The game takes place in Columbia, a floating city off the shore of northeastern America, an immense and beautifully realized game world. The Columbia of Bioshock Infinite is modeled on the Columbian Exposition of 1893, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair, which is used in the game to convey ideas of American nationalism and racism.  The game takes an exaggerated view of these themes, presumably to explore a scenario – “what if America did not have a separation of church and state?” However, the game presents these ideas without nuance or complexity (see Figure 1and Figure 2) thus missing real opportunity for exploring these issues, their history and our own complicity.
Figure 2: Screenshot fromBioshock Infinite(top) and an image from an 1893 Columbian Exposition book (bottom) illustrating the historically correct face of racism. Non-European cultures were portrayed as barbaric, exotic, uncivilized and childlike.
Figure 3: Sculptures of the founding fathers in Bioshock Infinite are shown dressed in ancient robes and labeled Father Franklin, Father Washington and Father Jefferson. When placed in the context of the prior baptism and church cloister-like setting complete with robed religious NPCs, these figures are perhaps trying to place the historic figures within a biblical context as depicted in classical religious art.
African Americans were restricted as to the type of jobs they could hold at the exposition, an example of blatant racism. But more insidious and much more difficult to eradicate, or to even confront, were ways of thinking and interpreting the world and its cultures. One example that comes in to play at the Columbian Exposition is so-called “scientific racism” which interprets objective, scientific data in a way to support cultural prejudice. From the Victorian era on, this meant that the more “civilized” white European societies were considered more highly evolved than other more barbaric cultures such as those of Africa, China, Native American and Japan and they used cultural objects and science to “prove” it. International exhibits in the Midway Plaisance recreated cultural snapshots for visitors to experience (see Figure 4) and, to many white Americans, the so called primitive cultures were viewed as exotic and inferior to civilized cultures.
Figure 4: Exhibits from many different countries were built in the Midway Plaisance. Native African exhibits like those of the Dahomey (bottom image) were problematic for educated and professional African Americans who were trying to distance themselves from cultural prejudice towards the “primitive Negro.”
The real ephemera associated with the Columbian exposition re-enforced scientific racism through a constant referencing of cultural hierarchy. As an example, the trade cards for the Singer Sewing company are illuminating.  These trade cards were given out to visitors of the Singer building at the Columbian Exposition (see Figure 5). Singer promoted itself as “The Great Civilizer” and these cards played on inherent sensibilities of white middle and upper class women. The cards showed groups of families from different geographic locations in traditional dress with a Singer sewing machine. The back of the card gave educational information about the country. The idea was that Singer was bringing civilization and progress to these backwards peoples and American women, could “buy in” by being models of domestic behavior – and purchasing Singer products. The Singer exhibit also re- directed public perception as to the actual use of the machines. The exhibit showed the Singer sewing products in displays of upper class homes and focused on domestic use. The truth however, was these machines were mainly used by women and children in factories under sweatshop conditions.
Figure 5: Singer trade card showing the people of Zululand around a Singer sewing machine
Figure 7: Winning the raffle allows the winner to get first shot at throwing a baseball at the interracial couple who were kept in cages (shown bottom) prior to being placed on the stage.
Moving on from this point, the player must continue on to try to find Elizabeth and progress along the main story - which seems to be a confused amalgamation of classic science fiction tropes and themes as explored first by H.G. Wells . The ending of Infinite, clearly references the “Many Worlds Interpretation” of quantum mechanics proposed by physicist Hugh Everett III in 1957. The main narrative somehow relates the ideas of rebirth associated with baptism to the many worlds of Columbia (and perhaps Rapture). Just how this works is not at all clear. However, my main issue lies with the fact that Decker is in fact Comstock and Elizabeth his daughter originally called Anna. This can all be explained by the plot  but it is incredibly contrived. To make matters worse, there is absolutely no foreshadowing within the narrative thus making the ending feel unbelievable and tacked on.
