It has taken me a while to distill the thoughts of what and why this game was so damn good. I've had trouble speaking on it without delving deep into hyperbole. This was an experience that I found to be very rewarding and, frankly, one of the best video games I've played within the last ten years.
So, where to begin, hmm?
Bioshock Infinite is a story we know well. Booker Dewitt, a man with a despicable past, is given an opportunity to wipe the slate clean. He only has to go fetch a dame in a tower for some folks with deep pockets. A floating city called Columbia is where his journey will take him. He will find her, their relationship will change and grow. The abductor will become the protector and so forth. All of these are expected but the reality presented here is so much better and so much more complex.
The benefits of the budget a AAA title affords is that we can be shown something we haven't seen before really. You've never seen an in-game setting like Columbia. It is a floating city that looks down upon the United States, secession was the choice d'jour for the Prophet Comstock and his followers. It is gorgeous. I don't know how else to put it. I found myself backtracking to certain areas just to catch another glimpse of the city streets, check out another out of the way shop or find more of the view-finder newsreel booths. I played this on console but getting to see this on a PC that can handle this game on Ultra? It's like a religious experience. Inter-connected building that shift and move across the sky on rails and an electrified Sky-Line system that connects everything together for quick travel, whether for commerce or people.
It is serene, beautiful and picture-perfect. Clearly there is something wrong here. The facade begins to crumble soon enough once you start to notice the various and downright absurd racist caricatures on nearby posters. Then Booker gets to attend a raffle where the prize? Well, I won't give it away but you're forced to make a choice right away. One seems so very obvious while the other is horrific. The journey to Elizabeth, the girl in the tower, begins here.
Elizabeth starts off as a pitiable sort that seems to take her cues from the varied princesses of Disney fantasy with her gliding motions and sweet melodic tones. It is quite clear that she is nothing more than an experiment, a prisoner that has known nothing more than the solitude of that tower and the care of a mechanical warden known as the Songbird. Her books and toys and things are all kept under lock and key, evidence of progress carefully catalogued as she has grown. There will be times where she almost speaks of her automaton avian caretaker with fondness but that is soon replaced by horrible anxiety and fear. She will revel in being able to laugh, dance and sing out in the open of Columbia with other people! She is ashamed of her deformity, a missing finger, that she tries to hide with a thimble.
She is, all at once, the damsel in distress, the Princess in the Castle, and a veritable force of nature. She doesn't require baby-sitting on Booker's part and, more often than not helps to save his hide in combat. What makes her such an engaging character, though, is that despite her off-the-charts intelligence and strength she is nothing more than a girl who has not been able to be amongst humankind. Her reactions to things, ranging from simple kindnesses to the outright deplorable violence going on around her were a joy to witness.
There is a lot of combat in this game. It's a first person shooter! Shocker! But, unlike other games, there is a definite focus here on violence and it is never just mere bits of lead distributed willy nilly. No. People's heads explode into veritable blooms of blood, viscera by the boatload and melee executions that nearly made me cringe at times. The addition of the Sky-Line system adds a frenetic feel to it all that can make fights all the more exhilarating. The beloved enhancements of the days of Bioshock past return in the form of "Vigors". Some of them truly deliver and will become your go-to powers while some are much more situational. All of them felt rather satisfying and ranged from game-changing to just plain fun.
One thing you notice right away is that really you don't have boss battles in this game. There are big enemies, some of them precursors to the Big Daddy units from the prior games it seems, that are along the lines of mini-bosses. I never thought I'd be fine with a lack of those definitive boss battles and chapter endpoints but Infinite doesn't need them. The ways in which the major characters are dealt with or, in one glaring instance, the lack thereof, are brutal, satisfying and fit well into the perspective of the story.
There are themes of racial purity, jingoism, patriotism to the utmost extreme, ever-changing identity, and themes that, frankly, shooters just don't tackle. Bioshock Infinite is not afraid to plunge headlong into the murky waters of America's dark past. Our original sin is fully on display here, showcased in an almost idealist utopian view of what a truly "pure" city or, maybe, even world could be like. The themes can be a bit heavy-handed at times and the writing certainly leads us well in the direction one would expect yet the journey to get there is so worth the price of admission.
There is a severe cost, a human toll, that must be paid to keep that city afloat. The sparkling cobbled stone and shining beacon of a secessionist's wet dream is built upon the horrid bloodshed and backs of those considered lesser amongst the good citizens of Columbia. Levine and company have presented us with a portrait of these things taken to the extreme. Founding fathers such as Washington, Jefferson and Franklin are deified and made central pillars of the religious zealotry serves as the edifice for the Great Prophet, Zachariah Comstock, and his madness.
What I found interesting about the latter half of the game is that things actually slowed down. The last hour, in particular, throws so much information at you that it can be daunting but it works to such effect that one can't help but wonder where the hell this game has been at all these years? This is a sublime example of video games elevated to the realm of art. Pure and simple. This is a rich and glorious tapestry that sucks you in and does not let go until the time-bending and utterly wrenching ending hits you in the face. Stay after the credits. You'll appreciate that you did. I promise.
This, like some of the best cinema, music or art, brought out a spectrum of emotions within myself that I honestly did not expect. The first entry into the Bioshock franchise was a Ayn Randian version of utopia that was fraying at the edges and cracking under the pressure of the great sea it lay within. Here we are presented with yet another utopian view, one that takes to the skies and offers an opposite view of that. Here there is opportunity, freedom and prosperity. Well, if you're white there is anyway.
The voice-acting and character work here is top-notch and Levine and crew have delivered dialogue and a story that never fall underneath the heavy weight of the themes their tackling head-on. The music just absolutely nails it, providing me with one of my favorite soundtracks in some time. You have a range of music spanning from "May the Circle Be Unbroken" to brief snippets of groups like Tears for Fears and stirring orchestral pieces that just complete an already astounding package. This is a master stroke, honestly, and provided me with one of the best gaming experiences I've had in the past decade. It's that good. The hype was right on the money here.
If you enjoy a rewarding experience, rich with storytelling and a fully-realized world, then this will be for you. If you enjoy visceral and very fun combat? This is also for you. Rarely have I played a title that marries two such disparate elements so well yet Infinite does that.
This is a must buy and a must play. Experience this game. This will be one of those titles that will go down in the annals of the medium as one of the great ones.