Remember your first trip to Rapture?
How could you not? The shock of waking up after a plane crash in the middle of an ocean, with fiery pieces of plane sliding into the deep around you. Swimming for your life to a nearby lighthouse in the middle of nowhere. Finding a diving bell inside it and taking it down, down, into a city trapped under the water with ocean life swimming by - was that a blue whale?! - seemingly an idyllic paradise hidden away from the madness of modern life. Before the doors even opened you wanted to know just what was going on here and even when set upon by attackers it didn’t stymie your desire to understand - how, why - what exactly caused this world to go to hell? You sought knowledge from Bioshock, even as you killed hundreds of people with fire and ice and bees that you’d conjure up from your hands. (Feels silly when it’s put that way, doesn’t it?)
Bioshock Infinite offers much the same experience. You’re once again a man (this time with a voice and a full name) that’s exploring a hidden world unlike any you know. You’re a witness to Columbia, a slice of turn-of-the-century America that successfully seceded from the Union in the most dramatic of fashions, floating enormous buildings up into the sky thanks to quantum physics or something. Perhaps even more amazing than the tremendously beautiful views of a city in the clouds is the alternate America it presents, one that’s even more nationalistic and deeply religious than the one we inhabit. It’s a place where racism still thrives, where there’s still innate fear of the “other” or anything UnAmerican. It’s a place where George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin have been elevated to the ranks of Gods, and as you explore and begin to see just what this place is about you’ll be completely obsessed with learning more and more, reading everything you come across and listening to every audio recording you find to figure out just what is going on here.
And then you kill someone with a claw hook thing and start shooting everything that moves.
It’s a purposely shocking bit of violence and it’s at this point you might feel as I did. You’ll have been completely wrapped up in the world of Columbia before you get into the game proper and be reminded that you’re actually playing a shooter, and almost wish that you weren’t. The theme is too good for that, too strong, isn’t it? It’s still hard to take a game’s story seriously when they provide us with likeable main characters who murder more people than most of the worst mass murderers of history, combined.
Perhaps it was because the enemies in Bioshock are so monstrous that it didn’t seem as... evil. There your enemies were trying to kill you and cut out your stem cells; here it’s not obvious that your actions are justified. Your enemies want to prevent you from doing your job, which is to kidnap a girl named Elizabeth, a girl who happens to be the daughter of their founder of Columbia and the “lamb” you’ll see written about all over the city in fevered religious terms. You? You’re the False Shepherd. You are not a good guy this time.
When you do finally kill your way to the place they’re keeping Elizabeth, you realize she has special powers. She’s been trapped and hidden from society because of it but she’s used her time to read books (and learn how to pick locks) and open up tears. That’s tears-rhymes-with-pears, shredding holes in the very fabric of space and time, allowing her access to other dimensions where things are perhaps a bit different. As you journey with her and attempt to escape Columbia she can help you by conjuring up friendly defenders and useful items, or even by sneaking away to a world where things have changed, however slightly.
But if you’ve played Bioshock - and really, why haven’t you at this point? - you’ll find a healthy dose of déjà vu. It’s somewhat the point of the game but things that felt so scary and new and exciting about the original feel out of place here. The Plasmids that give you your supernatural powers, for example, are repurposed and retitled Vigors in Bioshock Infinite. They don’t make sense thematically, at all. In a world like Rapture where everyone is obsessed with bettering themselves and evolving into something more than human, plasmids make sense, even if it’s still silly to think of a practical application for hands that shoot bees. Here, in a world based on the perverted teachings of the founding fathers and featuring all kinds of insane groups based on purity (born-agains, the Klan, etc.), it just doesn't make sense that people are genetically modifying themselves into abominations that can shoot animals out of their hands - crows, in this case.
There’s also the fact that you’re constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, thanks to one Andrew Ryan. You’ll see it coming when it does, but nothing about Bioshock Infinite is subtle, or small. Gigantic graven images of important political figures hover in the air in every location you visit, many with grand proclamations written in giant letters nearby, reminding you of the great deeds they performed and which you should one day hope to aspire to. Racism and slavery aren't spoken of in hushed tones, they're everywhere you look. It gets to the point where it beats you over the head with every theme but it’s genuinely surprising to see these things explored in a video game at all, and thus refreshing.
There’s also the fact that all of these threads are just pulled out and thrown away by the third act, which focuses almost entirely on the two main characters. Not that their story isn’t well worth it, but it would be nice to see the game delve a little further into the political and religious battles taking place in Columbia. But again, subtlety isn’t the game’s strong point and besides a pessimistic “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” resolution that’s hammered home with absolutely no grace, not much else is explored.
As a shooter? It’s decent. The fights get repetitive by the end but they’re thrilling until that point, and much more fast-paced that the series is used to. There are a few fun new powers and guns you can wield and you can use your skyhook (that claw hook thing) to jump on conveniently placed rails and rush around the battlefield, getting altitude on your attackers and taking them out your way. You’ll run around utilizing Elizabeth’s tears to call up cover or needed weapons, remarking on what a great AI companion she is for the fact that she doesn’t need any attention. Don’t worry about a game-long escort mission as she can never get hurt during battle. She’ll even throw you exactly what you need when you get low on it, health packs, salt for your vigor meter, ammunition.
It’s said you’re hard on the ones you love and this review is proof of that. There’s no denying that Bioshock Infinite is one incredible experience and it’s really hard not to just gush about it. You’ll get sucked into the story quite easily, loving the incredible set-pieces and plot twists you’ll come across. It’s the kind of game you’ll put down with a sigh after you’ve finished and just be proud of what they’ve accomplished, but also the kind of game that won’t leave your mind as you start to pick it apart in the ensuing days. It tends to comes apart quite easily.
Ken Levine and his team at Irrational are impeccable crafters of unique worlds, places you’ll want to take time to fully experience. You’ll want to slow down and just gaze at the sun shining through the clouds and glinting off the gilded statues. You’ll want to listen to every single conversation you overhear. You’ll want to swim in the water at the artificial beach and eat everything in the chocolate shop and just follow these people around and live out their lives, although you’ll soon realize that this is more of a haunted house attraction, where everyone says one line and waits for you to move on. Stunningly crafted and yet an example of both where games need to be, and need to evolve.