I used to be a perpetual gamer, but between the wife and kid and job, I have precious little time for it any more. Most of the games I prefer these days can be played for only minutes at a time, and when I do try out a “hardcore” game, I’m extremely picky. I’m not going to pour 20-plus hours into a video game unless it’s absolutely top-notch.
BioShock Infinite ($39.99), released just days ago for the Mac by Aspyr, is one of those games. Which is surprising, since I wasn’t impressed by the much-lauded original BioShock, released in 2007, and because of that, I skipped the 2010 sequel, BioShock 2. While I found BioShock to be a repetitive first-person shooter that happened to have a good story, BioShock Infinite has redefined the formula into a breath of fresh air.
When first released on other platforms a few months ago, BioShock Infinite received immense praise from the press. But what interested me weren’t the high-scoring reviews, which are frequently handed out to recycled annual gunfests like Call of Duty: Black Ops, but what was being said about Infinite. “BioShock Infinite exists in a pantheon tagged ‘required reading’ in the gaming medium,” said Nick Cowen in the Guardian. It has received over 85 awards, and is already a contender for game of the year.
That’s no faint tribute. In fact, it wasn’t unusual to see the phrase “work of art,” in reviews of BioShock Infinite. I’m jaded by excessive hype in the gaming world, but I started to wonder, could this be it? Could BioShock Infinite be the breakout title, that, like “Citizen Kane,” pushes its medium to the next level?
But before we delve into the game itself, let’s look at the technical side of Aspyr’s port. For many Mac gamers, BioShock Infinite’s existence isn’t news, and the only question is: will it run on my Mac?
Aspyr to Excellence -- Aspyr, the quintessential Mac game publisher, has done a fantastic job in bringing BioShock Infinite to the Mac. While the original BioShock, ported by Feral Interactive, didn’t appear on the Mac for two years, Aspyr completed the job in about five months, as the game was first released for Windows, Xbox 360, and Playstation 3 on 26 March 2013.
But this was no rush job. Unlike numerous sloppy Mac game ports, BioShock Infinite feels right at home on the Mac. Most impressive is that it supports both Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 controllers — a feature common in Windows games, but somewhat spotty on the Mac. And yes, even vibratory force feedback works.
However, the system requirements are steep. You’ll need at least a 2.2 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 4 GB of RAM, and 30 GB of hard disk space. Most notably, you’ll need a fairly new graphics processor. The once-ubiquitous Intel HD 3000, Nvidia 320M, and Nvidia 330M are not supported. Be sure your Mac meets the requirements before buying.
When games choke my Mac, it’s usually because I like to play them on my 27-inch monitor instead of my MacBook Pro’s 15-inch screen, which taxes the MacBook Pro’s graphics card. However, BioShock Infinite ran just fine on my big monitor, even when I ran it at high video settings and a resolution of 1344 by 756, higher than the game’s default resolution of 1280 by 720. I’ve heard multiple reports that the game also runs well on the latest generation of the MacBook Air.
Any serious gamer reading this article will laugh at my relatively low resolution and jaggy screenshots, but that’s OK. On my configuration, BioShock Infinite looks at least as good as it would on a modern gaming console. Furthermore, let’s be realistic: laptops are not ideal gaming machines, especially not Apple laptops. I’ve built numerous gaming PCs over the years, but I use a Mac these days because my priorities have changed.
Truth is, the game looks much better in motion (take a look at the trailer) than it does in screenshots, especially after I moved from medium to high settings. However, the game’s maximum resolution appears to be severely limited. When set to an aspect ratio of 16:9, the maximum resolution I can set is 1600 by 900, far short of my monitor’s maximum of 2560 by 1440. That’s not a huge drawback for me, because I doubt my Mac could handle it, but it’s sure to draw the ire of Mac gaming enthusiasts like John Siracusa.
