It’s your birthday. It’s your birthday and you’re spending it getting dragged along by your overly eager friend. You know the one: the one that loves to celebrate friendship-a-versaries and the annual return of the McRib. They also have an undying love for surprise parties, so you know that somewhere along the way, you will walk into a room, the lights will flick on, and dozens of people will jump out from behind couches and door jambs and regionally inappropriate fauna and yell “SURPRISE!” You know it’s going to happen but you don’t know when or where or how.
But then oh shit it happens when you’re stopped at a red light and 14 cars surround you blaring music and serving cake with icing decorations that say “Congratulations!” because it turns out you are also a puppy.
BioShock Infinite is kind of like that. You know what’s coming. BioShock Infinite knows what you’re expecting. And then it delivers, but it delivers everything you thought would happen, turns it right back around, and then reveals that it delivered something else all along. It so masterfully hands you precisely what you want and then flips it over to show you that it knew what you really wanted better than you could ever know yourself. Its themes are complex and grand to the point of bursting the party balloon, but the mechanical cogs that turn in the skyward machination manage to keep it in check.
Those cogs fit within a familiar framework of a first-person shooter. From the outset, BioShock Infinite, the latest (after a six-year gap since the release of the original BioShock) offering from Irrational Games and its two-in-one fuel and fire Ken Levine, appears to very much take after previous entries into the franchise. You start out on a boat, sure, but you’re still headed towards a lighthouse and inside this lighthouse you discover that you’ll still be interacting here and there with phones and radios and looting barrels and taking in a lot of ambient storytelling. But then you sit down in a chair and you are launched into the sky, all the way up into the floating utopia of Columbia.
This introductory sequence sells the entire game magnificently because it provides a holistic experience in microcosm. If you played the first BioShock, you know that it starts out in a similar fashion (i.e. coming up to a waterlogged lighthouse) but you go 180° the other direction and descend down into Rapture. Rapture itself is an overtly broken and dreary place that easily inspires fear, but Columbia, all the way up in sky, is so immaculately clean that it brings about a very subtle and, quite frankly, impressive sense of malaise. Instead of being told what is wrong, you simply know that something is wrong, and you’re about to find out what.
This play with expectations runs through the whole game and actually pays off in the end and a dramatic and amazing fashion. Everything you recall from BioShock and BioShock 2 isn’t necessarily required to enjoy BioShock Infinite but it certainly helps. This includes the combat. Everything takes place in the first-person perspective well within the shoes of former Pinkerton and US military member Booker DeWitt. Sent to Columbia to collect a girl to wipe away a heavy gambling debt, he is bred for combat, so it certainly doesn’t feel out of place that he’s so readily capable of handling weapons. You’ll go through various types of machine guns, rifles, shotguns, and heavy weapons like RPGs and Gatling guns, each one distinct and deliberate in its purpose.
He does have a strange affinity for vigors, though, which are the new plasmids of old. A pull of the left trigger enables you to shoot out lightning, direct a murder of crows to do your dirty deeds, or conjure up a bullet-soaking shield while holding the trigger allows you to whip up a trap so enemies can step into an area and instantly be launched into the air or wracked with fire and pain. It certainly makes it a lot easier to use traps than before, but I still never used them that much. I didn’t even use vigors all that much except for when I encountered special enemies like Zealot of the Lady and Handyman. It’s such a shame because they are a lot of fun and actually fairly complex; you can combine certain vigors for boosted damage and effects, a little tidbit you only learn through loading screen tips.
This might have something to do with how character development works. As you wander around Columbia, you’ll find pieces of gear that can slot into one of four categories: hats, shirts, pants, and boots. Just about every piece, though, is fixed in location but random in name, so everyone will start out and end up with different Bookers. For instance, my first three pieces of gear had my melee attacks set enemies on fire, reduced my shield recharge time by one second and doubled its recharge rate, and granted me five seconds of invulnerability after jumping to or from a Sky-Line. All of that directed to building my Booker and my play style to being very mobile and centered around getting in and out of skirmishes quickly.
This means I spent most of the infusions (potions that permanently upgrade either your health, shield, or salts, the resources that powers your vigors) on shields. If you collect them all, you could probably max out all three stats, but I immediately went for shields and never looked back. This totally negated any need for about 75% of the game to even worry about my health and reduced my ability to consistently cast vigors. The shield is an odd addition in context of a BioShock game, but it seems necessary given the increased ratio of gun-wielding to melee enemies in Columbia versus Rapture.
