"There's always a lighthouse. There's always a man. There's always a city." — BioShock Infinite
- Irrational Games
The third installment in Ken Levine's BioShock series, BioShock Infinite takes place in 1912 during the rise of American Exceptionalism. The player assumes the identity of Booker DeWitt, a former agent of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Voiced by Troy Baker, DeWitt witnessed events at the Battle of Wounded Knee that irrevocably damaged him, leading to excessive drinking, insurmountable debts and a subsequent dismissal from the agency. He's hired by mysterious individuals and whisked away to Columbia, a steampunk city in the clouds suspended by giant blimps and air balloons. His newfound employers have tasked DeWitt with infiltrating the air-city and retrieving Elizabeth, a young woman who has been imprisoned there since childhood.
"Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt," they order. If Booker DeWitt can rescue Elizabeth (voiced by Courtnee Draper), he'll be clear of his old debts and given the rare opportunity to start over and rebuild his life.
According to Levine's revisionist take on American history, the floating city of Columbia was founded in 1901 by the government under President William McKinley's directive as a symbol of exceptionalism, the idea that the United States is essentially better than other countries because it has a virtuous world mission to spread liberty and democracy.
Zachary Hale Comstock is the leader of the Founders, the ultra-nationalist party that presides over Columbia. Known as The Prophet, Father Comstock has imprisoned Elizabeth and utilized her as a sort of test subject, exploring trans-dimensional travel by manipulating tears in the fabric of time and space.
2007's BioShock was based on Ayn Rand's ideas of objectivism and incorporated influences from other authors such as George Orwell and Jules Verne. The game and its 2010 sequel, BioShock 2, took place in the underwater dystopia of Rapture, where the player used an arsenal of firearms and plasmids (superhuman power-ups, objects that add extra abilities to the game character) to fight mechanized and mutated terrors. While BioShock Infinite trades in the depths of the ocean for a city in the sky, the gameplay mechanics are essentially the same. Plasmids have become vigors, a variety of potions and elixirs that provide the user with devastating powers. The requisite wind, water, fire and lightning abilities are all there, as well as a new power-up that allows Dewitt to unleash a murder of crows upon attackers.
Also new is the Sky-Line system. Using his Sky-Hook, DeWitt is able to dish out brutal melee attacks and soar through Columbia using the city's Sky-Line rail system, turning it into a weaponized roller coaster. The game also features new enemies, including the Motorized Patriot, a mechanical nightmare with the face of George Washington and angel wings made from American flags.
Once you've rescued Elizabeth, she serves as your companion for the rest of the game, augmenting your own superhuman powers with her world-altering control over the environment using inter-dimensional tears. Booker can use these tears to reshape the battlefield by pulling cover, weapons, turrets and other resources out of thin air. Elizabeth will also help you out in a pinch by tossing ammunition and power-ups during intense battles with mini-bosses.
As Elizabeth opens tears into other dimensions, elements from alternate realities are sucked into Columbia. When she temporarily opens a tear to 1983 France, you can quickly glimpse La Revanche du Jedi on a theater marquee. This translates to Revenge of the Jedi, the original title of Return of the Jedi, thereby signaling that you're in an alternate reality. The game's use of anachronistic music sets the tone and manages to give the story more meaning. When songs like "Everybody Wants to Rule The World" by Tears for Fears, Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" or Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son" pop up during the game's 1912 setting, you can't help but smile at how clever and playful Levine's world is.
BioShock Infinite features an extraordinary narrative steeped in profound thrills and surprises. Ken Levine's Irrational Games company has outdone itself this time, further legitimizing video games as an art form with powerful storytelling and inventive art design. Columbia is one of the most gorgeous, fully realized settings I've seen in a video game, and the characters are just as compelling. It's Courtnee Draper's Elizabeth who steals the show. Elizabeth's design is no doubt informed by classic Disney animation, but she isn't just a pretty face or damsel in distress. Within minutes of meeting her, you invest in the strong-willed Elizabeth and your motivation for finishing the game is seeded in protecting her, not mindlessly killing waves of enemies like your traditional first-person shooter. As the narrative progresses, you form a deep emotional bond with the character — a massive achievement in itself, not including the impressive AI that brings her to life.
BioShock Infinite isn't a laborious, stretched-out odyssey. While games like Final Fantasy and Skyrim sell players on an immersive experience that will take 40-50 hours to complete, BioShock Infinite offers a 10-12 hour narrative that is the equivalent of a great novel or television mini-series. The story isn't watered down by pointless random battles or side quests, and the game never loses sight of the characters and their motivations, which makes for a more satisfying conclusion.
BioShock Infinite has a devastating and beautiful ending that resonates with the player and is easily the most rewarding conclusion to a video game since 2007's original BioShock. The game deals with the themes of guilt, belief, revolution, race, national identity and the nature of games themselves, all while delivering a potent and poignant conclusion that gives the game weight and makes you feel as if you've actually experienced something worth sharing with others.
BioShock Infinite is the future of gaming — it's what I had always hoped a video game could be but doubted possible. It plays with thematic elements from Stephen King's The Dark Tower series as well as some of the more philosophical, existential ideas in ABC's Lost, but it does so in a way that can only be experienced as a game.
Don't miss out on BioShock Infinite. It's only April, but I'm certain that Irrational Games' impressive sky-soaring adventure is the game of the year. I'm already on my second play-through and I'm discovering even more to appreciate.
BioShock Infinite is rated M (Mature) for Intense Violence, Language, Blood and Gore, Mild Sexual Themes and Use Of Alcohol and Tobacco. It is currently available for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC and PC Download.
(Console Me, Creative Loafing's electronic gaming column, consists of previews, reviews and commentary penned by Charlotte writer Adam Frazier, a regular contributor to CL and the websites Geeks of Doom and Hollywood News.)