Bioshock Infinite: An Overdue Retrospective and Critique
Bioshock Infinite has for years been at the back of my mind. It had been regarded as a masterpiece so many times to me in the past, and yet I never took the time to play it myself. So, I took it upon myself to pick it up and just play it from beginning to end in a few days, in this year 2021, when the game is far less relevant than before. Whether you’re here as a fan of the game, or someone who finds plenty to dislike about it, I’m sure you’ll find this an interesting critique, so sit back, relax, and enjoy yourself.
So, first off, I’m going to be spoiling this game entirely. It’s the only way I can really write about it like this. Also, this game does not have an act structure, as far as I’ve found. So, I did the honors of splitting the main campaign into five acts and will be discussing them bit by bit. Without further adieu, let’s get to it.
ACT I: Welcome to Columbia
This act is, in my opinion, the strongest in the entire game. In its opening hours, Infinite does a great job engrossing you into the city in the skies. Columbia is living and breathing with a bustling population, much in opposition to Rapture from the two previous games.
It starts by throwing you into Booker’s dire situation, giving you motivation in the first ten minutes. “Bring back the girl; wipe away the debt.” Get used to that line, as you’ll hear it and see it throughout your adventure. This is followed immediately by your induction into the city of Columbia by way of baptism.
Upon first seeing the city, you witness streets, shops, and homes floating by and it’s breathtaking. The statues, propaganda posters, music, and items you can interact with are some of the most immersive in any game, even compared to modern titles. The deeper into the city you travel, the deeper into the chaos you’ll find yourself in. From religious extremism by way of the prophet Zachary Comstock, the civil right revolutionaries: the Vox Populi, and information on your target: Elizabeth, who is referred to almost exclusively as the lamb for quite a while.
I found it very easy to take time sweeping each area within this act for bits of worldbuilding and just taking in the culture of Columbia. The best time to just chill and take it all in is prior to the raffle, which is your first destination. Once there, the calm starts to be stripped away as you’re branded as the False Shepherd that you’ve been hearing about up to this point. Now you have to fight your way to the tower that holds your target.
Once there, you see that Elizabeth has not only been held in the tower her whole life, but has also been monitored doing everything. This is one of the most unsettling scenes of the early game, and really lets you understand the type of person you’re dealing with when it comes to Comstock.
After meeting with Elizabeth and beginning your trip out of the city, you’re attacked by the Songbird, a giant steampunk bird that’s kept an eye on the girl all her life. You take a plunge in the sea below and wash up ashore after the attack.
ACT II: The Lamb and Her Shepherd
Washing up at Battlefield Bay, you struggle to recover from the fall you took, and are thrust into a dream sequence that takes place in your home. Someone knocks at your dingy, small apartment’s door, yelling for you to “Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt.” Upon opening your door, you awake, calling for a woman named Anna. Elizabeth shakes you out of it. She’s excited by the world around her and wants to experience some of the festivities on the beach. You tell her you need a minute and for her to go ahead without you.
This is one of the interlude chapters that has you exploring and wandering without the threat of opposition for the most part. It’s a downtime that works well given the excitement at the end of the last act. This one focuses more on getting to know Booker (the player character) and Elizabeth, giving us the chance to get attached to them more.
Being mostly an interlude, you get stopped pretty quickly from progressing until you get Shock Jockey, a Vigor (this game’s name for plasmids). So, you go on the hunt to find it. This takes you and Elizabeth into Soldier’s field and eventually the Hall of Heroes.
These areas are museum-like places that glorify the violent putting down of Native Americans and the Chinese, which Booker did participate in. Cornelius Slate was there as well, and as an old war veteran, he’s angry at Comstock for taking credit for quelling the uprisings. Holding onto glory from former combat, he challenges you with his followers and eventually confronts you himself.
You have the chance to kill or spare Slate in his dying state, and once that decision is made, you can finally acquire Shock Jockey and move onward toward your escape. However, before you can get away in the airship, Elizabeth catches on that you’ve tricked her into being compliant and she knocks you out.
