What drives a man of God to wash away the sins of his past, only to blacken his heart with a multitude more? How far can a freedom fighter be pushed before virtue and righteousness are replaced by a lust for vengeance? What does a privileged society do when the foundation of its prosperity is shaken? BioShock Infinite dares to explore these heady themes and many more, giving you glimpses at just how the seemingly smallest of decisions can forever alter our realities, and our hearts. As an agent provocateur in the fantastical floating city of Columbia, your actions bring turmoil and strife to an ostensibly idyllic landscape. It's immensely fun to stir up trouble, and even more engaging to see how boldly BioShock Infinite portrays a society torn asunder. You'll be haunted by this thematically devastating adventure, and indeed, its phenomenal final minutes, which are bound to be discussed and dissected for some time to come.
It starts with a lighthouse. As former private investigator Booker DeWitt, you enter this lighthouse knowing that you have been hired to retrieve "the girl"--but who this girl is, and who hired Booker, remain a mystery, if not to Booker, than at least to you. At the top of that lighthouse is a chair, and once strapped into it, Booker is fired into the stratosphere, toward the city in the sky called Columbia. And what a fitting name for this hyper-American domain of 1912, which incorporates the classical architecture of the 1893 Columbian Exposition. The red, white, and blue Columbian flag flies from spires across the city, and statuaries and bas-relief panels immediately evoke the sense of old America.
The buildings of that 1893 exposition were part of an area known as The White City, and here, too, Columbia lives up to the name of its inspiration--not just in the whiteness of its buildings, but in the whiteness of its racial structure. At a key early moment, you confront the festering illness corrupting this porcelain-white culture, where anyone whose skin is not the ideal color is ostracized and enslaved. You also confront one of BioShock Infinite's many core mysteries: What is the nature of the brand on Booker's hand? In Columbia, the brand is a mark of the false shepherd, this culture's version of the Christian Antichrist and the 666 that marks him. Identified as a prophesied fiend, Booker has no choice but to run.
Columbia is a tremendous place to be, the all-American dream-turned-nightmare crossed with steampunk sensibilities. Nationalist propaganda is mixed with airships and mechanical combatants, and the moving picture machines you occasionally use elaborate on the history of Columbia, which seceded from an America that just wasn't American enough. The leader of this city is Father Comstock, a self-proclaimed prophet and religious zealot whose likeness and influence pervade the game. What Andrew Ryan was to Rapture, Comstock is to Columbia; he is a frightfully well-meaning man who believes so strongly in his own damaged philosophies that you can only fear him. His worshipers are just as fearsome in their blind willingness to follow their leader, even when the costs are high. In BioShock Infinite, religious and political fervor intertwine, much as they do in real life, and these similarities could fill you with dread and unease.
You eventually find "the girl." She is the supernaturally talented Elizabeth, locked in a floating tower and protected by a monstrous clockwork creature called Songbird. Your first confrontation with Songbird is one of many eye-opening scenes, and Elizabeth's relationship with her protector is a complicated one. So is her relationship with Booker, for that matter, though he is key to Elizabeth's escape from her solitary life, and to the city of her dreams: Paris.
And so the two go on the run, alternately exploring Columbia's private nooks and allying with a resistance force called the Vox Populi, not out of politics, but out of necessity. Columbia isn't as hushed and mysterious as Rapture, but exploring it is no less tense. You are a witness to (and a participant in) an imploding social order, and as the story darkens, so too do the places you investigate. Sunny blue skies and perfect manmade beaches give way to burning streets and ghostly memorials. When the narrative has you questioning the nature of reality, the surreality of the environments reflects your confusion. So, too, does the soundscape metamorphose. The concordant harmonies of a hymn of praise take a sour and ominous turn as the more disturbing qualities of Columbia's unerring faith emerge.
Your confusion is appeased by audio recordings you discover called voxophones, which serve as personal diaries to past events. There are clues here to the nature of Elizabeth's gift: her ability to open tears in spacetime and peer into…the future? The past? Other dimensions? Voxophones also elaborate on Columbia's most important citizens, such as Comstock's troubled, martyred wife, whose story illuminates the desperate lengths to which her husband stooped to ensure that his message might be heard in perpetuum. They even provide a few touches of humor, as do other atmospheric audio audio details; alternate versions of well-known tunes could have you grinning once you pick your jaw up off the floor.
BioShock Infinite is a first-person shooter, but you aren't armed just with machine guns, pistols, shotguns, and the like; you also have vigors. Vigors, like the original BioShock's plasmids, are seemingly magical powers that you can fling at your enemies. Thus, you can weaken your enemies by zapping them with a bolt of electricity or by charging into them at impossible speed. Try distracting them with a murder of crows before gunning them down with your carbine, or flinging them over the edge of a walkway with a shock wave and watching them plummet to their deaths. You may even combine these powers, perhaps setting a foe on fire and then charging into him for an explosive finish.
