I just completed my play through of BioShock Infinite, and I find myself staring silently at my keyboard as the ending plays over and over in my head. How the hell do I discuss this game without spoiling anything for those who haven't experienced it yet? That may sound like an absurd thing to say, especially coming from someone that discusses games professionally. But so often nowadays we see games where the story is completely auxiliary - like the cape draped over James Brown's shoulder, fancy in it's own right but ready to be shrugged off to the floor of the stage whenever its time for some serious action to take place. It is rare, however, to find a game where the story is so elaborate, so integrated and interwoven, that you can in hindsight see how it has influenced every aspect of the title; from the menus and user interface down to the powers and abilities.
The more I think about it, the more I feel we are going to need a little bit of shared perspective for me to get my opinion of this title across to you properly, and for that, lets back up a step and get the basics of the game out in the open.
BioShock Infinite is officially the third title in the BioShock series, even though the series itself is technically a spiritual successor the venerable System Shock titles of the mid '90s. While BioShock 1 & 2 take place in the fictional underwater city of Rapture, a dystopian future gone wrong under the corrupted ideals of Andrew Ryan, BioShock Infinite leaves that setting far, far below in order to show us the flying city of Columbia, a hovering citadel built of pure patriotism on the bent and broken backs of racial minorities. Our main protagonist, Booker DeWitt, is thrust into this world with a single mission statement: To retrieve the girl Elizabeth in exchange for absolution of his debts. It is through his eyes that we experience Columbia's two faces - the majesty of its facade and the bigotry of its underbelly, but we will get back to that in a minute. First, lets talk about shooting the place up.
The BioShock series has always been an excellent First Person Shooter wrapped in a lavish story and setting, and Infinite is no different in that regard. Every weapon in the game, from the lowly pistol to the hand-cranked Peppermill mini-gun feels appropriate to the setting, and each had its own strengths and weaknesses in certain types of conflict. The only stand out that seemed a little too useful, in my opinion, was the Carbine Rifle - it was quick and powerful enough for close combat shooting, but accurate enough to pull off headshots at sniper-like range. Each weapon in the game could be upgraded up to 4 times, so the Carbine quickly got upgraded to the hilt and became my main weapon through out the entire game. As the combat system only allows you to carry two guns at any given time, it was a no brainer to keep the Carbine around and use my second gun slot for whatever I could scavenge the most ammo for, most often the Shotgun, Machine gun, or Repeater.
Complimenting the various assault weaponry (and replacing the Plasmids of the previous games) are a set of power-enhancing tonics called Vigors. Each of the 8 vigors available in the game grant a new ability to Booker, from being able to bounce enemies around with the Bucking Bronco Vigor, to plucking bullets out of thin air with the Return to Sender Vigor, there was no shortage of creative ways to dispatch your foes. Once again, though, there was one that stood out as being far more useful than the rest: The Murder of Crows Vigor. Once upgraded, it would cause those that die from being pecked to death by crows to become infested land mines of bird-based death for the next enemy to stumble upon. There were entire rooms where my sole strategy was to infest the place with crow'ed up corpses and then pick off the unlucky saps that stormed in with my trusty Carbine. Good times, good times.
Not to be completely out shown by the guns and vigors, however, Booker has another nasty trick in his arsenal: A useful arm-mounted grappling tool. Made of a series of interlocking bladed pinwheels, it packs a wallop when applied with adequate force to someone's face. Its main use, however, is to attach to the Skyline rail system that crisscrosses most of the city. This conveniently allows you to get to higher ground or get the drop on your enemies. In all honesty, when I was using the Skyline rails properly, I had some of the most satisfying fire fights I've felt in recent gaming, leaving me with a "Hellz YEAH" feeling after clearing a small city block of enemies at near break-neck speeds.
And the final card in DeWitt's bag of tricks treads fairly close to spoiler territory, but if you've watched any of the gameplay trailers that Irrational has released, you already know what it is: The lovely Elizabeth. You actually manage to meet up with her fairly early in the game, and she quickly becomes your best ally in conflict - Running low on ammo? She will try to scrounge some up for you. Take a missile to the face? She will toss you a health kit if one is available. After you get used to it, her assistance falls into a refreshing rhythm that has the psychological effect of boosting your morale just a little: You end up thinking to yourself "Keep fighting, she's got my back", even in the most fierce and dire of situations.
Getting back to the what I was saying before, one of the most interesting aspects of the game to me is that you get a sense that the sky bound city of Columbia is a character in it's own right. When you are first introduced, it appears to be a lush and idyllic utopia, rendered in the tones of a Norman Rockwell painting; The saturated hues of a patriotic age long gone by. The game is graphically breathtaking, and has a single, seamless and cohesive feel in its visuals from the moment you open the initial starting menu to the minute the credits role.
But even in it's graphical beauty there is purposeful ugliness as well. It is only as you start to pay attention to the details of what those posters and flyers hanging all over are actually saying that you start to see the city for what it actually is. There is a level of racism built into the very nature of Columbia, a racism so dark and deep that at times it made me feel guilty for being born Caucasian. By the time that you get down to the actual slums of the floating city, theres very little surprise at the oppression and squaller that you find there. What I did find fascinating about this underpinned darkness hiding beneath the veneer of such a bright city, though, is that I feel this is the first time I've seen a video game *depict* racism and stereotyping without feeling like the game itself was racist or stereotypical. A huge amount of credit for that goes out to the art team for drawing inspiration from classical posters and propaganda taken from darker periods in American history.
It has been a reoccurring theme in the video game industry recently to try to take up the banner in the crusade of Video Games as Art. For some reason, we can't seem to accept that certain movie critics or politicians refuse to admit that gaming is an artistic medium. Personally, I don't particularly care what they think, and I see no need to struggle for their approval. After playing this game from start to finish, I can honestly and wholeheartedly make the following statement without a moment's hesitation:
Bioshock Infinite is a work of art.
While there are glimpses of this here and there through out most of the game, it is the last 30 minutes or so that completely solidified that for me. In fact, I will go so far as to make the following assertions:
If you like first person shooter adventures, buy this game.
If you like epic stories that blow your mind, buy this game.
If you like spending a good 15-20 hours living in a fully realized world much like and yet much unlike our own, buy this game.
As a parting thought, it is rare that I have time to go back and replay a game. Completely setting aside my day job, night school, work here both developing/writing this site, and time as both a husband and a father, there is always something newly released to play, something in my backlog I bought and set aside, or something in the slew of ongoing MMOs I play that I have yet to achieve. With that said, I will definitely set aside time to play through this game again. Maybe even once or twice a year. If for nothing else, it will assure me that I made the right choice to fight (and go stupidly deep into debt) in order to be a part of the video game industry. This is the kind of game I would be proud to make.