[Review] BioShock Infinite – Pax Americana
I set out writing this review not trying to compare Bioshock Infinite with the original Bioshock. I figured that the first game already established itself as a masterpiece in narrative and design so there was really no reason for me to revisit Rapture in order to judge Columbia. But when Infinite purposefully calls back to its predecessor then how am I supposed to proceed? Continue with my original plan of judging the game on its own merits, or how it holds up in relation to “the highest rated FPS of all time” as their trailers love reminding me? Like the original game, BioShock Infinite is more than just another chapter within the same universe; and just like the first game, Bioshock Infinite is so much bigger than itself. At the same time however this is a far more intimate game than its underwater counterpart and it makes a world of difference. I think that’s a good place to start actually.
Taking place in an alternate timeline where a group of radicals create the floating city of Columbia based on the principles of American splendor and national Christianity; Booker DeWitt flies up to rescue the mysterious captive of the city Elizabeth. This being a Bioshock game however, one can expect nothing to be as it seems. Boiling underneath the perfect monument to the American ideals (that may never have existed in the first place) is a simmering uprising by the Vox Populi, a group of anarchists bent on bringing racial and economic equality to the masses by tearing down the old system. Basically American history if McKinley was never assassinated and Theodore Roosevelt continued serving as president. It’s an America that almost was, regardless of floating city.
Much like the Ayn Rand philosophical universe of Rapture, Columbia inhabits a very real ideology of American imperialism that existed at the tail end of the 1800s and culminated in the ‘American Century’ of the 20th Century. It was a time when the virtues of the American way of life seemed like the new beacon in a rusted Euro-centric world and isolationism and expansionism were ironically pursued in tandem. Like Rapture, there is a similar sense of awe as the people at Irrational games bring to life hypothetical ideologies; and just like how the underwater utopia was a character in itself, the same treatment is given to Columbia. The city is fully fleshed and absolutely breathtaking to behold with sun illuminating every monument and building with a sort of holy radiance. But its blinding light belies a sinister network of politics, racism, and American history.
Embodiment of certain philosophical ideas
isn’t the only thing Infinite has in common with the original though. With a recurring big guardian-like monster in the form of the Songbird, Vigor replacing plasmids, and a tyrant pulling the strings behind the scenes, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that the two games are nearly identical sans the setting. All these similarities however, are only surface deep.
Before I go any further with that, let me lay down some groundwork. Gameplay-wise Bioshock Infinite is much better than Bioshock. The first was almost unfair when it came to resources and downright frustrating in times of need. Infinite, on the other hand, is Mother Theresa in comparison. You’re never in want of anything, but that doesn’t mean the game is easier. The enemies are far more varied and resourceful that you shouldn’t feel safe just because your pockets have some bullets in them. You’ll find yourself more often than not in need of more ammo with the sheer number of enemies. Rapture was in ruins and it would make no sense if everyone was carrying ammo and cash. Columbia is a thriving city with a standing armed force, so money and ammo are very much plentiful here; so much so that one can indulge themselves when it comes to shopping in stalls that dispense health, ammo, and upgrades. There are far more weapons, positive distribution of Vigor powers, and a permanent melee tool in the form of the hook…thing (I think it has a name?). Combat is much more frantic with the inclusion of the sky rails which are fun to move around in without impeding combat in the least. The crux of the matter is, somebody figured out that limited ammo and upgrade does not a harder game make. Multitudes of creative enemies and more options on ways to approach a fight is how combat should be done, and Bioshock Infinite does just that. Gone are the hacking and puzzles of Rapture; now is the time to put up a real fight.
But that isn’t to say the combat is perfect. With so many button inputs and options on the battlefield, things can get a little hectic. Also, some things like your Vigor powers take some understanding to utilize properly or even effectively. They try to give you time to practice with them by feeding you the powers slowly. The vigors are spaced out throughout the game but I didn’t know you could switch Vigors mid-combat with a simple button prompt which complicated some fights for me. Either I missed something early on or there’s so much information overload it’s easy to miss something like that. Also I never really liked Irrational’s combat controls to begin with and while it’s more fun and varied, the basics are the same so take that as you will.
Let’s talk about Elizabeth. I’ve been thinking about it long and hard how I should describe her to you. She’s a great female character? No, she’s a great character in general. Intelligent, endearing, funny. The game makes clear you don’t need to worry for her in the midst of combat which I think is the best move anybody could ever do with a female companion. Without the need to escort her around, she becomes a true partner handing you supplies and ammo in the midst of combat as well as summoning turrets, allies, and environmental aids for you. In reality, you end up relying on her for
help more than she ever needs yours and when she gets taken away from you it’s you that suffers and needs to get her back rather than vice versa. I would even say it’s you that needs to be escorted around and that’s the beauty of it. She doesn’t need protection, you do. You’re just breaking her out of prison, everything else is all her. Whenever you’re down it’s her you rely on and when it comes to progressing the narrative it’s her that strings you along. It’s a great role-reversal that’s so brilliant in practice that you find yourself frantically looking for her in the midst of combat not because you’re worried for her safety but because you need her to get you out of a tight spot.
How about you, the player? Booker DeWitt is great. Not only does he have a cool name, but he talks…constantly. And that’s a good thing! He becomes a person not an avatar and it’s his interaction with Elizabeth (not yours) that forms the center of the relationship. He makes his emotions clear and you begin to understand him as a person (but then again, this is Bioshock. Will you ever understand anything?). It’s the fact that he is a person that interacts with things around him in such an immediate way that makes Infinite far more personal and rewarding than Bioshock. While the first game was a commentary on the voiceless player avatar, Infinite is much more about a story between a man and a woman and how a relationship much like saving a princess from her tower evolves afterwards. It’s an emotionally rewarding experience that culminates in an ending just as thrilling as anything Irrational games has written previously.
I don’t know how else to say this but Bioshock Infinite is a big deal. It may not revolutionize anything like the first Bioshock but it’s a testament that amazing narrative doesn’t happen by accident. It takes dedication and resources in order to do it correctly, and Bioshock Infinite shows that it’s definitely worth doing correctly. Bioshock Infinite doesn’t take anything for granted. It doesn’t expect less from you as a video game player, and it doesn’t make compromises with itself to hold your hand or tone down its material. Rather than hampered by its success, Irrational seemed to be emboldened by it. In an industry that’s thinking backwards, Bioshock Infinite stands progressively firm in understanding what amazing storytelling and fun gameplay can do. It’s a narrative yes, but it’s also a world constructed with meticulous detail about a city, a philosophy, and about two people that are somehow at the center of it all. It’s such that Bioshock Infinite draws you into its blinding majesty just as Columbia draws in those seeking a better life. This is a better video game and it’s a shame that this is the exception rather than the standard.
[+This is storytelling for video games] [+Some of the prettiest visuals this generation] [+Music includes The Beach Boys, there is no contest] [+Amazing voice work] [+Refined Bioshock gameplay makes it more exciting to play than the first] [+It improves upon everything while giving you a more personal narrative] [-Combat is frantically cluttered] [-No map system]