Game play, mechanics and narrative should link to and support one another  for richer game experiences and Bioshock Infinite does link game play to the main, “Many Worlds”, narrative . However, why put the “Many Worlds” narrative into the game in the first place? It just doesn’t make much sense. Levine has justified it with a reference to Einstein’s discovery of relativity but, historically, this just doesn’t fit. It also doesn’t fit thematically. Symbolically, the “Many Worlds” theory evokes ideas of endless possibilities but more importantly, for writers of fiction, it gives a way to defamiliarize contemporary problems so that they can be evaluated more objectively.
What is Infinite trying to defamiliarize so that we may evaluate with fresh perspective? I think it must be the other thematic elements of racism, nationalism, religion and patriotism. However, it falls far short from delivering on this. The picture of turn of the century America as summarized by Columbia is too black and white, where are the shades of gray and subtlety? The main message that one walks away with is that Americans used to be bigots and isn’t racism awful, gee, glad we’re not like that now. However, as Levine rightly says about Washington and other American historical figures, they were men of their time. Well, we are of our time as well. So how do we participate in racism or sexism? How does our understanding of religion or nationalism contribute to the problems of today? This is what Bioshock Infinite missed.
Men of Our Time
Much has been made about Dewitt’s partner, the AI character, Elizabeth.  It is clear that the designers and developers at Irrational spent a lot of time and effort to bring her to life. And she is helpful. She looks for things in the environment, reacts to events to warn you and help you. She also does not get in the way during battle sequences so there is none of that tedious babysitting often encountered with sidekicks. Elizabeth also, fairly obviously, exists to help move the narrative forward as she runs away at just the right moments and you, as Dewitt, have to go in search of her. However, her character never really develops and, given the ending, her interactions with Dewitt seem entirely unsatisfactory. Elizabeth is fantastic for an AI but she really never develops into anything more than a characterized tool. The fact that she alone can open locks and solve puzzles, which only amounts to the pressing of a key, seems false. The justification is that she had a lot of time in the tower alone and so she read a lot. It is not even remotely believable that this character would come out of isolation able to pick locks and roam around completely unafraid of her surroundings, after getting over her initial obligatory revulsion at the violence.
Bioshock misses a nice opportunity in this game to explore sexism and how it is very much prevalent in our world, along with racism. In the real world of the Columbian exposition, much of the underclass were women, who did not have the right to vote and had only recently gained the ability to own property. The leader of the Vox Populi was a dark skinned woman but all images of the working underclass showed men, presumably Irish and African American (see Figure 8).
Figure 8: Members of the underclass working under guard
As the game progresses, Elizabeth rips her dress and goes to change. She comes out in a low cut corset (see Figure 9) because, as she professes somewhat apologetically, “it was all that I could find.” Not only is this a gratuitous display of bosom and caricaturization of the female form, but it is utterly impracticable and historically incorrect. This dress decision undermines the idea that Elizabeth is an equal partner because, as everyone knows, you can’t breathe or move, let alone run and fight, in a corset. No sensible lock-picking, puzzle solving partner would make that mistake.
Figure 9: Elizabeth and her costume change. During the game, Elizabeth changes from her demure but ripped historically correct outfit (bottom) into a strapless, low cut corset topped ensemble (top) which, later in the game, Dewitt actually has to lace her back into.
Ok, so Bioshock designers missed the opportunity to explore sexism and media complicity both then and now. But what about player agency or freedom? Although the Big Daddy/Little Sister model of the original Bioshock is far from perfect, it did serve to connect the player to their destiny at least a little. The complete lack of agency in this game puts the player on rails, moving through the narrative with the world simply acting as a beautiful but superficial stage. This was all intentional from the design standpoint and yes, linear narratives can be very powerful. However, in order for the player to care about the story or characters in an interactive experience, the narrative must be, first of all, interesting with a strong central concept. Secondly, game mechanics must absolutely support that central concept.
The game mechanic of the tears that Elizabeth could create did ultimately support the Dewitt “Many Worlds” narrative; however, players couldn’t know this until the end so, during the game, it simply made no sense. In addition, there were no consequences or strategy involved to using the tears, other than activating them. There should have been some type of cost that had immediate consequences to the use of the tears. Also, players should understand the significance of the mechanics while playing the game. I would argue that the primary mechanic of this game, though, is looting, closely followed by fighting. Escaping from Columbia, and Comstock, is the justification for the mechanic but it is a weak one and does not support any narrative themes.
