The lights are on
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Nothing is as it seems in Irrational's BioShock Infinite. The mystification that Ken Levine crafts throughout this amazing video game is stunning and sends the player on a journey through the very fabric of space and time. What if you walked instead of drove to the store today? What if cars had never been invented? What if the South had won the American Civil War? What would life be today if certain aspects were slightly changed or had never even occurred at all? These questions and more are explored in BioShock Infinite's complex and masterfully crafted journey.
From the opening moments to the hours after the credits roll, your jaw will be dropped. It's very rare that a first person shooter will make you want to search every room for any little audio diary or story detail. The first 30 minutes or so of my initial playthrough entailed mostly of just slowly walking around Columbia and taking in the sights; a sequence that easily could have been done in five minutes if I had skipped past all of the interesting details. BioShock Infinite is an exhibit of masterful storytelling, creative gameplay, and incredible art design. I would be stunned if a better game gets released this generation.
Whereas Rapture was an underwater metropolis in 1960, Infinite takes place in 1912 on Columbia, a surreal floating city in the sky. While both settings share their similarities, there are many important differences. BioShock took place after the fall of Rapture. In Infinite, Columbia is a thriving and fully functional utopia. It's difficult to say which backdrop is "better" since they are both so different and unique in their own ways. The best way that I can put it is that I met Columbia with the same fear and wonder as when I met Rapture.
Early on in the game, you hear an a cappella group singing "God Only Knows" by the Beach Boys. This song was released in 1966. Later on, you hear the tune of Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want to Have Fun", released in 1983. Both of course completely out of their element. I knew that they wouldn't do something like this for no reason. Thankfully, small out-of-place touches like those get answered masterfully throughout the narrative, but not directly. Rarely will someone tell you a detail and then how it relates to another. The details are presented to you in the form of a puzzle. You alone are left with putting the puzzle together and each realization is more fascinating than the last.
While BioShock was more or less limited to a theme of objectivism and a strive for perfection, Infinite deals with much more. That's not saying that the themes in BioShock were shallow; they were far from it. Infinite just goes further. Racism, religion, and politics are the three centerpiece themes of the story. The most amazing part of this is how the themes are presented. Instead of a cutscene where the villain tells you his plan and then you go stop him, these details are shown through posters, background dialogue between bystanders or a PA announcement as you go through a building. All information is retained but presented in an immensely refreshing and unique way.
You play as Booker DeWitt, an ex-detective with nothing to lose. He's sent on a mission to find a girl, Elizabeth, and bring her to New York in order to pay off an old debt. A major theme in Infinite is the relationship between Booker and Elizabeth. The evolution of the characters is so drastic and expertly paced throughout the narrative that the two are much different people by the time you see the credits. The relationship that evolves between the two characters is some of the best character development I have yet to see in a video game.
Elizabeth isn't someone you have to escort. She isn't someone who will frustrate you every time she dies and you have to restart a checkpoint - because she won't die. Ever. It ends up being quite the opposite, actually, as she spends most of her time during gameplay keeping you from dying. She will find you health kits, search for ammo when you're running low, and sometimes even toss some money at you. As I described before, one of BioShock Infinite's most fascinating story elements deals with alternate realities. Elizabeth has a unique ability to call in supplies, objects to use as cover, and even powerful robotic allies to aid in combat, all through tears in space-time. In the story, her powers dive much deeper than simply being used as combat aids.
Combat is centered around gun play and using your genetically modified super powers to kill enemies. While the basic mechanics remain more or less unchanged from the original BioShock, Infinite adds a noticeable level of polish and luster to the gameplay. Instead of plasmids, your abilities are called vigors. Instead of eve hypos, you find salts that replenish your vigor powers. While they are functionally the same, I found myself using the vigors far less than I used plasmids in the original BioShock. In addition, instead of having a wheel of weapons, you are limited to carrying two weapons at a time. This adds to the difficulty and utilizes Elizabeth's ammo hunting mechanic well.
The primary antagonist is Zachary Comstock, founder of Columbia. I found him to be as memorable as Andrew Ryan, if not more. His place in the story is extremely compelling and the revelations that you experience throughout the story are astounding. On the contrast, I found that the basic enemies you face during combat are far less interesting than the splicers in Rapture. The enemies you face in Infinite are just vanilla soldiers that you mow through from combat sequence to combat sequence. Each splicer in BioShock felt like they had their own story to tell and were scattered unpredictably throughout Rapture. In Infinite, you more or less move from one action sequence to the next facing the same enemies. You are, however, given many more tools and abilities to fight the enemies with which manages to keep things from getting too stale.
Because Infinite takes place in a huge sky metropolis composed of hundreds upon hundreds of different air ships, the inclusion of skylines is both logical and immensely fun. Early on, you find a sky hook which you use as both your primary melee attack and as a fast means of moving about areas. Using skylines to zoom around enemies and then attack them from the air is extremely satisfying and Irrational manages to capture the euphoria of the action perfectly. The way that these skylines are implemented is phenomenal and unlike anything I have ever seen done in a video game before.
A sequel is a tough thing to create. Often times, the first game in a series is just an experiment; an excuse to tread water with the creator's vision. Some games like Portal, Uncharted, and Half-Life are so well received that a sequel needs to be created. A lot of the time those sequels end up bombing because they stray too far from the creator's original vision (BioShock 2, anyone?). BioShock was an experiment. It was Ken Levine treading water. With BioShock Infinite, he had the opportunity to turn that experiment into an incredible universe. And he did just that. I can easily say that, now that I have played through the game twice and the dust has settled, that BioShock Infinite is one of the best games that I have ever played.
BioShock Infinite is not a perfect game; no game is and there never will be one. But it's as close as we're going to get this generation. Any gripes I have with this game are trivial and are not limited to this game but most if not all games of this generation. There's only one animation for Booker hitting a button. I played the Xbox 360 version of this game so textures will often popup and some specific details in environments aren't always completely defined. Little things like that, however, are like a drop of water on steel. No effect on the experience. It is difficult to put into words just how ambitious BioShock Infinite is without spoiling it. It's like trying to explain Disney Land without saying what any of the rides are. The visuals, the complex themes, the character relationships, the gameplay, and the overlapping story all tie together masterfully in a way that cannot be easily compared to other games.
This game is a moment. It easily sets the pace for how games should tell their stories. BioShock Infinite isn't just BioShock 3 and for good reason. Sure, some things are similar. A lighthouse, an enigmatic villain, a hero, a girl and a guardian, but there is enough that is unique to this game that it creates an identity of its own. Constants and variables. This is an experience that every gamer should play. You will not be disappointed.
Watch us take a look at the game in the video above! Note: When we recorded that video, I hadn't completed the game yet, but it will give you a more in-depth look at the combat and how Elizabeth can interact with you in gameplay. Completely spoiler free.
We are also thinking of doing a video or podcast in which we delve deep into the story and discuss important plot points and theories. Let me know in the comments if you would be interested in such a thing.
As always, thanks for reading. I greatly appreciate any comments or critiques you can offer!