Since its inception, BioShock has stood as one of the greatest gaming franchises of a generation – a shining example of video games as an art form and as a vessel to tell engrossing, thought-provoking stories. Its latest iteration, set in a fantastic new world, takes players on mind-bending thrill ride that they aren’t likely to forget.
And I mean that quite literally. Anyone who has played the first game in the BioShock series will always remember the experience, from the intense character interactions to the intellectually sound narrative to the shocking twist ending that hit you like a ton of bricks. Much like gamers of my age group look back nostalgically on titles like Earthbound and The Legend of Zelda, I feel like the BioShock series will still be looked back on fondly twenty years from now. The imagination of creator Ken Levine seems to know no bounds as, even though a return to the underwater city of Rapture would have sent fans clamoring for more, BioShock Infinite took a different approach. Instead of revisiting a dystopian city on the bottom of the ocean, we are transported to Columbia, a city floating in the clouds. Resembling an alternate-reality version of 1912 America, and all the jingoism and religious fervor that goes along with it, Columbia is a technological marvel overseen by the seemingly benevolent prophet, Zachary Hale Comstock, which floats high about the forsaken world below.
As Booker DeWitt, a veteran who notably took part in the Wounded Knee Massacre, you travel to Columbia in search of a young woman named Elizabeth as your employer has agreed to pay a handsome sum of money for her safe return. It’s a simple setup and does no justice in explaining the actual motivations behind the characters, but that would be spoiling the fun. There are really no words that can adequately explain how quickly you will be sucked into the universe within this title. Even in the first few minutes, it’s clear that you are gearing up for an experience unlike anything you’ve really seen in a game before – which is a true achievement at this point. I was admittedly worried that the aesthetic of a lofty floating city simply couldn’t match the art deco-heavy, creepy atmosphere established in the previous games, but those fears were promptly put to rest. Similar to the introduction of the first game, where you are delivered to Rapture via the iconic Bathysphere, Booker peers through a small hatch window as a rocket violently explodes skyward towards his mysterious destination. Upon arriving, and before the action begins to ramp up, you begin to experience the makeup of this fully-realized world, bursting at the seams and allegorical symbolism and interesting bits of back-story.
Through watching and listening to steampunk-inspired “voxophones” and “kinetoscopes,” players will begin to learn the fascinating and sometimes disturbing secrets of the city and its inhabitants. They can also be ignored entirely should you choose but you would be doing yourself a great disservice. The more of the story you absorb, the more satisfying the mind-blowing ending will be. Much like the first BioShock, this is a narrative that will stick in you mind for a long time. Once the pace picks up and Booker’s intentions become known, the gameplay itself feels very familiar. The signature super-powers inherent to the series return, creative as ever and now obtained through drinking various “vigors.” The arsenal of available powers here are easily the greatest offered in the franchise thus far. Once you obtain the “Murder of Crows” vigor, you are able to summon forth dozens of birds to peck at your enemies, effectively distracting them for a few valuable seconds while you can line up a shot. “Return to Sender” allows you to form an electro-magnetic shield in front of your hand that stops and collect incoming bullets, allowing you to fire them all back at the shooters – using it is about as close as you can come to feeling like Magneto. My personal favorite, “Undertow,” let’s you unleash a powerful blast of water to knock foes to the ground or, if their close enough to an edge, right off the city itself. All powers have a secondary function as well, mostly allowing said power to be placed as a proximity trap, but the Undertow vigor’s supplementary effect allows players to grapple enemies in a tentacle formed from swirling water and pull them to your location so you can finish them off face to face. And just as you collect health items to refill your life bar, “salts” will fuel these powers. There are also a number of weapons to be found throughout the game; variations of traditional pieces like pistols, shotguns, and machine guns to the more intimidating hand cannon and rocket launcher – each of which is meticulously modeled to fit the game’s aesthetic and packs its own believable auditory punch when fired.
Combat aside though; this game is really about Elizabeth. Once you locate her early in the game, she remains your constant companion and, in addition to assisting you in locating items and occasionally lending a helping hand in the form of some scavenged health or money, her presence is invaluable to the game experience. The character is so well-realized and perfectly acted that you cannot help but become completely invested in the narrative that she helps to shape. Her lockpicking skills come in handy throughout the adventure but it’s her ability to open “tears” through space and time that really makes Elizabeth unique. While the nature of her powers is integral to the story, the circumstances you find her in are straight out of a fairy tale – held prisoner in a tall tower and guarded, not by a dragon, but a winged, robotic beast known as “Songbird.”
Using her uncanny abilities, Elizabeth can open portals into distinctly different realities, each with its own endless amount of variables. In combat, these tears can be used to pull helpful items and allies through parallel dimensions into their own and, in the story itself, are used for a number of much more significant issues. In each instance, the mechanic is executed beautifully and, with the roster of foes you’ll be facing, the help is appreciated. I began the game in “1999 Mode” (which can be unlocked at the main menu by entering the famous “Contra Code”) which is the most challenging difficulty the game offers, compounded by the fact that respawning after death costs you money – run out of money and you can’t respawn. Several areas were rather difficult but patience in addition to Elizabeth’s aid and bonuses granted by wearable gear made the title quite manageable overall. For example, in an area where several soldiers and a “mechanical patriot” (a creepy robotic send up of Washington or Lincoln outfitted with a chaingun) are closing in, I may spot a shimmer where a “Mosquito” (a floating security bot) or a Rocket Automoton can be pulled through to distract or damage the soldiers. Then, knowing that the patriots are susceptible to electricity, outfit myself with a piece of gear that increases my chances of inflicting electric damage with a melee attack and charge at it. There were several instances that made me approach an area strategically, which I really dug.
Unfortunately, I can’t really go into much detail regarding the story itself because it really is something that simply needs to be experienced and the information digested piece by piece as the game offers it to you. The clues will keep you guessing to the end and you still won’t be ready for the dramatic conclusion. Much like the name suggests, it drives the point home that, throughout space and time, there are endless possibilities and that all actions and decisions can have drastic repercussions. Coming out at the end of a console cycle, in a time that videogames as we knew them are slowly dying, Bioshock Infinite is a shining example of how beautiful and engrossing a game can be – a true gem not to be overlooked.