With BioShock Infinite’s combat-centered DLC “Clash in the Clouds” available today, my mind has been on the main game. It’s become one of my favorites, and unlike a lot of people, I genuinely enjoyed the combat once I got used to it.
Going back to the first BioShock games… I’ve had a love-hate relationship with them. I love the story, the setting, the philosophy; everything about the games and the city of Rapture fascinates me. But when it comes to actually playing the games, I just haven’t enjoyed them all that much. The combat feels clumsy, and that horror genre vibe in dark environments makes me too nervous to really enjoy the experience of being there, video game-style.
But BioShock Infinite was on my radar for a long time before its release, and I wanted it for more than the spirit and philosophical ponderings of the original BioShock games. Now that I’ve devoured it, I can say that Infinite did not disappoint; it’s an utterly thought-provoking game. I won’t spoil details about the imaginative story or the inspired ending, but you can read a thorough rundown of the ending and its meaning here, by the brilliant minds behind At the Buzzer Show.
For me, what makes Infinite vastly more appealing than the originals are the new and absolutely stunning setting, as well as a combat system that grew on me the more I engaged with it.
A City in the Sky
At first glance, the city of Columbia is the antithesis of Rapture in color and atmosphere. This is what made me fall in love with it. Instead of a city deep in the ocean, we now have a city that literally floats in the sky, with sky-lines linking city squares and buildings that often float yards away from each other, mingling with the clouds.
When you first arrive, most of Columbia’s shops are closed for a holiday celebration, the sun is shining, and the streets seem to pop with the heat and the happy atmosphere hanging in the still air. I have never experienced a video game environment that made me feel this sense of presence, and in my opinion, it trumps the first BioShock game for atmospheric realism – and we’re talking about an improbable floating city here.
The production quality is astounding. Playable character Booker DeWitt first launches into Columbia in a rocket, peering out an oval-shaped window at the city floating into view through the clouds. At this point, Booker is stationed firmly in his seat, but the player can shift his gaze around as he looks through this window, causing light to play and glare naturally on the glass as the angle subtly changes. When I saw that, I knew that playing BioShock Infinite was going to be an extraordinary visual trip.
Exploration is at the heart of this game. Within minutes of entering Columbia, the game introduces collectibles such as voxophones (audio files) and kinetoscopes (old-fashioned reel movies) that provide backstory if you activate them. As you collect them, the game tracks your progress on your way to their corresponding achievements, such as Eavesdropper and Sightseer. And natural props in the environment, like apples and packets of crisps, work essentially as med kits and mana rejuvenators.
The first time I played, with every turn I made, I checked the navigator – not to follow the arrow that pointed the way to my destination, but to move in the opposite direction first. I did not want to leave any corner of Columbia undusted. Despite this, friends and online playthroughs have already turned me on to places I missed, such as detours off the beaten sky-line path, and I’d like to go back and visit them all.
And in addition to all the restorative items and collectibles, the game rewards exploration with details and life. I watched fireworks burst over monuments floating in the clouds. I passed children playing hopscotch on the streets. I sneaked into a chapel where hooded cultists prayed to the American founding fathers, paused to read propaganda posters, looted trash cans for silver eagles (the in-game currency). Even standing in a room to admire the turn-of-the-20th-century décor made me feel like I was making memories, as if I were really there.
Weapons, Vigors, and Sky-Lines…
For some reason, I enjoyed the combat much more this time around. Although it’s very similar to the original BioShock system at first glance, the fighting feels fresher and more fluid than I remember it being before. It definitely veers into traditional FPS territory with most enemies packing heat, which leads to chaotic shoot-outs everywhere you turn. But the combat also feels free – which again may come down to the new setting.
Part of that is also the incorporation of sky-lines to get from place to place. Sometimes it’s necessary to whip onto one and access another level of a building or move from one floating platform to another. They’re also there for quick getaways during intense shoot-outs, and one battle in particular emphasizes the way you can whiz past enemies and aim at them from a distance as you sky-line past them. This involved shooting at enemies who were on a distant blimp. I didn’t realize I could jump down and tackle them up close, so I rode the sky-lines on a loop shooting at them from the clouds each time I passed — a frustrating experience at times, but all part of what makes Infinite‘s combat and setting mesh together in such a fun way.
I also enjoyed the makeshift tutorials when you wander to the faire to play at the shooting gallery and aim vigors at a pop-up devil. Although tutorial screens do explain the weapons and vigors as you go, the faire is a fun, inventive way to approach mini-games and tutorials – and it’s yet another way the game rewards players for looking around.
Still, the aiming system isn’t my favorite, and as someone who doesn’t play many FPS games, the open-world combat and lack of a cover system was a major challenge for me in spots. It’s not a combat style I initially enjoy, and it can feel utterly overwhelming when enemies are shooting from all sides and their locations aren’t easily visible as you try to flee or return fire.
But that’s all right, because by the end of the game, I’d fallen in love with several of the weapons options and learned which to use in various combat situations. There are also a few weapons I hadn’t encountered in games before, such as the ridiculously fun (but not always feasible) crank gun. Each weapon also has a distinctive feel, which is something I always appreciate when it’s pronounced in games. By this, I mean that it would be possible to tell which weapon you’re carrying just by the way it feels when it fires, almost as if you’re really holding it.
But the vigors are much more interesting to me, and when I wasn’t increasing my shield, I took most leveling opportunities to increase my vigor (or salt) bar for more explosive playtime. I’m always a fan of shooters that have some type of “magic” – whether it’s called that or something more scientific – and I prefer to specialize in that (hence my sentinels and adepts in Mass Effect).
Early in my game, the most wickedly useful vigor was Murder of Crows, which conjures crows to attack and distract opponents. This gave me extra time to aim and shoot – a valuable treat for a mediocre FPS player such as myself. Later, Bucking Bronco was even more helpful for crowd control as it lifts enemies into the air, and Return to Sender shields Booker and can fling incoming damage back at enemies.
The difference between the shooting and vigors was that while I got used to the weapons in Infinite, I loved the vigors from the start. Fortunately, the latter elevated and diversified the gameplay for me, making Infinite’s combat experience a genuinely fun romp throughout.
The intense battling also creates a contrast that saturates the BioShock Infinite world. In the original BioShock, the decaying glory of Rapture is fascinating in a rather gloomy way, and the dirty desperation of the combat system goes hand in hand with that. But in Infinite, you almost feel as if you’re tearing up a picture-perfect world as you battle your way through it, depending on where you are in the game. Infinite’s violence is a stark and stunning contrast to Columbia’s unspoiled dreamscape, which is exactly why I loved it.
Still, learning to love Infinite’s combat has made me eager to revisit Rapture… if not by replaying the original, then definitely in the upcoming two-part Infinite DLC “Burial at Sea,” which will be narrative-driven and set in Rapture during the city’s prime. And in the meantime, I’m eager to dig into the good old Infinite combat and new Columbia maps in “Clash in the Clouds.”