The lights are on
For six years, Ken Levine and Irrational Games have worked
under high expectations. In 2007, they released BioShock, a massive critical
and commercial success. Succeeding what is widely considered the best game this
generation is tough- one need only look at the mediocre BioShock 2 as proof.
That's why BioShock Infinite impresses. While perhaps
nothing can surpass descending into Rapture, Infinite is a marvel in its own
right and stands as one of the best games of this console generation. It checks
every box on the list. The story, gameplay, characters and setting are superb.
I noticed the city first. Columbia is a marvel of
engineering and the human imagination. Buildings linked by bridges and cable
cars float atop strange engines. Because the city flies above the clouds, its
streets are always drenched with sunshine beneath clear skies. The scenery is
Infinite nails what BioShock 2 did not-that sense of
wonder and astonishment at a world one can scarcely comprehend. The city is
amazing and fascinating and terrifying all at once.
Columbia is darker than its sunny environs let on. Zealots
who venerate the Founding Fathers as demigods rule the city. The citizens are
racist, fanatically religious, xenophobic and brutally capitalistic. Cut off
from the rest of civilization on the ground, the city has grown into a monster.
Despite its inhumanity, Columbia is steeped in
fascinating lore. Little touches like a one-star flag (for Columbia) and posters
for imaginary products show the amount of care that went into crafting the
player's surroundings. I often searched each environment, trying to soak up as
much of the city as possible. Every poster, line of dialogue, person and audio
diary helps tell a compelling story.
That story is the kind of complex tale one would expect
from the people who popularized the phrase, "Would you kindly?". Booker's quest
to rescue Elizabeth is convoluted and goes to unexpected places.
Irrational deserves a real tip of the hat for Elizabeth.
She is best AI companion in years. Levine's writing breaks from the usual
damsel-in-distress tropes and makes her into someone interesting, dynamic,
lively, likeable, powerful, and above all, believably human. Elizabeth is a
breath of fresh air in a genre stuffy with blow-up doll love interests. By the
finale, I felt a real attachment to her.
The protagonist, Booker DeWitt, must keep Columbia's
wayward princess from Comstock, the Vox Populi and the monster Songbird. The
resulting tug-of-war propels the plot forward to its strange conclusion.
Players who obsessively collect voxaphones (audio diaries) and explore every
nook and cranny will understand the ending, but everyone else won't.
Deciphering the final moments takes time.
The story follows many of the same themes as the first
game. Levine always said BioShock was about extremism rather than Ayn Rand, and
Infinite is proof. Columbia is a case study in what happens when the lunatics
run... well, a floating city armed with futuristic quasi-steampunk weaponry.
The player uses those weapons to repel insurgents,
soldiers, and intimidating mechanical monsters. By the end of the game, Booker
has left a trail of bodies across the city. It's a sign of Infinite's quality
that this is presented without illusions. Booker DeWitt is a vile man, and the
game doesn't shy away from that.
The killing takes place within first-person shooter
gameplay. Combat is similar to previous games with mixed improvements and
setbacks. Booker's new recharging magnetic shield improves on the old health
needles. Weapons and powers are also dual-wieldable.
Unfortunately, BioShock Infinite drops the weapon wheel
in favor of a Halo two-weapon loadout. This decision baffles me. The old system
worked fine. The game tries to get around this by scattering weapons throughout
the environment for pickup, but this is an awkward solution to an unnecessary
The difficulty is similarly mixed. On one hand, Irrational
removed balance-breaking Vita-Chambers. On the other, the game is noticeably
easier. Experienced FPS gamers should play on Hard.
Overall gameplay quality is still high. Gunning down bad
guys in Columbia is fun, especially with a wide selection of upgradeable
weapons and powers. You'll need them to beat the aggressive enemy AI. Taking
down an arena full of bad guys and a Handyman is no mean feat.
Combat is easier with Elizabeth's help. She can open
"tears" in reality and create allies and weapons. She also scavenges money,
health, salts and ammo during battles. Her timely intervention saved me more
Players in trouble can also escape on any of the handy
ziplines around Columbia. The player can even shoot at enemies while riding the
rails, which is every bit as awesome as it sounds. Zipline gunfights are one of
the coolest things I've experienced in a game.
BioShock Infinite is imperfect. However, it's imperfect
on a level few games reach. This is the best game I've played since the
original BioShock. The story, gameplay, setting, and characters combine
flawlessly into something far greater than the sum of its parts. Infinite is a
rich, complex tale wrapped around a great first-person shooter. It's the best
kind of game, one that doesn't compromise gameplay or story.
In the end, the most powerful part of BioShock Infinite
wasn't a plot twist or gun fight. It happened when I wandered off the main path
into the basement of a bar. A lonely guitar stood propped against a box.
"A guitar?" Elizabeth wonders.
Booker sits down, picks up the guitar and strums a few
Elizabeth looks away and begins to gently sing.
Will the circle be
By and by, by and
Is a better home
In the sky, in the
That small and very human moment spoke to me more than
all of the explosions and revolutions and death. It represents everything that
makes BioShock Infinite so powerful. All the hopes, dreams, schemes, conflict,
and emotion in the game are neatly summarized by a simple four-line song. That's
Is there a better home awaiting in the sky? Maybe... it's
just not Columbia.