ACT III: Vox Rising
Barely awake, you see the Vox Populi commandeering your airship. When you fully come-to, you’re being held over the side of the ship, and Daisy Fitzroy (the Vox leader) tells you that if you want the airship back, you’ll help in the uprising. Without fully accepting, you’re dropped onto the docks of Finkton, a factory town ruled by Jeremiah Fink, an inventor and businessman who, honestly, keeps an iron grip on what his workers can and can’t do, not being unwilling to throttle their wages and way of life.
Trying to get on Elizabeth’s path before anything else, you are entrenched around the workers and their overseers (essentially slave drivers). In most of these situations, you can choose to walk by or go in shooting. I do appreciate the choice, since it spices up gameplay a little, but it ultimately changes nothing.
Once you catch up to Elizabeth, she runs away from you for quite some time before being captured. You eliminate what threats stand in your way and eventually catch up to her. You convince her to come with you again and she begrudgingly does. Now your next objective begins: find the local gunsmith and have him arm the Vox Populi.
After heavy opposition from Columbia’s forces, you’ll learn that the gunsmith is being held prisoner for colluding with the Vox. You travel to the prisons to break him out, only to find that he’s already dead. However, not all hope is lost. You see, Elizabeth has the ability to create tears in reality, granting access to parallel universes. So, you tear into another world to find that the Vox got your weapons, and not only that, but Booker himself died a martyr for the movement.
Still wanting to just get out of Columbia and not wanting to get involved with the political issues being hashed out, you start looking for Daisy Fitzroy so you can get your airship back. However, when she finds out you’re alive, she labels you an imposter, as you died a martyr and deems your existence problematic to the movement because of it. Now you’re fighting the Vox as well as Comstock.
Once you fight your way to her, Daisy executes Fink, having succeeded in this stage of her uprising. You need to get to her so she doesn’t execute Fink’s child. Elizabeth kills Fitzroy and you get onboard the airship. However, Songbird once again strands you away from your goal.
ACT IV: Digging Up the Past
So now you’re stranded at Emporia and need access to Comstock house to find and confront the prophet himself. However, you find opposition from the Vox and Comstock’s forces once again.
Once the dust settles, you find the entrance to the building, which happens to be locked by a handprint scanner that needs Lady Comstock’s prints to open. Booker and Elizabeth go try to get her hand, when she’s resurrected by Comstock forcing Elizabeth to create a tear.
Now, it’s up to you to get Lady Comstock to help you by finding three tears that give you some backstory on her. You have several battles with the specter where she raises the dead, which once you get the groove of, become a piece of cake.
Having reasoned with the ghost, she allows you entrance into Comstock House. Before you get into the building proper, Songbird intercepts once again, taking Elizabeth this time. Now you’re going into Comstock’s territory alone to save Elizabeth once again.
ACT V: Rifts, Regret, and Redemption
You start off in a strange alternate reality where Elizabeth followed in Comstock’s shoes, as was originally planned. This explores the darker future that could’ve befallen Elizabeth and now it’s up to you to make sure it doesn’t happen. You fight through a facility that feels more like an insane asylum, dodging watchers that Elizabeth created.
Once you fight through it all, you have a brief conversation with an old Elizabeth who shows you Columbia laying siege to New York City, expanding the grasp of their holy mission. She tells you it’s too late for her, but gives you a paper that will help make things right. Now you can help Elizabeth.
You’re thrust back into your own world, now tasked with reaching Elizabeth before Comstock indoctrinates her. When you reach her, you’re almost too late. You need to shut down the machine that keeps her from creating tears and when you do, she unleashes a tornado on her containment room, letting you release her.
Now, free of her fate, your last goal is to confront Comstock. It takes a fight on his airship, but once you get to him, he tries one last time to turn Elizabeth against Booker, only for you to smash his head in. Still having questions, Elizabeth wants to get rid of the syphon (a larger inhibitor that keeps her controlled).
You have another encounter with Songbird, but this time, he’s fighting on your side. You have to defend the airship against one last raid from the Vox Populi and as it concludes, Songbird is called to destroy the syphon. Once this is complete, Elizabeth’s abilities awaken fully and she reaches a type of clarity.
The story concludes with Elizabeth guiding you through parts of your past, culminating in it being shown that Booker and Comstock are the same person, just with different circumstances. To end the endless harm caused by Comstock, Booker has to take his own life. The game ends with that.