What might the thought provoking version of Bioshock Infinite look like in some alternate universe? Well, it would look the same, with skyrails and a city in the clouds, but there would be no Many Worlds narrative. Instead, Columbia would be in the midst of an epic struggle to secede from the continental US. The player could take on the role of Dewitt but would have to choose, who would they support? The Union? The rebels? It would not be a black and white choice, as the face of racism and religious nationalism would be believable, something the player could recognize and understand. The people on each side would be real people; men of their time, and the player would be able to identify with aspects of both factions. Both sides would have leaders that the player could actually believe in following. There would still be tears, but instead of warping universes, the tears would connect space and perhaps even time. This would allow Dewitt to move back and forth between Columbia and Maine or Washington. There could still be a linear narrative with one ending, but it would make sense and the player would have had some freedom to play the game from their own perspective. Elizabeth would be there but sensibly dressed. And instead of pointing out lockpicks, she would point out interesting NPC characters that the player could interact with. Looting would be minimized, as players would earn through reaching objectives and interactions with NPCs.
In this universe, however, Bioshock Infinite was fun to play but it lacked depth. To elevate the game to the level of great, designers should have come to grips with the narrative and its thematic elements first and foremost. The gameplay should then have supported those central thematic elements. A deeper understanding of the history they had referenced would have allowed the designers and writers to create more nuanced narrative and gameplay. Engaging the player insome sort of choice with real consequences would have allowed a richer player experience, not just in the understanding of history, but in simply playing the game. At the very least, they should have thought of history as more than simply a backdrop because, as we are all aware, those that do not know their history are doomed to repeat it. And sadly, Bioshock Infinite is the same old thing, refurbished with some shiny, very expensive, new trappings.
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|-||Xbox 360||PlayStation 3||PC|
|Disc Size||6.6GB||6.63GB||14.9GB (download size)|
|Surround Support||Dolby Digital||DTS, 5.1LPCM||Set-up Dependent|
Released to immense critical acclaim, BioShock Infinite is a masterclass in game design, combining fast-paced action with impressive AI characters, driven by an intriguing storyline that forms an utterly compelling experience far more ambitious in scope than its predecessors. From a graphical perspective, the game may fail to rival visual showcases like Crysis 3, but its core technology is a perfect match for the game's artistic style, while the environmental and AI design brings the floating city of Columbia and its characters to life in unforgettable fashion.
All of this is achieved through the use of a heavily modified version of the Unreal Engine 3 middleware. Changes here include the implementation of a deferred lighting set-up, adding dynamic illumination across the constantly moving buildings of Columbia, a customised animation system running over Natural Motion's Morpheme technology that brings more nuanced character movement to the screen, and a complete rewrite of the AI systems that govern the non-playable characters and enemies throughout the game - with a special focus on Elizabeth, an exceptional creation who accompanies the player throughout most of the adventure.
The technology is key to realising the BioShock experience, but how well does this translate across multiple platforms? Past BioShock titles were designed with Xbox 360 and PC in mind, with PS3 ports producing sub-optimal results. However, for this sequel Irrational Games has rewritten much of UE3, allowing graphics quality and performance to scale across multiple CPU and graphics cores, leveraging today's focus on parallel processing by dividing up workloads into smaller jobs that can be spread across multiple cores with ease. This is good news for PC and Xbox 360 of course, but in theory the approach should yield excellent results from the PS3's SPU set-up too.
Indeed, from a visual perspective the two console versions of BioShock Infinite appear very close indeed, with performance the defining factor rather than image quality. Our head-to-head videos below - along with a triple-format comparison gallery - reveal only subtle differences between the PS3 and 360 releases. Meanwhile the PC game is a whole different ballgame, benefitting from the vastly superior hardware of today's gaming computers to deliver high-quality effects and artwork to the screen that makes that version of the stand out considerably when playing in extremely high resolutions.
"The PC game is the definitive edition, packed with visual improvements over both the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions."
BioShock Infinite: PS3 vs. PC. Be sure to select the 720p HD option and use the full-screen button for full resolution.
