The lights are on
Bioshock Infinite had some big shoes to fill. The original Bioshock, released in 2007 to both critical acclaim and financial success, is one of the defining games of this console generation. It proved that games could be both artistic and thought provoking while still appealing to a mainstream audience. Iconic characters such as the Big Daddy and Little Sisters, as well as that now immortal phrase "Would you kindly?" have become firmly rooted within the collective gaming mindset.
With all of that in mind, Bioshock Infinite blows Rapture straight out of the water. Featuring deeper combat, more expressive and relatable characters as well as a setting that is (somehow) even richer in its visualization and social commentary than Rapture before it, Bioshock Infinite is a masterpiece over 6 years in the making.
The decision for the player character Booker Dewitt to actually have a personality and history as opposed to the original title's "blank slate" protagonist does much to elevate Infinite above its predecessor.
An ex-pinkerton agent and war veteran, Dewitt's life hasn't been easy. He's killed, beaten, and maimed people both in war and in peace. Now in 1912 he has to live with his horrible deeds, and he finds himself deep in debt to some very important people. They offer him one chance for redemption - bring us the girl, and wipe away the debt. The only problem is that the girl in question is in Columbia, a floating city in the sky.
Players are greeted with a familiar sight upon starting the game, a lone lighthouse amongst the ocean waves. Except this time, rather than descending to the ocean depths below, players are lifted high into the sky.
What you will find there is a visual feast. Columbia is a far cry from the murky and grim failure that is the underwater libertarian utopia of Rapture. Columbia's vision of an American utopia is still alive and well upon the player's arrival. Brick buildings float atop massive balloons against the backdrop of a brilliant baby blue sky. Citizens talk, dine and barter as children laugh and play in the streets, all while the angel statues that decorate every building and corner watch silently from above, one particularly massive statue in particular.
It truly looks to be a heaven on earth, or as close as mankind could come to it. As players in the first hour of the game explore this literal "city on a hill," an uneasy feeling begins to creep in. Conversations overheard between citizens make you do a double take, as you ask yourself "did they just say that?" Images throughout the city idealize America's founding fathers, George Washington, Ben Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson, as well as the city's own charismatic and mysterious founding father. Posters and propaganda point towards a deeply religious god fearing populace, who believe themselves to be more "American" than the America down below, so much in fact they seceded from the union and floated away. Immigrants and non-whites, whether they are Irish, Chinese or African-American, are treated as second class citizens. The cracks of this "utopia" quickly begin to appear.
Columbia's ugly underbelly becomes painfully apparent early on in the game following one of the most nonintrusive and clever tutorials I've ever played in a game. Columbia is celebrating its independence from the United States, and Dewitt gets to take part (at least for a few moments) in the festivities. Parade precessions float by, fireworks light up the sky, and music fills the air as Booker makes his way through the city. He shortly arrives at a small fair, and it functions as the perfect tutorial/world building environment. Salesman perform live demonstrations of their products, such as the audio recording voxiphones and the effects of drinks called vigors which when consumed seemingly grant magic powers. Carnival games serve as combat tutorials, as players pick up air rifles to shoot cardboard versions of a local rebel group known as the "Vox Populi," and upon achieving a high enough score are rewarded with prizes.
After leaving the fair, Booker finds himself at a raffle. After drawing a baseball with a number on it and awaiting the results, Booker is found to be the winner. The prize? The opportunity to essentially throw the first stone at a public lynching of an interracial couple.
You are presented with three choices; throw the baseball at the couple, throw it at the announcer, or do nothing at all. Never before have I felt so uncomfortable while playing a video game. To throw the ball at the couple would be to commit a terrible act of hate and racism. To throw the ball at the announcer would be to sell yourself out as an intruder and could potentially hurt your chances of finding the girl and escaping. If it wasn't evident before, it becomes painfully so now - Bioshock Infinite isn't pulling any punches. It wants to be taken seriously. It wants players to stare into the ugly face of racism and nationalism taken to the extreme, and it grabs you by the throat to do so.
Even without the super nationalistic populace and white supremacy philosophy, Columbia is a disturbing and strange place. Two peculiar characters, who appear to be twins, persistently appear and babble about what to the player seems to be nonsense. Items and pieces of the environment sometimes change or disappear altogether. Songs familiar to players in modern times can be heard in a much different fashion, despite the game taking place in 1912. There is something much deeper and more complex going on in Columbia, and while the first half of the game deals heavily with Columbia and its ideals, the second half of the game takes a jarring metaphysical turn.
