You can't rush BioShock Infinite. It's not a play-through to get done as fast as you can, for bragging rights or any other reason. We journalists are often forced to play games as fast as we can to be able to publish timely reviews. But for this one, I refused.
This is BioShock, and that’s a name that changes all the rules. Seeing that one word printed on the cover is a signal that what you’re about to play is no ordinary game.
NO STORY SPOILERS!
It’s not every day you play a shooter where its combat is the least interesting thing about it. It’s not every day you’re transported to a vivid, fantastical new world that sucks you in so completely, it becomes as real as the real world. It’s not every day that a video game comes along that touches on racism, quantum physics, religion, sexism, slavery, philosophy, alternate realities, worker’s rights, cults, atonement, class warfare, and forgiveness.
I’ve spent almost two weeks roaming and running through the streets and Sky-Lines of Columbia, tracking down every hidden goodie and pondering the unprecedented depth and intelligence of its twisty-turny narrative. And you should believe every last word of hype. The most seasoned veteran gamer has never played anything like BioShock Infinite.
First things first. BioShock Infinite is not your standard shooter. There’s no multiplayer mode, no variant endings, and no dungeons to crawl. Irrational Games has crafted an incredibly focused, tightly-woven narrative that delivers a story of grand scope akin to a great novel or a big-budget movie. Yes, it’s a shooter. But it’s so much more.
There’s something magical about a story that transports you to a fantastical new place that’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Lost, The Matrix and other big-name franchises are known for sucking you into a brand new world. Video games are a perfect medium for these fantasy worlds, because you can explore them the way you might in real life. The floating city of Columbia has to be the most wildly original setting I’ve ever seen in a video game. It’s not just that Irrational had a cool idea: a floating city in turn-of-the-20th-Century America. Columbia is a fully-realized, gloriously real, living and breathing world that couldn’t possibly exist… and yet you believe in its existence completely.
Your introduction to Columbia is the very definition of idyllic. The game’s first hour is the best opening to any game I’ve ever played. So much detail is communicated without need for exposition, and the lush visuals are so stunning it’s hard not to reach out and touch your screen. Infinite pulls you into its world in a way that’s just brilliant: like the first game, it starts with a journey that begins at a lighthouse. The impending sense that something exciting is about to happen builds tremendously well in this sequence, while we learn a lot of preliminary info about Booker, the people he’s working for, and the place he’s going, through clever use of in-game props.
But the showstopper is the moment when we the player (and Booker DeWitt, the main character) get our first look at that gleaming, pristine city in the clouds. Likewise, when you emerge onto the streets of Columbia for the first time, it’s pure magic. Scripted events have been honed to perfection, so that every building, every sound, every little thing that happens just brings you further under Infinite‘s spell. Columbia has to be one of the most awe-inspiring settings for a game, ever. I couldn’t move the plot forward for the first hour or so after entering Columbia because I was too busy wandering and gawking at everything in sight. Irrational’s attention to detail here reaches new heights of astonishment. Irrational poured an enormous amount of money into Infinite, and boy does it show.
It would be a complete enough experience for me to simply be able to wander and explore the endless nooks and crannies of Columbia’s bobbing buildings, picturesque streets, and idyllic public spaces. (There’s even a beach! A gravity-defying beach that floats in the sky!) The city comes complete with its own mythology about its origins, its most powerful citizens, and strange phenomena that have been observed by the populace. But the setting is just one aspect of BioShock Infinite‘s tapestry of wonders.
There’s also the characters. You play as private investigator Booker DeWitt, who’s sent to Columbia — knowing nothing of its existence — to rescue a nineteen-year-old girl named Elizabeth who’s been held there against her will her entire life. Booker is a former Pinkerton agent with a mirky past; Elizabeth has lived in a massive tower guarded over by a huge, flying half-man/half-machine creature called Songbird. Oh, and she can open “tears” in time and space that reveal other realities. There are loads of questions surrounding both of them, but the game doesn’t stop there. There’s the villain, Zachary Comstock, the self-made “prophet” (aka, cult leader) who’s crafted his own religion based on worship of America’s founding fathers. It’s Comstock that rules over Columbia and presumably presided over its construction.
