I was going to call this piece a review, but I realized that, by now, everyone’s played the game and they don’t need another review heaping even more praise on this game. Suffice it to say, if you have not played it, stop what you’re doing, go buy it (or borrow it from a friend), play it and then come back to read this piece. It’s easily the best console game to come out so far in 2013. But I didn’t necessarily feel that way when I started.
Just a quick recap: you play as Booker DeWitt, disgraced Pinkerton agent who has been sent to the flying city of Columbia to rescue Elizabeth, a young girl with the power to open up tears in the fabric of reality and make things appear out of nothingness. Bringing Elizabeth to New York will wipe away Booker’s debts. Standing in your way will be Father Zachary Comstock, the leader of the Founders and de facto ruler of Columbia. You’ll battle him and the mechanical minions built for him by his inventor, Jeremiah Fink, as well as the Vox Populi, the rebel faction made of the underclass of Columbia. Not to mention Elizabeth’s massive protector, the Songbird.
If it all sounds a bit repetitive, that’s because it is. Comstock is Ryan. Just as Ryan was influenced by Objectivism, Comstock is a devout believer in American Exceptionalism. Fink is Fontaine. But he is not the rebel leader. That’s Daisy Fitzroy, who serves as Atlas in this game. The Founders are Splicers. The Songbird is a giant version of the Big Daddies. Plasmids and ADAM are now Vigors and Salts. And Booker is Jack.
What’s important to remember though is that it’s repetitive by design. Which is something I didn’t quite get till the ending….But we’ll get to that.
The first thing that strikes you is how beautiful the city of Columbia is rendered. The sky is a bright blue. Warm light greets you. The city streets and buildings have a quality that’s akin to a dream — clean, pristine, inviting. It is a stark contrast to the destruction and darkness of Rapture. A city under the sea might be cool, but a city in the clouds will beat it every time.
But it’s also striking how Columbia is a city that’s still functioning and alive when you get there. By the time your character reached Rapture in Bioshock, the city beneath the seas had gone to hell in a hand basket. Not so in Bioshock Infinite. People still walk the streets. Shops are open. There’s a fair going on when you arrive. There’s telescope stations to let you take in the view and kinescope stands where you can learn some of the glorious history of Columbia, as told by the Prophet. You get to see Columbia in all its glory and in some of its darkness before you help bring it down metaphorically. What you also get is a heaping dose of American Exceptionalism.
American Exceptionalism was the late 19th-Century idea that America was the culmination of Western Civilization. That it was the pinnacle of history while also standing outside history’s powers of control. This gave America the position to enact its Manifest Destiny of becoming a world power. You still hear echoes of this ideal when you hear about America being “the greatest country in the world.”
But the Exceptionalism that Comstock has ingrained into Columbia is one filled with racist, sexist and elitist viewpoints. Blacks are good for only menial tasks. The Irish are drunken louts who should be put to hard labor. The Chinese are deceptive backstabbers. Women should know their role (and shut their mouth!). All of which is built on a version of Christianity that’s mixed with worship of the Founding Fathers — Washington, Jefferson and Franklin. Meanwhile Abraham Lincoln is despised and his assassin, John Wilkes Booth, is revered. Yep, talk about twisted.
The gameplay mechanics are similar to the other Bioshock games. The left trigger attacks with your vigors — superpowers you gain by ingesting certain drinks you find along the way. They range from passive — Return to Sender sends enemies’ shots back at them, Possession takes over an opponent and makes him your temporary ally — to the active — Shock Jockey hurls electricity, Devil’s Kiss throws fireballs and Murder of Crows releases a murder of crows to attack. They’re all quite cool. They function according to your blue Salts bar, which is replenished via vials lying throughout or at certain Salts stations located throughout the city. Your vigors are upgradeable at the vigor selling stand for cash.
Right trigger meanwhile fires your conventional weapons. You have pistols, carbine rifles, semi-automatic rifles, RPGs and, every now and again, a pepper crank gun that does a ton of damage. You’re only allowed to carry two weapons at a time — a shame since you’ll find yourself desperate for a particular weapon at a particular moment and not have it. Ammo can either be found lying around or purchased from a mechanized selling stand while upgrades are purchased from another stand. In order to buy them, you need money — silver eagles being the Columbian currency — to shop from the various stations.
But there’s not enough money in Columbia to do all this. Vigor upgrades cost a ton of money — the cheapest are around $$600 while most of them will hit you from $$1200 to almost $$1900. So you can’t get them and upgrade the firearms. And you will also need money if you need to buy recharges on health or salts — which you will use to get yourself in fighting shape. Plus, if you die, you’ll lose a certain amount of money every time. Not a lot, mind you, but continuous deaths will take a bite out of your funds. At least the increases to your health, salts and shield bars are done through Infusion bottles you find in sections of the game. However, you have to go hunt for them. They just won’t be along your way.
So you’re going to have to prioritize just what you’re interested in upgrading. Do you upgrade all your Vigors and rely on stock weaponry? Do you upgrade the shotgun and RPG and keep them, forsaking the other weapons and some of the vigor upgrades? Are you willing to be spending money on ammo for them? This method may have been designed with the intent of making the game feel more personal, but what it does is it inhibits you. I opted to soup up the vigors given that I had no particular affection for any of the guns — at least not enough to trade it for another one if more ammo was available for the other gun. The downside of that strategy was that the last battle was a pain in the ass when it took multiple shots to bring down even the most basic of enemies.