Beyond the impressive construction of a dynamic floating city, the carefully stylised early 20th century American architecture lies beneath a veil of softness that primarily affects the game on both consoles, also affecting the PC version when played in lower resolutions. It's disappointing to discover that fine details are often smoothed over by a distinct blur that does little to hide the appearance of jaggies across objects and structures featuring lots of sub-pixel geometry, thus reducing the impact of a city designed to look clean and colourful.
Despite the soft look, BioShock Infinite renders natively at 720p on both 360 and the PS3 with the distinct blur caused by the inclusion of a heavy post-process anti-aliasing solution that smoothes over pixel-wide edges along with texture details. It's difficult to say for sure, but our guess is that we're looking at differing implementations of FXAA in play across each format. Despite producing varying results at a pixel level, the effect of the edge-smoothing is almost identical in motion on both consoles, with the level of sharpness changing on a scene-by-scene basis depending on a range of factors, from the amount of additional post-process effects in play to the lighting conditions. [Update: after spending more time with the game and taking another look at the assets, we now reckon that Xbox 360 renders at 1152x720 with PS3 coming in at 1152x640.]
In comparison, the FXAA implementation is a touch more refined on PC. Overall image blur is reduced in many scenes and this allows the artwork to better cut through the slight softness caused by the anti-aliasing solution. In some cases we find image quality isn't far removed from the consoles, but with one key difference: the use of higher-resolution artwork allows for finer details to manifest. This is far more apparent the higher up the resolution chain you go, with softness becoming a complete non-issue when running the game in 1080p. The extra pixel precision on offer leads to edges being smoothed over without impacting much on the surrounding artwork, even allowing lower-quality textures to be displayed without having them appear quite as murky as they do on the console versions. This is especially noticeable when comparing the 360 version upscaled to 1080p against the PC version running natively at the same resolution.
"BioShock Infinite is beautifully built to scale up to higher resolutions on PC, where the art and effects truly shine."
The strength of the PC platform is the way in which you can run gameplay at any resolution you want. This makes all the difference to the quality of the presentation in this game, something we aim to demonstrate with an upscaled Xbox 360 vs. 1080p native res PC comparison.
The level of detail is further amplified on the PC through higher-quality normal maps and greater geometry complexity in parts of the environment. Statues feature more angular curves that project better defined shadows across the surrounding surfaces, while small bumps and cracks are given an extra layer of three-dimensionality over the same surfaces found on consoles. On the other hand, there's little to separate the PS3 and 360 releases from each other: textures and normal maps are a close match, although we find the level of filtering to be a little higher on the PS3, adding a touch more clarity in some places. Shadows are rendered in slightly higher resolution on the 360, while an off-set bias causes some lights and shadows to appear in different places on PS3, with elements such as specular sheen and lighting bloom dialled back slightly as a consequence.
Parity also extends to the quality of the effects work, with low-resolution reflections utilised on both consoles, along with alpha buffers for some transparent objects. This is in stark contrast to the PC game where a range of higher-precision and higher-resolution effects enhance the appearance of depth of field, SSAO, reflections, transparencies and lighting.
All of this helps to add yet more clarity to the striking architecture of Columbia, although there are a few hiccups along the way. Streaming has never been a strong point of UE3, and while many of the issues found in earlier games that use the engine have been taken care of we still find the occasional bug where low-quality art will pop back in after high-resolution assets have been loaded up, or where certain objects simply fail to appear at all. All three versions are affected to some degree, although during our time with the game these issues came up slightly more frequently on the 360 and PC. Character shadows are also strangely pixellated on the PC version in comparison to the consoles, with these artifacts clearly standing out when characters are close to the camera. We have to wonder whether this is a driver bug. [Update: This is now confirmed as a driver issue that has since been resolved.]
The difference in artwork quality between the PC and console versions of BioShock is considerable. The use of higher-resolution normal maps and textures, better filtering and increased geometry complexity lead to a substantially more visually impressive game as a result, where the higher-quality art partially offsets the blur caused by the use of aggressive post-process anti-aliasing.
