It’s no secret that I was extremely skeptical of BioShock Infinite. The delays, comments about making the BioShock formula attractive to a wider base, and brotastic cover art raised a host of red flags in my mind. To me, the original BioShock was a seminal experience that should’ve been left alone. I saw no need for sequels or spinoffs because I thought no subsequent entry in the series could possibly live up to the first game.
Boy, was I wrong.
Despite my typical cheapskate tendencies, I gave in to the hype and the never-ending stream of glowing reviews and picked up BioShock Infinite for full price last week. I did this in part because I’m a jaded, cynical bastard; anytime there’s a new property that the entire world loves, I feel this overpowering need to take it upon myself to find something wrong with said beloved new thing. I bought Infinite to try to poke holes in it as much as to play it.
And I can’t find any. The combat isn’t really my cup of tea, but that’s no different than my attitude toward the original BioShock. The vigor powers work great when there’s something for them to work on and you’re well stocked with salts, but I feel like things can get tedious in a hurry when there isn’t something obvious in the environment to exploit or I’m low on energy. That is a very minor issue and one that’s probably more of an issue with me than with the design of the game. I’d have enough salts for the job if I didn’t suck so badly, right?
Regardless of gameplay, Infinite is worth the sticker price for the setting and story alone. The introductory area is particularly well done; rather than immediately slamming the player with exposition, the game sends the protagonist, Booker DeWitt, on a stroll through Columbia during a carnival of sorts. There’s background information to be found everywhere, whether it be via silent movies, a salesman’s pitch about the all important vigors, or the idle chit-chat of the locals. There are no impenetrable walls of text, no achingly long expository cutscenes. Using carnival games as a tutorial for a few of the various powers and weapons was a stroke of utter genius.
Columbia itself ain’t too shabby either. It’s architecture is downright beautiful, its expansive vistas truly fitting of a city in the clouds. I almost didn’t want to proceed from that initial area; there was so much to look at, so much of it gorgeous and interesting, that I felt a bit hesitant about moving further because doing so would likely mean destroying a bunch of that brilliant scenery. The thought of bringing death and destruction to that serene landscape made me feel guilty.
Then the game quickly exposed me to Columbia’s vile underbelly of racism and class warfare and I didn’t feel so bad. I can’t remember a game that does such an interesting job dealing with such issues; BioShock Infinite isn’t shy when it comes to bigotry, but it isn’t exploitative about it, either.
Which brings me to Elizabeth, the character all of the cosplay girls are going to want to dress up as for the next five years. She is, simply put, a revelation; Elizabeth immediately jumps to the top of every list of the best video game heroines or sidekicks. She’s legitimately helpful in combat, whether she’s tossing the player supplies or manipulating the environment. This character was obviously a labor of love, a creation arguably more important than the game itself. Her mannerisms and facial expressions are consistently on point; when she’s angry or sullen, she stays that way while moving through the environment, and the voice acting is fantastic. There’s some solid tension here between the male and female leads. Booker, after all, only rescues Elizabeth from her cage so he can hand her over to someone else. She becomes suitably dirty and bedraggled as the game progresses, which is fitting given all of the gunplay and skyline riding and what have you.
When you add it all up, you get a game that feels like the BioShock title Ken Levine always wanted to create. The series’s staples are all here: the recordings, the themes of feminine innocence exploited and put in peril, the horrors of science run amok, the simple fact that no utopia can possibly last forever. There’s certainly a rash of Infinite-inspired scholarly work on the way.
If you haven’t played BioShock Infinite yet, you really ought to at least try it at a friend’s house. I’ll be amazed if any other game this year manages to top it.