As I already chewed on in the System Shock 2 review, Ken Levine and his team do one trick really, really well. Enough changes come to where the experiences all feel distinct and familiar where needed, giving the player a touchstone in violently desperate worlds. Bioshock Infinite, in a lot of ways, is their most radical departure from their self-made formula.
That’s probably why it seems like their best encapsulation yet of what video game narrative can be at its peak.
To be clear, I harbor very few harsh feelings towards any game from this late studio. They went out (er, downsized) batting 1.000 as far as I’m concerned. The tent poles for each game were executed with care and grace unlike any other developer. Only in Bioshock Infinite do I feel like they did it the best.
Booker DeWitt, as a violent man with a past for squashing rebellion, is asked to bring a girl to an unnamed boss to wipe away a debt. He hears this throughout the entire game and in many contexts: “Bring us the Girl, Wipe Away the Debt.” The simple statement serves as his constant arrow, always as the way forward. That’s the only real motivation or boundary he has in this play of violence and hatred, but as is often the case, he finds that the world above the clouds just isn’t that simple.
Columbia may be themed like an American waiting room for heaven, but it is an absolute stunner of a locale. Unlike the darkness of Rapture, the mixture of sun, blue sky, and clouds helps creature a variable mood that moves with the story and characters, giving this full cityscape a pulse outside of the daily lives of the inhabitants. Around the literal skyscrapers is life and atmosphere unlike the accomplishments of any other art and design team before. Outside of just seeing people live as…semi-normal, sentient beings, you’re immediately given a sense of time, place, and possibility in the opening twenty minutes. This shouldn’t be news but for the newcomers, absolutely no one does an introduction like Irrational Games.
Of course, the thin curtain on hatred is soon pulled back to reveal the racist, classits, religious fanatics-ist way of life that Booker then takes to ending one aggressor at a time. A lot has been made over the years of the violence and how Booker pretty much just flips the switch to create ludonarrative dissonance – a term so very famously connected to Bioshock Infinite that a Google search brings up images with the game itself. It’s only because Irrational held itself to such a high standard that the term stuck, setting gameplay and told story seemingly on opposite sides of the same design track.
In reality, that term and the argument behind it are woefully lacking and misplaced in Bioshock Infinite. Without breaking the entire house of cards down suit by suit, let it just be said that “violence begets violence” and Booker’s propensity for violence is stated in every way possible. The Bioshock and System Shock games are some of the ludonarratively-sound titles there are in a world full of disconnects wide enough to fit an ocean.
Moving on from that, the story for Bioshock Infinite is an apex of a very tall mountain. Booker and Elizabeth work their way through a compelling, webbed tale of violence that borders sadistic in the proximity of the wide open sky’s freedom. You want to see them survive and figure out the world around them in a more permanent way than a bullet can offer, but at every turn, there just doesn’t seem to be a real exit. Time itself seems to be constricting them to a single outcome with or without Elizabeth’s special powers. By time the crescendo hits, with its symphonic insanity reaching fevered levels, I felt a surge of euphoric hope alongside the shock and awe that freedom might just be attainable. It has to be, doesn’t it?
The constant environmental storytelling is unparalleled throughout the sections of Columbia you traverse. Multiple sections offer experiences you’d never find anywhere else as building blocks in dramatic design. As you and Elizabeth wander through a busy hallway, you pass some innocent-seeming people that suddenly clear out as you pass. No big deal, on the surface. Then, some begin to stare as you pass, one ordering a hot dog in an awkward, unconvincing voice. Entering a larger room, you hear a trained violinist going to town with their bow that screeches to a halt as you approach a ticket counter. Now, you feel the itch of several trigger fingers behind you in a transfixed anxiety. Those that observe can find scenes like that peppered throughout Bioshock Infinite with a crazed sense of devotion seemingly applied.
Gameplay feels like a far more standard affair with a lot of Bioshock 2 influences. Weapon wheels and plasmids are your main carving knives, but the big addition this time around is the sky hook and sky lines. This wonderful invention of unintended maiming possibilities turns traversal into a roller coaster at times and battle arenas into multi-tiered experiences. You can speed along these with simple controls to take out a nest of rocketeers on a roof or flee from a massive Handyman before it catches you reloading. I found them eternally fun and useful for either occasion, especially given that some arenas can be hugely expanded with their usage for revealed hideaways.
My complaints are of a generally small nature with the main one being a lack of meaningful gear. You can collect and choose pieces of gear to amplifying either situational attack opportunities or your overall arsenal. On paper, this is a splendid reason to go nook diving, but besides one super-powerful addition later in the game, there was hardly ever a reason to change them. This is just an element that would’ve added further depth that combat, while fun, doesn’t particularly have beyond some deck reshuffling in the second and third acts.
Bioshock Infinite flies so high and reaches so far with visual design and story that it hardly matters at the end of the day. Gameplay is as solid as it needs to be without breaking the mold, and even if it was below average, the DLC for this game adds such a bow to this experience that I cannot deny it holding one of the highest stoops in my heart. A best of the best, Bioshock Infinite towers still and for good reason.
Bioshock Infinite Score: