With BioShock Infinite, Irrational Games' franchise has finally made the leap from sea to sky — skipping land on the way. It's quite the leap to make and, as these people seem to think, the results are quite spectacular.
Columbia, Infinite's floating city is not only the world's greatest cultist hotspot; it's also a place where exciting gunplay goes hand-in-hand with exploration and storytelling. But how exactly did the enigmatic city of Columbia draw these reviewers in? Have a look below.
If Columbia does one thing right, it's making the player question the nature of the environment around them. It feels like The Truman Show crossed with The Twilight Zone – plastic smiles and saintly manners hide barbaric beliefs; barbershop quartets singing anachronistic pop hits disturb and entertain in equal measure; and secondary characters appear and disappear like Batman auditioning for a role in The Prestige (itself surely an influence). There's an eerie, dream-like sense of disharmony to it.
BioShock Infinite is a lavish, spectacular game. It’s an intelligent one, too, where themes such as the nature of choice, metaphysics and the effects of political isolationism jostle for your attention alongside electrifying giant robots with your genetically altered left hand and then shooting them in the face. That Infinite can handle the collision between its philosophical concerns and its dead-end thrills without seeming hopelessly crass or overly portentous testifies to its often touching script, excellent pacing and the kind of unparalleled world building that shows you all of this coexisting cohesively in a golden city in the sky. But it also demonstrates something else: BioShock’s mechanical evolution as a first-person shooter.
I keep wanting to say that it’s ‘directed’ brilliantly, the elements fit together so well. But that’s not the right word, because the other thing it does well is keeping you in control. There are no cutscenes, no switching to third person, no agency-limiting tropes like mounted gun sections. The few times you’re not free to move are generally when your character physically wouldn’t be.
Infinite deserves plenty of credit in its moment-to-moment storytelling too. Serious themes abound in Columbia’s alternate-reality 1912. Racism, sexism, nationalism, and religion are all put directly in front of you, whether you like it or not. It makes a point simply by confronting you with these uncomfortable issues and forcing you to at least think about them. And though Infinite never gets preachy, it certainly offers political commentary, chiming in with obvious nods to the “99% vs. 1%” debate — even if, unlike in the original BioShock, Infinite slyly submits that both sides of the coin have their demons, and neither can claim the moral high ground in Columbia. To that end, Infinite skips out on any significant moral choices or multiple endings from the previous BioShocks. I didn’t miss them, though, as its story arc is both definitive and impactful while riding its own singular track.
Engagements are typically a fun dance between mixing weapons and abilities while utilizing the environmental possibilities to cut down Infinite's assortment of enemies – snatching powerful weapons from tears, leaping onto skylines and fighting as you glide across the sky. Some of the battles, however, drag on too long and interrupt the flow of story-telling, especially toward the end of the game.
Replicating the achievements of the original BioShock is a challenging goal (as 2K Marin’s sequel demonstrated), but series creator Irrational Games returns with a fresh vision and redefines what the BioShock name means. Infinite is more than a new setting, story, and characters; those elements are seamlessly integrated with complex themes, a mysterious plot, and entertaining combat to create an amazing experience from beginning to end. Familiar threads run through it – a lighthouse, a strange city, a charismatic antagonist – but they are homages to the past rather than attempts to recycle it. The core of Infinite is unlike anything else on land, sea, or air.
It's easy to dismiss those people floating in the fractured mirror Americas that we disagree with. They're wrong; we're right. Who cares why they are the way they are? But BioShock Infinite asks us to consider that very question and gives an answer that mixes hope with bitterness, wonder with despair and allegory with history. The game doesn't offer any advice about how to make everyone get along better but it makes a powerful argument for owning—and owning up to—all of our collective past.
Top image courtesy of Tina Amini.