American Exceptionalism, religious dogma, bigotry, parallel universes, iconoclasm, fate, life, death, gigantic Steampunk bird-men…As the credits rolled on Irrational Games’ much belated, much more anticipated Bioshock Infinite, my head was spinning. The game’s package isn’t slapped with a big, solid M just because the stylized people depicted within often meet gruesome, sky-hooking deaths. It’s because that’s what Infinite is: mature. Through and through.
You’ve likely heard this old diddy, and are likely to have your ears assaulted by the same mantra in years to come, but video games have come a long way. To put a finer point on it, storytelling in games have come a long way. Years from now, when pricey college courses banking on the culture that’s sprung up around this booming medium reflect on the metamorphosis of its storytelling from crudely simple to deeply sophisticated, they’ll reference Bioshock Infinite as an example of the ladder. Hell, it’ll get its own chapter.
The Beast of America
Conceptually, a lot should be familiar to fans of the original game. Infinite centers on the impossible city of Columbia, a metropolis not beneath the ocean circa the 1950’s but one floating in the skies above 1912 America (How? Quantum physics, of course). This stunningly beautiful city owns ugly truths, sharing many of the faults and baggage with the nation it sought to secede from below, including racism, division of high society and the destitute as well as the tensions boiling between both factions. Like Rapture, a zealous tyrant oversees this kingdom, but unlike Andrew Ryan, Zachary Comstock is a beloved icon and self-proclaimed prophet quite literally worshiped by his flock of fools. Historical figures are looked to as saints and American heritage is treated as gospel.
Locked away in a skyscraper-sized monument of an angel, guarded by a hulking, winged monstrosity, is a girl named Elizabeth, the focal point of Comstock’s mad “prophesies." Doing away with the mute protagonist bit, you play as Booker DeWitt, a former Pinkerton goon turned detective and likely one of the most dynamic, interesting, and earnestly written protagonists I’ve ever seen in a game, let alone in a genre where there’s typically more headshots than lines of dialogue. "Bring us the girl, wipe away the debt." Things certainly become entirely more complicated than that, but it’s enough to start Booker down his path.
Closest Thing to Heaven
I’ll say it again; Columbia is beautiful. I felt engulfed in its fiction the instant I set foot upon it. Almost as if it were truly the former’s opposite, Columbia shirks the dark, lifeless tomb of Rapture for brightly lit, wide open environments teeming with inhabitants, all equipped with intriguing commentary (a lot of which is more important than you know at first). Propaganda fitted with smiling faces and catchy phrases adorns the walls; sky-rails zoom cargo above your head; giant zeppelins fill the airspace; buildings lightly bob up and down alongside the clouds they share the sky with. The detail put into Columbia isn’t just impressive, it’s staggering.
But Columbia is far from a static backdrop. Civil unrest brews within the city, and as war begins to break out, so too does Columbia start to physically fall apart, skies darkening with gun smoke. The city is a character with as big a role as Booker or Elizabeth, and it tells its story with every inch you discover.
Several conventions are intact from the original Bioshock, namely the juggling between FPS gunplay and an assortment of supernatural abilities, this time called Vigors. Combat is much tighter and precise, allowing you to squeeze as much joy as possible out of torching enemies and blasting them away. Vigors are now both offensive and defensive, letting you either hurtle them at goons or set up traps. With Shock Jockey, for instance, you can stun enemies with the press of a button or ensnare them by holding the same button and booby trapping the ground. You can even mix the effects of Vigors to devastating result. Shooting flaming crows out of your hand is exactly as unbearably awesome as it sounds.
Your powers – which you find scattered throughout your quest – and your arsenal can be upgraded at kiosks (overseen by creepy, talking automatons) with the money you scavenge. Health doesn’t regenerate, you’ll be doing a fair share of dumpster diving for healing food items, but a rechargeable shield keeps you from soaking up damage (think early Halo). A tiny but fundamental difference this go around is the way inventory works; Vigors all stay with you but you’re only allotted two for immediate use, and you’re only allowed two weapons at a time. This effectively keeps you in the action instead of constantly juggling radial menus.
The newest addition to combat comes way of the Sky-Hook. When you first get this lovely device, Booker uses it as a melee weapon, smashing Comstock’s men across the face. Watch for a certain contextual icon, though, and you can instantly execute enemies with its rotating blades in the goriest of fashions. The Sky-Hook is good for more than popping heads like water balloons, though. The elaborate sky-rail system built above the city means you can latch on and speed from A to B or harness it in combat, getting the drop on fools like a man-shaped condor. Despite literally being "on rails,” sky-rail controls are intuitive. The opposition can also make full use of sky-rails, so mind yourself in aerial combat.
