BioShock Infinite: The Kotaku Review

You might have the nagging feeling that portions of the United States have broken clean off. Just up and decided to veer into their own orbits, consequences be damned. Because any notion that the States aren't United is a really uncomfortable one, a cacophony of voices all jostle to demonise their opposing factions. They say that the other side has selfishly detached themselves from the reality that we Americans are all supposed to share. How dare they?!

BioShock Infinite takes that nagging feeling of disunion and makes players wade through its century-ago antecedent, in a way that lays bear the agonising personal costs paid to the grinding cycle of history.

Bioshock Infinite

BioShock Infinite isn't just a worthy sequel to a much-loved predecessor. It also manages to be about America -- touching on its past, present and possibilities -- in a way that makes it a must-play experience.

Developer: Irrational Games Platforms: PC, PS3, Xbox 360 (version played) Released: March 26 Type of game: first-person shooter that's also a twisted fable about American history What I played: all of the campaign in 10-12 hours

Two Things I Liked

  • Excellent voice work all around -- anchored by Troy baker and Courtnee Draper as Brooker and Elizabeth respectively -- makes this feel like an operatically violent radio play.
  • Columbia is filled with gorgeous architecture and design. Fighting for survival in a place this pretty doesn't make the bullets hurt any less, but it does inspire awe.

Two Things I Didn't Like

  • Despite how its wide open spaces look, part of Bioshock Infinite can feel very much like they're on rails.
  • Certain sections are just straight-up killboxes that will grind you up like hamburger.

Made-to-Order Back-of-Box Quotes

  • "Add Columbia to the list of video game places I wish actually existed, only without all the racism/sexism/spacetime tomfoolery. -- Evan Narcisse, Kotaku
  • "Like Portal 2, Bioshock Infinite is a sequel that builds on and maybe even surpasses the original game." -- Evan Narcisse, Kotaku

Columbia is a chunk of America that has in fact gone to pieces. And the result is horrifying. But it's beautiful too.

You haven't been to a place like this before. The fictional floating city where Infinite is set is all clockwork platforms and brass gears, its many sections populated with hucksters, strivers, lovers and schoolchildren. One minute, you're walking past a sheer drop, the next a park swings down into the open space. Sure, they seceded from the Union but it's such a bloom-lit paradise that you almost can't blame them.

Then you come along. Well, not you. Booker DeWitt -- the former soldier and Pinkerton agent players control -- isn't a cipher meant for you to occupy, like the mute protagonist from BioShock 1. He's his own man with a voice, a checkered past and reasons for staging a one-man invasion. Debt weighs heavy on his soul and the only way he can come clear of it is to fetch a supernaturally powered young woman named Elizabeth. If he gets her to the people who want her, then he might be able to get on with the rest of his life.

If you subscribe to the idea that there is in fact a formula for making a BioShock game, then Infinite will only support your thesis. Mix up sci-fi archetypes, comic-book super-science, ideologically driven conflict and old-school first-person-shooter love with narrative ambition and philosophical conflict . The player character's special abilities get wielded through the left hand while weapons get gripped by the right and he must wend his way through an isolated city-state in turmoil. Once you do that, you have -- in broad strokes -- the component parts of the games that have been called BioShock.

The powers you wield this time are called Vigors. You can mix and match them so that you can electrify a flock of crows after flinging them at an enemy. Or you can hold the soldiers you're fighting aloft and then set them on fire with telekinetic and pyrokinetic Vigors.

Important moments of choice have been another hallmark of BioShock games. This time out, the importance of choice isn't in where you wind up plot-wise. It's in how you play. The method In which you cobble together the upgrades you find with Elizabeth's combat support and the amazing verticality of the game's battlegrounds will leave you with a unique experience that you can transform as you go. Couple that with the various firearms and Vigor you'll collect, Infinite's play feels like it gives you more tools and a faster pace to use in an expertly crafted playground.

