It has been quite a wait for this. You might be forgiven for thinking that not much has changed as the opening sequence to BioShock Infinite is very similar to that of BioShock with the entry to Columbia accessed by a lone windswept lighthouse out in the Atlantic off the coast of Maine as the Bathysphere down to Rapture sits in a rocky outcrop out the same ocean.
“Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt” is the instruction for the game's hero Booker DeWitt, a military veteran and former Pinkerton agent (the muscle brought in to break strikes during the early part of the 20th century in the US). DeWitt must locate and liberate the Rapunzel-like Elizabeth from Columbia and bring her to New York in order to wipe his slate clean.
After being strapped into a rocket and fired up above the clouds we grab our first experience of Columbia – a city floating in the clouds created to be a new Eden bringing the brightest and best of 1912 USA to the rest of the world.
This is a captivating world and, after a trip through Columbia's greeting chapel and a rather over-zealous baptism, Booker arrives in the city proper. It's a joy to explore the city at the beginning with the people seeming initially friendly and welcoming. It's carnival day and people are out on the streets enjoying the sunshine and feasting on cotton candy and hot dogs. Children are playing on the grass and there is music.
The music is really one of the most standout features of BioShock Infinite and really one of the first indications that all is not as it seems in this idyllic-looking city in the clouds. As you explore the bright sun-drenched streets of Columbia barges float up an past and one is carrying the a barbershop quartet called the [insert name]. Listen very closely and you'll find the song they're singing very familiar. And you should, because it's a beautiful a capella rendition of The Beach Boys' God Only Knows. There are more familiar sounding songs as you navigate your way through Columbia over the course of the game and they really fill out the feeling that Irrational are trying to build that there's something not quite right here.
Moving further into Columbia brings the first proper taste of the carnival with an array of sideshows giving a first taste of the game's weaponry and Vigors (Infinite's version of BioShock's Plasmids). It’s all well worth exploring to see the sheer level of detail that Irrational has put into the game world.
The game begins for real when you arrive at the main raffle draw, the grand prize for which is the chance to be the first to pelt a young interracial couple with a baseball for their choice to marry – one that offends the ‘new Eden’ that has been created in Columbia. Here’s where Irrational poses the first big question of the game – do you pelt the couple in an attempt not to break your cover or do you make the right choice to pelt the announcer instead?
BioShock Infinite continues to provoke thought throughout the game. As you delve deeper into Columbia you find that there is an unsettling undertone of racism that runs through the city. You are confronted by a lot uncomfortable truths about the reality of life in the early 20th century in the USA. Irrational almost uses Columbia as a mirror which reflects the true nature of some of society’s failings which still exist even today.
Even the gameplay itself does this to a certain extent. It is gory in the extreme. Using the game’s Skyhook – a personal method of transport along the Skylines that interlink the city – as a melee weapon results in some quite horrific executions and the ranged weapons are no less visceral in their nature. The references to the Boxer Rebellion continue this undertone and, as Columbia’s history unfolds you find out just how much the paradise of the opening sequence cost.
This isn’t violence for violence’s sake or tongue-in-cheek uber-violence like that of The Darkness II. This is a brutal confrontation the darker sides of human nature again and it plays out very well.
Mechanically, BioShock Infinite is a joy to play. Each weapon responds nicely and allows you to dispatch your enemies in a particularly satisfying manner. The really nice thing about the game’s weaponry is that it doesn’t operate in the traditional hierarchical way that other shooters do. There are different tactical merits to each gun and you can find a combination of firearms that suits your style of play from the humble pistol all the way up to the hand-wound crank-gun and the excellently tactical volley gun.
Furthermore, flying around on the Skylines adds an extra dimension to your combat tactics as you can zip around, shooting enemies as you move and even landing on them causing damage and even killing and it’s all done at the press of a button.
Elizabeth is the most advanced AI companion in the current generation of video games pure and simple. As much detail has been lavished on her as Irrational has put into the entirety of Columbia. While exploring she reacts very naturally to the sights she sees, getting excited at seeing people dancing for the first time or reacting with fear and shock at seeing Booker kill for the first time. She finds money and other useful stuff hidden around the environments, picks locks for you and even keeps you supplied with health and ammo in the middle of a firefight. Her evolution as a character is central to your experience in BioShock Infinite and to ignore her would greatly diminish your experience of the game.
As a single player narrative experience you couldn’t ask for much more from BioShock Infinite. Again, Irrational has pushed the boundaries of what to expect from a story-driven game. It also has a level of maturity that is lacking from most ‘mature’ games these days and despite it’s ultra-violent combat it doesn’t seem to revel in it the way many other games do.
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