Then there’s the game’s big melting pot of theology, philosophy, history, politics, propaganda, economy, and more. There are very few moments when the game isn’t pushing one hot button or another, and I think it manages to make just about everybody uncomfortable sooner or later. But these elements aren’t there just to unsettle and disturb; they’re fascinating commentaries on human life, and its questions and observations resonate just as much today as they would have a century ago.
Of course, this is a game, so there are objectives and actions that have to be taken. In this case, that translates to combat, because as it turns out, the ruling class of Columbia isn’t too happy that you’re there. (There’s even a prophecy that foretells of the coming of the “False Shepherd,” aka Booker DeWitt. So the deck is stacked against poor Booker before he even gets there.) Fortunately, there’s an enormous variety to the combat that lets you experiment and try all sorts of things.
There are the standard guns — pistol, shotgun, rocket launcher, sniper rifle, etc. — and of course the Vigors, which grant you supernatural abilities. (Vigors are Infinite’s version of the first game’s Plasmids.) These include both the expected — fire, levitation — and unexpected, like “Murder of Crows,” which sics a flock of lethal birds on your prey.
One of the coolest aspects of Columbia is riding the Sky-Lines, a series of high wires that Booker can ride using his trusty Sky-Hook. It’s a blast flying through the city this way, and it provides various advantages in a fight, too. You can shoot from the lines, zip to better perspectives on the battlefield, and jump at opportune moments in a vicious attack. It will let you reach hidden areas, and often it’s just necessary for getting from A to B. You have some mild control over your speed, though gravity can be hard to overcome at times. You can switch directions on the fly, too. The hook is useful for more than travel; it’s also a powerful melee weapon, though the results are akin to putting someone’s face in a blender.
And that brings me to a subject more uncomfortable than the cloudy moral waters the game loves to tread: combat. If the game has one weak link, combat is it. It’s not that it’s boring or unbalanced. It’s neither. The mixture of weapons, Vigors, Vigor combos, Sky-Lines, and Columbia’s breathtaking geography make for quite the action-packed spectacle. And the enemy A.I. are so smart, they’re downright devious, flanking and circling around behind to get the drop on you. It’s always a little chaotic, but I think that probably makes it a lot more like real life.
The problem is in how the violence is wildly out of proportion with the tone of the rest of the game. My wife enjoyed watching me play BioShock Infinite until the combat kicked in. Because it’s not like Booker suddenly grabs a gun and starts shooting up the bad guys. That she could handle; she’s watched me play dozens of shooters. This one lost her in seconds because once he starts to fight, Booker mutilates his foes. He caps their heads, popping them like pimples. He burns them alive. He rips them apart with that Sky-Hook, limb by limb. Geysers of blood gush from every wound.
It’s not that the realistic depiction of violence is a turnoff; plenty of other games present violence in a similarly dark, uncompromising way. The problem is that this level of brutality is like nails on a chalkboard after BioShock Infinite has spent so much time setting a tone where that kind of violence doesn’t belong. Maybe it’s a reflection of Infinite’s bright-blue-sky setting — as contrasted to BioShock‘s dark, decayed backdrop — that the extreme violence this time out feels wildly out of place. The rest of the game is such a beautiful, nuanced world that you believe in it wholeheartedly. When the game instantly abandons all subtlety and sledgehammers you over the head with completely gonzo, Quentin Tarantino amounts of gore and brutality, it’s more than jarring. It’s like you’re suddenly playing a completely different game — one that you’ve been tricked into.
