An overall stunningly well-crafted game harmed by poor balance between gameplay and storytellin
The first two Bioshock games were neatly crafted and very engaging titles. Underneath the surface of their gameplay, which displayed the regular quirks of average action games, Irrational's works featured a setting whose level of immersion was unparalleled. Not only was Rapture able to dress the game up with the slow methodical pace of exploration that its darkness and overwhelming sense of danger required, it also threw a number of riddles at the player. The sudden start of the game's underwater quest raised questions as to who exactly your character was; and the unexpected introduction of Rapture, not to mention its inhabitants with obscure agendas, made it impossible not to wonder how it all came to be, what was going on, and what would come to pass.
Bioshock Infinite, in some aspects, presents an equally high level of game design smarts. Irrational Games wisely understood that by simply going back to Rapture's hallways, the third installment of the series - much like the great Bioshock 2 - would not be able to soar as high as possible. After all, whatever value the game might have had, it would have been obscured by the unsurmountable impact of stepping into Rapture for the first time. If it were simply another trip into that underwater madhouse, Bioshock Infinite's destiny would have inevitably been to stand in the shadow of the game that started it all; a situation not compatible with the talent of the team behind the game.
To avoid falling into that trap, in comes Columbia. The floating city works as a celebration of American exceptionalism, and its architecture holds strong ties to that of the United States' Northeast at the time of the country's formation. Commissioned by the government, and founded by Comstock - the wealthy leader of an ultra-nationalist party - the city eventually secedes from the union after a big diplomatic incident and flies away to remain hidden. Its isolation from the world allows Comstock to develop a personality cult on which citizens believe both the city and its leader to be divine gifts to the world, hence requiring the spreading of their thoughts and philosophy to the sinners below the clouds.
Columbia is introduced to players in a very similar way to Rapture's first appearance. The game's main character, Booker DeWitt, is taken to a lighthouse by a mysterious couple. On a mission to erase his gambling debt, he must rescue a girl that is kept captive in Columbia by Comstock. Before anything else is made clear, Booker embarks on a rocket and gets to the city. Differently from post-apocalyptic Rapture, though, players arrive in Columbia when it is in the height of its glory; its population is thriving, and the place is full of life. Its a situation that goes along extremely well with the game's beautiful vibrant graphics and their slightly cell-shaded style, not to mention the wider and brighter color palette that is used. Yet, if Rapture's history serves as an indication, it is hard not to feel that Columbia is pure dynamite waiting to be ignited by any tiny spark.
The game's set up is, then, amazingly done; possessing detailed environments that beg to be explored and carefully looked at, whether it is to find goods or feel the city's spirit through its propaganda-filled streets. DeWitt's straightforward quest begs many questions as to who he is, and what is so special about the girl that needs to be rescued. Besides, it is impossible not to want to know more about the past, the present, and the future of Columbia and its key inhabitants. However, Bioshock Infinite's tale, while undeniably strong and unbelievably well-constructed, is not told very smoothly. Where the first two Bioshock games slowly revealed their secrets, making gameplay enjoyable through the use of story development as a reward for combat and exploration; Bioshock Infinite, after the first couple of hours of gameplay, decides to keep all major cards on its sleeve until - at one point in the game - everything is thrown at the player within twenty minutes.
It is fair to say that the dozens of voxophones that can be gathered if players explore the game's stellar environments well enough are a way of getting to know the city's background little by little, and they offer powerful - even if often cryptic - tips as to what exactly is going on. Still, the plot's core, and the conflict between DeWitt and Elizabeth - the girl kept prisoner by Comstock in a tower, and the powers that rule the city remains a question mark throughout the game. It is an issue that, unfortunately, heavily dilutes the enjoyment that Bioshock Infinite could have offered if its plot development had punctuated the game's good action instead of being centralized in the game's final stretch.
The most aggravating consequence of the unbalanced storytelling is that sometimes Bioshock Infinite's action feels like a mean without an end; a challenge with no immediate prize. The powder keg that is Columbia does eventually explode, and armies from different factions go after DeWitt and Elizabeth. The combat sequences are absolutely spectacular, which slightly diminishes the damage done by the uneven story development. DeWitt acts like the protagonists of previous Bioshock titles, carrying a weapon in one hand and a powerful arsenal of powers - such as lifting enemies into the air and stunning them with a bolt - on the other. The difficulty of the battles makes it absolutely vital that players learn and master the usage of the character's two hands, and finding money to upgrade both the weapons and the powers might be the difference between life and death.
The greatest aspect of Infinite's battles is, undoubtedly, its sky-lines. Used as a means of transportation for cargo, the hanging rails can be used to reach enemies standing on seemingly unreachable grounds or attack flying ships packed with snipers and rocket launchers. Therefore, while a fierce battle goes on and bullets fly everywhere, players can take a roller-coaster ride on those rails and either board flying vessels or simply shoot enemies while being in the air. It is frantic, exciting and the stunning fluidity with which the city breezes by as you hang amidst all the chaos is pure gaming glory. In addition, the fact that your constant companion during the game, Elizabeth, does not get hurt and runs around the battlefield looking for supplies to help DeWitt during battle is also a great touch, making battles pure fun rather than awfully frustrating.
In spite of all the issues in its storytelling, Infinite is still able to pull off some fantastic character development in Elizabeth. When the story stagnates after her rescue, the growth of her character partially fills in the blanks. The ups and downs of her relationship with DeWitt are emotionally engaging, and the game's great voice acting and the finely written dialogue play a major role in that greatness. Her character is extremely likable, and it is impossible not to build a strong connection to her. Much like the Little Sisters of the first two Bioshock games, her presence is key to the game as it acts as a glimmer of hope, goodness and naiveté in the middle of all unscrupulous people in Columbia. Elizabeth is Infinite's heart, its greatest star, and the game strongly benefits from that choice.
Structurally speaking, Columbia is a whole lot like Rapture. It is a wonderful complex setting with vast political conflicts, and the level of detail employed in its construction is mesmerizing. However, while Bioshock Infinite could have hoped to surpass the series' first installment, it ends up falling considerably short. By the credits, Infinite will have revealed a masterful plot that is both remarkable and unforgettable. Sadly, the stumbles of its inconsistent development break the game's flow during considerable stretches and make combat and exploration lose their purpose. Still, Infinite is a visually beautiful game, with a great cast of characters, wonderful art, and combat sequences that are breathtaking. Even if it is not the greatest entry in the series, it is worthy of receiving the Bioshock brand.