While many of your foes are of the gun-wielding human variety, the most notable of them have thematic ties to the world they inhabit. Plodding George Washington automatons threaten you with their chainguns, and the best way to bring them down is to aim at the gears that protrude from their backs. The way Columbian flags are draped behind these grotesqueries makes them look like dead-eyed angels of death, a perfect metaphor for the city's faith-driven nationalism. Surprisingly agile mechanical heavies may not be such obvious metaphors, but are more subtle reminders of the the men bound by these skeletons of metal and the factory owner unmoved by his slaves' pleas for a better life. You often face these enemies in outdoor arenas that have you on the move in ways the first two BioShock games never required.
Such battlegrounds are given life by the Skyline railway system that winds through and around them. With the press of a button, you can latch onto a rail with an implement that functions as both a melee weapon and a Skyline hook. Enemies come at you from above and below, and sometimes even from airships that float into range, forcing you to grind the rails to get to higher ground, make a quick escape, or close the distance between you and a pesky sniper. You can leap from a rail and onto one of Comstock's faithful, skewering him before leaping back onto the Skyline and landing on the deck of an airship crowded with soldiers. It's rewarding to fling fire and blast enemies with shotguns as you zip about the hovering platforms, as if you are a vicious circus acrobat performing a murderous trapeze act.
Elizabeth is usually at your side throughout such acrobatics, staying out of combat proper while offering you support. She occasionally tosses a health pack your way, or some salts, which power your vigors in the way EVE powered BioShock's plasmids. As far as AI companions go, she's a fine one, rarely getting in the way, running ahead to indicate the proper direction, and unlocking doors and safes with the lockpicks you find scattered about. Things can still go a bit awry: Elizabeth might not make it into an elevator with you, for instance, leaving you to have a scripted, one-sided conversation. But such discrepancies are rare, and little touches, such as how Elizabeth exhibits curiosity in the world around her, tend to overshadow them.
Elizabeth has one other important role to play: by accessing tears in spacetime, she can pull helpful objects into the battlefield, such as hovering security turrets, boxes of health packs, ledges with hooks to leap onto, and so forth. Such objects appear in the environment as if covered with television static, and you bring them into being by holding a button. This system is a contrived handling of one of the game's important narrative conceits, an intriguing element awkwardly translated into gameplay. Yet these tears also give battles an extra sense of unpredictability, or provide important defensive elements when you most need them. That isn't to say that BioShock Infinite is punishing: when you die, Elizabeth revives you, remaining enemies gain a little health back, and you lose a little coin from your pocket.
The combat does exhibit a wonderful sense of growth, however. You find various clothing items that grant you additional passive buffs, such as turning enemies you leap on into human torches. You spend the coins you pilfer from corpses and cash registers on vigor and weapon upgrades, though you ultimately must pick and choose the direction you prefer, since you can't afford every possibility. Should you run out of ammo and use a weapon you haven't upgraded, the difference is notable: suddenly you're facing a challenge you may not have expected. The final combat sequence gets frustrating should you be pushed into using weaker weaponry; it's the only battle in which BioShock Infinite's stellar gameplay doesn't come together. Fortunately, the astounding narrative payoff is more than a proper reward for triumphing over this visually remarkable assault.
BioShock Infinite's combat is more freewheeling and fun than in the other games in the series, but its world is no less intriguing to explore. Secret codes yearn to be broken, and exquisitely crafted gardens and museums cry out for greater scrutiny. This is a game just as much about "place" as it is about "play," and audiovisual touches invoke nostalgia for the original BioShock in effective ways. There's that telltale mechanical tinkling of the vending machines that sell ammo and upgrades. There's the lure of loot, inspiring you to plunder every trash can and every lifeless body. Then there are the old-timey videos introducing each vigor, the sound scratching as if played on an ancient phonograph. Each element draws you further into Columbia--this place so unlike any other you've seen in games that you can't tear yourself away. And a place that so horrifyingly mirrors parts of our own reality that you could never call BioShock Infinite escapist entertainment.
BioShock Infinite could make you feel uncomfortable. If you adhere to religious faith, or celebrate American idealism, this game may invite introspection or even anger. BioShock Infinite isn't afraid to magnify the way religious and racial extremism inform our culture and change lives. It isn't afraid to depict a less-than-holy trinity diseased by power, deception, and manipulation. As the story circles back on itself, you're left wondering whether redemption cleanses us of our atrocities, or simply invites us to commit greater ones. Once the finale comes, you will want to play again, watching each event and image through the lens of information you can never un-know. BioShock Infinite is more than just a quality game: it's an important one.