Who dares doesn't always win, apparently. BioShock Infinite is a game that far too often goes only halfway in realizing its many grand ambitions. It dares to speak on ever-relevant issues of racism, classism, and nationalism, but in an odd twist of irony, it marginalizes these plot elements that, in the real world, often lead to oppression and marginalization to instead focus on some good old-fashioned mind-bending speculative science fiction. It admirably deigns to not fall back on jarring cutscenes, but predicates most of its major mechanics on familiar shooting structures, leaving most of its truly affecting moments to be navigated through singular button-presses, that is, if you are given the opportunity to have any real input in these moments in the first place. It wants you to lose yourself in the visually engrossing but philosophically abhorrent world of Columbia, but many of the floating city's major players are paper-thin caricatures, and the game's wealth of audiologs feels cheaper and more overly-convenient than ever.
Still, it must be said that the fact that Infinite even partly accomplishes any of the tasks that it sets out for itself is hugely impressive. Considering many games have difficulties spicing up even the most rote shooting mechanics, unleash a deluge of cutscenes and quicktime events on players at every possible opportunity, and often struggle to not, themselves, be racist, BioShock Infinite stands out as an important step forward for big budget games that strive for serious artistry and drama. Irrational's latest isn't the gaming medium's magnum opus of cultural expression that one might expect given the game's self-serious artistic posturing, and huge critical acclaim, but it's still an utterly important release, and a damn good one too.
This is because there are plenty of things that Infinite gets totally right. The game's astounding audiovisual presentation is perhaps the foremost place to start. The game doesn't overtly flex any technical wizardry in the way an id or Crytek release might, but its sheer artistic splendor makes it one of the very best looking games of this console generation. At the root of this is no doubt the game's stellar environment, which ranks among the pantheon of gaming's greatest settings.
In the game's opening hour, players are slowly, calmly introduced to the seeming utopia of Columbia, an opulent, sun-drenched city above the clouds defined by exaggerated American expressions. Bright, idyllic gardens surround grand Palladian building; a peaceful stillness remains pervasive even through bustling storefronts and chatting citizens, only to occasionally be interrupted by enticing music selections (seriously, pay attention to this game's soundtrack), or - as players will encounter soon after arrival - a gleeful carnival complete with silly games and booming fireworks.
The game is wise to devote such a long period of time to simply navigating and luxuriating in its enticing environment, as Columbia is a true marvel that demonstrates the fact that Infinite's surely ungodly budget was put to good use - Irrational's hugely talented art team seems to have been truly unleashed. And though the game reserves for itself a few more simple moments of quietude, players will also soon discover their chief motivation for the rip-roaring action that consumes the vast majority of Infinite's running time.
Lead by the self-righteous and disturbed Father Comstock, most of Columbia's denizens have adopted a worldview that takes notions of American Exceptionalism to ridiculous but no less frightening extremes. Here, other religions have been extinguished in favor of a faith that idealizes America's founding fathers, as well as Comstock and his family, and all but the Anglo-Saxon adherents to this dogma are marginalized, reviled and exploited. This, as you might imagine, is causing some problems within the floating city, and tensions continually escalate from the moment you arrive.
But don't ready your spinning skyhook just yet, as there's quite a bit to dissect with this hefty plot setup. As mentioned before, Infinite has no qualms about diving headfirst into seemingly risky storytelling territory. But, much like the original BioShock's awkward and contradictory critique of Randian Objectivism, Infinite handles its set of sociopolitical critiques in a rather bumbling, heavy-handed, and ultimately ineffective way. For most of the game, these heavy themes of discrimination are mostly shock with little substance. Early on, for example, players will find themselves in the headquarters of The Fraternal Order of the Raven, an environment whose every last bit of iconography - including statues of John Wilkes Boothe, and enemies garbed in darkened Klu Klux Klan robes - spews bigoted filth. Troubling, to be sure, but this environment is never explored to a satisfactory degree in a narrative context. We are never told what drove the Order's members to this disgusting mindset, or what function it plays in Columbian society as a whole; instead we're instructed to simply tear through the environment, dismembering every racist we can find. Indeed, almost every one of the game's on-the-nose explorations of racism and jingoism seems to exist as more out of a desire to simply justify Infinite's absurd level of bombastic violence than a willingness to earnestly and cerebrally comment on these weighty issues.
It's a true shame, but again, the fact that the game is willing to go to these dark places in an upfront and confrontational manner when most games dodge around similar issues or make heavy use of metaphor and allegory in order to indirectly speak on them is commendable, even if it keeps Infinite's apparent daring from being something to truly celebrate.
