'BioShock Infinite' boundlessly rewarding

BioShock Infinite
PC (reviewed), Xbox 360, PS3
Irrational Games/2K Games
Rating: Mature

BioShock Infinite
PC (reviewed), Xbox 360, PS3
Irrational Games/2K Games
Rating: Mature

Rating

5 Stars5/5

Steve Tilley, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 2:33 PM ET

Look, up in the sky! It’s a giant, homicidal clockwork bird! It’s an airship, raining hot death on the unbelievers below! It’s SUPER-GAME!

A spiritual prequel to 2007’s amazing BioShock and its 2010 follow-up BioShock 2, BioShock Infinite is a first-person shooter set in an alternate version of 1912 America, aboard a sprawling city-in-the-sky held aloft by giant balloons, massive propellers and the will of its charismatic and ruthless leader.

It’s also the most memorable video game I’ve played in a very long time.

In development for nearly five years by game design legend Ken Levine and Boston-based studio Irrational Games, BioShock Infinite casts players as Booker DeWitt, a rough-and-tumble New York City private eye who’s fallen on very hard times. His last shot at repaying his mounting debts is to travel to the famed flying city of Columbia, find a girl named Elizabeth and turn her over to the mysterious people who promise to wipe his slate clean upon her delivery.

But Elizabeth is no average 19-year-old. Locked high in a tower in the middle of Columbia’s airborne metropolis, she’s a woman of considerable power, able to open up rifts in the space-time continuum that allow her to access not just alternate versions Columbia itself, but places and times far removed.

Needless to say, Elizabeth is very important to Columbia’s founder and leader, Zachary Comstock, and he is not willing to let her escape with Booker – the “false shepherd” as Comstock calls him – without a fierce fight. Let the battle begin.

Combat in BioShock Infinite is very similar to the original BioShock, and that’s a good thing. Players mix and match firearms with psychokinetic abilities called vigors that allow Booker to fling opponents in the air, blast them with electricity, possess their minds or grab them with watery tentacles, among other powers.

With eight vigors and an arsenal of firearms to work with – plus Elizabeth’s ability to manifest items into existence in the middle of battle, such as an airborne gun turret or a barrel of vigor-replenishing salts – no two shootouts are the same, especially with the occasional presence rollercoaster-like tracks called Sky-Lines that Booker and Elizabeth can latch onto and use to fly around the battlefield.

And Elizabeth ain’t no damsel in distress. She helps Booker at every step of the way, throwing him ammunition in the heat of battle, pointing out valuable items he may have overlooked and reviving him when he falls in combat. She’s the game’s emotional heart and the storyline’s driving force, and everything about BioShock Infinite hinges on the relationship between Booker and Elizabeth.

Yet Columbia itself is as much a character in the game as its human heroes. Part floating utopia and part clockwork Death Star, its breathtaking cloudswept vistas and idyllic façade conceal a dark heart of religious zealotry, overt racism and class warfare. It’s one of the most fascinating video game worlds since the underwater, 1960s dystopia of Rapture from BioShock and BioShock 2, and players should take their time exploring its nooks and crannies to get a deeper understanding of how Columbia came to be and what it represents. It’s heady stuff.

I played the PC version of BioShock Infinite for this review, and it was truly a best of both worlds experience. Aside from featuring the most painless PC game installation I’ve had in ages, the game’s visual fidelity was absolutely stunning, although it does help that I rock a mighty AMD Radeon 7950 graphics card in my gaming rig.

I loved being able to tweak settings that are otherwise unavailable in the Xbox 360 and PS3 version of the game, yet with excellent built-in support for wireless game controllers, the PC version can offer a more console-centric experience if you prefer gamepads over the mouse and keyboard combo.

BioShock Infinite is a beautiful, thought-provoking and exciting game throughout, but it’s the escalating series of twists and revelations in the game’s final hour that have burrowed into my brain and will remain there for years.

My jaw dropped, my mind was blown, and at one point I jumped up from my chair and shouted, “No way! NO WAY!” at the screen. I kid you not. It makes the famous “would you kindly?” moment from the original BioShock pale in comparison. And that’s all I can say without drifting too close to spoiler territory.

First-person shooters are often mired in cliches and lazy writing, but BioShock Infinite is wonderfully intelligent. It’s the kind of game you’ll immediately want to replay again from the beginning, not just to experiment with new vigors and weapons and tactics, or to find the backstory-expanding Voxophones and Kinetoscopes you missed on the first run-through, but to see the little bits of foreshadowing, the subtle design choices, the dropped hints that build up to the game’s brain-bending denouement. It’s a game that I can’t wait for my friends to finish, so we can have heated arguments about what exactly went down.

That said, there are a few stretches in the game’s middle act where the level of urgency falters and the pacing suffers a tad. As well, the richness of Columbia’s world made me wish BioShock Infinite was more of a Deus Ex-style hybrid of a shooter and a role-playing game, as I wanted to be able to talk to its citizens and dive even deeper into the world’s history than the scope of the game allowed.

Still, it’s incredibly rewarding to play a game that gleefully toys with preconceptions and asks you to use your mind in addition to your thumbs. BioShock Infinite is a thinking person’s shooter, and the only terrible thing about it is that it’ll probably be years before we see another game like it.

 


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