For all that's familiar, Irrational Games' new release does add new seasoning to that BioShock recipe. One of the big changes is in basic locomotion. Columbia's mass transit is a series of snaking pipeworks called Skylines and they provide a thrilling, vertiginous way to get around the city. They feel like a one-man roller coaster that you can shoot at people from. Aside from that, you can pounce on enemies from way on high or rain down gunshots while zipping along. And enemies will do the game to you, so these aren't an easy way out of most battles.

But it's the character of Elizabeth who represents the biggest change to the BioShock formula, which up until now gave you scant companionship on your adventures in Rapture. At first, Elizabeth might remind you in a broad way of the dog from Fable II. That pooch found you loot and helped you get around the world of Albion. You formed a simple but meaningful bond with it.

Elizabeth is far more complex. She's a fully scripted persona who aids you in combat and in scavenging, by finding and supplying health, money and ammo. Most impressively, she can manipulate tears, which are space-time hiccups that let her pull things from alternate reality through to this world. Discount vending stations, machine-gun turrets and grapple points are just a few of the assets she can summon for you. Which tears you have her manifest will affect the strategy options you have during a firefight and this branching opens up the uniqueness.

From an emotional perspective, things change immediately when you meet Elizabeth. She's naïve, but with strong streaks of curiosity and desperation running through her. A skybound city doesn't feel like paradise when it's all you've ever known and she yearns to experience the world below. Columbia founder Father Comstock is a religious zealot, one who commands a city of totally obedient martyrs. When he tells them not to fight, it's far creepier than when you're battling them. He means to use Elizabeth's abilities to deliver an apocalyptic judgment to the America beneath him. But Comstock must also deal with an proletariat insurgency by the Vox Populi, who want to topple what they see as a corrupt oligarchy.

Elizabeth alternately wants to impress Booker and run away from him. They need each other and she never feels like a stack of AI scripts walking alongside you. When she throws you a health pack in a firefight, her need for you to survive is palpable. She's haunted by a lack of a past while Booker is chased by a history too full of blood. Together, their shared journey moves from wariness to warmth to resolution with real poignancy.

For all the talk of parts, this game is more than just the sum of its pieces. You're playing for story here, and that story is embedded through the entire fabric of Infinite. The more you explore Columbia, the more its made-up citizens and history pull you in. There's a mystery swirling around the clouds that surround the city and kept me guessing until the very end of the game.

Early on, you get signs that something more than mere isolationism is amiss in Columbia. Those tears in reality's fabric are a tease to the main conceit of the game, with the gambit being nothing less than the re-writing of American history. Columbia's already well down that road as its spiritual revisionism has made demigods of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin. But you can't shake the creeping sense that many things are going to happen as a result of your actions. They do and they're all pretty weighty.

Given the fact that there's inevitable conflict waiting to joined, you might think that a repudiation of American self-aggrandisement is all there is to BioShock Infinite. The uppity sky-dwellers in Columbia need to be taken down a peg, right? But what's more surprising than the rude awakenings is the degree to which Infinite is a celebration of Americana. It's a game squeezed out of Normal Rockwell paintings, set to ragtime music and filled to the brim with jaunty bygone slang. It zips and zings, even with it's beating you down with giant robot president enemies.

And, yes, Irrational creative director Ken Levine and crew are lobbing a slew of scholarly -isms for players to chew through: racism, sexism, anti-intellectualism, 18th century revivalism and the gospel of industrialism as a cradle-to-grave caretaker of the worker. The tribalism that's inextricably part of America's spiritual DNA is a big part of the game's factions and battlefield too. The Vox Populi -- made of common-man labourers -- think they have too little while the well-to-do Founders essentially believe that Comstock's vision of America is a better one than the one lived on solid ground.

