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Latest BioShock looks impressive but lacks moral complexity

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 3/4/2013 (1597 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Like many gamers, I loved BioShock and BioShock 2. These first-person shooter games took place in Rapture -- an underwater decopunk world populated by crazed genetic scientists, Ayn Rand-inspired industrialists, creepy little girl clones and the iconic cyborg Big Daddy.

The BioShock games have been celebrated for their immersive environment, stunning production design, chilling combat scenarios and morality-based storytelling.

The latest game in this franchise, BioShock Infinite, takes the series in a very new direction. The game is not set in Rapture. And it does not feature Little Sisters, Big Daddies or BioShock's hero Jack.

BioShock Infinite is set in 1912 in the floating city of Columbia. You will play Booker DeWitt -- a hard-living Philip Marlowe-type detective. Booker has been hired to retrieve a young woman, Elizabeth, from Columbia in order to pay off his gambling debts.

Columbia is a lush and fascinating world. There are floating districts interconnected by magnetic bridges and a roller-coaster-like rail system called Skyline. The designers clearly invested their time, attention and passion in creating this world. Little touches, like the realistic hummingbirds, are rendered with impressive detail.

But, Columbia is no Rapture. The 1912 setting is not as darkly stylish as the underwater deco-dystopia of Rapture. In Columbia, there are timely social issues -- evangelical religious leaders, racial segregation and a violent conflict between capitalists and the labour movement. But the setting feels more like a theme park than a fully realized experience of the period. I often felt like I was playing Sam Spade, trying to rescue Zooey Deschanel, in the Manitoba Museum's little 1919 town.

BioShock 1 and 2 featured combat with hand-held weapons, guns and "plasmids" -- genetic cocktails that granted superhuman psychokinetic powers. BioShock Infinite has hand-held weapons, guns and "vigours" -- which are basically the same as plasmids.

My favourite vigour was Possession -- which allows you to possess an enemy or gun turret and have them fight on your behalf. However, you can only equip two vigours at a time. I accidently replaced Possession with a less interesting vigour at an early stage in the game -- and I never found the Possession vigour again. So, beware when you equip these items.

My favourite character in BioShock Infinite was Songbird -- a giant mechanical bird that is Elizabeth's jailer and only friend. There is an excellent final boss fight where you will use Songbird to battle flying gunships and Zeppelins. You will find small stuffed animals shaped like Songbird in the early part of the game -- and I suspect many gamers will be buying similar toys in the real world.

But as much as I enjoyed that final Zeppelin battle, I found the ending of BioShock Infinite very disappointing. In the previous games, your hero (Jack or Big Daddy) was given moral choices that changed the ending of the game. This moral element of the storytelling encouraged replay as it was intriguing to discover how many ways the story could change due to your actions.

In BioShock Infinite, there are no moral choices that affect the storyline. Designer Ken Levine, while promoting BioShock Infinite, said of the ending: "It's something we're incredibly proud of. It's like nothing you've actually experienced in a video game before." But, in truth, the ending is just a classic twist reveal, a bit like the ending of the film The Sixth Sense where Bruce Willis discovers that he has been dead all along. Only, this reveal involves time travel and multi-universes. I found this ending neither unique nor satisfying.

If there had been no previous BioShock games, then BioShock Infinite would perhaps seem more impressive. But having played the previous superior games, Infinite leaves a sense of disappointment; a longing for moral complexity and multiple endings.


Danishka Esterhazy is a screenwriter, film director and self-confessed video game addict. She prefers games with a story but will settle for a good sword fight.


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