But there is a second major component of Infinite's ideological critique, one that is much more subtly woven throughout the game, and one that ultimately cuts much deeper. Forgiveness and rebirth, in regards to its inherent inclusion in many major religions, is relentlessly examined and scrutinized over the course of the campaign in some truly unsettling ways. This side of the game's narrative might be so uncomfortable, in fact, as to offend adherents to the faiths that Infinite draws some heavily parallels to with its own disturbing belief system. The fact, however, that these themes aren't merely dabbled in, as are the game's superficial commentaries discrimination, but rather made absolutely integral to the core narrative and explored fully and fearlessly leads Infinite, in this instance, to fully live up to its grandiose goals. This is the moment where Infinite's narrative triumphs, and I can only hope that more games follow in its footsteps in bringing to light serious thematic content in a more direct manner, as can be seen so often in other media yet so rarely within video games.
Alright, here's where you can start revving up your skyhook. As he progresses through the carnival that greets him as he first steps foot in Columbia, Booker DeWitt, the game's playable and decidedly not-mute protagonist, begins to fully unravel the noxious worldview of Columbia's inhabitants. On his way towards a strange raffle that serves as the fair's main event, Comstock's voice booms over a loudspeaker, warning the citizens of Columbia about the arrival of the False Prophet, a man who has the letters "AD" burned into his right hand. Sure enough, our anti-hero holds his hand up to reveal that exact marking. And sure enough, during this eerie raffle event, the Columbians take notice of the mark, and Booker DeWitt swiftly digs a spinning hookblade into the skull of the first police officer that attempts to apprehend him.
With this, BioShock Infinite reveals its heavy emphasis on twitchy shooter gameplay and ridiculous amounts of gore. Engaging in the game's slick shooting mechanics feels no different than it might in the latest Call of Duty game; guns have a fantastic sense of weight to them and the responsiveness and ingenuity of the game's heads-up display ensures steady environmental awareness despite the over-the-top freneticism of many of the game's combat sequences. But where Infinite's combat truly shines is in its surprising mechanical density. Vigors that grant Booker special powers like the ability to shoot electricity from his fingertips or absorb bullets and toss them right back at foes serve as the first extra layering. For those familiar with the series, these powers might seem quite like the Plasmids introduced in the first BioShock, and though they do perform the same function, they're implemented in a far more balanced way in Infinite than they are in its predecessors; they're powerful and readily available but must be dealt out conservatively, as the mana pool they run on is rather restrictive.
But as gleefully destructive as they can be, Vigors are decidedly uninteresting in the face of Infinite's more inspired new mechanics. Booker's ability to latch onto the aerial Skylines running throughout Columbia is perhaps the most mind-blowing gameplay feature of them all. Though the mechanic seemed rather unbelievable during its first E3 showing a couple years ago, it speaks to the ingenuity of the game's level design that fluidly navigating Skylines that weave throughout many of the game's rather conspicuous battle arenas while taking shots at enemies, a potentially disorienting feat, becomes effortless after only a few encounters. The verticality and freedom of movement this system grants the game is awe-inspiring, and almost attaches a sense of childlike wonder to the act of mass-murdering racists.
For the first few hours of gameplay, these are the mechanics that Booker is limited to. It's during this time that he seeks to accomplish a seemingly simple direction mandated by a mysterious client: "Give us the girl, and wipe away the debt." Though this phrase ends up holding more significance than an uninitiated player could possibly know, it nonetheless serves as the impetus for finding Elizabeth, a young woman whose power to tear holes in the space-time continuum has, perhaps expectedly, lead her to be sequestered on the looming, Statue of Liberty-esque research facility, Monument Island.
So, as one might expect, this ability of hers adds more than a few layers of complexity to what might've otherwise been a rather straightforward plot. As the extent of her powers is gradually revealed, a suitably mind-bending narrative begins to form that comments, among other things, on the frail nature of identity and the profound ways in which a single choice can influence personhood, for better or worse. Though the introduction of converging space-time might seem to risk devolving the story into an Inception-esque exercise in overly complex authorial self-indulgence, BioShock Infinite uses this storytelling conceit to build a truly tragedian narrative.
But Elizabeth isn't merely a means for crafting a brain-melting metaphysical storyline. Nor is Booker DeWitt a stupefied on-looker who hails from the same lineage of horribly flat shooter protagonists as Gordon Freeman, or Corvo Attano. They are both memorable characters whose defined personalities infuse the plot's affecting tragedy with a true sense of humanity. Elizabeth, on one hand, starts out as a surprisingly cultured and self-aware inversion of the classic damsel-in-distress trope, and her evolution over the course of the game's ten- to twelve-hour campaign is astonishingly well-paced and believable. Her exaggerated features and expressive animations that pay homage to the distinctive style Grim Natwick invented for Disney solidify her as one of the most memorable and empathetic characters in gaming. DeWitt, by contrast, is predominately a closed-book, limiting himself to practical, yet charismatic antics strongly reminiscent of classic swashbucklers like Han Solo until his dark past is fully revealed during the final act. When that happens, he extends far beyond his narrative role as a foil to Elizabeth, and the resulting revelations cut to the bone. Major compliments are due to Troy Baker and Courtnee Draper, who faultlessly brings this odd couple to life even through all the mind-blowing turns the story takes.
