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Definitive Bioshock Infinite Review with Benchmarks
Date: Apr 09, 2013
Author: Joel Hruska
Introduction, Graphics and Sound
We're not going to beat around the bush, here. BioShock Infinite is game-of-the-year material. The floating city of Columbia is one of the most evocative, intense, gorgeous environments I've ever seen -- but how much you like it may depend on what sort of visual wizardry you prefer. BioShock Infinite is built on Unreal Engine 3, and while it pushes that framework's capabilities into the stratosphere, there's a clear difference between BioShock Infinite and, say, Crysis 3.

It's a testament to Ken Levine and the artistic team at Irrational Games that the gap feels like a stylistic choice rather than a technological limitation. Crysis 3 is a triumph of texturing and structural detail. BioShock Infinite emphasizes light, color and motion.  

The early game presents one motif, the late game uses another

This is what visual poetry looks like. Columbia's palette shifts with the game's mood, environments, and enemies. Then, there's Elizabeth.

Compared to Crysis 3's realistic faces, Elizabeth looks a bit like Mr. Game-And-Watch, but taken as a whole, she evokes far more humanity than any character from Crytek.

You can read what Elizabeth is feeling from her body language as much as her voice. It's a portrayal that's vital to her status as an equal partner rather than simply a damsel in distress.

The tomb of Lady Comstock

The soundtrack is similarly brilliant -- from out-of-time modern hits (partially explained by Elizabeth's unique abilities) to the use of Mozart's Requiem inside the tomb of Lady Comstock, this game is a visual and auditory feast. There is, however, a flaw in the game's audio -- Irrational Games confirmed to me that the audio bug we documented last week is very real.

Having now beaten the game, I can say that yes, you can absolutely finish -- but you'll occasionally lose the thread of conversation or get jumped by bad guys from a deaf corner. The problem, from the player's perspective, is two-fold:

1)  Certain sounds are seemingly fired in a tight cone rather than spreading throughout an area as they would in real life.

2)  Booker DeWitt is deaf in his right ear.

What this means, in practice, is that turning your head slightly to the left eliminates certain directional audio cues. In the real world, enough sound still reaches a person's good ear to allow them to reorient. In BioShock Infinite, sounds that play loudly when you face them may drop out entirely if you turn slightly left.

The team at Irrational Games is working on it, but had no fixes to report yet. The reason you'll see subtitles in many of our screenshots is because I continue to recommend turning them on in order to play. At times it keeps the game intelligible.
Gameplay, Plot, and Combat
BioShock Infinite starts as a straightforward mission:  Save the girl, and wipe away the debt. It ends somewhere altogether different, and the journey there and back again is one of the best story lines I've ever played. The game is designed to allow plot-centric players to waltz through combat to experience the story, and the story is more than good enough to carry the plot. As is often the case, you'll collect logs that tell you the back story of the characters in question, how the magnificent city of Columbia was built, and what the motivations of its citizenry are.

Virtually every new area had me reaching for the screenshot button -- and not just for the review

It's obvious almost immediately that there are enormous tensions between the Vox Populi (under-class) and the ruling citizenry. That tension defines the game and moves it forward; your rescue of Elizabeth precipitates the ignition of the underlying war.

The Siren (left), Columbia's artwork, and the statue where Elizabeth spent her life

As for the rescue itself, one of the problems with the "Save the girl" game trope is that escort missions typically suck. Games built entirely on escort missions (see: Resident Evil 4) often saddle the hero with a ridiculously fragile counterpart. BioShock Infinite subverts this trope neatly -- almost as soon as you meet her, the game tells you "Elizabeth can take care of herself."

And by and large, she does. While you lose contact with her at a few points, you never have to worry about Elizabeth getting shot, stabbed, or kidnapped if you fail to finish a mission properly. She's a helpmeet and compatriot, not a boat anchor.


Combat in BioShock Infinite revolves around the use of firearms and vigors. Vigors, like Plasmids from BioShock 1 & 2, give you specialized combat powers, like the ability to fling fire, lighting, or a murder of crows at your opponents. There are vigors that create a bullet-deflecting shield around you, vigors that yank opponents into melee range (or fling them away), and one vigor that lets you charge an opponent, hitting them hard enough to fuse hydrogen.

There's also a melee attack option, if you enjoy mixing it up close-and-personal. Some of the gear you find will add melee attack capabilities, like a stun chance, while others boost your firearms skills.

At first, this system seems overly simple in an age of cover mechanics and attack combos, but there's far more depth to the system than initially meets the eye. How much fun you have with BI's combat mechanisms depends on how effectively you utilize the game's Skyline system and Elizabeth herself.

It's that moment of dawning, horrified comprehension that makes the game worth playing

Skylines are the series of suspended rails and freight hooks you use to traverse areas of the city. Elizabeth, meanwhile, can summon freight hooks, gun placements, health kits, alternate weapons, and heaps of rubble to serve as cover for Booker as you engage the constabulary of Columbia.

The player therefore has a choice:  You can take the straightforward run-and-gun path -- or you can ask Elizabeth to summon a freight hook, use it to line up a melee attack, summon an RPG for yourself, hurl angry crows of death at a pesky guard, induce liquefaction courtesy of the RPG, summon a gun turret at a now-visible choke point, and watch the ensuing carnage.
Benchmark Performance: AMD vs Nvidia
One of the biggest draws of the Radeon HD 7790 is that AMD GPUs currently ships with a copy BioShock Infinite. Given how great the game is, this should be considered a serious factor in the purchase decision. The offer isn't unique to the Radeon HD 7790, but the card's low purchase price ($149) make a $59 game a sizeable chunk of the total cost.