The PC version of BioShock Infinite uses a combination of 16x anisotropic in combination with tri-linear filtering for all textures, resulting in crisp and clear artwork when viewed from far away and at varying angles. The level of quality is significantly lower on the consoles, but we do see the PS3 version featuring slightly better filtering than the 360 game, giving a touch more clarity to some surfaces.
Diffusion-based depth of field (DX11 PC only) allows for better separation between objects that are in and out of focus, with less colour-bleeding and unwanted distortion. Above, Songbird appears clear and well separated from the out-of-focus background, effectively creating a distinct focal point for the player. In comparison, a lower-precision effect on console results in the entire scene becoming slightly blurred and out of focus.
Reflections and alpha buffers are rendered in a higher resolution on the PC version of BioShock Infinite, with these elements featuring much less in the way of distracting artifacts compared to console. In particular, surface reflections and geometry covered by transparancies appear smooth and free of jaggies compared to the rough-looking effect present on the PS3 and 360.
Indirect shadowing is provided by the use of screen-space ambient occlusion (SSAO) across all versions of BioShock Infinite, although a higher-quality DirectX 11 version of the effect is present on the PC, bringing thicker, more defined shaded areas to characters and parts of the environment. You get the core experience on console, but the PC enhancements shine at higher resolutions.
Despite these minor rendering issues, the core experience is well preserved on all platforms when it comes down to the world Irrational Games has created. In particular the realisation of Elizabeth as a fully formed autonomous character is nothing short of outstanding. Advanced animation systems in combination with some clever AI and scripting help to bring her to life in a way we've not seen before in other games. It's hard not to think about her as anything but a valued companion interacting with you throughout the game, rather than as a focused NPC that simply drives the story forward.
Likewise the technological innovations employed in bringing to life the airborne city of Columbia are remarkable. The use of a deferred lighting set-up sees a multitude of real-time lights illuminate the city in a natural way. Scripted day/night transitions running in real time completely change the look and feel of key locations, and the inclusion of a custom per-pixel dynamic relighting scheme allows for characters and dynamic objects to receive the benefits of global illumination, thus making these elements sit better within the scene.
While this is quite impressive, the streets of Columbia are sparsely populated for a world at the height of its power. Civilian NPCs freely roam around certain sections of the city designed to set the tone for parts of Columbia, but when the shooting starts they are nowhere to be found, leaving the streets feeling rather deserted. It's disappointing to see a world designed around feeling very alive, actually having very little life in it. More than anything this appears to a consequence of the advanced AI routines being used by Elizabeth and the enemies situated throughout the city - we can well believe that limitations in processing power restrict how many characters it is possible to have on-screen at once.
BioShock Infinite: performance analysis
The attention to detail lavished on BioShock Infinite as a whole is obviously impressive, but how well does this translate to performance? Typically, titles using UE3 are relatively easy to run on PCs, where fairly modest specifications yield high frame-rates, while console performance is more variable. However, the revised technology powering the game has seen some significant modifications that make BioShock Infinite more demanding that many titles that utilise the stock UE3 middleware.
On our mid-range gaming rig powered by an Intel Core i5 processor and Radeon HD 7870 graphics card, we had little problems running the game at max settings in 720p while maintaining a consistently solid 60FPS, providing us with much smoother gameplay than found in the 360 and PS3 versions of the game. Frame-rates are occasionally impacted during situations where the screen becomes filled with elements and pyrotechnics, but the end result is a mostly solid 60FPS experience. Achieving the same level of performance at 1080p is more difficult without making some graphical tweaks in order to reduce the overall rendering load. Some settings - such as the alternate depth-of-field and higher-quality screen-space ambient occlusion (SSAO) modes - had to be reduced to more closely hit the desired frame-rate. Disabling v-sync also helps increase raw frame-rate, but the unsightly tearing is something we'd rather not put up with on a PC utilising a �160 graphics card.