The duo also serve as a great team during Infinite's huge combat sequences. Though Booker, as mentioned before, is in charge of most of the direct combat, Elizabeth is a key ingredient in what makes the game's massive shootouts so dazzling. Most significantly, she uses her ability to alter time and space to bring objects into the battlefields that didn't previously exist. Asking for a wall of cover to hide behind when a dozen enemies are facing you down, or perhaps a Skyhook that lets you access a sniper perch adds an exciting tactical dynamism to combat that feels especially important considering the sheer number of foes the game throws at you. Since you can only select one object to tear in at a time, more heated battles require a constant mindfulness and economization of Elizabeth's power that is as exhilaratingly strategic as the best of tactical shooters.
A smaller, but no less genius touch is the fact that Elizabeth tosses you mana and ammo when it feels clutch. Even when it becomes obvious that she's scripted to do so whenever your resources are running low, the notion that an AI is looking out for you is relentlessly fulfilling, especially in a game that constructs a scenario that might've so easily fallen into the dreaded escort-mission trap. Indeed, going back to other first-person shooters has become tough, as Elizabeth is not just a delightful companion in a narrative sense, but she's also integral to the satisfaction of Infinite's moment-to-moment combat proceedings.
Each of the augments to the core shooting experience are satisfying in their own right, but once they all start working in tandem, Infinite's combat scenarios reach the upper-echelon of FPS sublimation. Not since Half-Life 2 has a shooter married pulse-pounding twitch thrills to a deeply strategic core so seamlessly, and while leaving so much room for experimentation. The gritty sound design that punctuates the action is equally superb; a combination of abrasive string stabs, impactful weapon sound effects and some truly horrifying enemy damage reactions unfailingly sell you on the weighty ferocity of the mayhem you cause.
All this, of course, sounds amazing, and on some level it truly is. But consider this: for all its fast-paced entertainment, Infinite's combat never fully works. In a mechanical sense, it's pretty much as polished as can be, but the game's massive amount of carnage doesn't quite work within the context of the story. In fact, story and gameplay don't feel merged at all. While there's a fair amount of narrative justification for the heavy degree of violence, the fact that shooting people and ripping their heads of with a spinning hook is pretty much Booker's only way of interacting with the world undercuts much of the arresting emotionality of Infinite's narrative.
Highlighting this problem is the fact that many of the game's most powerful moments either preclude player input, or limit interactivity to the push of a single button. Elizabeth's ability to tear holes in the space-time continuum, for example, may have been the basis for some ingenious puzzle solving and narrative interaction, but players are instead left to simply push a button to demand entry into a new reality where they can proceed to shoot more people in the face. Again, this feels like BioShock Infinite going only halfway in bringing its many fantastic ideas to life; some truly inventive mechanical structures may have been borne out of the game's central narrative conceits, but Irrational has disappointingly opted to instead rely on more comfortable and pre-established action gameplay.
This disconnect is furthered by the game's odd focus on scavenging between each firefight. While the opportunity to really dig into and appreciate each environment, as well as get a break from the nearly nonstop action is welcome, the context of the narrative doesn't really support these detours either. Booker's mission is given an impactful sense of urgency, so the fact that the game encourages you to stop down for long stretches of time to eat random food items littered about and try to uncover Columbia's many secrets is rather off-putting. Early on, for instance, Elizabeth finds herself in immediate danger. An objective indicator flashes on-screen telling you to go rescue her, yet you find yourself surrounded by lootable objects designated by a pulsating golden glow. Of all the moments to try and fish pieces of cake out of a trashcan, this may be the least opportune, but Infinite's structure, which evidently values narrative over gameplay in terms of pacing and logic, continues to tempt you astray regardless. This might all seem a bit nitpicky, but considering the fact that Infinite is so intent on being treated as a significant work of art, these small annoyances can't be ignored, as they gradually undermine the meaning the game tries so hard to construct for itself.
BioShock Infinite is a game worth any mature player's while, but it has come at an unfortunate time. Within the past year alone, the industry has been treated to games like Spec Ops: The Line, The Walking Dead, and Hotline Miami, just a few titles that are capable of eloquently and expertly exploring dark themes while being cognizant of their respective mechanics' impact on the narratives they try to weave, making a game like Infinite - one that never fully accounts for the ways in which its gameplay influences the meaning and effectiveness of its story - seem a bit clumsy by comparison. David Jaffe, the brilliant designer behind games like God of War and Twisted Metal once deemed the relationship between gameplay and narrative as being like the combination of "chocolate and tunafish." I would argue that this claim isn't necessarily true, and games like Spec Ops are perfect demonstrations as to why that is. In the case of Infinite, however, Jaffe's argument has a haunting validity. But take heart, the chocolate that is BioShock Infinite's gameplay and the tunafish that is its story are pretty much premium grade when enjoyed separately. Just accept the fact that the combination is going to taste a little odd and find something to savor within it.