Bioshock is one of our favourite games of the past 10 years, quite simply, it was one of the most interesting, inspiring and playable titles we've ever sat down with. It was also fiendishly hard for us because, while we'd say we're lifelong gamers, we are not 15 and nor are we blessed with unlimited gaming time. But, Bioshock was always one game we loved to put in the 360 and spend a bit of time working though.
Now, we're here at the latest iteration. Set in a world that floats in the sky instead of one that's under the sea, Infinite starts with your character being taken by boat to a lighthouse. There's some stuff inside, including a gun which, predictably, you lose immediately and, at the top, a chair which will launch you to the city in the sky.
Tried and tested format
Anyone who has played Bioshock will not be surprised by the overall arrangement. Much like Bioshock, there are Vigors you can take which will give you superhuman abilities. These are much the same as the Plasmids from Bioshock, except we found them a bit more useful and our ourselves relying on them far more.
Health and salt are both essential. Salt is essentially what powers your vigors, and so you can maintain your levels by eating certain foods, or getting a proper bottle-based top-up. Health comes, similarly, from foods and health packs. There are times when you'll encounter rotten food, which if you eat it will take a small amount of health away. Drinking alcohol will top up your health, but do so at the cost of salt, so you'll live longer, but not be able to use the vigors.
Death isn't much of an obstacle in Bioshock Infinite either, in a similar way to the original, if you do die you're resurrected at a nearby, safe location. When this happens, you'll get health and vigor back and ammo, but your enemies will also have more health. It's this, among other things, that make the game less challenging than we might like.
Also part of this game, as with those previous versions, you must scamper around collecting coins, ammo and food from the people you kill, and who are left strewn about the world. It's all fair enough, and you do get very quick at clearing a room of anything valuable, but it's also a slightly tedious process which at times feels very arbitrary.
Full of atmosphere
Bioshock has always been about selling you on a location. From Rapture to Columbia things couldn't be much different, but the feeling that someone has lavished thousands of hours on designing the "set" is strong. And it looks fantastic. The idea of a floating city is brilliant, and it's something that instantly inspires imagination, which is what makes you fall in love with any fictional world.
While a lot of the concepts here are borrowed from the older Bioshock, the look has been reinvented to give you the sense that you're living in a golden age of America - itself a fiction. It's got good parallels with how certain political groups in the US view their country's history - inaccurately, and through rose-tinted spectacles.
And because of the time period, and the nature of the city, there's plenty of quite disturbing racism. It's handled responsibly though, and there was never a point in the game at which it felt gratuitous. And while it's tough to watch, there's a realism to it that feels appropriate to the era. It also makes the destruction of those responsible a much less difficult decision, morally. If there is such a thing as in-game morality.
All of this serves to make Columbia a fascinating place to be, and it very quickly becomes a significant character in the story. And one you mourn as you run through it, smashing bits of it to pieces.
Running on the Unreal 3 engine, there's a lot to like about the look of Bioshock Infinite, but it's not the most impressive-looking game we've seen. Far Cry 3, for example, is a bit more impressive. What is Infinite's real talent is that same immersive environment as you got in Bioshock. It's about a world that's so implausible, while at the same time being presented in a way that's entirely believable.
We played on an i7 at 3.5GHz, with 16GB of ram and a nVidia GeForce GTX 670. For the most part, we could run it on "ultra" with no problems. At times we had some frame rate problems, but these were never catastrophic. Although we were aware of them, they didn't pull us out of the game's experience.
That said, Far Cry 3 runs smoother, so perhaps there's some tweaking that should be done. If you're a nVidia owner, there are new drives that were launched the day the game came out which massively increase performance in both this game and Tomb Raider.
On "normal" mode, Bioshock Infinite isn't especially difficult. In most games, we'd expect to die a lot. In Bioshock, a worrying number of our deaths came from making really daft mistakes like falling off a sky island, or just not taking enough care when melee attacking baddies. It's our honest opinion that you could make it through the whole of Bioshock Infinite without ever really dying at all.
