“Will the circle be unbroken / by and by, by and by? / Is a better home awaiting / In the sky, in the sky?”
This is the chorus to a Christian hymn heard countless times during Bioshock Infinite. While the lyrics originally intend to find solace in meeting one’s ancestors in heaven, Bioshock Infinite Creative Director Ken Levine takes the hymn literally in establishing Columbia, the floating utopia on which his latest game takes place.
Columbia is the result of self-proclaimed “prophet” Zachary Comstock feeling that he must establish “an Ark for a new time” in the sky. This Ark separates the true believers, who worship the ideals expounded by the founding fathers of America, from the godless heathens of America circa 1912.
Comstock’s hyper-American floating city sounds grand enough on paper, but in execution, the sights and sounds frequently made my jaw drop. Bioshock Infinite dares to be different with an art style that is vibrant and diverse while still remaining cohesive. The bright colors, lively music, and larger-than-life statues brought me back to Disneyland’s Main Street of all places. Sure, it doesn’t seem believable that ordinary folks would actually live there, but in the depths of my imagination, Columbia could actually exist. The city isn’t just there to look pretty either. Columbia is chock-full of details that contribute valuable details to the narrative.
The setup for Bioshock Infinite’s plot is pretty basic: Booker DeWitt, a mentally scarred war veteran down on his luck, is in debt to the wrong people. When Booker is offered a chance to rescue a girl named Elizabeth in exchange for an erasure of his debt, he jumps at the chance. This basic premise allows any player to get into the action and feel like there is a “reason” for everything that happens on screen, but players who take the time to analyze the game world will be highly rewarded. The nature of Booker’s debt is never directly explained in the narrative, but if you look at Booker’s desk in his office, the mountain of losing horse race tickets might give it away.
One important detail that expedient players will run past completely is Bioshock Infinite’s honest portrayal of racism in the 1900’s. It is brought to the forefront a little bit at the beginning of the story but only through overhearing conversations, and thoroughly exploring the environment, do you get the full picture. Time and time again, one doesn’t get the full experience unless you take up Bioshock Infinite’s frequent offers to ignore the main objective and explore the storefronts, slums, and back-alleys of Columbia. There is such an abundance of story details living in the walls of the game that Columbia shouldn’t just be considered the setting of Bioshock Infinite; it’s one of the main characters. A journey through Columbia makes every other game world feel dull and lifeless by comparison.
The core of Infinite‘s plot is the relationship between protagonist Booker DeWitt and Elizabeth. Players meet Elizabeth about an hour into the game, rescuing her from atop Columbia’s tallest tower. From here, the story shifts towards a breakneck pace of firefights across not only the city but, thanks to Elizabeth’s power to open portals, across dimensions as well.
The relationship between Booker and Elizabeth generates more emotional moments than I have experienced in any recent shooter. Watching Elizabeth and Booker grow closer was more exciting than all the explosions in the entire game put together. The twists and turns are constant throughout the 12 hour storyline until the very end when the rug is pulled out from underneath you, and that is where the genius of Bioshock Infinite really shines. The brilliantly confounding ending is the cherry on top of what is already one of gaming’s best stories. But enough about the narrative: how does it play?
The rescue mission premise for Bioshock Infinite may give the wrong impression. Normally, games centered around escorting a weaker character mean constantly halting the flow of an action sequence to check on an inept companion. Fortunately, while Elizabeth experiences quite a shock after first witnessing violent acts, she quickly becomes indispensable in battle. Whenever Booker gets injured, runs low on ammo or “salts” (mana), a quick button prompt turns the player to face Elizabeth to catch a quick resupply. Elizabeth can also use her dimension-warping powers to summon cover, weapons, health kits, or environmental hazards into the scene, though only one can be active at a time. This contributes to the frantic nature of the combat, which is already hectic with just Booker on his own.
Bioshock Infinite decks Booker out with the standard supply of first-person-shooter guns. The shooting by itself is smooth and satisfying enough but the real fun comes in “Vigors”, the array of magical powers Booker can shoot from his left hand. I found the array of powers in Bioshock Infinite to be much more satisfying than those in the original Bioshock. Depending on how many enemies there are in an encounter, or even how many of them are human or machine, the power that can most efficiently dispatch of them will change. This encourages more experimentation than the Bioshock of 2007, but I still found myself settling on a one-size-fits-all approach for the final third of the game, which is heavy on large firefights. The combination was Bucking Bronco / Shotgun to the face, by the way.
Overall, the gameplay in Bioshock Infinite is on par with most of its contemporaries. The original Bioshock’s combat was clunky even by 2007 standards, so it’s good to see the series take such a strong leap forward. However, while I appreciate the stress-free aspects of not needing to constantly tend to Elizabeth, there could have been more interaction between her and Booker in combat to deepen their relationship. Still, that is a minor nitpick given how satisfying the combat feels compared to all the other games in the series.
Irrational Games has achieved several milestones in Bioshock Infinite. They put out a shooter with mass market appeal that is about much more than shooting. Racism, sexism, religion, and controversial events from America’s history are explored by the story’s end. The floating city of Columbia hits unforgettable status after about five minutes, with visuals that forced me to mouth “wow” at my computer screen constantly. Irrational also cultivates a genuinely heartwarming relationship between two main characters in a game that otherwise delights in the surreal. The unforgettable introduction of Columbia transitions seamlessly into an action-packed middle, which slams into an ending that begs to be thought over, picked at, and discussed with friends.
Bioshock Infinite is the best shooter I have played in a long time. It is an incredible achievement artistically, narratively, and technically. I can’t think of a better game to close out and define this decade-long console generation.