A more severe technical snafu is that BioShock Infinite doesn’t always recognize my Xbox 360 controller on launch, requiring a reboot. That’s annoying, but since I’m used to having to boot into Boot Camp to play games under Windows, it’s not the worst bug in the world. However, I hope to see a quick patch from Aspyr.
But overall, compared to most Mac game ports, which run poorly, look terrible, and take years to release, BioShock Infinite is a marvel.
To Infinity and Beyond -- With the geeky stuff out of the way, let’s talk about the game itself.
BioShock Infinite’s setting is a departure from its predecessors. The previous games took place in the 1960s, in a ruined underwater utopia called Rapture. Rapture was built as a libertarian paradise by industrialist Andrew Ryan, a stand-in for the Objectivist philosopher Ayn Rand. But Rapture’s genetic experiments went horribly wrong, creating zombie-like creatures called Splicers. In the first two BioShock games, you had to fight your way through Rapture with guns and genetically engineered superpowers, called “plasmids,” against an army of Splicers and golem-esque monsters called Big Daddies.
What made BioShock unique is that it wasn’t just a brainless shooter. There were role-playing elements as well in collecting and upgrading plasmids and weapons. But more intriguingly, the game forced you to make serious moral choices that affected the outcome of the game.
BioShock Infinite is a prequel to the original BioShock, taking place in 1912. You play a private eye who’s been sent to a sky city called Columbia to rescue a damsel in distress. While the setting is different, the basic tenets of BioShock are there. Columbia, like Rapture, is a false utopia filled with super powers, murderous cyborgs, and deep ideas.
The cloud city of Columbia is gorgeous, filled with flying platforms, zeppelins, and beautiful hymns. Yes, hymns. The leader of Columbia is the enigmatic Father Comstock, who has built a religion around the Founding Fathers of the United States. After your “baptism,” required to enter the city, you’ll encounter Columbia denizens, dressed in white, praying to giant statues of George Washington. Father Comstock is known by most residents as “The Prophet,” while Lady Comstock is Columbia’s equivalent to the Virgin Mary.
At first, it’s easy to ignore, or even be charmed by, Columbia’s weirdness. The city happens to be in the middle of a celebration the day you arrive, with parades, fireworks, balloons, carnival games, and even a raffle. The carnival games act as a clever alternative to the dull training levels found in most games. One teaches you how to shoot guns, the other teaches you how to use “vigors” — BioShock Infinite’s stand-in for plasmids.
One unique feature of the BioShock games is that they borrow from the fantasy realm to bring “spells” into a first-person shooter. You wield a conventional weapon in one hand, and, in the other, some kind of supernatural power, vigors in the case of Infinite. Vigors can do all kinds of interesting things, like hurl fireballs, send a flock of ravens at the enemy, and even brainwash enemies into fighting for you. A new feature in BioShock Infinite is that these powers can also be used to set traps, so that if an enemy crosses one, he’s affected by the vigor.
Things go well until you reach the raffle, where it turns out that you’re apparently Columbia’s Antichrist, and that Father Comstock’s cult is centered around white supremacy. Needless to say, things escalate quickly. One minute you’re enjoying some cotton candy, the next, you’re braining a cop with a motorized grappling hook, called a Sky-Hook. (You can actually purchase a real-life Sky-Hook, if you’re so inclined.)
As you begin your one-man war with Columbia, questions abound. How could this place exist? Where did this cult come from? Who is the girl I’m trying to rescue? And who the heck am I?
The Difference Between Artistry and Mere Competence -- As the game began in earnest, I had another question on my mind, “Why am I enjoying this so much?” Mechanically and structurally, it’s identical to the original BioShock, which I found to be mediocre. What makes BioShock Infinite so great? What separates a good game from a great game?
At the risk of being too geeky, there’s a fitting Star Trek quote, from William T. Riker, “Flair is what marks the difference between artistry and mere competence.” And BioShock Infinite has flair to spare.