With it, though, you are much more able to traverse the world via Sky-Lines (old, repurposed rails that used to be for delivering cargo) since you can get dinged with little consequence. This mobility enables you to take advantage of the wide open battle arenas of Columbia and it just feels fantastic. You never feel like you’re against an encroaching deadline of enemies flanking you beyond a point of no return and instead feel enabled with the ability to attack anyone at almost any time. This structure encourages you to move, to rapidly try new weapons, and explore even in the midst of combat. It breaks down a little once you exclusively fight foes with firearms, but it never devolves into a bad or boring form.
An interesting (and welcome) twist is the addition of Elizabeth, the girl you were sent to retrieve. She, as it turns out, is imbued with the power to tear holes in reality and bring in previously nonexistent objects like cover and weapons. This ability brings about a discrete and controllable ability to manipulate an otherwise static environment and adds a flavor of choice-making and dynamism not normally found in shooters. Elizabeth will also deliver unto you ammo in the form of fully reloaded weapons (almost always the one you’re using) and health packs and salt vials. You never have to keep tabs on her or request these things; she’ll just appear close by and you hit a button prompt to catch whatever she’s got. It creates a relationship outside of the story that intimately informs the one within it.
And what a relationship it is. Voice acting aside (which is utterly superb and might as well be a gift from on high thanks to the immense talents of Troy Baker and Courtnee Draper), the relationship between Booker and Elizabeth is everything. The whole game practically hinges on you buying into the developments of the growth between these two characters, and it works. The tragedy of both of their stories informs feelings in the other character that often mirrors your own and eventually gets grounded into genuine affection. It’s incredibly hard not to fall in love with Elizabeth and she’s not even real. Her passion is infectious and Booker’s utilitarian grip on a loose, skyward city is as admirable as it is relatable.
Their beautiful interactions build and take place within a dirty proscenium. The world of Columbia is ruled by a man named Comstock, a self-appointed prophet who decided that America wasn’t America enough. In this pristine, hyper clean city, there is dirt everywhere. Racism, bigotry, nationalism, zealotry, freedom. All of that is placed firmly within the foundation of Columbia and it smacks you hard in the face from the get-go. It is startling but so well realized that it’s impossible to look away. Irrational and Levine are world builders, and it just so happens that this world is gross and corrupt in every possible way.
These are complex themes that BioShock Infinite handles with grace when it wants to and with a hammer when it needs to. They shift and change but they’re always faceted in such amazing ways. That’s not to say, however, that it is a game all about race wars. As much as BioShock was ultimately about objectivism is how much BioShock Infinite is about all that, which is to say not at all. It sets the stage for a grander production to play out and its themes and goals and so much bigger than all that. If you could spoil the entire world of story of Jack and Atlas with a single sentence, you would need an entire tome to spoil Infinite.
Subtle cues are served up constantly. Music in every possible way is vital to the story. Anachronisms aren’t so much out of place as they are purposefully without context. BioShock Infinite trades in guile until it hits you in the gut with a sack of Fuck You. It isn’t a twist in a “just kidding about everything you just saw, heard, and read” sort of way but in a “hey, that thing you thought? It’s like that, but also like this” and that last this is so impossibly ambitious and monolithic that you don’t think they can pull it off, but they do.
That’s not to say, however, that it is not without its narrative flaws. The ramp for Elizabeth’s acceptance of life outside of the tower isn’t so much of a slope as it is a 20-story high-rise and the existence and casual littering of audio logs still makes little to no sense. The existence of gun-selling and vigor-toting vending machines make much less sense in the world of Columbia than it did in Rapture and a few of the bits at the end play out as a “hey, wouldn’t you know it” sort of maneuver. That and a few other quibbles, however, are potatoes, and the steak is so overwhelmingly potent that I can’t see how you would even want to—let alone be able to—look at those little starch nuggets.
I truly and honestly can’t recommend BioShock Infinite enough. It is not only the best-playing BioShock game (not saying much, I know) but it is just a good-playing game period despite some TURN IT UP TO 11 AND LET IT RIP MAN moments. And music and art is so rich and succulent that it’s damn near blasphemous that you don’t lick all those delicious chicken juices off your fingers after you play. But of course, it’s the story that makes it. It’s the relationship so expertly developed over the course of 12 hours of loving and hating and admiring and pitying these two characters. It’s the tragic and beautiful and unsettling thread they are all tangled up in. And it’s the way it all makes you forget to breathe—makes you weak at the knees—at the end that really puts a bow on it.
+ Beautiful, grotesque world that inspires awe and malaise
+ Two amazing main characters that build a moving and enviable relationship
+ Combat is concrete and open to movement, improvisation, and empowerment
+ The story is utterly heart- and mind-breaking and will inspire Inception-level discussion
+ YO THOSE VIGOR’D UP HANDS ARE GROSS DAWG
Final Score: 10 out of 10