Anticipation is sweet: that agonizingly delicious moment-by-moment trickle of time that precedes something delightful, or as Stephen Sondheim puts it in Sweeney Todd, “half the fun is to plan the plan.” On the other hand, expectations carry the weight of an experience potentially fulfilling or disappointing, a set of sometimes arbitrary or unrealistic conditions that must be met.
I came to the experience of playing BioShock Infinite filled with both breathless anticipation and a lengthy list of expectations just begging to be fulfilled. After all, the original BioShock remains one of my favorite games of all time for its absolutely unexpected environment and astonishing, deeply considered story and philosophical underpinnings. Although BioShock Infinite both completely lives up to expectations and was worth the sweet, years-long anticipation of experiencing the game, it doesn’t quite succeed in knocking the original game from its place atop my gaming pantheon.
Both the basic plot (aside from its plethora of mind-bending complications) and fundamental gameplay mechanics of Infinite are easily summarized, at least on a superficial level. You play Booker DeWitt, a veteran gun-for-hire who has been asked to retrieve a young woman, Elizabeth, from Columbia, a utopian “city in the sky,” built by a rich American zealot named Zachary Comstock. There are only a few basic plot devices in the world of storytelling and Infinite trades on several of them: the fish-out-of-water story, the quest for redemption story, and the “buddy picture” story of two seemingly at-odds protagonists who must work together. The arc in Infinite is both cinematic and novelistic and has a nicely paced momentum even when interrupted by the player's meanderings. It's a linear journey to be sure, but there are plenty of rewarding opportunities for asides and exploration.
Infinite's story structure is, of course, only a skeleton on which Irrational fleshes out with an impressive amount of content and depth. Racism, religious intolerance, American exceptionalism, nationalism, jingoism, revisionist history, personal redemption, and the iconic figures of the American past are all confronted with unflinching, head-on honesty, and create an deliciously rich idea-texture that reminds one of those sprawling turn-of-the 20th century novels that attempted to encapsulate the totality of the American experience.
Elizabeth—Booker’s supposed meal ticket—is an amazing creation, moving seamlessly from scripted events to AI interactions in a way that makes her feel compellingly real. She is the emotional heart of Infinite, a moral compass and foil for your often brutal behavior. Her role in combat is essential but unfortunately, rather rotely mechanical, and strikes, for me, one of the few discordant notes of the game. One forms a protective, tender attachment to her in short order. Without reliance on the usual hyper-sexualization so common to female game characters, Elizabeth is complex, strong, and unique: one of the most memorable characters in recent videogames.
And then, there's the ending. It will be argued about for years to come. I won't spoil it, but having played through the game twice, and watched the ending a handful of times, nearly everything in the ending was foreshadowed and telescoped, hinted at or outright explained somewhere in the game...which is not to say it won't blow your mind or isn't neatly summarized. It succeeds in the way the best speculative fiction does, by giving us just enough information with which to shape our own interpretations, a perfect matchstick with which to inflame Internet trolls and fanboys alike. However, if you’re the kind of person that needs closure to your stories, the ending will not satisfy you; it doesn’t feel cheap, but even with its myriad of possible meanings, I’m not entirely sure it adequately balances the rest of the game.
In some ways, BioShock Infinite is a very traditional, almost old-fashioned first-person shooter, and it borrows most heavily from the weapon-and-plasmid model of the original BioShock. Infinite's weapons are effective if not especially fanciful or original, and its vigors (the Columbia equivalent of Plasmids) can be upgraded and combined in gleefully demonic ways. Columbia's network of sky-lines and Elizabeth's ability to open Tears in the fabric of space and time add interesting and enjoyable elements of strategy to the rather plentiful firefights, even while reminding us that we are playing a game.
Although the shooter aspect of Infinite is fun and—thanks to its wide open spaces instead of the cramped quarters of BioShock's Rapture—different enough from the original, it feels like there is an uncomfortable and growing disconnect between the rich physical and intellectual environments of the game, compelling characters and ambitious story, and the somewhat mindless or mundane shooter elements. While rationalized and commented on in the game, I can't help feeling like Infinite's aspirations perhaps outpaced the genre from which it came. A game with so much unbridled intellectual ambition and respect for history (and, consequently, for the player) demands a less restrictive stage on which to play out its themes.
The art direction, visuals, sound design, and music of Infinite are equal to anything in this generation of consoles and played on a decent PC, the sights and sounds of Columbia are like a painting come to detailed life, drenched in color and sunlight. It is clear that Ken Levine and the talented crew at Irrational do world-building better than just about anyone and it's tempting to fill a hard drive with screen shot after screen shot. Everything is visually compelling and interesting to look at and more important, germane to the story: nothing is irrelevant. The beauty of Infinite comes not so much from a photorealistic look as its fully realized, artistic vision.
Nothing is entirely perfect, however, and while Columbia is populated with NPCs going about their daily lives and having interesting conversations that help inform the environment and support the story, they don't always look entirely convincing, with some awkward animations and inexpressive faces. Enemy design ranges from the memorable—Songbird, Boys of Silence, Handymen and mechanized Patriots—to the bland and repetitive. It's another reflection that this is a character-and-idea-driven story first, and a shooter second, perhaps reluctantly. Also, while we’re looking at the game’s infrequent missteps, some of the level design in the final third is less focused and shows what looks like some unfortunately late editorial changes.
Like the visuals, the outstanding sound and music of Infinite help to create a real sense of place and time, including the brilliant, vertiginous, intriguing, time-warped appearance of contemporary music in Columbia's turn of the century world. The voice acting and motion capture are superb and the sound design team fills every space with a precise, perfect effect, from the gentle whir of hummingbird wings to the ear-shattering scream of the Songbird. Everything about Infinite reflects craftsmanship at the highest level of achievement: this is a great sounding game.
While conceptually, BioShock Infinite is not a radical departure from the revolutionary BioShock, it is much more thematically ambitious, fully realized, and in all ways a more expansive and layered experience than the original game. It is so full—possibly too much so—of ideas, emotional depth, and surprising story elements that the first-person shooter genre feels too small and constricting; Levine and company need to create an entirely new genre that will more closely align with their ambitions. Having said that, BioShock Infinite comes close to hitting nearly every target and is not to be missed.
Do you think BioShock could/should be disassociated from the FPS genre, or is it an essential component? Let us know over Twitter @Gamers_Hell