Published on March 29th, 2013 | by Fraser Brown12
Booker DeWitt has made many poor decisions in his life. He’s a killer, a gambler and a sot. With his debts mounting up, he is given a chance at wiping the slate clean, and all he has to do is one task. To Columbia he must go, a fantastical city that drifts above the clouds, to rescue a girl from a tower, a bird and a madman.
BioShock Infinite is not a modern fairy tale, though. Booker is not an errant knight or even a hero and the girl isn’t a damsel in distress waiting for a man to save her. Honestly, I’m not sure what it is. Science fiction mystery, subtle tragedy, blockbuster spectacle — it’s all those things and likely a whole lot more.
I’m rolling my second cigarette since starting this review, and I’m only three paragraphs in. Smoking is meant to help me think, as the smell of the tobacco and the warmth in my lungs relaxes me enough so that I can digest all I’ve just seen. Really, though, I’m stalling for time, because I have so much to say about BioShock Infinite, but I have no idea where to begin.
Let’s start with what I know. I know Columbia and its gently bobbing buildings and well-to-do populous. Unlike Rapture, a flooded, crumbling monument filled with insane horrors, Columbia is a thriving city. Families soak up the afternoon sun in its many parks, ice cream parlours sell deserts to hungry patrons, young lovers flirt as they watch candy floss clouds and floating barges sailing through the sky.
It’s a stunning place filled with set pieces meticulously designed to cause jaws to drop. Irrational reveals their masterpiece slowly, building up anticipation as Booker makes his way to its lofty location from the world below. But the beauty and idyllic setting has a sense of wrongness slinking through it. At first it’s subtle: a barbershop quartet entertains children and dancing lovers in a park, but they are singing the 1966 Beach Boys classic, God Only Knows; the happy, affluent population are all white; jingoistic and nationalistic iconography line the streets. The cracks start to get wider rapidly.
While fancy women in wide-brimmed hats and men in dapper suits enjoy all the luxuries that Columbia offers, its less well-to-do residents are restricted to menial jobs and poor treatment. Toilets are racially segregated, for one, and when I wandered into the black toilet to scour the place for loot, the black attendant immediately became worried, begging me to leave out of fear that he would be punished. The servile behaviour of the underclass is uncomfortable, to say the least, and even more so because I was playing a white character that they treated as an automatic superior.
When I entered a room where a black janitor was scrubbing a floor, he immediately stops his frustrated conversation with himself over his lot, and becomes meek and apologetic, just because Booker is white. There are few opportunities to interact with NPCs, so I had to walk on by in silence, which felt like mute acceptance. But Booker hasn’t come to Columbia to change things. He’s more of a witness to the horrible nature of the city than a willing catalyst for change.
The erriness is exaggerated by the strangely limited character models. There are only a handful of them, continually being cloned. Wandering down a street seeing the same couples, identical children and gaggles of gossiping women is somewhat unnerving, and also detracts from the incredible level of detail seen in the rest of Columbia.
Further exploration reveals Columbia to be the sham it is, one built on exploitation and manipulation. It’s also a city split in half, ideologically speaking. On one side is Zachary Comstock, a cruel, power-hungry figure who projects the persona of a benevolent father figure and religious icon. He has set himself up as a prophet, and uses religious rhetoric to excuse all manner of crimes.
Comstock is an absent villain throughout most of the experience, occasionally appearing on screens to talk directly to Booker, but mainly being heard on speakers, spouting recorded propaganda. Though he only appears but a handful of times, he presence is felt quite a bit in a passive way. There are statues and posters with his likeness scattered throughout the city, many of them incredibly grandiose, and he’s never far from the minds of Columbia’s citizens.
He is, perhaps, not quite the compelling villain that Andrew Ryan was in the original BioShock. Though Ryan was undoubtedly an extremist and certainly not a good man, some of his rhetoric was tempered by reason and there were shades of grey mixed in with the black. Comstock, on the other hand, is a much more straightforward villains throughout most of the game. He’s an evil puppeteer and the depths of his depravity know no bounds.
On the other side of the ideological divide sits the Vox Populi, ostensibly rebels and freedom fighters. Initially, they are the downtrodden product of Comstock’s vision of a pure America. Blacks, Irish, the people that Comstock has no time for, while his agent, the industrialist Fink, happily exploits them and puts him to work in his dirty factories. Much like Irrational’s first BioShock, Infinite is an exploration of extremism, and when given the chance to grab power, the Vox become just as brutal and monstrous as Comstock and his cronies.
There’s little room for sympathy in BioShock Infinite when even the people who are in the right turn to extreme violence and savagery, but perhaps we should feel sorry for the Vox. They are the product of Comstock and Columbia, treated like dogs, shown no kindness and kicked down to the slums, is it any wonder that they rose up with such aggression? Unfortunately, the face of the Vox, Daisy Fitzroy, is not remotely likeable. Even when one learns of her past, she doesn’t come across as anything other than an angry woman, even though she has a right to be. There’s no hook for attachment.
