Bioshock has been one of the most acclaimed video games series of the last decade. The first entry in the franchise, a spiritual successor to the cyberpunk horror classic System Shock 2, was widely praised for its deep, philosophical narrative, a successful blending of genres ranging from dystopian science fiction to survival horror, complex characters, brilliant visuals, and gameplay that elevated it above more generic first person shooter titles. While it had a few flaws in the plot and mechanics, the overall presentation was very well executed, leading it to become a critical and commercial success. Inevitably, a sequel followed to further capitalize on its fame, though it was not developed by the studio behind the first, Irrational Games. The differences showed, as Bioshock 2 was considerably weaker in its story and presentation. Thankfully, publisher 2K games recognized their mistake and returned development duties for the third entry to Irrational. This was the best choice, since the team that created the IP would know best how to expand and improve on the concept, which shows in the finished product. Bioshock Infinite, released for the PC, Xbox 360, and Playstation 3, does not simply match the quality of its predecessor; it surpasses the original Bioshock as the best entry in the franchise.

Set in an alternate 1912 United States, Booker DeWitt, veteran of Wounded Knee and disgraced Pinkerton agent, is a broken man. Years of heavy drinking and gambling following the deaths of his wife and child have left the private investigator deep in debt. But he has an opportunity for salvation. An outside party has contacted Booker promising to take on his debts if he can do one job for them; free an imprisoned young woman named Elizabeth and bring her to New York City. This is not such an easy task, since Elizabeth is not being held in any conventional prison. She’s located in Columbia, a technologically advanced city that flies miles above the surface, led by the overzealously religious “prophet” Zachary Comstock. Shaped by Comstock’s twisted visions, the city has become a theocracy where xenophobia, white supremacy, and militarism are seen as extensions of God’s law. While Booker is put off by the philosophy of the flying city, it isn’t his primary concern – he just wants to do his job. When he finally locates Elizabeth he learns that she is not a normal girl. Elizabeth has the power to open tears in the fabric of reality, opening passageways not only to other points in time, but to other worlds. Her abilities are greatly valued by Comstock, and he will not let her go without a fight. Booker soon finds himself pursued by the police of Columbia, a majority of its citizens manipulated into thinking he’s an unholy corrupting influence known as the “False Shepard” due to a strange mark on his hand, and a monstrous avian machine known as the Songbird. For Booker and Elizabeth to have any hope of successful escape, they will need to combat the fanaticism that drives Columbia, tearing it up by its roots to prevent it from causing any more harm.

Like the first entry in the series, Bioshock Infinite excels in its narrative, building upon political and philosophical concepts to create an incredibly rich story. The core setting remains the same, with the game set in a technologically advanced city separated from the rest of the world that is purported to be a utopia, but in reality has become a hellish microcosm due to extremist adherence of a political ideology (objectivism in the first game, socialist collectivism in the second, and for this title, religious fundamentalism and jingoistic American exceptionalism). Columbia is hailed by its citizens as the embodiment of America’s best qualities, to the point that they worship the Founding Fathers as saints. This is merely a façade as the city embraces the worst aspects of the nation’s history: blacks, Asians, Irish, and other “undesirables” are treated as second class citizens; low-class laborers are seen as nothing more than cattle to be abused by corrupt robber barons; religious and political propaganda are used to indoctrinate children to keep them complacent, never questioning the status quo.

Irrational’s creative director Ken Levine (the creator of the franchise) served as lead writer/designer, drawing inspiration from documentaries covering the United States as a growing world power during the late 19th/early 20th century, with many government officials following the concept of manifest destiny as a belief that it was their God-given duties to spread American and Christian ideas to other nations, along with the bigoted concept of the “White man’s burden” to justify their mistreatment of non-Caucasians as a means of “protecting them from themselves.” All of these concepts are reflected in the final game, with dialogue attempting to weakly rationalize the bigotry of Columbia’s elite that could have come from a firebrand politician or pastor from the early 1900s. Some of the behavior seen may come off as exaggerated, but such attitudes were sadly commonplace during the time.

Levine also used these historical conflicts to mirror present day turmoil. The more extremist views of the Founders, Columbia’s ruling class, draw parallels to the more far-right branches of the Tea Party movement. Conversely, the anarchist rebel group known as the Vox Populi, fighting for social equality in a society that treats them like garbage, shows inspiration not only in the Occupy Wall Street movement, but also radical groups like the Red Army, organizations that were willing to resort to violence in order to further their cause. Both factions demonstrate the chaos that can erupt when obsessive, blind fanaticism overrules common sense and human decency. The propaganda seen in the Hall of Heroes and the various “Duke and Dimwit” displays also have a real world counterpart, with similar indoctrination techniques used by various religious/political extremist groups like Hamas and the Westborough Baptist Church. Elements like this, rooted in historical and current issues, greatly help flesh out the world of Bioshock Infinite, making it feel like more than a simulated environment.