Now that the acts have been established, I feel like I can properly critique them. Act I really is the strongest to me, as I’ve said previously. I wanted to keep exploring and uncovering more lore. I played every carnival game before the raffle, and really enjoyed the worldbuilding that was laid before me. While the raffle shakes things up, I still enjoyed scouring for voxophones and other small lore details. I even enjoyed the fact that there are small side quests that can give some extra loot. It also has a good climax with Elizabeth and songbird to close out that chapter of the story.
Act II is still strong, even if a little less so than the first. Getting to see Elizabeth still fresh into the world is good character building and we also get to see another side of Booker through their banter. He’s a bit beaten down and cynical and just wants to get out of his debt. The two play off each other well, starting off as opposites.
Act III is when the story starts to show its flaws the most, I think. There’s a lot of back and forth with the Vox plotline and it feels like you never quite get to interact with and get to know the movement as much as you should. I also feel like the revolutionary theme throughout this chapter isn’t executed well and ends with the conclusion of: it doesn’t matter who’s in charge; they’ll always be corrupt. Which is a bit too jaded of a thought process for me personally. It comes off as negative to progress and hopeless as a whole.
Act IV is the worst of all of the acts. It’s an errand portion where you’re running from place to place getting arbitrary things to progress. The battles are also stale as hell here. The first fight with Lady Comstock was a little rough because I was on hard difficulty and didn’t know the strategy, so I got overwhelmed. However, once I learned that you can just juggle the adds with Bucking Bronco and just focus hard on the spirit, each one went by without a hitch. It felt like padding the game didn’t need and at this point, I felt it was overstaying its welcome.
Act V breathed some new life into the story again by adding some more interesting plot points, and really the only part of the story that gripped me since the beginning of Act III. Seeing a world where Elizabeth fell to the indoctrination and doing what you can to prevent it is honestly gripping. However, it falls flat with fights later that are just waves of common enemies trying to overwhelm you. It felt lazy to add that kind of artificial difficulty like that. The conclusion also made me a bit more frustrated than not, because up until this point, Booker and Elizabeth were denying fate by not doing what Comstock and the other universes seemed to be pushing for. However, it culminates in a theme of fate itself, basically saying you can’t escape it. It’s a disappointing end that seemed shoehorned in, since the twist of Booker being Comstock just wasn’t led up to properly.
The twist really feels like they wanted to outdo the first Bioshock’s twist, but didn’t do what they needed to make it satisfying. “Would you kindly” is one of the best twists in gaming and its held up exceptionally well because of how, on repeat playthrough, you can see it built up to throughout the experience.
Overall, I’d say the story tried doing too much, as if they kept throwing ideas out there and instead of focusing on one overarching story, they incorporated everything to lukewarm effect at best. It’s sloppy writing and a disappointing thing to experience.
What about gameplay, though? Is that worth a run through?
The easy answer is no, it’s not. The combat is fairly solid and the gunplay does feel very satisfying to nail down. They have some fun vigors to incorporate, but weapon variety is very stale. Late game weapons are just older guns that have been modified and more often than not, I found them inferior to the ones from early game.
The difficulty of encounters is also vastly unbalanced, as if it wasn’t tested properly for gameplay flow. I played on hard, which is the highest difficulty available on a fresh playthrough. A lot of the fights were exceptionally easy, but others seemed like they just kept throwing sponges my way, or just simply trying to overwhelm me with sheer volume. The first fight I noticed got to me was the first handyman fight. They put you in an area with A LOT of objects in the way and it’s hard to avoid him without abusing the hooks. The fight drags on too long and I felt myself very much not enjoying any fight with handymen. It just felt like run, shoot, run again, and that’s not a fun combat style. My point is, this game needed to balance itself better. Hard should have been a steady challenge from beginning to end, but was either too easy or almost cripplingly difficult, and that’s just sloppy.
Another thing I should add is that you will never want for money, ammo, salts, or health in this game. I was handed money even when I was rolling in coin. I never faced too much opposition and the few times I ran out of ammo, I just grabbed another weapon and made it work. There’s less strategy and more preparedness.