While the original BioShock had a great story and unique plasmid powers, like the ability to shoot fireballs, freeze enemies, and swarm them with bees, those aren’t anything new. I always got the impression that the gameplay was just going through the motions. “Here, go to the next area, kill everything there, move on to the next spot. Lather, rinse, repeat.” The fact that you constantly had a big arrow telling you where to go didn’t help.
In BioShock Infinite, on the other hand, the developers make it a point to create an experience. You’ll spend up to an hour in the game before you get in a fight. The developers want you to take in the sights, play some games. They want to suck you into this world they’ve created. This isn’t some checklist catacomb, this is an amusement park, lovingly crafted to thrill its patrons.
The Sky-Hook mechanics drive home that amusement park theme. In addition to being a brutal melee weapon, the Sky-Hook allows you to swing around Columbia like Spider-Man, helping you to bound long chasms and get the drop on baddies. But even more fun is that you can use the Sky-Hook to hitch a ride on Columbia’s tram system, the Sky-Lines, which have as many loops and twists as a roller-coaster. It’s exhilarating, especially when making a dramatic escape from a giant monster, or having a shootout en route.
While the original BioShock rushed you through the experience, the developers of BioShock Infinite have mastered pacing, an essential element of a great game. By that, I mean that just when you start to become bored with something, you enter a new area where things are completely different. A couple of classic examples of games with fabulous pacing are Super Mario Bros. and Half-Life 2, in which you felt as though the developers could read your mind.
BioShock Infinite has that quality of pacing. You spend a few minutes in a dark, creepy tower, and the next thing you know, you’re racing down the Sky-Line from a enormous robotic bird. After that, the game decides you need a break, and lands you on a nice beach, weapons disabled. There, you find an arcade with Kinetoscopes to watch, games to play, and items to discover.
Details like that are another part of what makes BioShock Infinite great. Case in point: the sinks. You can turn any sink you see in the game on or off. Why is this important? Because it’s not. The sinks have no apparent mechanical function in the game, they’re just there, and water flows out of them, because someone took the time to put them there. That’s art for art’s sake.
Details like this are what separate good games from great games. Look at two beloved gaming classics of the 1990s: Duke Nukem 3D and Earthbound. Duke Nukem featured all kinds of fun, but pointless details, like functional toilets and pool tables. Earthbound also had numerous lovely little details, like a rideable bicycle, calling your parents to save the game, and managing your money with an ATM.
Visual art is another aspect of what makes a video game special. Note that I didn’t say graphics, but art. One of the reasons World of Warcraft has endured for so long is because while it was never a graphically impressive game, its visual style is both beautiful and timeless. BioShock Infinite is the same way, with gorgeous, sunny vistas filled with marvelous steampunk delights. Even as graphic capabilities improve, I think BioShock Infinite’s style will stand the test of time.
So what makes a great video game? Artistry. When the development team moves beyond basic game mechanics to adding flair just to enrich the overall experience. That’s what enables a game to transcend mere competence and aspire to immortality.
Video Games as Art -- The late, great Roger Ebert once argued at length that video games can never be art. With all due respect, I humbly disagree. For what is art, but a work of human hands that arouses emotion? A blueprint won’t inspire much emotion from most people, but what about the structure that is built from it? Can a house not be art? What about a basilica? What about a city in the clouds? How about an amusement park? Anyone who has visited Disney World or Universal Studios will tell you that there is art involved in creating the rides and attractions.
Similarly, something that, in the span of an hour, can induce fear, elation, laughter, disgust, and terror? To my mind, that is art. That is BioShock Infinite.
A Work of Art -- I don’t wish to overhype BioShock Infinite. It’s not the cure for cancer or a Shakespearian sonnet. It won’t change your life. But it is a great way to entertain yourself for a few weeks. It’s a game that will touch you, and it’s a lot of fun on top of that.
To bring things back to Earth, if you’ve been waiting for BioShock Infinite on the Mac, but dreading a lazy port, fear not. Aspyr has handled bringing BioShock Infinite to the Mac with the utmost care, and the game is fantastic.