Aside from political commentary, Infinite relies on physical and philosophical themes to add deeper layers to its plot. Some recurring motifs are seeking redemption for past sins, the significance of Booker’s nose frequently bleeding, and the claim that the only way to permanently stop a problem is to attack it at the root. Much like Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the significance (or insignificance) of choice is the most prominent concept, coming into play greatly when parallel worlds are introduced. Do your actions in one reality have any bearing on another? If you go to a world where that version of you did something that harmed many, but you weren’t present for it, are you still culpable for that other version’s actions? Does changing the past truly undo any evils done in the present or future? How can alternate versions of a person reconcile what happens to them in differing realities, where they’re dead in one world and alive in another? Or in the end, is it all irrelevant; do your decisions mean nothing as everything in every reality flows to its inevitable pre-determined conclusion?

Without giving away any substantial plot points, Booker and Elizabeth find themselves struggling with these thoughts at many points, particularly during the latter half when her reality manipulating powers are more frequently used. As they witness alternate versions of Columbia in varying states of chaos, they wonder if they are responsible, or if this is simply how events would have always played out. This is further explored at various points throughout the game where Booker has to make a decision. Rather than the ultimately pointless black-or-white moral choice of harvesting or freeing Little Sisters that was used in the first two titles, these actions are used to demonstrate Booker’s true character, the man he really is or the man he wants to be. Will he steal from a cash register to get the money needed for a weapons upgrade, or pass it by to avoid getting into a fight with the store owner? Will he kill his former ally in combat who begs for a soldier’s death, or leave him alive to suffer a worse fate when he’s caught by the authorities? The decisions have a greater complexity by not restricting them to moral absolutes, with the outcomes being more subtle, such as how NPCs will react to you in later areas.

Additionally, where the conclusions of the first two Bioshock games had traditional “good” or “evil” endings that weakened the impact of the story, Infinite’s finale builds upon the issues of choice for a truly dramatic, impactful resolution; if the outcome of an action is the same in many worlds, where must it be stopped to have the greatest impact? Where, if anywhere, can fate be altered? It may get a bit confusing, some could even consider it pretentious, but I personally thought it was very well executed as the best conclusion the series has achieved so far. Again, this is because the end result wasn’t arbitrarily determined based on trite moral choices; it was planned out to effectively resolve the many mysteries the game offered. Giving the player free reign is nice, especially in non-linear RPGs like the Mass Effect trilogy, but for a narrative-driven linear title, I don’t mind one set conclusion as long as it’s well executed.

Like its predecessors, as well as other titles such as the Half-Life series and Fallout 3, Bioshock Infinite’s story is presented as a series of scripted events that play out in real time. While there are a few situations where the action can’t proceed until the player responds to a prompt, every other action unfolds as you progress, including interaction with NPCs or various objects. Several NPCs will interact with each other as you’d expect real people to do, ranging from simple conversation to full out battles between police and Vox Populi. There are no cutscenes so the flow remains mostly continuous, with the only real interruptions being loading screens between locations. This presentation greatly enhances the game’s immersion, as the story unfolds in a way so that it feels you’re experiencing it naturally, rather than simply going between pre-determined set pieces. The narrative also benefits from great pacing, providing a good balance between the more intense, action-packed scenes and more quiet, contemplative moments. The best examples of this are the moments where Booker and Elizabeth have time to bond in between fight sequences, but it’s plotted well throughout the entire game. The game starts well by building mystery as Booker ascends the enigmatic lighthouse and takes the shuttle to Columbia, then there are calmer moments as he becomes acclimated to his new environment initial exploration of the city, taking in the pastoral atmosphere and amusing diversions of their carnival, only to have the intensity build again when he learns about the dark nature of the annual raffle, where the citizens become convinced he is the False Shepard and become determined to kill him. Several areas like Soldier’s Field and Battleship Bay are filled with suspense as you don’t know when enemies will strike or how far you’ll have to proceed before the next battle is triggered. This stellar pacing extends to the themes used as well; action and drama are the most prevalent tones, but there are also well-implemented uses of horror (the shocking appearances of Songbird, the brutal torture inflicted upon some non-white citizens), mystery (learning the truth behind Elizabeth’s powers) and even some dry humor.

