The scope and ambition of Bioshock: Infinite is in itself difficult to fully take in, but it’s in seeing this ambition conceptualized in such astounding fashion that causes it to become almost exhausting to try to appreciate the vast amount of layers laid in such an intricate pattern required to make it what it is.
It’s the rarest of occasions where the incalculable expectations heaped upon it are not only met, but exceeded, in ways I wouldn’t have anticipated despite my own rabid hopes for what the game might be. It’s an experience that’s both familiar yet defiantly willing to take risks in its attempts to outdo its predecessors, firmly steeped in its own heritage but only so much as it can be used to further itself into something even more remarkable, constantly pushing itself to new heights despite the possible catastrophe that could result. And it pays off. What Irrational Games has achieved is unprecedented, deserving of commendation and once again resetting the bar that the original Bioshock did so many years ago. It’s truly something to behold.
The setup to Infinite’s plot is likely the sole moment that can be easily explained, materializing with the words that have become so familiar by now but adopt a larger meaning in their greater narrative context: “bring us the girl, and wipe away the debt”. You are Booker Dewitt, a man on his last line of hope in removing himself out from under the hand of some very dangerous people.
And this is where Infinite forgoes any semblance of simplicity or predictability, literally ascending into the floating city of Columbia and a far more complex, complicated narrative that all but demands repeated playthroughs to truly understand. Columbia is itself a fascinating world to explore, for reasons Rapture never was or could be. It’s a living, breathing city that unravels at a deliberately slow pace, dropping breadcrumbs for you every step of the way but never exposing itself enough to have you see the full picture and become disinterested.
The city feels real, for as fantastical and impossible the existence of a floating city seems; a gorgeous, fully realized environment dripping in early American history and architecture that comes to life in an artistically arresting display of color and visual fidelity. The constant dissimilarity between the beautiful areas you explore and the horrifically grotesque violence that takes place within them creates a sort of twisted beauty that never wavers or deteriorates into mindless gore.
In many ways Columbia exists almost to entirely contradict rapture. It’s a city floating in the sky, brought up by a fiercely communal, religious figure-head that seeks not to eradicate law and God but embrace the ideals of a warped version of Christianity created in his own image. You arrive here not after the dust has settled and the city has fallen, but at the cusp of a vicious civil war that is nearing its boiler point, waiting for you to drop the match and light the flames.
In the wake of the many firefights and incredible scenes of destruction that litter the path to Infinite’s shocking finish, it was often the quiet moments that made me appreciate Columbia the most for giving me something Rapture never did. Without the constant fear of being attacked or an oppressive atmosphere weighing you down, Infinite is allowed to show its humanity. Seeing the city the full of life gives a sense of place on a level I’ve rarely witnessed. Kids running in the streets, venders attempting to sell you their wares; it all serves to establish this robust society before its descent into madness, something often lost in a medium seemingly obsessed with sterile, dystopian wastelands.
At the center of this is Elizabeth, the girl previously referred to who immediately upon her introduction becomes far more than the mere bartering tool that you set out for. She’s a character without the flimsy mirage of personality drawn up to hide a lack of depth, or a throwaway damsel that only serves to burden you down. She’s a person; naive, curious, independent, and the one you come to rely on throughout the game almost more so than she does you.
The relationship between her and Booker is the grounding force for a narrative that often feels as if it could spin wildly out of control at any moment, but stays firmly on course throughout every path it goes down, the culmination for which is only describable as utterly insane and brilliant.
With all it attempts, there are certainly a handful of threads which never get the closure or development they deserve, most prominently that of the deeply rooted racism of Columbia and the rebel force of the Vox Populi that has sprung up as a result. It’s one of the most compelling subplots in the game, though unfortunately has little time to be expanded upon and is mostly a means to a very violent end. Ultimately it’s almost understandable, as there is hardly room for Infinite’s larger narrative to exist in, let alone as many subplots as it has also managed to fit in alongside it.
Though the shooting in Bioshock has never been a problem (quite the opposite, it’s one of the most intelligent and mechanically sophisticated shooters ever made), Infinite is unquestionably smoother in every aspect. It’s a faster, tighter, streamlined game that smartly ejects portions of past games to allow space for its new mechanics to coexist. The core of combat is in many ways the same as it has always been, with mostly names being swapped to reflect the change in local, but otherwise preserving the strongest aspects of Bioshock’s combat while expanding upon them in intelligent ways that further the tactical depth of each encounter.
The skyhook provides one of the biggest changes to the formula, allowing for a level of verticality the series has never had, as you zip along rails through huge levels which require you take note of the new speed with which you can traverse levels and the vantage points now accessible. It requires a complete rethinking of how fights are approached, and gives the player the tools to take on larger numbers of enemies that in turn are also granted access to these new tools, and make full use of them in their pursuit to take you down.
Vigors, Infinite’s replacement for plasmids, offer the same superhuman element as before but now in a much more focused and deliberate manner. Different abilities can be combined into more effective weapons, from electrocuting a murder of crows, to creating exploding enemies by setting them ablaze and then charging into them. It’s a logical evolution of the series’s most unique mechanic, and that only grows further as you come to learn the various combos hidden in the already powerful abilities.
The switch to only being able to carry two weapons at a time at first felt like a disadvantage, but effectively worked in making me pay more attention to my surroundings and be more active in choosing which weapons to use and where to find new ones. It ensured I was constantly moving and engaged in the combat, as different weapons were often noticeably more effective against different enemy types and I was rarely given the luxury of having them all nearby. Coupled with the smoother aiming and ability to sprint and aim down the sights fundamentally altered how I played, and by and large made for a more compelling experience.
Bioshock: Infinite is a stunning achievement; bold, refined, innovative, and constantly stimulating. It’s a game that never falters in its vision, fearful of how easy it would be to have it all crumble upon the weight of its own aspirations, confident in its ability to deliver something awe-inspiring. It’s the greatest of a collection of some of the most critically acclaimed and influential games ever made, and a true feat in both what it is and for the fact it ever managed to become it. There are few experiences more worth your time, and leave you with as much to think about.