Once you get the hang of your powers like a 1900’s Jedi, you might start to feel overpowered. That’s where the Heavy Hitters come in. This short list of creative, powerful menaces each require ariation in your tactics. The majority of guys you’ll fight can honestly be handled by simply shooting them to death, but Heavy’s have different weak points – some more vulnerable to certain Vigors than others – and can usually eat up a load of damage. On harder difficulties (especially the punishing 1999 Mode), these things are to be feared. But I couldn’t even consider the game’s harder parts arduous or remotely frustrating; Infinite’s combat is a blast from start to finish.
…and the Lamb
If DeWitt is one of the most dynamic protagonists in gaming, Elizabeth is surely one of the best NPC’s ever created. She’s a genuinely involving, sympathetic character that I almost immediately fell in love with. She’s a terrible damsel in distress, though, because of how resourceful, clever, and downright helpful she is to have around. Irrational drives home the point early on that you needn’t go through the trouble of protecting her; Elizabeth can take care of herself, and her AI proves it time and again. In fact, she protects you. Mid-conflict, she’ll scrounge for ammo when you’re low or for salts when your Vigors run dry (she’ll even apologize when she can’t find anything, the sweetheart). I depended on her more than she did on me, and that’s amazing.
Killing is brutal but commonplace to Booker, but to a girl locked away from society for twelve years, it’s disturbing, and Elizabeth voices her dismay the first time you take a life in front of her and every time you do so needlessly. What’s worse, you get to watch the bright-eyed, excitable girl you meet slowly reflect the hard reality before her. Her tone lowers, her gaze into the distance is harder, and her choices start to echo yours. It’s an astounding transformation owed not only to the brilliant voice and motion performance but the nuances the developers gave her. Elizabeth is the closest I’ve ever seen a video game get to portraying a living, breathing, thinking person.
A Broken Circle
There’s no such thing as Utopia and there has yet to be an absolutely perfect game. I’m deeply enamored with Bioshock Infinite, how could I not be? It’s magnificent. But it’s not without its flaws. Columbia has its fair share of collectibles like the plot enhancing Voxophones or the strength padding Infusion Vials, tucking them into highly missable nooks and crannies. Sometimes they’ll be stashed away behind locked doors which only Elizabeth can break into by finding lock picks for her.
I feel like I do this every review, but let’s look to Batman for guidance (as we all should). In Arkham City, specifically, collectibles could only be accessed by lining up your wits and employing clever use of your gadgets to solve these puzzles. Infinite, with its grand Rolodex of unique Vigors, could’ve greatly benefited from a gameplay mechanic like this. As is, the Vigors feel criminally underused – you really could run the length of the game without them – and hunting for Liz’s lock picks is the type of monotony better fit for worse games.
And for all the lavish articulation and awe inspiring artistry poured – no, flooded – into the environments, the momentum of the narrative pulls you right past them. Unlike Bioshock, Infinite almost seems to discourage backtracking, giving you only a fistful of optional objectives when the playground of Columbia is large enough to house dozens more than that. For all of its ills, Columbia is a rich locale that I wanted to stay in, and simple design choices like environmental puzzles and freer navigation would’ve turned an inch into a mile.
These gripes, however, really just translate to me wanting more of an already gracious experience. Perhaps lingering around town would’ve taken focus away from the spot-on story. What’s legitimately baffling, though, is the lack of a New Game+. Having to regather equipment and build Booker up again feels tedious on repeat playings; it’s damn near archaic for a modern game featuring upgrades to not own a New Game+ option.
No spoilers here, friend, don’t worry, but I do have some words to prattle on the ending. Infinite is stupendously written, the impact of which won’t truly hit you until the very end. And, yes, there is a twist, but it doesn’t come out of left field or feel forced. Actually, everything about the emotionally charged finale of the game is laid out from the very beginning of the story. Huge, revealing components are dangled in your face throughout the entire game, only coming together in one perfect, lump-in-your-throat culmination once your journey’s at an end.
Irrational has done a rare thing here. Other games have tried more, of course, and other games have succeeded better in certain aspects. As a whole, few have achieved what Bioshock Infinite has. Its orchestra of parts – the sublime music and sound design, the surreal art and level work, the top notch voice acting, and the novel script – move together in concert, each bringing out the best of one another and fully realizing the world of Columbia, telling its history and ideologies, and grounding fantasy with hard truths. It’s not an easy experience to swallow, but that’s precisely why it’ll stick to your bones.
Bioshock Infinite does so much right, I find it difficult to gather all my thoughts about it in one place. It hardly reinvents the wheel, but it pushes it in a bold direction that the industry will follow for years to come. If the “Games as Art” debate was in want for a poster boy, they’ve found it, because Bioshock Infinite is sheer art.
[This review is based on the PS3 version of the game (which includes the original Bioshock; thank you, bottomless Blu-Rays). Purchased and given a proper home by this reviewer. Bioshock Infinite is also available for the Xbox 360 and PC.]