If you're acquainted with the language of revolution and regime change, then lots of the rhetoric slung across the conflicts in Infinite will ring familiar to you. Opponents from different classes and backgrounds slander each other. Divine/universal logic is on our side. That kind of thing. The difference is that Infinite places players in the fires of tumult and shows them the result Most of the people you overhear in Infinite are racist, classist, snooty and surly. Yet you feel bad for them as some of the illusions keeping Columbia aloft begin to crumble. It's a hell of a thing to believe in a dream with all your being, for both good and bad reasons.

BioShock Infinite may not the first game to try to say something about the very nature of the country it was made in -- and the people who make it up -- but it's certainly amongst the best. Some scenes reminded me of how people who looked like me had an unbelievable array of prejudicial forces from public and private institutions set against them. Yet, even as I played through those moments, I was reminded that America is a big experiment. That experiment in letting people chart their own destinies has sometimes made it so brother fights against brother.

It's easy to dismiss those people floating in the fractured mirror Americas that we disagree with. They're wrong; we're right. Who cares why they are the way they are? But BioShock Infinite asks us to consider that very question and gives an answer that mixes hope with bitterness, wonder with despair and allegory with history. The game doesn't offer any advice about how to make everyone get along better but it makes a powerful argument for owning -- and owning up to -- all of our collective past.


Comments

    This review contains too much America.

      I'm wondering if the game has the 'same' impact on non-americans as it does on americans...

        I’m sure it does, the original Bioshock had similar themes which run across most democratic countries. I think 99% of the gamers on this planet have been subjected to enough American culture to understand any further nuance.

        I think most non-US gamers would have as good an understanding of the successes and failings of the US as most US citizens.

          Um, the rest of the world hates America, so that might have an impact on how well received it is in the rest of the world, for such an American game.

            The rest of the world hates America?

            Where did you get your facts from?

            Also - As an American living in Australia, I've only faced one bout of direct discontent due to where I'm from. I expected to face that a lot more, but it's been good. If anything, people have been more willing to listen to me and get to know me because of it, not the other way around.

              There a difference between hating America and hating Americans though.
              Most of us are sensible enough to understand that people are individuals and teat them as such.
              I agree that "the rest of the world hates America" is a big stretch though. There is a lot of discontent pointed their way though and they have huge problems that they need to sort out. It's just a shame those problems so often affect everyone else.

                Some parts of the world dislike American foreign policy.

                The original Bioshock was more about domestic political themes such as social equality and government regulation. I think that’s important when considering if people will react negatively to a game about America.
                Honestly if people were going to be turned off I would think it would more likely be by the hundreds of other games which have strong foreign policy themes (90% of games involving a war).

                Obviously there are references to American history in Infinite, but going off other reviews and the themes of the first game I think the themes are pretty universal. I think the extent to which this game is “about America” has probably been a little overstated by the reviewer.

                FYI I’m an Aussie who thought the best thing about Assassins Creed III was the setting.

              I took the comment as tongue-in-cheek. It's easy to poke fun at America, because it has such a large and dominant culture. Especially in Australia, where we make a sport of making sport.

              When I went to San Franciso in 2011, I found Americans to be some of the friendliest people. Maybe that itself is generalising :D Myself and my group where asked by random people where we where from, giving us advice on where to go, where to eat etc.
              We where recommended to get driven up to Mt Tamalpais - which was my favorite day in San Francisco. I love America. If i where rich, i'd love to holiday there more.

              Don't worry, The whole 'hate America' thing is part of the immature gamer culture in Australia. Seems to be the in thing to hate America. Most have never been there, nor even met an American.

          I disagree, I didn't enjoy AC3 because of all the American history.

        > Non-Americans

        it really does. although it's probably a good idea to look up exactly what happened at Wounded Knee - you might be able to figure it out from the in-game stuff, but it helps.

        just finished it. it's...really something.

    So where's the big green "YES" image?

    Also, please proof read "Aside from that, you can pounce on enemies from way on high or rain down gunshots while zipping along. And enemies will do the game to you, so these aren’t an easy way out of most battles."

      +1 to proof reading.

      "BioShock Infinite may not the first game to try to say something about the very nature of the country it was made in — and the people who make it up — but it’s certainly amongst the best."

