When I first read “Watchmen” in sixth grade, I enjoyed the mysterious plot and eclectic characters. When I finally read it again in high school, I discovered the deep levels of moral complexity and folly of believing in real super heroes. Playing “Bioshock Infinite” this past weekend elicited the same feelings. While my 12-year old self would’ve enjoyed the bombastic FPS action, my mildly more mature college self reveled in a title rife with nativism, ideological battles and a world almost suffocating in its stark realism.
The story opens with Booker DeWitt, a former Pinkerton agent turned private eye, journeying up to a floating city in the sky, Columbia. Booker’s task is to capture a girl trapped in a tower to wipe away his ambiguous “debt.” As players ascend to the heavens, they’re treated to a spectacle built around religious awakenings and boundless promise.
These themes resonate throughout the entire title as the pervasive American exceptionalism gradually demonstrates why Columbia remains in a continual state of conflict. Slow burning but emphatic in its intent, the beginning portion of “Infinite” is one of my favorite game openings ever. It organically introduces the player to gameplay elements through a politically mediated carnival, confidently eschewing huge explosions in favor of firmly establishing the beautifully crafted world. Although delayed, the action sequences are what round out this experience into a wholly encompassing game with intense combat and brilliant storytelling. Booker can carry up to two weapons at a time, which is somewhat disappointing in later levels with the myriad of firearm options. However, players do have access to every vigor they collect throughout the game.
Vigors replace plasmids from the original “Bioshock” and carry a variety of new powers Booker can harness. From standard electro shocks to murderous crows, finding the right balance of vigors and traditional weaponry is paramount for every battle. Throughout the entire experience, Irrational Games did a fantastic job of varying the combat arenas and enemy types.
Most enemies are humans, but these waves are oftentimes augmented by pyromaniacs or gun-toting George Washington mechs. Several enemies even show up only five or six times throughout the entire title. Even though it’s more work for the developer, it’s always refreshing to discover a new enemy type sprinkled in a game’s final levels.
Yet the primary task of “Bioshock Infinite” remains Booker’s mission to return Elizabeth to his contractors. Companion characters in games are typically notorious for their complete and utter ineptitude at seemingly everything. Instead, I found myself visibly upset whenever Elizabeth left my side. She constantly patrols the battlefield gathering ammo, health and salts (which power vigors) to toss to Booker. Her presence never disturbs Booker’s actions on the battlefield and she can even create tears to alternate universes to create weapons or mechanical companions in the heat of battle. Booker and Elizabeth’s bond grows throughout the title and Irrational astutely avoids familiar tropes that plague male-female companion stories.
Some of the elements of Elizabeth’s lifelike AI may fall flat (her coin collecting is off-putting when bookending dramatic exchanges), but overall her character growth only enhanced the believability of “Infinite’s” tale. Audio logs sprinkled throughout the game also offer enlightening insight into character’s motivations and depict a fuller picture of Columbia’s twisted climate. Despite the black and white racial stalwarts on either side of the city’s conflict, Columbia’s moral compass is better represented as a deep gray. This shining beacon in the sky is nothing more than farce, a simple ruse constructed to channel the days when Manifest Destiny seemed reality instead of fodder for revisionist history.
Eventually, Elizabeth’s ability to open tears into alternate realities becomes an integral part of the plot. Resulting in several divergent twists, the winding story never becomes unruly and overcomplicated. With a finale that left me in an utter state of shock and contemplation for the last several days, “Infinite” delivers on the lofty narrative goals creative director Ken Levine set for himself with the first “Bioshock.” “Bioshock Infinite’s” troubled development cycle cast doubts over whether the title could live up to everything it promised. It turns out these thoughts were as foolish as the concept of a city in the skies. With a varied, satisfying combat system to complement its beautiful and stirring narrative, “Infinite” reaches heights Columbia could only dream of.