There is some rather gory violence, particularly the melee kills, which some say seems out of place considering everything the game is trying to discuss seriously. But the brutality fits when you look at Booker’s past and the true horrors of Columbia. There are some areas where the story falls flat by not expanding upon certain elements where the gameplay doesn’t fully mesh with the story: we’re never explained how the vigors work or why so few soldiers and revolutionaries use them, why ammunition and healing items are scattered about almost everywhere, the origins of Songbird, the ghostly Sirens, or the Boys of Silence, how Booker can leap incredible distances, how the citizens of Columbia don’t suffer any adverse effects from living three miles above sea level, why the decoys summoned to distract enemies can bleed when they’re attacked enough times, and what connections exist between the Klan-like Fraternal Order of the Ravens and the late Lady Comstock. But the flaws are few and don’t take away from all the well-plotted moments.

What truly sells the story is its cast, primarily the two characters that serve as the central focus. Booker DeWitt, unlike past player characters Jack and Subject Delta, is not a silent protagonist. He talks about his past and what shaped him into the man he is, reacts to events unfolding around him by speaking rather than just having the camera’s focus altered. He feels truly human rather than just a blank slate the player is meant to project him or herself onto, making him a much more interesting character to play as. We don’t need to assume or guess what happened in Booker’s past to make him a bitter, cynical shell of a man; we learn about his regrets and sins through conversation with others, we see him evolve from someone only concerned with his own problems to a protective figure, and so we’re able to identify with him more than we would a blank slate.

Complimenting Booker is Elizabeth, the mysterious young woman around whom the major events focus. Despite having spent all of her life locked away in a specially designed tower, she is far from an antisocial shut-in. When she finally obtains her freedom, she revels in the new experiences made available to her: crowds dancing on a beach, cotton candy sold at the amusement park, all joys she was denied. Clever programming has her interact with or comment on certain objects you pass by, making her, and by extension the rest of the game’s world, feel more organic. Elizabeth’s character arc is a natural fit for a person in her position. Her emotional shifts from the elation of freedom, the fear of being imprisoned again, terrified self-disgust after learning what harm her powers could bring, all come together to make her a truly compelling character. The interplay between these two contrasting personalities, and how they end up influencing one another, creates a number of dramatic, moving scenes that I don’t want to give away for those who have yet to play it, but let me say that Booker and Elizabeth are the most emotionally compelling pair in gaming since Ico and Yorda.

While Booker and Elizabeth are the main focus of the game, there are a number of rich side characters that further enhance the world of Bioshock Infinite. Primary antagonist Zachary Comstock, while not having as much of an impact as Andrew Ryan, still presents himself as a serious threat. He has deluded himself into believing that his vision of Columbia is what God wants, that the bigoted and economically unjust policies are a means of teaching the “undeserving.” None of his rationalizations are sound or sane, but the truly demented can make themselves and others believe anything, no matter how demented. In one aspect, Comstock is a more dangerous antagonist than Ryan; Ryan had lost control of Rapture when Jack arrived, but Comstock has almost all of Columbia ready to fight on his order. He’s a persistent, powerful danger with a wide influence over his flock. Daisy Fitzroy, the leader of the Vox Populi revolutionary movement, serves as a mirror to Comstock. While she has legitimate grievances due to the prejudice she’s endured, she believes that a violent uprising is the only way the underclass can truly rise above those who have oppressed them, and her intense rhetoric has manipulated others into buying into this bloody cause. She is just as obsessed and fanatical as the man she claims to hate, even going so far as to advocate the murder of children to prevent them from growing up into the next generation of oppressors. Fitzroy is a perfect example of how oppression can twist someone into a force as dangerous as the evils they fight against.

The enigmatic Lutece twins were my favorite secondary characters, genius siblings alleged to be responsible for the advanced technology that powers Columbia, both of whom know far more about what is truly happening but never revealing the truth. The odd, absurdly humorous comments they make on the nature of perspective and reality, delivered in an analytical monotone, makes them stand out as some of the more intriguing characters. Additionally, there are several unseen characters that are given an impressive backstory through recorded accounts, much like in the first two games. One of the best sets of recordings come from Preston Downs, a cruel, callous hunter who starts off as a mercenary on Comstock’s payroll hunting down members of the Vox Populi, but eventually turns against his employer when he learns about the hell the poor and downtrodden have been subjected to. NPCs encountered in crowds also have unique lines of dialogue that offer more insight into the world, with some discussing events that are significant to their lives, while others reveal some of Columbia’s darker truths