By your side will be Elizabeth. I must applaud 2K and Irrational Games for not making Elizabeth a burden. (I still have nightmares about the Natalya character in Goldeneye 64 and that computer room level). Elizabeth becomes a great addition to your gameplay. She will conjure up things to assist in your battles — defensive positions, mechanized allies, supplies. She will scour the landscape to provide you with ammo, health, salts and cash. She will pick locks to both move the story forward as well as open up side locales and safes for loot. If you die in battle, she will revive you. Best of all, she doesn’t have to be protected. Your foes will be too busy trying to kill you.
But is she the groundbreaking phenomenon that some reviews have described? No. She’s one of the best AI companions you’ve had, but she’s no more affecting than the AI partners you had in games like Mass Effect or Army of Two. She is a great addition to Bioshock’s gameplay mechanics. No doubts there. But for al the effusive praise, I did wonder what else she could do. She can only conjure up preset positions and aid. She can’t make stuff just come out of nowhere.
Likewise, the skyline system is a fun addition to the gameplay and the battle tactics. Basically, you use your grapple gun and throw yourself into the air, catching the skyline to bring you around. It’s a nice way of getting you in and out of situations. But again, it’s not this be-all/end-all game changer. Just like the hook from Assassin’s Creed Revelations, it’s a nice fun addition that can come in handy in battles — like the final battle — but it is not some groundbreaking innovation in game.
And speaking of that final battle….
I guess there was no way to hint that a big battle was coming, but that was one motherfucker of a battle. And I’m cursing here because it deserves it. You don’t get a vast array of weapons to help you take on the waves of opponents that come down upon you. So you’re stuck with what you brought or exchange it for whatever’s available around. And Elizabeth may not be a target, but something else is. You won’t believe how many times you will lose this battle because that one thing is out in the damn open!
If I sound like I’m down on the game, allow me to fix that because the ending of this game takes it from a very good game to a great game. And in order to discuss it, I am going to have to spoil it. You have been warned!
Bioshock Infinite reveals that Elizabeth Comstock is really Anna DeWitt, Booker’s daughter from another dimension. Basically the Luteces (the man and woman who bring you to Columbia and appear sporadically throughout the game) designed a way to jump from one parallel universe to the next. In one universe, Rosalind Lutece’s research led her to a discovery of parallel universes. She contacted Robert — herself in an universe where she was born a male — and together they found a way to rip through reality to parallel universes.
Together, the Luteces designed the technology for Columbia, which was placed under the command of Zachary Comstock — the identity Booker DeWitt took when he was baptized. But Comstock’s growing cult base and radical views led to him striking against the Chinese during the Boxer Rebellion. When the US government demanded he return to face trial, Comstock and his followers commandeered Columbia away. Comstock became more and more dependent on the Lutece’s technology to give him an edge — using what he saw in the rips in space-time to make him appear a prophet. The downside? It made him impotent and drove him mad. Needing an heir of his own bloodline, he had Robert Lutece reach to the Booker DeWitt of his world – a man who wasn’t baptized, who didn’t become a power-hungry preacher – and offered to wipe away his debts for his infant daughter. When he tried to renege on the deal, Anna’s finger was left behind in her world – letting her, in effect, exist in two different universes. This gives her the power to rip open reality.
When Comstock’s hunger for power drove him to try and murder the Luteces, they opted to bring in someone who could take him out: his younger self, Booker. But they’ve done this hundreds of times now by the time your game starts. This has split reality into hundreds of different universes. In some you fail and Elizabeth becomes the Lamb who conquers New York. In others, you fail and Elizabeth dies. But none have been able to find a way to defeat Comstock and save Elizabeth. None until you, but only if you’re willing to die at your baptism, which will prevent you from becoming Comstock.
This is heady stuff. We are talking about string theory and particle physics, entomology and metaphysics – the place where science and philosophy collide. It explains the “Infinite” in the name. It also explains why you can have two games feature a city under the sea and another one have a city in the cloud and they’ve never heard of one another. Finally, it gives the creators the freedom to refashion the franchise in any way or shape they want. “There’s always a lighthouse. There’s always a city. There’s always a man.” If that’s not the gauntlet being thrown down for a series that can go wherever it wants, I don’t know what it is.
Let me also touch upon some of the anger/controversies that the game has spawned. No, this is not an anti-Christian game nor is it anti-American. The faith that Comstock preaches is based on Christianity in much the same way David Koresh or Jim Jones preached Christianity. In other words, Comstock uses religion and patriotism to subvert his followers’ will to his cause. Likewise, the Vox Populi start up as a reaction to the Founders’ evil, but they quickly go overboard with their bloodlust, butchering for fun anyone in their way. In short, it’s neither liberal nor conservative. It’s a work of fiction that is discussing the parallel world where it lives. No one comes out of it looking like a hero – even Booker is stained by the evil of his choices.
The ending, in many ways, redeems and enhances what felt like nothing more than a prettier version of the original Bioshock. It turns everything on its head and it remakes the game into something worth having discussions and debates on – and I’ve had both. It goes from Bioshock 3 to a game that’s saying something new and different. It sticks in your mind and makes you want to go play it again. This is not a perfect game – I still have issues with its limitations on gameplay – but it should be played by anyone who loves intelligent, thought-provoking video games.