The industry is still reeling from the recent announcement that Irrational Games will cease to exist as we now know them. The majority of the staff has been let go, and the few that remain will join Ken Levine’s new team with a focus on small narrative driven games. Over the past 15 plus years the studio has produced numerous critically acclaimed games and was recognized among the industry’s best at creating amazingly realized game worlds and compelling storylines. With games like System Shock 2, Freedom Force, and SWAT 4 on the studio’s resume, many people have different opinions about which is their favorite Irrational game, but few would argue the defining Irrational developed titles are without a doubt Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite. Let’s break these two games down and determine which is Irrational’s finest Bioshock game, and perhaps the studio’s crowning achievement.
You can watch the video version of this showdown here or continue down for the written version
Spoilers for both games will follow.
Some things change, but there’s always a man, a lighthouse, and a city, the latter of which has come to define what a Bioshock game is. Though the themes, characters, and even time period differ between these two games, the most significant thing they share in common are imaginative, detailed, and often awe inspiring central locations. Bioshock takes place in the underwater city of Rapture, an objectivist utopia founded on the ideals of free market and scientific advancement without moral constraints. Bioshock Infinite is set in Columbia, a floating city that is meant represent the ideal America of the early 20th century.
The first moment you set your eyes upon Rapture is breathtaking. As your bathysphere comes upon the city, the art deco design and sprawling cityscape are something to behold. Once you actually enter Rapture, you’ll find the city in ruins after an upheaval a year or so prior, and making your way through the ruins of this once great metropolis is among the game’s major strengths. The many locations within Rapture are strikingly detailed, and you’ll believe it could have been a real place. Rapture benefits greatly from a feeling of consistency. Every aspect of the city feels like it was put there for a reason, and as you explore the finer details of every scene it becomes clear just how much care and effort was put into crafting Rapture.
In many ways, Columbia is a polar opposite to Rapture. Whereas Rapture was based upon the notion of “No gods or kings. Only man.” Columbia stands very much for god, country, and patriotism. Though it seceded from the union decades prior, Columbia is a picture of turn-of-the-century Americana. Columbia is still in its prime during Bioshock Infinite, so the game shows more of a glimpse of everyday life at times rather than the ruins we find Rapture in. However, this does somewhat break the cohesion of the city as well, because many of the mechanics and scenarios the game presents don’t make a whole of sense in what is supposed be a thriving city. Aside from that, Columbia is just as detailed as Rapture, a place that exhibits the extremes of both the best and worst of America in that era.
As the end of the day, Rapture is a more memorable city than Columbia. Both of these settings are among the best video games have to offer, but some nagging issues and lack of world consistency hurt Columbia in the end. Many aspects of it feel disjointed, like the idea of the founding fathers being deified which is presented early in the game and then never referenced again. Vigors also present a problem, and though their origin is adequately explained, the mere presence and availability of vigors in this type of society doesn’t gel with everything else about Columbia. Every new area of Rapture you come across feels entirely appropriate, and the fact that the city is in shambles makes the game mechanics feel more consistent with the world, which is not something Infinite excels at. At the end of the day, Rapture feels like a real city and Columbia feels more like an amusement park.
Bioshock has the better city.
Bioshock Infinite: 0
Gameplay has never been the strongest element of the Bioshock series, and in fact the much maligned Bioshock 2 would likely win this category over both of these games, though it wouldn’t stand a chance in any other area. Though the gameplay of these games shares a lot in common thematically, in practice these games play quite differently. From a pure mechanical standpoint, Infinite has a slight advantage, with the ability to dual wield abilities and guns simultaneously, the added mobility of skylines, and improved weapon handling and aiming capability. However, apart from the mechanics being a bit better, Infinite comes up short of the original Bioshock in other areas of gameplay.
The biggest shortcoming of Infinite is how uninspired the enemy encounters are. Most of the enemies in the game just shoot at you and don’t offer much in the way of interesting variation. Higher tier enemies like the patriots and handymen mix things up a bit, but neither come anywhere near the thrills of fighting a big daddy. Bioshock has a much deeper combat sandbox than Infinite, and it makes the gameplay more enjoyable even with the weaker mechanics. For one, Bioshock has a wider array of abilities, and though most players will find their favorite and stick to those, more options is better. Bioshock also gives you greater ability to experiment, with things like security cameras, combat drones, gene tonics, different ammo types, and the lack of a two weapon limit giving you much more freedom to engage in combat in a wider variety of ways than you can in Infinite. Bioshock plays much more like a shooter with more depth and some RPG sensibilities, while Infinite plays much more like a straight up shooter.
Bioshock has better gameplay.
Bioshock Infinite: 0
Along with the setting, story is probably the most important element of a Bioshock game, and both Bioshock and Bioshock: Infinite have tremendous narratives. Bioshock tells the story of Jack, a survivor of a plane crash that comes upon the entrance to Rapture. Infinite stars Booker Dewitt, a man that comes to Columbia in order to retrieve a girl named Elizabeth from captivity. Both games go far beyond the premise, and by the end of each you’ll be questioning what you thought you knew and trying to piece together the various clues and subtleties to determine just what really happened. Though the broad strokes of how events play out and the central character being more connected to the city than originally implied, the two games tell their stories in quite different ways.
Bioshock is both a subversion and a straight up implementation of the classic silent protagonist trope, and it simultaneously illustrates the absurdity of this storytelling method while also falling into many of the common traps associated with it. Like many first person shooters that use a silent protagonist, the majority of the game is spent simply taking order from other characters and never questioning or even responding to them, you simply do whatever you’re told. In many respects, the game doesn’t differ from other games that use have a silent protagonist, but the major story revelation about two thirds of the way through the game changes the context drastically. Revealing that Jack was in fact psychologically programmed to comply with any direction that accompanied the phrase “would you kindly” puts the events up to that point in a whole new light.