Gameplay is similar to the previous titles, a linear first-person shooter with three different combat options: melee, guns, and special powers. Subtle differences have been made to better reflect the change in time period, such as acquiring powers from Vigors instead of Plasmids, and firearms that would be more common around the turn of the century. There are fewer powers to be acquired from Vigors than there were from Plasmids, and their uses have been restricted solely to combat roles; there are no abilities that will allow you to scout ahead or distract enemies, and there’s only one that has a purely defensive role. But they’re still quite useful in some of the more heated battles when you need to incapacitate or damage a large number of enemies. I found the best available powers were Shock Jockey, Undertow, Bucking Bronco, and Possession, the fourth being very useful to temporarily turn heavily-armed soldiers and automatons to your side. Devil’s Kiss is probably the most unnecessary, doing very little damage either with conventional use or as a trap. Weapon use has also been limited as you can only carry a maximum of two guns at any time. Eventually you may find a pair that best suits your play style like I did, or just keep swapping out when new weapons are discovered in an area. Either way it can become frustrating when you’re thinking about what ammunition to stock up on or what upgrades are worth buying, or if it’s even worth it considering how often you’ll be changing guns.

Combat gets intense during the latter half of the game when you’re assaulted by a large number of armored or Vigor-powered enemies and mechanical Patriot automatons. Some of the most difficult fights are the final stage, where enemy zeppelins drop swarms of powerful foes down upon you while you try to keep your airship from taking too much damage, and the battle against a ghostly Siren who can repeatedly resurrect dead enemies. Thankfully, there is a rechargeable shield that can deflect some damage, but against the harder enemies it becomes depleted very quickly. Like the original game, when you die you are revived with partial health and some lost money, but any surviving enemies will also have health restored, making it more of a challenge than the battles in the first Bioshock where you could wear down Big Daddies through attrition. When health or salts (the power source for Vigor abilities) are lost, you’ll need to quickly locate items to replenish them. Like the other Bioshock titles, any health or power restoration is consumed immediately upon finding; they can’t be reserved for later use

I played the Xbox 360 version and found the console controls handled very well. Switching between different guns and plasmids was easy with the shoulder buttons/triggers, and the auto-aim option greatly helped when trying to shoot at enemies from a distance. The default camera control was a little too fast, though that was easily fixed in the options menu. One technical issue I did run into was a glitch with the auto-save function. At certain areas when I tried to reload from my last save, it would take me to an earlier checkpoint. Thankfully I could resume from where I left off by picking the area from the chapter select menu, but this problem could have been fixed with a manual save function.

While much of the combat remains the same as previous Bioshock games, several mechanics were changed to better compliment the new setting. The sky hook system is one of the more intriguing additions, enabling fast-paced aerial combat and quick travel around several of the larger areas. While learning to target while on the sky line takes some getting used to, the battle sections provide a welcome energetic feel. There’s a more streamlined feel with the removal of crafting and hacking minigames, along with only a handful of side missions that offer more money or upgrades to your equipment. Tonics have been replaced with gear, different articles of clothing that enhance various stats.

Finally, Elizabeth is intergrated into the gameplay incredibly well, offering a completely new take on escort missions. Since she is considered the “Miracle Child” of Columbia, the citizens will never attack her, so you don’t have to worry about having to restart because she died. Instead, Elizabeth is the one looking out for Booker, locating health, salts, and ammunition that she finds during battle. Her ability to create tears offer a great advantage, allowing you to summon new weapons, friendly automatons that will fire on enemies, cover, or environmental traps. Outside of combat, she’ll point out useful items that you may have missed, and can also be used to pick locks that will enable you to obtain valuables. There was an occasional glitch where I’d ask her to pick a lock and she would stand still for about a minute before doing it. While it did take me out of the game’s world, it made me think of a scenario where I felt the relationship between the two leads could have been made more realistic. There’s a section where Elizabeth feels Booker has betrayed her, and in that setting I thought to better reflect her anger, she should have been less willing to pick locks or offer him aid. The programmers missed a good opportunity to offer a deeper look at their relationship through the mechanics, but again, it still doesn’t take anything away from the overall experience.

