout, with an assortment of different musical styles providing both background and drama.
I was so surprised by the limited graphics options though, particularly the resolution restrictions, that I contacted Aspyr about it. Their response is below:
BioShock Infinite is an intensely beautiful game and as such is quite a stress on the hardware. In order for us to be satisfied with the level of performance while keeping that beauty in the Mac version, we removed some resolutions that not even the current high-end iMacs could run.
That said, Aspyr is very excited about the updates being made to Open GL in OS X 10.9 (Mavericks) and we continue to work on ways to optimize BioShock Infinite now before release, and certainly after release with the new toolsets available to us.
Update: a patch adding more graphics options to OS 10.9 Mavericks (including full resolution selection), has been released.