However, after the revelation the game still basically tells it’s story the same way, with now new characters telling you what to do without the accompanied “would you kindly.” At this point, any commentary sort of loses it edge because the game is still treading the same ground as the games it’s commenting on. Apart from the “would you kindly stuff,” the game tells an interesting story of a shadow war between Andrew Ryan and Frank Fontaine, the plight of Tenenbaum and her little sisters, and portrays a haunting image of what happens when science goes too far. With its many interesting themes and plotlines, Bioshock is among the richest story driven shooters in existence, but the way the story is told isn’t particularly amazing. Almost all the story is delivered through audio logs and radio chatter, with the Andrew Ryan confrontation being the only real significant in-engine story moment.
Bioshock Infinite tells its story very differently, though it does share some similarities with the original Bioshock. The biggest difference in storytelling between these games is that Booker Dewitt has a voice, which he uses often. For a long time there was some unwritten rule that a character should never speak from a first person perspective, but that seems to be something that is thankfully going away. The other major element of the story that is quite different from how Bioshock did things is the presence of Elizabeth. She accompanies Booker throughout the majority of the game, so almost all of the story takes place in front of the player rather than over radio. There are audio logs, but the principle story is all in-engine, which makes things feel much more meaningful. Talking to Elizabeth or the Lutece twins in person gives a much greater degree of significance to the events compared to Bioshock.
Another advantage Infinite has over the original in terms of story is the very nature of the plot. Bioshock was about objectivism, science run out of control, and the dangers of extremism, and while Infinite certainly has high minded exploration of controversial topics like slavery, class-ism, and religious fundamentalism to go along with a crazy sci-fi plot about time travel and alternate realities, the core of the game is about the relationship between a father and daughter. By making these elements window dressing for the character driven plot, it gives the story a more personal feeling and is something much more relatable and emotional than what Bioshock offers. It’s this more personal story and the improved storytelling that really sets the story Infinite ahead of that of Bioshock.
Bioshock Infinite has a better story.
Bioshock Infinite: 1
Like the gameplay, from a design standpoint Bioshock allows for a much greater degree of freedom than Infinite. Though by no means an open world, the various areas of Rapture you find yourself exploring are open environments rather than linear shooting galleries. The levels feel designed first to be interesting spaces to explore that serve a clear purpose to the city, rather than simply as places for you to shoot enemies. You even have the freedom to return to previous areas whenever you want, and apart from the very last and very first area of the game, the entirety of the game world is open to. Infinite is much more restricted and far more linear. You don’t have the ability to visit previous locations and the levels themselves are far more condensed than those of Bioshock. Granted, this more focussed design is a better fit for the story and pacing of Infinite than the open design of the original would have been, but the lack of freedom is still disappointing.
The lack of freedom extends beyond the level design and into your ability to outfit your character. Bioshock gives you a ton of flexibility in how you want to specialize, with a huge number of gene tonics available throughout the game and up to eighteen slots to assign. The equivalent system in Infinite is gear, of which there are far less options. Apart from the unnecessary element of randomness governing which gear you find, there are only four slots to be assigned. This puts much of a limit on your ability to customize your approach, which is only compounded by the two weapon limit. It’s this greater degree of freedom, which extends to the level design, the combat, and your ability to customize your character, that gives Bioshock the edge over Infinite in the area of design.
Bioshock is better designed.
Bioshock Infinite: 1
Presentation is always a tough category to decide when you’re looking at two games released over five years apart. As usual, I try not to let this category be decided strictly based on visual fidelity, because under those circumstances it would be no contest. From a technical standpoint, Infinite is more impressive in nearly every way, with more detailed textures and character models, an impressive draw distance that showcases some stunning views, and more impressive animations, with Elizabeth in particular. Despite these technical advantages, Bioshock is no slouch either, and has held up remarkably well. When it first released Bioshock was among the most beautiful games of its time, and looks a lot better today than many of its contemporaries due in large part to the strong art direction and focus on style over pure realism. Rapture’s art deco aesthetic is still as beautiful today as when the game came out, and even on a pure technical level the game still looks decent, which was able to be achieved in 2007 because the entire game consists entirely of interior locations.
Though both games can be appreciated for the visuals, Infinite has a distinct advantage in terms of audio. The voice acting in the original was good, but the chemistry between Troy Baker as Booker and Courtney Draper as Elizabeth trumps anything in the original. Both casts are exceptional, but the two main characters of Infinite and the quirky Lutece twins really put Infinite a step ahead. In terms of music, Infinite once again comes out on top. The period music of Bioshock does a fantastic job of setting the mood and enhancing the atmosphere, but nothing can top the outstanding reinterpretations of popular music in Infinite. These anachronistic songs are among your hints at the greater going on in Columbia, and every time you hear a new period rendition of a modern pop hit is a real treat. You also can’t forgot the fantastic performance of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” with Courtney Draper singing and Troy Baker on guitar.
Bioshock Infinite has better presentation.
Bioshock: 3 (Winner)
Bioshock Infinite: 2
Many people seem to have really grown to dislike Bioshock Infinite, and while as you can see I agree it isn’t as good as the original Bioshock, it certainly has its merits. Though the act of playing it isn’t quite as enjoyable as Bioshock and Columbia comes up short of Rapture’s greatness, the story of Infinite is not only more personal and emotional, but is told in a much more interesting way. When you take a step back and look at these two games, it’s clear Bioshock is much more of a complete package. Everything about Bioshock is outstanding, whereas the parts of Infinite where it’s a first person shooter leave much be desired. There are very few story driven shooters that can match the quality of these two games, but between the two Bioshock comes out on top.