Could BioShock Infinite have been made as a different genre of game? I think so. Its story could have been told just as profoundly as part of an adventure game, or an RPG. Forcing the player into sickening acts of horrific cruelty is at odds with the game’s almost poetic, emotionally resonant narrative. Infinite’s haunting story could have carried just as much dramatic weight without all the terror and gore — and appealed to a much broader audience.
It’s almost silly when you consider that many other games offer the player an option to turn off the most graphic violence if they so choose. This whole debate could have been avoided if Irrational had just included something similar. Anyway…
The heart of BioShock Infinite is the relationship between Booker and Elizabeth, who is a mystery even to herself. Both of them hold deep secrets, most of which are hidden even to them. Who and what Elizabeth is, is the key mystery of game, so my lips are sealed. But it’s not a spoiler to mention that Elizabeth is no ordinary girl. Her ability to see through dimensional walls and open “tears” between them not only serves as a major plot point in the story, it also gives Booker a big advantage when the two of them team up, as Elizabeth can pull useful stuff like ammo and automated turrets through those tears. She’s also a terrific scavenger, so she’ll find weapons, health, salts (ammo for Vigors), and even money that she’ll toss to you. The mechanics of this are really cool. You’ll be in the middle of a fight and hear Elizabeth call out, “Booker!” With one button press, Booker spins to her location and catches whatever she tosses, auto-reloads it or heals himself, and then suddenly he’s right back in the fight, as if he never left. It’s smooth, well done, and crazy cool.
Elizabeth is unlike any companion you’ve ever had in a video game. She’s loaded with A.I. smarts that help her react realistically to whatever environment she’s in. You never have to worry about her in a fight, she’ll always hide and take care of herself. She’s a resource, not a liability, and she has a very real personality. For example, she’s repulsed by the extreme violence Booker must use to foster their escape from Columbia, so she won’t fire a gun. But she’ll pick locks, scavenge for supplies, open tears at your command, and interact with the environment and NPCs, as well as Booker. Their conversations and observations make up the bulk of the game’s dialogue, and really deepen their relationship.
The list of mysteries surrounding Columbia is long. How does it stay aloft using turn-of-the-20th-Century technology? Who is Booker DeWitt? Who or what is Elizabeth? What is the Songbird? What does Comstock want with Elizabeth? (And once you know what he wants, you immediately want to know why he wants it.) Why has she been held prisoner her entire life? I think it’s only fair to warn you that the game refuses to hand-feed you some of the answers you crave. Often, you have to conduct thorough searches to find audio recordings that give you hints about the answers, which you then have to read between the lines and extrapolate for yourself.
Fans of the original BioShock are no doubt wondering what the connective tissue is from that game to this one. I’m not going to say, but the connection is there, in a way that slightly recontextualizes the first game… Likewise, you may be wondering if Ken Levine and his Irrational crew built a big twist into this game that matches the infamous Andrew Ryan twist in BioShock. All I’ll tell you is this: the ending is unlike anything you’ve ever seen in a game before, and it demands immediate conversation.
There’s more I could talk about, so much more… The unique use of existing pop music that sets an otherworldly tone early on in the game… The four classes of heavy hitters that provide unique challenges… Columbia’s rebellion that fights against Comstock’s regime, the Vox Populi, which uses tactics that might just make them as repulsive as the ruling class… The physicist Lutece twins, who keep popping up throughout the game to offer wry commentary… My own curiosity at how characters, locations, and scenes we saw in preview clips have been excised from the game whole hog…
Understand: BioShock Infinite is not perfect. And some of those issues would be unforgivable in any other game. Yet after spending so much time living in Columbia, meeting its citizens, learning of their history, fighting some of them and alongside others, having my mind expanded by so much highbrow social commentary and intelligence… I find it hard to fault such a beautiful, brilliantly-written experience.
BioShock Infinite is an all-too-rare masterpiece. Its unforgettable story and setting are so captivating, they will consume you long after you put your game controller down.
Images: Irrational Games