This is not a tale about the Vox or Comstock, however; they are obstacles, enemies and sometimes the impetus for moving forward. BioShock Infinite is the tale of a pragmatic ex-Pinkerton agent, and a girl with a thimble for a pinkie.
Booker doesn’t care about Columbia, nor does he he have a dog in the race between the status quo and the Vox. He has one simple goal: get Elizabeth out of Columbia, and back to his benefactors in New York. He teeters on the edge of being a bit of a cliché, but he always seems to get dragged back from that precipice by his interactions with Elizabeth. It was clear from the outset that he would come to see her more than a means to wipe clean his debt and that there was going to be some sort of path to redemption that Elizabeth would lead him down, but that path is one with twists and sharp turns, and Booker becomes a lot more than a gun-toting killer.
More than, but still a killer. BioShock Infinite revels in violence and gore, throwing buckets of blood, mountains of corpses, and disintegrating skeletons at the player. Foes are passionate about killing Booker, and he, in turn, has no problem leading them to a grisly end. Weapons and ammunition are littered all over the streets, buildings and tucked away in drawers; so Booker is never without multiple avenues for death-dealing.
The combat in Infinite lacks the methodical, tactical elements of its forbearer, relying instead on fast-paced and intense action. Hordes of squishy, human enemies fling themselves at Booker, shrieking and screaming with great fury. They are very much into the whole zealot malarkey. Very rarely is their a need for a slow or stealthy approach.
Firearms are varied and satisfying, though they do seem mundane considering the quasi-science, almost magical setting. There are shotguns, pistols, machines guns, RPGs, nothing that really stands out. Though their impact is impressive: blowing off heads, causing soldiers to turn into bloody explosions — one can even see the exit wounds on corpses.
Most foul are the melee attacks. Booker employs a skyhook, normally used to zip around the city’s many skyhook rails, to batter enemies with wild abandon. After a few hits, he can execute them in a most brutal manner — snapping their necks, shredding their throats and then flinging them off into the distance, often over railings. The first time it occurred it elicited quite the exclamation from me, and throughout it continued to be unpleasant to watch. Elizabeth often brings attention to Booker’s penchant for violence, something that never seems to sit well with her, and during those executions her horror is audible.
The skyhook’s other use in combat is extra mobility. With the power of magnetism, Booker can launch up onto rails that surround the city, and speed across outdoor areas, dealing death from above. This turns combat scenarios into huge, multi-levelled affairs, with Booker jumping from ledge to ledge, racing down rails, leaping onto airships, or plummeting down to land on an unsuspecting foe, crushing them. There’s an instant rush of exhilaration when employing the skyline, and more than any other aspect of the combat, this is what sets BioShock Infinite apart from its contemporaries. In normal or easy difficulty, battles are transformed into theme parks — giant set pieces filled with exploding flying vehicles, and enemies ripe for air assassinations. On the more challenging difficulty, they become puzzles, demanding that players know when to make use of the skyrail or exploit environmental hazards.
Rounding out his bloody arsenal are vigors, essentially Infinite’s answer to plasmids, and they come in eight flavours. While the plasmids often offered up extra tactical options, vigors are appropriately more action-focussed. Each comes with an alternative attack, usually allowing Booker to place them like a mine. These powers are visual treats while also being extremely deadly. The Bronco vigor levitates foes, but also lifts up detritus surrounding them, suspending pebbles and objects in mid-air along with confused enemies; while The Murder of Crows vigor sends out a flock of crows to peck and shred screaming soldiers, leaving even the survivors covered in blood and scratches. My personal favourite was the simple Charge vigor, which propels Booker towards a foe, skyhook first, and smashes him into them. It’s perfect for a melee follow-up and then an execution.
Where BioShock tasked players with analysing situations and picking the best weapons and plasmids for the given scenario, Infinite just flings you into a massive, explosive spectacle, where all weapons and vigors are appropriate all the time. Areas are filled with environmental hazards which can be exploited by several vigors, and the majority of enemies go down with one headshot. Instead of patiently planning an attack, there is a vast breadth of choices, almost too many, and players are welcome to switch up their approach on the fly, since almost any approach has its strengths.
That is not to say that there’s no challenge, though. Booker can get taken out quite easily, enemies start to wear armour and then there are the tougher brutes, the gigantic mechanical Founding Father automatons, the Patriots; flame-throwing, heavily armoured firemen, who explode upon death; and the worst of all, the tragic Handymen — part human, part machine and incredibly strong.
For all of Bookers weapons and near-mystical powers, he is nothing without his partner, Elizabeth. To start discussing her in terms of her ability to aid Booker would be remiss, however, as she is far more than an ally in his conflicts. Where Booker is a cynical pragmatist, Elizabeth is full of life and exuberance, despite having just as much weight on her shoulders — more, in fact — than her companion. When she is first introduced, locked up in a tower with a mechanical monstrosity for a warden, she is quickly revealed to be so much more than a damsel in distress.
Elizabeth has made many attempts to escape the confines of Comstock’s luxurious prison, and when Booker discovers her, she’s making yet another attempt to transport herself to freedom. Paris, specifically. Within minutes, she’s saving Booker’s bacon, and she never stops doing this. But rather than being a tool that players can employ, she’s the most intriguing and well-rounded character in BioShock Infinite, and she knows more about what’s going on than anybody else, even the player, by the climactic ending.
