BioShock Infinite is a lavish, spectacular game. It’s an intelligent one, too, where themes such as the nature of choice, metaphysics and the effects of political isolationism jostle for your attention alongside electrifying giant robots with your genetically altered left hand and then shooting them in the face. That Infinite can handle the collision between its philosophical concerns and its dead-end thrills without seeming hopelessly crass or overly portentous testifies to its often touching script, excellent pacing and the kind of unparalleled world building that shows you all of this coexisting cohesively in a golden city in the sky. But it also demonstrates something else: BioShock’s mechanical evolution as a firstperson shooter.
Not that you’ll notice right away, seeing as Infinite deliberately rehashes (and inverts) its predecessor’s opening. In the marooning of protagonist Booker DeWitt at a fog-shrouded lighthouse and the familiar violin strains that rise and fall as the resplendent city of Columbia comes into view, Infinite establishes a relationship with BioShock and Columbia’s twin city under the sea. Irrational knows you’ve been to Rapture and back. It knows you expect a high-concept monoculture, a charismatic leader and a dark reality behind the gleaming facade. It knows you’ve stalked Big Daddies and will be sizing up Columbia’s brass-suited behemoths with a seasoned eye. It knows you’re waiting for a twist. And it plays with these expectations even as it delivers what you came for.
It’s not so clever as to entirely exonerate itself from accusations of retreading old ground. Infinite’s power-granting Vigors don’t feel as well woven into Columbia as Rapture’s Plasmids, for instance, while the gun- and ammo-dispensing vending machines are more nakedly player-servicing without an objectivist libertarian utopia to provide thematic support. Like Rapture, Columbia indoctrinates its citizens through a familiar mix of cheery propaganda and vaudevillian exhibits. And like Rapture, it tells much of its story via characters who presumably spend a fortune replacing the audiotapes that they carelessly scatter about on their morning walks. DeWitt’s journey through the city, meanwhile, takes familiar form. He still travels from one themed, self-contained locale to the next – from piers to factories to poor districts – just not by bathysphere.
There are differences, however. For one, Columbia is alive, its civilian populace a constant presence throughout the game as the city teeters on the brink of war. As well as providing chances for the shooting to cease, these moments let you interact with Columbia’s people as well as drink in the exquisite details of this Victorian American take on Heaven, a place that worships the Founding Fathers as angels, treats non-whites like slaves, and where every street comes obligingly bathed in god rays. Infinite’s non-action moments allow a more complex story to be told, too. Much of this is through scripted conversations and set-pieces that occasionally go as far as to break your control, but the rest through clues left for you to puzzle over. As before, Infinite’s licensed soundtrack blends with Irrational’s architecture and art design to fill in the culture of its city, although you might start questioning that culture when you stroll into a bar and hear a jazzy arrangement of Tainted Love.
In a sense, this means the skilful environmental storytelling showcased in the original game – where you would piece together the story of a location by poking around what was left of it – has been downplayed. But in return for this sacrifice, Infinite enables you to see an accelerated version of the collapse that happened before we docked in Rapture. Columbia provides less horror and is less powerfully evocative than a watery tomb, but to an extent you might not expect, it’s a place you get to see change.
Early on, you’ll think you have the city figured out when you meet Elizabeth, the damsel-in-distress locked away in her tower, who just so happens to have the ability to produce tears in space and time. You’ll spend much of the game in her company, and she’s a technical triumph, the most human-seeming AI companion since Half-Life 2’s Alyx Vance. She’s always a presence, yet never obstructive, and it’s a rare occasion when you catch her acting like a machine. Explore an uninhabited location and she’ll do the same, reading over desk work while you rifle through the drawers, providing incidental details or amusing herself by investigating whatever she’s found. Even when she can’t find something to do, she has a very human way of being idle: sitting down on some upturned rubble, say. She’s good company, in short, and you’ll miss her during the rare sequences when she’s not around.