For players well-versed in modern video games, Irrational Games’ “BioShock Infinite” is a tour de force, offering a one-of-a-kind game world and a rich, compelling story that culminates in an unforgettable, mind-bending finale.
The violent first-person shooter takes players to the scientific and technological marvel of Columbia, an early-20th century city that floats among the clouds. Playing as Booker DeWitt, a former union infiltrator for the Pinkertons, you journey to Columbia to rescue a young woman named Elizabeth. If you bring her to New York, DeWitt’s copious gambling debts will be wiped out.
Upon arrival, DeWitt discovers the city is under the control of a zealot named Zachary Comstock. Calling himself, “The Prophet,” Comstock has imprisoned Elizabeth, a messiah figure, in a massive tower.
Even though video games are regrettably stocked with a seemingly endless supply of women who need rescuing, Elizabeth is far from helpless. Possessing the ability to see and interact with parallel universes, she’s arguably the world’s most powerful person as she tugs at tears in the space-time continuum. Her efforts serve mundane purposes, such as bringing in allies to fight alongside DeWitt, but they also drive the game’s story forward in ways I won’t spoil other than to say that they’re frequently astonishing.
Set in a different world with different characters, “BioShock Infinite” isn’t a sequel to “BioShock” or “BioShock 2” in the traditional sense, but the three games share a number of themes. Like the first two games, “Infinite” revolves around a conflict of ideologies, as a populist uprising in Columbia seeks to unseat Comstock’s city-state built on religious zealotry and rampant racism.
“BioShock Infinite” Creative Director Ken Levine, who oversaw the original “BioShock” but not the sequel, smartly adopts “BioShock 2’s” more character-oriented, drama-infused approach to storytelling. The tale of 20-year-old Elizabeth being freed from the yoke of captivity and becoming an independent person dovetails closely with the maturation of “BioShock 2’s” Eleanor, one of the best-written characters to grace a video game.
What makes “Infinite” the best story in the series, though, is the voice and personality that Levine, voice actor Troy Baker and the game’s writers give to DeWitt. Unlike the silent heroes of the first two “BioShocks,” DeWitt is a fleshed-out creation with his own personality and character arc, as opposed to some mute cipher onto which players are supposed to project themselves. He’s a man, not a power fantasy.
From the heady plot that spans alternate realities to frank, brutal depictions of early 20th-century racism, “BioShock Infinite” feels every bit like the mature, M-rated game it is. But it’s also that other kind of M-rated game, the kind where much of the gameplay revolves around genre staples like headshots, gruesome executions and incinerations.
DeWitt’s background as a war veteran and anti-union muscle justify the brutality well enough that it’s unfair to make “BioShock Infinite” the poster child for the argument that video games have become violent at the expense of being creative. At times, however, the game’s adherence to familiar video game trappings undermines its gripping story.
The gameplay in “BioShock Infinite” will feel familiar to anyone who played either “BioShock” game, as your right hand wields a firearm while you sling a form of metaphysical magic with your left arm. In “BioShock” and “BioShock 2,” these special abilities were known as “plasmids”; in “BioShock Infinite,” they’re called “vigors.” Though the eight vigors you can find aren’t carbon copies of the original plasmids, there’s enough similarity there that using vigors in combat is seamless and easy to get the hang of.
That level of familiarity extends to other interfaces, including virtually the same looting and health regeneration system from the original “BioShock.” Back in 2007, plenty of folks commented on how strange it was that “BioShock’s” main character journeyed through a flooding, underwater city whose floor was littered with syringes, all the while eating old potato chips found in garbage cans to regenerate health.
In “BioShock Infinite,” more than five years later, Booker DeWitt is eating hot dogs and cotton candy off of mutilated corpses. Couldn’t Irrational have come up with something different in the interim?
Now that we’re three games into what we’ll call the “BioShock” series, this level of familiarity with “Infinite’s” core combat means that a lot of the shooting parts feel somewhat routine — roadblocks that must be cleared to experience a wonderful story. While large set pieces where DeWitt and Elizabeth do battle against dozens of enemies are well-orchestrated, technically sound and “fun” in a video game sense, the game’s most memorable moments happen in the quiet interludes between gunbattles.
As someone who dislikes scripted TV, I’m ecstatic for selfish reasons that Irrational Games chose to bring its masterpiece to my go-to medium. But there’s a small part of me that wonders whether “BioShock Infinite’s” stunning narrative would have found a much larger, equally appreciative audience had its creators told it in a different medium.
Maybe, in a parallel universe, they did.
“BioShock Infinite,” rated M, costs $60 on PC, Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3. For this review, I played a copy of the game purchased at retail.
You can reach Eric Wittmershaus at 521-5433 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter as @gamewit.