As you'd expect, console performance is less impressive overall, with the significantly older hardware often struggling to maintain a stable update when the engine is under stress. Frame rates are generally higher on the PS3 across a basic run of play factoring in various scenarios, but particularly when under load, where the added smoothness translates into more responsive controls during intense fire fights where quick reactions count. Unfortunately, this comes at the expense of some hefty screen-tearing. UE3-standard adaptive v-sync is used on the PS3, where the engine locks at 30FPS, tearing when frame-rate dips beneath the target. For its part, the 360 the game is more solidly v-synced: tearing occurs at the top of the screen but we see the level of smoothness drop more sharply as the GPU stalls while waiting for a new frame to be completed in time for the next display refresh.
"Irrational aims for a locked v-sync on Xbox 360. PS3 is clearly smoother as a result, albeit with noticeable levels of screen-tear."
Performance analysis of BioShock Infinite running on console. PlayStation 3 incurs a level of screen-tear absent on Xbox 360, which suffers accordingly when the engine is put under stress.
The bottom line is that the 360 game enjoys a higher level of visual integrity, but in comparison to the PlayStation 3 version it takes a hit in terms of smoothness and response. This is most apparent in areas of the game that feature open parts of the enviroment with long draw distances and also during alpha-heavy scenes where explosions and other similar effect are used. In less demanding scenes featuring fewer enemies and effects there is little to separate the two at all: a constant 30FPS is regularly maintained in reasonably intense battles located in more enclosed indoor areas of the game. Likewise, heavily scripted sequences featuring destructible environments don't appear to cause any issues, as long as draw distances are kept short and there isn't an abundance of particle effects or multiple light sources in play. Overall, it's clear that both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses. Those more susceptible to screen-tearing may well prefer the more consistent look of the 360 game, although, in our estimation, the smoother frame-rates on PS3 mean that it feels slightly better to play.
Curiously though, there is another option. Just like previous BioShock titles, it is possible to disable v-sync and run with an unlocked frame-rate on both consoles in order to enjoy higher frame-rates, but this does come with some unwanted side effects. For one, near constant screen-tearing is present on both versions, causing an unsightly judder effect, especially evident during fast camera pans. On the flipside, frame-rates are indeed higher on both platforms, with the PS3 gaining noticeable advantage across a general run of play, although alpha-heavy scenes still tend to favour the 360. We can't help but wish that Irrational had gifted Xbox 360 with the same "lock at 30, tear beneath" option that comes as standard on PS3. It would have been fair more preferable to the simple v-sync on/off option.
BioShock Infinite: the Digital Foundry verdict
"What we love most about BioShock Infinite is the way in which technology and game design come together to deliver a unique experience."
Despite our concerns with performance on console, Irrational Games still manages to deliver an engrossing experience across all formats, where the core experience is so strong that the game is an essential purchase no matter which platform you own. The extra clarity afforded by the PC version better represents the stylised artwork on offer, while smoother frame-rates certainly make the combat sequences so much more enjoyable to play, with more responsive controls delivering an extra dimension of precision needed in fast-paced shoot-outs. If you have the hardware capable of running the game smoothly, the PC version is the game to buy.
However, the console releases are still outstanding releases that come highly recommended. The shooting isn't as much fun when frame-rates are crashing down but most of the other elements that help make BioShock Infinite such an accomplished release are fully in effect. The more responsive PS3 game gets the nod for delivering a more consistent, flowing gameplay experience and its deficit in terms of rendering resolution is really difficult to pick up on bearing in mind how strong the FXAA blur is on both platforms. The addition of tearing isn't particularly attractive, but the extra controller response is preferable during intense combat scenes. Alternatively, those especially susceptible to screen-tear may prefer the 360 version, despite it featuring heavier dips in performance in more demanding scenes.
Overall, BioShock Infinite is certainly one of the most entertaining games we've played in a long, long while. At its core, the power/weapon-based combat is similar to previous games in the series, but what sets this sequel apart is how all the different elements come together coherently to form a compelling, irresistible experience, where Elizabeth takes centre stage. Impressive AI and animation are combined with excellent dialogue and delivery that help to give her real character throughout the whole adventure, even if some of the gameplay mechanics surrounding her are a little underused. What we love most about BioShock Infinite is the way in which technology and game design come together to deliver a unique experience. With this philosophy in mind, we're excited by the possibilities next-gen platforms represent to a developer like Irrational. Let's hope we don't need to wait another five years to see its next game...