“BioShock Infinite” is a unique game. This is not because it is one of the best games released within the past decade. Nor is it because it is the only piece of popular entertainment set in the period of early 1910s American exceptionalism. Nor is it because it features an astonishing 1912 barbershop quartet version of The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.” What makes “BioShock Infinite” so incredibly unique is that the game has a vision: to create a cohesive world. It follows through on that vision, providing one of the most integrated experiences in video games.
“BioShock Infinite” is defined by its setting of a city in the sky called Columbia, previously a symbol of American exceptionalism before being disavowed by the United Stated for being too radical. As Booker DeWitt, a private investigator from New York, you’re tasked with finding a girl named Elizabeth to pay off a heavy debt. From the outset, Columbia is filled with a rich history and character. During the first 30 minutes of gameplay, you explore the city during an extravagant world’s fair-type celebration. Theocratic and nationalist propaganda, modeled after World War I propaganda, is plastered on every block as animatronic recreations of the founding fathers keep armed watch on street corners.
The situation becomes violent as the government deems you the “False Prophet” for a mysterious reason and attempts to stop your quest. While you search for Elizabeth, the city reveals itself to be a twisted nationalist paradise of purity and wealth at the cost of tolerance and political freedom. If the paradigm of “Birth of a Nation” became the norm, then Columbia would be its utopia. In tandem with the city’s manhunt, a rival anarchist group, the Vox Populi, is trying to destroy the white supremacy order. The game risks making these two factions caricatures of left-wing and right-wing ideologies, but ultimately their conflict is not the focus. Instead, the narrative uses DeWitt and Elizabeth to explore this dichotomy to develop the two main characters and the narrative behind Columbia.
Key in the narrative is DeWitt’s relationship with Elizabeth, who turns out to have been locked up and observed her whole life and is able to control tears, which are interdimensional portals into other universes. DeWitt’s relationship with Elizabeth is well crafted; she provides a voice of innocence that is juxtaposed with the grizzled, realist DeWitt in this disturbingly racist society. In combat, she provides supplies and opens up tear portals to create resources such as cover or turrets. As you get to know her, you’ll find that her history and fate are heavily intertwined with Columbia’s in an enigmatic, compelling way.
Similar to in predecessor “BioShock,” the combat systems rely on traditional gun weaponry and magiclike powers called “vigors.” Skylines, however, are a new addition to the game. Within the fiction of the world, they connect segments of the city and transport large-scale goods. But in combat, DeWitt can ride the rails, which makes traversal across large, segmented spaces much easier. Skylines provide a sense of speed and verticality to the fighting that isn’t present in any big-budget retail game like “Call of Duty” or “Halo.” Instead of incentivizing slow, cautious pacing, constant movement is necessary.
In the fantastic final act, the game wraps up in a surprising and unforeseen manner, tying up most loose ends. Without spoiling anything, the science fiction direction the game takes is one rarely seen in popular media and rarely done well. But “BioShock Infinite” manages to pull it off. It’s a revelation that resonates after the credits have rolled.
“BioShock Infinite” bleeds atmosphere and pseudo-authenticity. But it never squanders its attention to detail; every nook and cranny in Columbia has a purpose, and the intrigue of Columbia pushes you through an incredible world that most can never dream of.
Developer: Irrational Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PC