Reactions to “Bioshock Infinite”

— the reaction piece is largely spoiler-free —

“Wow” was really all I could manage when I finished Bioshock Infinite, the second sequel (of sorts) to Irrational Games‘ 2007 smash hit Bioshock. It’s games like this that make me think that the video game genre does contain some examples that might be called art. Whereas Bioshock 2 fell a little flat in the chaotic underwater city of Rapture, Infinite soars (hehe…) with a fresh new take on the franchise. You play as a former soldier gone alcoholic / gambling addict who, in an effort to wipe away his debt in 1912, goes to the flying city of Columbia to retrieve a girl trapped in a tower and bring her back to New York. Columbia is founded and run by Comstock, a Prophet who has guided his people to secede from the Union in a bizarre collision of patriotism and religious fervor.

Things are bizarre from the opening few seconds, but it really starts to spiral out of control when you are branded as the “False Shepherd” and universally hunted or despised by just about everyone. Comstock claims you came to Columbia to lead his daughter Elizabeth – the “Lamb of Columbia” and the heir to his throne – astray.  Navigating Columbia’s roller-coaster-ish sky-rails, you make your way to Monument Island where the girl is imprisoned and break her out despite a horrific guardian: the Songbird. That’s when the game really begins to open up as the two of you struggle to get out of the city and make it back to the real world while being pursued by everyone. To complicate matters even more, Elizabeth has the power to open up Tears in the universe that are basically small pockets into other dimensions. So yeah. It’s that complicated.

Bioshock Infinite opens up in complexity as Elizabeth’s powers and Columbia itself are explored. Not only do you have to deal with Comstock and his policeman, but there’s a full-on civil war brewing with the Vox Populi, a rebel group headed by an escaped slave named Daisy Fitzroy. I won’t go into all of the details in this spoiler-free section, but I will say that the story is very compelling and more than worth your time. Typical of the Bioshock series, Infinite is a freaky experience that is a bit graphic albeit intriguing and thoroughly enjoyable.

One of the two major changes for the franchise is the characterization of Booker DeWitt; in the previous two games you know only vague details about your protagonist but in Infinite, Booker gets a fantastic voice actor and a robust personality. The other big change is the exclusion of Rapture, the dark and drippy underwater dystopian city that provides the setting for the first two games. Instead, they went in the opposite direction and opted for the city in the sky. Both of these changes infuse the game with much more personality and make the entire experience less dreary. Rapture was oppressive and claustrophobia-inducing. Columbia is impressive and acrophobia-inducing; most of the time you are nauseously worried about plummeting to your death, especially because you are forced to ride the sky-rails.

In Bioshock 2 you had to worry about Little Sisters every now-and-then as would-be companions. They would provide you with some degree of resources but in a scrap, you had to hover over them and pray they wouldn’t die. Elizabeth is provides an entirely different in-game companion. In many other video games, similar characters are a blatant liability (re: Resident Evil 4 so much so that people make videos to complain about it). Still, in others, your AI-controlled companions might fight alongside you but their programming was too crappy to do much good (re: every non-solo video game ever). With Elizabeth in Bioshock Infinite, you are no mere escort and Elizabeth is far from a liability. She can’t even get hurt, because she’s always hiding in cover so well that enemies won’t see her. And with her Tears, she can summon large walls for cover, turrets, or even weapons or boxes of health packs. Mid-combat, she’ll toss you ammo or health when you need it most (in some incredibly detailed animation, by the way). Similarly, in your time exploring the nooks and crannies of Columbia, Elizabeth will randomly toss you some coin in probably the most satisfying routine cutscene ever. Elizabeth is so much an asset after gaining her as a companion and losing her for a limited portion of the game, you can’t help but feel immense separation anxiety: “Where has my free money gone? Where are all my Tears?” In a way it feels like Elizabeth has revolutionized companion AI’s in gaming in the best way.

As enjoyable as the sights and the moment-to-moment gameplay of Bioshock Infinite is, I found that by far the most enjoyable part of the game was the story. I’ll go over the finer details in a separate post, but what I will say is that the way the game deals with time and trans-dimensional travel is one of the most intriguing representations I’ve ever seen in a work of fiction, regardless of medium. It’s visually compelling and has a great story, memorable characters, and a combat system that is engaging pretty robust for what you could technically call a first-person shooter. While all of these qualities are typical of a Bioshock game, Infinite takes things to a whole new level of awesomeness.

That being said, if you are a fan of great video games and/or science fiction and can tolerate a game that is perhaps a bit too violent for its own good, then get yourself a copy of Bioshock Infinite immediately.