Like previous entries in the series, the visuals are stunning. Columbia was designed with a captivating Art Nouveau style, inspired by the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, which also lent its name to the city, as the fair was called the Columbian Exposition The architecture incorporates steampunk elements to reflect the anachronistic technology present, but they’re all well integrated rather than simply stuck on. From the mechanical horses pulling carriages to the massive propellers supporting the buildings, nothing seems out of place. The artists also put great effort into reflecting the different social stratas of Columbia, with the privileged wealthy white citizens living in opulent cities, and the poor non-whites stuck in a decrepit, squalid slum. Character models are very well animated, all dressed in period-appropriate attire with smooth movements to reflect the motion capture used during the development. The major characters are able to display a wide range of natural expressions, with each having their own distinctive appearance. This doesn’t extend to NPCs, though, as there are several times where character builds are recycled. In some cases, there’s a bit of an odd uncanny valley aspect where a face looks almost doll-like close up. Effects are a mixed bag; there are some truly impressive visuals seen in falling watter, the rapidly flittering wings of a hummingbird, or how clouds and smoke partially obscure certain landmarks, but flames, corpses and bullet holes appear tacked on, like they were just superimposed on to the finished textures. The bloom lighting can get a bit excessive in some scenes, but it makes sense considering the location of Columbia.

Earlier I discussed how rich the characters in the game were, their compelling personalities provided by a talented voice cast. Troy Baker’s portrayal of Booker DeWitt fits the character perfectly; throughout the first half of the game his inflection rarely changes, demonstrating his cynical, world-weary nature. It’s only when he finds a cause worth fighting for that we begin to hear real emotion, real humanity, in his voice. Courtnee Draper’s performance gives Elizabeth a wide emotional range, reflecting what she’d be expected to feel given all the new experiences and trials she must endure. Baker and Draper would frequently play off each other in the recording studio to work on how to best deliver their lines, which greatly helped depict a stronger bond between their characters.

Jennifer Hale and Oliver Vaquer made the Lutece twins Rosalind and Robert into the standout secondary characters; all of their dialogue is delivered with emotionless, scientific bluntness, whether they’re making perplexing commentary about the mysteries of the game’s world or being threatened by Comstock’s lackeys. There is a nice subtle touch in Rosalind’s voxaphones that add more depth to her character by revealing that she only shows emotion when talking about Robert, demonstrating just how close the pair truly is. Kiff VandenHeuvel and Kimberly Brooks are a bit one dimensional as Comstock and Daisy Fitzroy, respectively, but both still manage to do a great job conveying the violent fanaticism these characters adhere to in pursuit of their agendas. Finally, I want to commend Bill Lobley for making the amoral industrialist Jeremiah Fink especially sleazy, working folksy charm and blatant bullshit into everything he says.

To fit the manipulated time stream presented in the game, the soundtrack features a number of anachronistic songs that have been reworked to be more appropriate for the era. There’s a barbershop quartet rendition of the Beach Boys’ God only Knows, a ragtime cover of Everybody Wants to Rule the World by Tears for Fears, and Ed Cobb’s Tainted Love done in a heavy blues style. Most of these songs are done to build atmosphere, though there are several that have a more significant impact. For example, while taking in the unbelievable poverty the residents of Shantytown have to live in, you’ll hear a young child playing Shake Sugaree in lamentation of his plight, and a Vox Populi supporter singing Fortunate Son in protest against the upper class. There’s also a selection of songs that are from the proper time frame which help build the atmosphere; Old Time Religion and The Bonnie Blue Flag convey Columbia’s obsession with faith and rebellion against what they consider a corrupt government. The stand out number, of course, is Elizabeth’s mournful rendition of Will the Circle be Unbroken in the cellar of a Shantytown bar, a captivating moment that offers more insight into her despair, her disillusionment with what Columbia truly is. The original tracks are also well done, from the lively calliope music at the fair and amusement park to the somber piano tracks played when we see the plight of the lower class and the chaos that comes from the rebellion.

I enjoyed the first two Bioshock games but felt they didn’t do all they could with their potential, so I was prepared for the third entry in the series falling into the same trap. Thankfully, I was mistaken.Bioshock Infinite was an exceptional game, eliminating the problems its predecessors had to deliver a great experience that didn’t feel watered down or lackluster. I know that since its release, it’s become a highly divisive title. Some critics have decried the brutal violence and unrealistic gameplay mechanics detract from the intellectual themes it’s delivering, both points I disagree with. Those who dislike it are entitled to their opinion, but personally, I thought Bioshock Infinite was great. Ken Levine and his team at Irrational have refined the concept, and I would love to see it expanded on in future titles, adjusting the core gameplay to explore new worlds and ideological concepts. Like the original Bioshock, Bioshock Infinite is another stellar example of how video games excel as an artistic medium for delivering deep interactive narratives.

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