Review: BioShock Infinite (Xbox 360)

BioShock Infinite does what the BioShock series does best, weaving a thrilling narrative into a rich and captivating world.

Like any medium for artistic expression, video games can allow us to experience fantastic new worlds that entertain and inspire us. Unlike most other mediums, though, games also allow us to interact with those worlds. This characteristic begets an enormous challenge when creating a video game; while a novel or a film has to create a world that is convincing when experienced through the controlled environment of the page or the screen, a video game has to create one that is convincing when you walk around inside of it and poke things, often in an effort to wreck the joint.

In the pantheon of video games, one title stands above all others in terms of creating a truly fascinating and compelling world: the original BioShock. The undersea city of Rapture is one of the most vivid locations I’ve ever visited in a game, and while some worlds have been bigger or more detailed or rendered with more polygons, none have ever felt as real. In fact, the place that comes the closest is the floating city of Columbia, the setting of the new BioShock Infinite.

A magnificent city in the clouds, Columbia originally was constructed near the close of the 19th century as a monument to American ideals and ingenuity. The events of BioShock Infinite take you to Columbia in the year 1912, where you find a city still stunning on the outside but rotting from within, choking on its own bile of extreme racism, human rights abuses, and systematic class warfare. As Booker DeWitt (a veteran of Wounded Knee and the Boxer Rebellion, and a disgraced former Pinkerton agent), you’ve been hired to find Elizabeth, a girl with mysterious powers who you quickly discover is central to the hidden realities of this bizarre world.

“Why would He send His savior unto us, if we will not raise a finger for our own salvation? And though we deserved not His mercy, He has led us to this new Eden, a last chance for redemption.”

While this description may sound interesting (or perhaps not), the rich historical fiction of Bioshock Infinite is only a small part of what makes Columbia such a compelling place to experience. In terms of aesthetics, BioShock Infinite builds on the gritty “steampunk” ancestry of the series, but this time marries it with the classic lines and vaulting spires of American colonial architecture, replete with stained glass and bells whose angelic veneer hide Columbia’s dark heart. From the first moment I witnessed exquisitely constructed buildings floating and swaying as part of a moving, breathing city, while a barbershop quartet sang an a capella version of The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows”, I knew that Columbia was a truly remarkable place, and I wanted to see more.

However, it takes more than a well written back-story and fancy graphics to build a convincing world; you need to give the player a sense that they’re experiencing something much larger than themselves. Like its predecessors, Infinite accomplishes this task by weaving narrative into every corner the game creates—and not just the main plot points, but all the other stories taking place in parallel with yours. Every time you enter a disheveled room, you look around at the discarded items and scribbled notes (and often one or more bodies) and think, “I wonder what happened here.” Sometimes you find and audio log that gives you some insight, but often you have to accept things left unknown. This experience is one of the rare and remarkable triumphs of Infinite, a feat few other games can achieve. Something like Skyrim may feel immense because of the sheer scale of its game world, but BioShock Infinite feels immense because, like the real world, you realize that you can never really know everything about it.

“The Songbird”, Elizabeth’s friend / warden / overgrown metal parakeet.

While Bioshock Infinite does some amazing things, there are some areas where it stumbles. My biggest issue was the disconnect between gameplay and narrative, something which the original BioShock addressed more successfully. While certainly fun to play, Infinite is incredibly violent, even by first-person shooter standards. The brutal melee kills and grisly special powers (such the ability to summon a murder of bloodthirsty crows) allow you to rain death upon your opponents with such flamboyance that at times I felt like I was playing Borderlands. Though I take no particular moral offense to such things, the extreme violence of the combat certainly seemed to run counter to the story, particularly as Booker struggles to redeem himself from his bloody past while Elizabeth learns to cope with the brutality and suffering she finds in the world outside her captivity.

Similarly, your adversaries in Infinite undermine some of the narrative. In the original BioShock your primary enemies were “Splicers” and “Big Daddies”, denizens of Rapture who had essentially lost their humanity through genetic alteration. Every encounter with one of these enemies was terrifying, and only served to reinforce how feral the fallen Rapture had become. By contrast, the antagonists in Infinite tend either to be hateful, racist, religious fanatics (The Founders) or hateful, racist, anarcho-communists (the Vox Populi). However, they’re still human beings, and though Infinite tries to lay the groundwork for their rapid collective descent into murderous, bloodthirsty rage, I’m not sure I fully buy it, and it certainly doesn’t justify the murderous rampage you embark upon as the player character.

Bioshock Infinite‘s special combat powers (“Vigors”) may not make a whole lot of sense, but they sure are fun to use.

Overall, Bioshock Infinite accomplishes some truly brilliant things. It not only tackles universal discussions befitting of great art—the inevitability of human conflict and suffering, destiny versus free will, redemption, salvation, and the basic nature of reality—it does so through unifying visual and aural themes, complex characters, well-written dialogue, and painstakingly detailed environments, all of which combine to create the haunting yet enchanting world of Columbia. What little fault can be found with the game is as much a consequence of its own misjudgements as it is the massive shoes it has to fill. The original BioShock will always be one of my favorite games of all time, but BioShock Infinite makes a strong case to join the club.

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