There is a true richness to BioShock: Infinite that is difficult to put into words. If you were watching someone else playing it, and they weren’t a history buff, you might be tempted to push them out of the way, telling them you ‘get the game on more levels’ than they do. Sure, you’d be paraphrasing The Simpsons’ Professor Frink, but you’d also be quite correct – I can’t imagine what the game would feel like to someone who doesn’t have a grounding in American history.
Thankfully, as well as being an interesting treatise on freedom and the power of the state, not to mention a meditation on the nature of being, BioShock: Infinite is also a fantastically well-polished shooter. It’s not quite perfect, but it’s damn close.
Unlike previous games, Infinite’s protagonist is very much present and counted for in the game’s narrative. Booker De Witt is a hero of the old school, a down on his luck ex-Pinkerton taking one last job to get out from under a mountain of debt. He’s like a tincture of pure noir distilled from the entirety of the next five or so decades and poured backwards into 1912.
Of course, it really isn’t quite our 1912, and as the game goes on, it doesn’t seem to be his 1912, either.
Hanging from the firmament is a vast, floating city called Columbia, and after a short, terrestrial intro that’s where you’ll spend most of your time. Columbia is fascinating, both graphically and as a mystery to unravel, much like half the fun of the first BioShock was in working out just what the deal was with Rapture.
In Columbia’s case, it’s another case of a charismatic leader going off the rails and dragging a whole community in his wake – in this case, though, it’s all in the name of religious beliefs. The city’s founder, the prophet Comstock, is a Jesus-like figure that has led his followers into the sky, and into secession from the Union of the United States following his bombardment of Peking during the Boxer Rebellion. Up in the clouds, he’s raised such figures as Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin as latter day saints, embodying the true spirit of American ideal that has been lost
by the hoopleheads down in the ‘Sodom below’.
That he’s also a dyed in the wool supporter of slavery, manifest destiny, and the superiority of the white race is also ticked off in short order – Comstock’s a nasty piece of work, made even nastier by the fact that he is a true believer.
The ‘one last job’ that Booker has to complete in Columbia is to recover a girl, to get her out of the city and to New York at all costs. Her name’s Elizabeth, and rescuing her is a challenge in its own right, but once free she becomes your constant companion throughout the game. Like Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, having such a well-realised AI companion brings a lot of things to the table; mechanically, she can offer ammo and health that she scrounges (in a wonderful mechanic that sees her tossing you weapons, like a Hollywood western), or even open tears in the world to bring through new equipment and allies.
Did we mention she has mysterious powers to travel between realities?
There are a tonne of mysteries to be unravelled in BioShock: Infinite. I suspect it would still be a stellar game even if you removed every aspect of action from it.
Killing with birds
But it wouldn’t be BioShock without an excellent blend of plain old shooting stuff, and more esoteric methods of mayhem. Plasmids are effectively back from the original Bioshock, but this time they take the form of Vigors, and they deliver the usual punch to back up more mundane weapons. You can toss fireballs, zap people, or even summon murders of crows to tear people apart, and each power has both an active attack and a passive trap ability. These can be upgraded for more damage or extra affects; our favourite so far is the ability to turn victims of crow attacks into crow traps – that never gets old.
All the guns are impressive, too, even down to the basic pistol, which is useful at all levels of the game. There’s no ballistic subtlety to the game, but everything feels suitably heavy and retro, especially the chattering of the machine gun and the lazy contrails produced by the rocket launcher. It’s the standard weapon spread, but very well executed, especially since you can only have two weapons at once. The vigors and boomsticks are accompanied by different pieces of gear, such as hats or shoes, that add effects to normal attacks, like making your vicious melee attack immolate people, or turning your bullets into mini electro-grenades.
It’s all fun and games, but one of the real highlights is the game’s unabashed sense of wild verticality. The game is on rails, in a very good way, thanks to actual rails being the main mode of transport in the game; you can take advantage of this, zipping back and forth, changing rails, leap-killing enemies, and generally having more fun than is usually legal – the big set-piece brawls that take full advantage of the many enemies, weapons, and modes of movement are truly unique in gaming.
As good as the action is, though, it’s the game’s sense of commitment to its story that really impresses. From references to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, to the reveals of real historical villains as unexpected alternate-history saints, BioShock: Infinite is a game that rewards you for paying careful attention to the game’s surrounds.
And killing people with crows – it definitely rewards that, too.