    Amazing review. Absolutely amazing.

      Can't tell if sarcastic but i thought it was a horrid Games review. It read like some English high school essay on the cultural themes within the game.

      I learned nothing about how the game actually played or how coherent combat was, were there bugs or graphical shortfalls pacing issues or abhorrent difficulty spikes. If all the powers were actually useful, rather than a select few to rule them all.

      All i learned was america rah rah rah, split up Columbia is in the sky and thinks its better than everyone and in typical villain fashion is trying to use super power girl for evil purposes. That is literally the entire summary of the information given.

        Yep, that's exactly what I was wondering in my comment below.

    So... is it any fun to play?

      It was a pretty damn good ride. If you liked the way Bioshock played then you'll enjoy it. Otherwise, maybe not so much.

        Yeah, I didn't mind the original.

        But don't you think that would have been a useful piece of information to include in what was supposed to be a review of the game?

        Nice piece of writing, but a terrible review.

        I've only played 34mins (according to Steam) so far.. it took a while to download last night.. then I had to go to bed. What I've played of it, which isn't much, is essentially the introduction and a little bit of wandering.. I've found it to be quite enjoyable so far, with lots of little things to find and experience in the nooks and crannies. The GUI is very minimal, so the immersion in the world is quite strong. All the characters you encounter help to sell the world because they are living out their lives in this familiar yet at the same time strange world. I found myself checking out the place more than just trying to get to the next checkpoint because it is an interesting world to explore. I've not felt that kind of attention to detail and world lore as well as the seamless introduction since Half Life.

        Thinking about it now, it all feels like a setup for what is going to come.. that is, I'm waiting for the penny to drop.. there's a sense of mystery and a dark underbelly.. but it's not forced or in your face.. it's just a feeling you get. It has that Wizard of Oz feeling where Dorothy wakes up after the storm and is in the world of Oz.. that kind of wonderment.. That first time you notice things aren't quite right and you think to yourself, "We're not in Kansas anymore.."

        Can't wait to get home from work and continue the experience.

    Played the first 45 mins or so this morning before work... brilliant intro in its own right, but also extremely nostalgic - it evoked memories of the intro to Bioshock 1, which was so perfectly done. But, oh god, is it violent! I punched a cop and his head disintegrated... Gone are the one-piece ragdolls of Bioshocks past...

    That's all very fine and all. But the main issue is, as a fratboy/dudebro who's living off Centrelink money that's never heard of any videogames aside from Call of Duty, does this game appear to me and my small dick syndrome!? We're the only important market!

      Come on, man! Take a look at the box! There's a stubbly-faced guy posing with a huge gun while things are on fire! What more do you need to know?!?

      Id say the need for you to make yourself feel better about yourself makes you the one with small dick syndrome. Why does it bother you so much that Call of Duty is popular? Yep that massive cash injection into the industry must be the worst thing to ever happen....

    "Normal Rockwell paintings" - now there's an artist I need to know more about

      Classic Americana!

      I like his work, he just captured American life in a very real and simple way. There's always a hundred stories you can glean from his scenes.

      Even as an Australian who wasn't around for the times and places depicted you can still get them.

    What about the gameplay? Any review of that please? is it still basically shooting 100s of people in the face with either bullets or magic?

      Pretty much, but then can't you reduce most FPS games down to that?

    How important is it to have played the first two before playing this? I'm kinda interested but haven't played 1 or 2. I hate it when I finally get interested in a series as soon as the third game comes out...Damn you Assassins creed. (Your first game sucked!)

      That's like asking if you need to play both System Shocks before playing Bioshock.

      Although this does nothing but support my idea of calling it Aeroshock.

      I'd certainly recommend playing 1 first. It at least gives you an idea if you'll tolerate the gameplay.

    So wheres the review of the game? Why are there things mentioned in the 2 things I hated section that seem like they need to be discussed but are not? Did an editor even read this?

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