BioShock Infinite’s main character, Booker DeWitt, speaks. First-person shooters in which the player’s character speaks are rather rare, but this departure from the norm facilitates a level of characterisation usually unseen in the genre. Sent to the airborne city of Columbia, circa 1912, with a very specific mission – “bring us the girl and wipe away the debt” – Booker soon finds that he isn’t particularly welcome; he seems to match the description of the widely-feared “False Shepherd”, whose arrival was prophesied by the city’s (mostly) beloved Father Comstock. As he fights his way to the doe-eyed Elizabeth and back, he becomes intertwined with a cell of anarcho-communist revolutionaries called the Vox Populi and discovers Elizabeth has an inexplicable power to open tears in the fabric of reality. The story and its delivery are top-notch.
This may sound far-flung from BioShock, 2007’s award-winning underwater shooter, but a connection exists. Even though the ties are tangential, Infinite feels fundamentally like its predecessors. In some ways, this is bad: Infinite’s second act is a chore, breaking up the flow of the game’s excellent plot by asking players to back-track across levels and go through dozens of uninspiring fire-fights, much like in BioShock and BioShock 2 – and it feels even less forgiveable, given the relative vastness of Columbia compared to Rapture. The reprisal of BioShock 2’s dual-wielding system of superpowers and conventional weapons is welcome, though. These supernatural powers are now called Vigors rather than Plasmids, and they’re fuelled by a bountiful resource called Salts (presumably like smelling salts).
Vigors, of which there are eight, spice up combat by encouraging combinations of supernatural attacks and your usual guns. Some Vigors can even be chained together: Murder of Crows, for instance, sends a pack of killer birds after your foe, and a subsequent shot with Shock Jockey turns them into even deadlier Electric Crows. There’s also a dedicated mêlée attack now, rather than a single mêlée weapon, which is especially deadly when paired with collectible Gear that’s assorted around the city; certain pieces of Gear offer unique effects like giving a mêlée attack a 70% chance of setting a target on fire. There’s no direct equivalent to BioShock’s Big Daddy in Infinite, although a great mechanical bird fulfils a similar role in the story; in combat, you’ll mostly come up against magma-throwing Firemen, Handymen (whose beating hearts are displayed under a glass dome), and automatons in the likeness of George Washington called Motorised Patriots.
Combat is made even more interesting by the Sky-Hook, an interesting hand-held device which not only allows Booker to attach himself to hooks on the side of buildings, but also travel along the Sky-Line, the city’s comprehensive monorail system which winds between and above various hostile areas. Escaping a confrontation by latching onto and swiftly accelerating along these metal lines (assuming a Handyman has not electrified them) is a useful tactical manoeuvre, and leaping from one to crush an enemy in a “Sky-Line strike” is particularly rewarding. The Sky-Line is Columbia’s most visually distinctive idiosyncrasy, and makes for a city with novelty value far beyond the fact that it floats. Tears also mix up the combat; they’re holes in the fabric of the universe through which Elizabeth can draw certain useful items, ranging from cover to medkits to gun automatons. Only one Tear can be opened at a time, and they are incredibly useful – but they occasionally feel a little too conveniently placed, taking away from the game’s challenge.
Undeniably, though, the biggest attraction in Infinite is the presentation of its story. The trans-dimensional setting and tightly developed characters create a compelling narrative which is all the more engaging for the gorgeous character and environmental design that complements it. Booker’s arrival in Columbia makes the city out to be a delightful, utopian place, and the dashing of that vision side-lined me with an emotional kick as potent as the Salts that replenish Booker’s Vigors. BioShock addressed interesting political themes with its depiction of Rapture, and Infinite does something similar: shining a light on a dark section of America’s past through the propaganda in which Columbia is plastered. Although the opening’s intensity doesn’t quite carry the relatively insipid middle portion, the moments leading up to and including the game’s conclusion are quite possibly the most riveting in any game I’ve played. Ken Levine and his team clearly have a thorough understanding of Chekhov’s gun, sowing the seeds for the finale throughout the game, with juicy yet extraneous tid-bits included in collectible audio logs (now called “Voxphones”). The Lutece siblings are a particularly interesting pair of recurring characters whose cleverly orchestrated banter makes them highlights of Infinite’s diverse and well-voiced cast of characters – and that’s to say nothing of Elizabeth.
Although the ending is admittedly a little self-indulgent, BioShock Infinite left me feeling satisfied in way that most other games don’t. I’ve now contemplated it for longer than I’ve played it, since I completed it over the larger chunk of a single day – and my only criticism of its length is that it would perhaps pack a stronger emotional punch as a shorter game. What disappointment I faced that the game was over so soon has doubtlessly been outweighed by the hours I’ve spent mulling it over. Infinite gives new context to its predecessors and sets a new standard of storytelling for first-person shooters in the same way BioShock did in 2007. Can the genre live up to it? Perhaps. Buy BioShock Infinite and address a more salient question first: bird, or cage?