But even if you do die, it's not a show stopper. Generally you come back quickly, with enough health and ammo to carry on and walk away as the victor. And in most cases, with Elizabeth around to throw you salts, weapons and health, you could honestly make it through the whole game without so much as a disfiguring scar to show for your adventure.
One of the more puzzling notions is 1999 mode. This came out of an Irrational Games survey to find out how people played. What it does, is make the game much more challenging. To get through it, you'll need to be strategic about what upgrades you buy and how much ammo you use. This feels like a move back to the original Bioshock, which required much more careful weapons planning, as ammo was far more scarce in Rapture than it seems to be in Columbia
While 1999 mode is a great idea, you have to play the game through to completion first to unlock it. And while there is a code to get it (the Konami code, which is a nod to hardcore gamers) without playing the game through, we can't help but think it should have been an option from the start. Apparently, it was something the developers wanted to keep away from more "casual" gamers.
For us, in the normal mode, Infinite does fall a little bit on the easy side. Some of that is because of the mode we chose, but some of it is because the missions are just not all that hard. And the AI is often stupid enough, and kill boxes large enough, for you to do a lot of damage to your enemy before they've even seen you.
Story is king
If you don't fall in love with Elizabeth in the first moment you see here, then you're dead inside. And while we are speaking from a male perspective to some extent, our love for her doesn't come from anything physical, but from the skill in the scriptwriting. By the time you meet her - it's later than you might think in the game - her story has been constructed around you. The first time you see her, and in the location in which you find her, you'd be a hard-hearted human if you didn't have a little leap of both joy and sorrow.
As a character, Elizabeth is also worthy of some praise. When you start fighting with her, you're told: "Don't worry about Elizabeth, she can take care of herself." And this is true, and as the game goes on she becomes an essential asset, helping you with ammo and salts. When she's not there for whatever reason, you really miss her. So, none of this idiotic weak woman nonsense that blights the male-dominated games industry. Elizabeth is a character who's thrust into a situation in which she has no choice, and she kicks arse constantly.
And Booker, the character you play, has an interesting enough story to sustain your interest in him through the game. You don't know much at the start, and you don't really know all that much until right at the end either, but he does become a character who you understand. He's cliched at time, the man who kills but struggles to live with it, that's a schtick that's overused, but it seems to work well in Bioshock.
While we have some problems with the way Bioshock Infinite plays, it's still 10 hours of well-written narrative that involves you, and rushes along at a good pace. Once you start playing, we honestly think you're going to struggle to stop. The straightforward style emphasises the story over just shooting people, but there's plenty of that too, to keep you entertained.
Bioshock Infinite is a great game. From a storytelling and character perspective, 2K couldn't have done better. Honestly, you will care about both Booker and Elizabeth enormously, and as the tale comes to an end you'll feel pangs of emotion that are as powerful, or more so, than you would for characters in a good book. And it's this that sets Bioshock Infinite apart from most games titles. While stories have been improving for years, there has always been a problem getting tales that are as emotive and immersive as other media.
The problems with Bioshock are also not fatal, but they do make the game feel a bit simpler than we'd like. It does play as if it's on rails, and while the world feels big, you're herded around in a way that doesn't leave much scope for enjoying it. That means that although you can see this fantastic environment, most of it remains out of reach.
This is then, one of the new batch of games which encourage people to play who perhaps might not have wanted to get involved in gaming in the past. It's immersive, with an involving story that draws you in, and characters that make you feel real emotion. It's perhaps not the most difficult game we've played - we're told it's better played on hard, so bear that in mind before you start. We'd say it's a lot easier than the original. It also lacks any real mental challenges. Usually, games are either tactically hard or will have challenges that keep you busy while you work out how to complete them. In the original, there were machines to hack and things to get. Plus, you always needed to be looking for "Adam" to complete each level. This made it more difficult and at times a little frustrating.
Certainly, the 10-15 hours of gameplay you'll get from Bioshock Infinite pass quickly, and you'll not want to stop - we played for two nights solid and got to within an inch of the end. There are side missions to keep you going longer, and if you want to get all the achievements, we'll wager you'll be playing for a lot longer.
Infinite gets a solid recommendation from us, but if there is more Bioshock coming, we'd hope they could move the franchise on with a more original story and new challenges next time.