I, like a lot of people, was disappointed with BioShock 2. It was a competent game, don’t get me wrong. The shooting was pretty good and the story was OK. But it didn’t grab me to nearly the same degree that BioShock did. Returning to Rapture already knowing a great deal about its history was not the same as the first trip down to this sunken Dystopia in the Bathysphere.
When I first read about BioShock Infinite, I cringed a bit because it was set in a different place. I wondered if this was a sequel in name only. Let me assure you: it is not. Ken Levine’s singular vision is back for this, the third game in the series, and it means the quality of the game, especially its story-telling and character development, has returned to that of its groundbreaking original predecessor.
The world of Columbia is breathtaking, quite literally wrapped in the flag. Every home, every street is decked in stars and spangles: an homage to red, white and blue. Your first half-hour in the sky-bound city instills a sense of safety and calm. “What could possibly go wrong?” you’ll think. “I’m surrounded by rich white people, and it looks like a 1950s Fourth of July Parade around here.” It makes it all the more jarring when it goes to hell in an instant, and as the trappings of the “perfect” society Father Comstock has created burn in the fires of revolution, the rotten foundation collapses all the more quickly under the heavy weight of its nationalist façade.
If you’ve played a BioShock game before, you’ll find the mechanics familiar, but the combat has gotten tighter and more exciting. It does get a little repetitive due to the slow trickle of new Vigors. For example, there was one Vigor I didn’t pick up until I was well into the third act and had already established my preferred fighting style.
You’ll fall in love with Elizabeth. She’s a strong, sympathetic character: a mix of Rapunzel and Jade (Beyond Good & Evil). Wide-eyed and naive at the outset, and awestruck with the outside world. As she explores the world, she is heartbroken by the oppression and dehumanization of the underclass in Columbia. She wants to help the downtrodden in this candy-coated society, which is strongly influenced by the ideals of Adolf Hitler and the Klan’s White Master Race, with a big helping of Jim Crow laws of pre-Civil Rights America. She knows that her power to open Rifts has the potential to help these people, and she decides the chance to change Columbia’s fate for the better outweighs the potential risk. She’s smart, beautifully designed, and though she’s your ward, you don’t have to spend the game protecting her. In fact, using her abilities wisely is the key to getting through some of the tougher combat sequences in the game.
Booker is a stronger character than either of the previous two BioShock protagonists. He is proof that the silent hero is a relic of a bygone age. I want the character I play to speak up. Just because I am guiding him through the story doesn’t mean I want him to be an empty vessel. I felt his reactions and dialog were appropriate to the circumstances and generally in line with how I felt as the player.
The Lutece twins provide some much needed levity in this otherwise dark narrative. I was delighted whenever they turned up, and their oral sparring was one of the highlights of the game for me. The opening sequence, especially, which invokes Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s On First” was a real treat.
Some of the other characters I wasn’t all that impressed with. By the time you meet Daisy Fitzroy, the leader of the rebellion, she has already transformed from a submissive house servant into a Black Panther. All of her development happens in the form of audio logs you pick up along the way, making her character abrasive and hard to relate to. I feel this makes a turn in the second act less impactful than it would otherwise have been.
I also didn’t have any strong feelings toward Comstock, which is less than optimal considering he’s the primary antagonist. Again, you’ll find audio logs scattered about the world in which he spews his hateful beliefs with zealous righteousness, and he’ll taunt you over the city-wide loudspeaker system throughout the game. However, he’s physically absent from most of the game, probably due to spoiler-rific narrative elements, so you never really feel that he’s hot on your heels when he’s pursuing you. Nor do you feel that he’s one step ahead of you later on when you’ve decided to track him down and confront him instead of fleeing.
In fact, Songbird, Elizabeth’s prison guard, creates most of the anxiety you feel throughout your escape from and eventual pursuit of Comstock. Songbird evokes more emotion than most of the secondary characters in the game without ever saying a word. His pursuit of Elizabeth is dogged, and very much invokes the Big Daddies’ protective nature of the Little Sisters in BioShock and BioShock 2. That said, the encounters with Songbird were a bit too scripted for my liking. Preferable would have been something like Resident Evil: Nemesis, wherein he could show up at any time, and you’d actually have to fight him off or elude him until he lost track of you.
I can’t really speak about the boldest aspect of the game, the ending, without spoiling it. It uses a well-worn idea from Science Fiction with great effect. I vastly appreciate its physical manifestation in Infinite, also found in the brilliant To The Moon. Succinctly it is a thoughtful ending to a fantastic game, superlative to the somewhat routine endings of its predecessors.
To Ken Levine and everyone at Irrational Games I say, bravo. Easily the best game I’ve played this year, and the best game in the BioShock series so far. I can’t wait to see where you take us next.