We tested the Radeon HD 7790 against Nvidia's GeForce GTX 650 Ti Boost using the built-in benchmark. The game offers multiple benchmark modes, including the option to test user-created settings. We used the DX11 High benchmark, DX11 - Ultra, and DX11 - Ultra with an alternate depth of field test.

All three benchmarks were run at 1920x1080. We also tested the Radeon HD 7790 in an overclocked configuration, to see if boosting the card's clock rates would substantially improve the results.

These figures mirror the results we've seen elsewhere. AMD's Radeon HD 7790 is a good graphics card. It delivers 60 FPS in DX11 with high detail levels. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that -- but the Radeon HD 7790 isn't nearly as fast as the GeForce GTX 650 Ti BOOST. This isn't very noticeable at High detail settings, but at Ultra and Ultra with DOF, the difference is significant.

Overclocking the GPU from 1075MHz up to 1200MHz had virtually no impact on performance, which suggests this is a memory bandwidth issue. The 7790 has a 128-bit bus clocked at 1600MHz and 100GBps of memory bandwidth -- the GTX 650 Ti Boost has a 192-bit bus and 144GBps of bandwidth total, plus a 2GB frame buffer as compared to the Radeon HD 7790's 1GB.

Clearly, the GeForce's advantages pay off at the top detail levels -- but there's a pretty compelling value argument here. If you're going to buy BioShock Infinite and a new GPU, the total value proposition looks like this:

Radeon HD 7790 + BioShock Infinite = $149.
Nvidia GTX 650 Ti Boost + BioShock Infinite = $169 (GPU) + $59 (game) $228.

That $80 difference is enough to step up to a faster Radeon GPU that would narrow the gap with the GTX 650 Ti Boost or to pocket a nice bit of cash. Normally I don't do much single-game value analysis -- most people play many games, and so the value of any single free title is diluted.

BioShock Infinite is so good, I'm effectively bending that rule in this specific case. This game is worth buying a new GPU for. That's another fancy way of saying that I'd pay more than $59 for it, if Irrational Games had set the price that high.
Columbia: Disturbingly Grounded In Our Own History
Opportunities to use my poli sci degree in tech journalism are few and far between, but BioShock Infinite delivers them in spades. Columbia in 1912 echoes elements of historical American political thought. The Columbia of BioShock Infinite seceded from the Union after unilaterally intervening in the Chinese Boxer Rebellion. It's rabidly imperialist, jingoistic, and racist.

Levine has interwoven those elements into the game in ways that may make modern players uncomfortable. Father Comstock talks, unironically, about the white man's burden. Children's literature in the game makes direct reference to blatantly racist depictions of people and events. It might come off as preachy, until you consult the historical record:

There was a time when the sentiments expressed in BioShock Infinite were downright common

Levine has previously stated that BI was inspired partly by a speech President McKinley gave concerning the future of the Philippines. In it, McKinley stated that the United States, having seized the Philippines:

(1) That we could not give them back to Spain—that would be cowardly and dishonorable; (2) that we could not turn them over to France and Germany—our commercial rivals in the Orient—that would be bad business and discreditable; (3) that we could not leave them to themselves—they were unfit for self-government—and they would soon have anarchy and misrule over there worse than Spain’s was; and (4) that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died. (emphasis added)

To be sure, BioShock Infinite is a game. The jingoistic imperialism exemplified by Columbia's upper crust were an element of America's late-19th / early-20th century mentality, not all of it. The game's industrialist, Jeremiah Fink, is the distilled essence of every robber baron that bestrode the Gilded Age.

One of the reasons this blending works is because BioShock mostly shows, instead of telling. In a game that reveres the Founders and Framers, Abraham Lincoln -- the Great Emancipator -- is reviled. But while BioShock Infinite does offer some discussion of this point, it demonstrates it visually first, as below:

It's an example of a very different world -- a world that happens to look and sound an awful lot like ours did, once upon a time. And the way Irrational Games blended real history with fantasy is brilliant.
The most frustrating part of this review is there's so much I can't tell you. Still video doesn't capture how much fun the game is. It certainly doesn't show you the scope of the story, the ties to Rapture, or why Elizabeth tells Booker that there's always a man, a lighthouse, and a city.

The game's scope is amazing. The name, BioShock Infinite, isn't just a fancy unnumbered sequel title -- it's a direct explanation of the game's story that makes perfect sense once you finish it. There's a link between Columbia, the city in the sky, and Rapture, the failed dream of Andrew Ryan.

It takes an hour or so to really get going, and the combat model could have been a little deeper, but these are minor blemishes. The audio bug is a bit more frustrating, but I'd buy the game regardless. It's good enough, in fact, to make some AMD's GPUs more attractive on their own merits if you're on a tight budget.

It's not considered politic to declare a Game of the Year winner in April, but BioShock Infinite is going to be a hard contender to beat.

  • Best storyline we've played in years
  • Elizabeth's design, animation
  • Aerial combat, unique visual design
  • Annoying audio bug

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