Enter Elizabeth: the girl Dewitt is tasked with retrieving and believed by the Columbian population to be the "lamb" and their saving grace. Imprisoned within the colossal stone angel by her father Zachary Comstock, who is both the "prophet" and founder of Columbia, Elizabeth is the real soul of Bioshock Infinite. Elizabeth has special powers and is considered dangerous - hence her imprisonment. She can rip open what are known as "tears" or portals to alternate realities, something Comstock and his followers are very interested in. Keeping watch over Elizabeth and the tower is the Songbird, Infinite's answer to the now iconic Big Daddy of the original Bioshock.
After escaping authorities and being revealed as "the false Shepard" destined to lead the "lamb" astray, Booker breaks Elizabeth out of her towering prison, evades the Songbird, and the adventure truly begins.
Elizabeth was locked up in cage for the majority of her life. As a result she is naïve to the harsh realities of the world. She is repulsed by Booker's violence and confused as to why Columbia treats many of her citizens as less than human. But just because she is naïve doesn't mean she isn't intelligent. She spent much of her time all those years reading and learning, and acquired numerous skills such as lock picking in the process. She'll open locked doors for you and provide insight into game areas and events. Elizabeth also plays an important role in combat as well by tossing you ammo or other resources in the middle of a fight or opening tears to bring in allies or resources from parallel worlds to aid you in your battles.
Combat is another area where Infinite soars. A variety of expected guns are at your disposal: pistols, machine guns, shotguns, RPG's, all upgradeable. It's the magic-like vigors that add the real diversity to the games core gameplay. Similar to plasmids in Bioshock, there are 8 vigors total, each with unique upgrades and which can be cast at enemies with a press of the left trigger or held down and released to create a trap on the floor. Mixing vigors together to form unique and devastating combinations is a blast, and smart players will use these combinations while selecting vigors according to their environment and enemy type to succeed. Being a floating city in the sky, there are plenty of opportunities to knock enemies off ledges with the Undertow vigor. The possession vigor allows Booker to take over and control enemy machines. My favorite combination involved the fire bomb vigor Devil's Kiss combined with Murder of Crows. Stunning large groups of enemies with a swarm of crows, I would then proceed to use my upgraded Devil's Kiss to carpet bomb large areas with explosive and deadly results.
Aside from combat, exploration is what you will be doing during your roughly 10-15 hour stay in Columbia. Taking in the rich world of Columbia is a pleasure, and at times essential to understanding the game's story fully. Voxiphones, or audio logs, of important characters can be found throughout the game and provide backstory and context to game events. Exploring can also help improve your combat performance. Hunting down and finding pieces of gear that modify your abilities, such as increasing critical hit damage or adding fire damage to melee attacks, helps add more variety and personal preference to combat encounters.
No matter what the gameplay or world setting, Bioshock wouldn't be Bioshock without a mind bending twist. Infinite has several, but unlike the original Bioshock which flipped the gamer's perception of the world upside down half-way to three-fourths way through the game, Infinite delivers its heart stopping and headache inducing reveal in the games very final moments. You won't see it coming. Players will be talking about this one for years to come. This is a game that demands a second play through - the finale puts the entire game in a new perspective and playing again is the key to truly understanding what exactly happened just before, and right after, the credits rolled.
Bioshock Infinite is a masterpiece, but it isn't perfect. Playing on the Xbox 360 with the game installed to the hard drive, I noticed a wide variety of low resolution textures throughout the game. Large fights, especially towards the end of the game, caused my frame rate to drop significantly, resulting in annoying lag and slowdown in intense firefights.
Despite these minor criticisms, Bioshock Infinite is still the epitome of what games can, and should be. It is, through and through, a video game. It's a blast to play, and the gameplay approaches perfection. But just because it has guns, blood, and magic spells doesn't mean it can't deliver a relevant and thought provoking tale. Truth be told, the story of Bioshock Infinite is one that can only be told in a game. It requires players to step into Booker's shoes and be just as confused as he is, requires players to build a real relationship with Elizabeth, to discover and reject the ideas and philosophy of the city of Columbia first-hand, otherwise all of its impact would be lost. It wouldn't work as a movie, as a play, or as a comic. It can only work as a game. And that's what makes it brilliant.
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