Her charisma threatens to eclipse everything else about the game, remarkably, but through her eyes we can see Columbia not as some corrupt, broken dream, but as a place where ordinary people live, sometimes amongst great beauty, and sometimes in terrible poverty. She runs around the gently floating city with the naivety of a child, yet she has had nothing to do but read books about the world she was shielded from, and in her 17 years she’s learned a lot in her prison. Practically, this is represented by her pointing out items of interest to Booker and picking locks, but more importantly it can be seen in the way she interacts with the environment in more meaningful ways.
Not long after escaping the tower, Booker and Elizabeth find themselves in possibly the most striking part of Columbia: an artificial beach, with a fake coast that ends in a waterfall, collapsing down the edge of the city. Elizabeth runs off, as she is wont to do, to take full advantage of her new found freedom. She ends up dancing amid a group of musicians, spinning and laughing. When I was prompted to get her attention and pull her away from this simply moment of happiness, I found that I could not. It was clear that such moments would be few and far between from that point on, and I wasn’t quite ready to break Columbia’s spell.
Later, after a great deal of bloodshed and mistakes, Booker and Elizabeth discover what can best be described as an urchin, terrified and hiding beneath a grotty pub. Despite their responsibilities and the urgency of their quest, Booker picks up a guitar, and Elizabeth sings to the child, trying to get it to eat an apple. It was a tiny, almost insignificant sequence, but one where the characters were perfectly in sync, attempting to do a small bit of good in the middle of the awful chaos that consumes Columbia. That perfect moment defines the role of Elizabeth, far more than her ability to help Booker in combat. She isn’t the focus of a frustrating escort mission, and she isn’t just an NPC — she’s Booker’s partner and co-protagonist, and it couldn’t have been better pulled off were she controlled by another player.
Elizabeth is also laden with powers that make Booker’s pale in comparison. She is able to open tears into other realities, which is integral to the story which I refuse to spoil, but also comes into play frequently in combat. She can summon crates full of medical kits, powerful weapons, mechanical allies, and even hooks for Booker to grab onto with his skyhook.
Only one tear can be opened at a time, lending a bit of strategy to the proceedings, but with the large amount of tears it can all get a bit much. There are almost too many options, and the sound of a tear nearby in tandem with the visual effects can sometimes get in the way of the fast-paced shooting and blowing up. There’s a wonderful variety to the things she can bring into battles, however, if only there was more time to get the lay of the land and take advantage of them properly.
The tear mechanic comes into its own fully on the few occasions where already cleared areas become full of enemies when Booker and Elizabeth have to double back. The first battle may have been a vertical one, with Booker switching from sniper perch to hooks from which he can launch downwards, pummelling an enemy with a huge amount of kinetic force, but the second time it could be a ground battle, with Elizabeth being commanded to bring lumbering mechanical allies and rocket turrets into the fray from other realities.
Undoubtedly the greatest part about Elizabeth’s participation in the more violent elements of the game is the fact that she never, ever needs Booker’s help. She never gets injured in combat, always finds cover, and at no point does she hinder the action. While players go about their business decapitating policemen, setting fire to robots, and summoning murders of crows, they never need concern themselves with their ward. She’s more than capable of looking after herself, while also throwing ammo, health and other assorted goodies at the player.
Despite being ostensibly an action game — one with exciting, rousing sequences – BioShock Infinite’s greatest moments take place during instances of calm exploration. The introductory sequence, with Booker first setting foot in Columbia, might be one of the most impressive “tutorials” in a modern video game, and I never tired of slowly making my way through the streets of Columbia, searching for more information on characters both seen an unseen, while Elizabeth excitedly explores the world for the first time.
With Booker being an outsider, and Elizabeth spending all of her life locked up, there’s always the sense of just being a tourist in Columbia. Everything feels new, begging to be explored in greater detail. In the final hour, the floodgates open, and all manner of new questions appear, and the game ends in an almost abrupt, but ultimately satisfying way. Yet I crave more. The journals of Columbia’s residents shed more information on what exactly is going on, and Elizabeth eventually takes on the role of a nigh omnipotent narrator, but so much is left unsaid. The final moments are an explosion of what ifs and what the fucks, tying the franchise together while potentially frying brains.
There are moments where choices appear to be presented, and things can be missed or overlooked, but I think we’ll all end up at the same stop, even if our experiences are slightly different. I don’t know what that stop is, but I get the feeling that at some point soon we’ll get picked up again, and the intricate mythology presented in BioShock Infinite, one of cycles and lighthouses, will continue.
I’m already planning to jump back into the game and try my luck at the challenging 1999 mode, an unlockable extra level of difficulty, because I’m not quite ready to consign Infinite to my digital shelf. It’s an unforgettable ride, a hyperbole inducing adventure set amid one of the most impressive game-spaces ever crafted, and even though it’s the third instalment in the franchise, it feels like it’s merely the beginning of something that will be talked about for an extremely long time.