Next, I’d like to talk about a couple strange design decisions. Elizabeth is a problem when you’re just exploring. They gave her collision with Booker and because of this, she got in my way so much and it made me really annoyed in the more free-roam areas. It was something easily avoidable, yet they kept it in. Just don’t do that.
The other thing is the skyline and skyhook mechanics. For the most part, they were fine, but they weren’t as involved as I thought they’d be in encounters. In some, they didn’t even work right and it would get me killed, which was quite frustrating. In the handymen fights, you can use them to get away and then when he shocks it, you can just wail on him. I just feel like the concept could have been more fleshed out, but I do admit that the idea was fun.
What about the characters, though? Surely they’re good, right?
Well, let’s get a little more in depth about our two main characters before I answer that question.
Booker Dewitt is a man in his late thirties with a dark past that haunts him. He has a lot of self hatred, and urges Elizabeth not to think of him as anything but bad news. His past has also made him very pessimistic and cynical, having most of his thoughts on Columbia being that of no hope. He doesn’t want to help with their problems and doesn’t take sides, making him seem apathetic through a lot of the campaign. His heart really only shows when it comes to Elizabeth, once he really gets to know her and what life’s been like for her. He’s a traumatized man and has a reasonable fear of the progressing conflicts and being introduced to other worlds. Overall, I’d say he’s a relateable character, but I wouldn’t call him a good man. Especially since if he chose to become a born-again christian, he would have become a racist, nationalist, authoritarian prophet known as Comstock.
Elizabeth is a naïve young woman when Booker finds her. She has little understanding of the events in the outside world, but is very well-read on other things thanks to having endless time to read. She’s very smart and helps Booker a lot during their travels by lockpicking, decoding messages using ciphers, and showing knowledge on strategy. She’s just a bit too trusting for her own good. She’s consistently conflicted throughout most of the story, not sure who she should trust. She also shows a lot of hope that things can get better, evidenced by her optimism that Daisy Fitzroy could make a real difference. However, once she sees what she could become, she knows what path she has to walk. When the time comes, she’s willing to do what’s best and end all of this, even if it means she won’t exist anymore, which is very admirable. She’s kind hearted and it’s hard not to like her.
I’d say these two stay consistently good from start to end. While they go through a lot, they also grow a lot as people and I really liked seeing that evolution. The issue is that their story wasn’t written well, and that’s what makes it unfortunate.
Another thing I’d like to touch on is the style of Infinite. The first Bioshock had a very Noir Steampunk theme throughout, and I’d say this isn’t any different. However, I’d also add that this game is more steampunk than the previous two to me. Airships, floating cities, crank guns, automatons, you name it. It’s all here and I did like the theme of it all. It has a lot of style and it was one of the better parts of the experience.
Another amazing part of the game is its soundtrack. It has very engaging tracks and also pulls from a lot of period music, alongside some reimaginings of modern music, a few examples being Everybody Wants to Rule the World, God Only Knows, and in a very fun experience: All About that Bass. It’s something I imagine I’ll actually come back to separate from the game itself.
So, what’s the verdict?
I’ve heard Bioshock Infinite get called a masterpiece that everyone should experience, and yet, I don’t quite agree. I think there are some truly great concepts involved, but a lot of them didn’t reach the heights they would need to for it to be a success. Every section of the story seems half-baked. The Vox went from revolutionaries to oppressors and I don’t like the mindset that seemed to go into it. The religious extremism is more of a theme than part of the story, as the extremism could have been any kind and it could have been the same, so the themes of rebirth and ascension that Comstock gives off just really falls flat and winds up being only very loosely backed by the narrative. The interdimensional stuff could have been entirely cut and I don’t think we’d lose much, because its only real contribution is the twist at the end, which wasn’t necessary. Elizabeth could have simply had other powerful abilities and kept more with the theme of bioengineering that Bioshock started with.
I think instead of playing it yourself, you should watch someone who loves it play through the game. You can experience the actually good characters of Booker and Elizabeth this way, but also with the view of someone who adores them, which will probably make it stick with you longer, like a classic movie.
Good at times, flawed at others, I’d say Bioshock Infinite is a middling experience to play. If you disagree with me, that’s fine, but that’s my verdict.