In 2007, Ken Levine and Irrational Games released “Bioshock,” a game that put players in the role of Jack, who travels to the underwater city of Rapture in 1960 after the city’s downfall. This game was heralded at the time for its combination of story, mechanics, and design, resulting in multiple game of the year awards for Irrational Games. The team’s newest title, “Bioshock Infinite,” looks to capture that same magic that made the original title such a hit while presenting a brand new world for players to become lost in.
“Bioshock Infinite” takes players away from the undersea dystopia of Rapture and sends them into the sky to the floating city of Columbia. Set in 1912, players take control of Booker Dewitt, a former Pinkerton agent and army veteran who has been forced to travel to the city to rescue a young woman named Elizabeth, who has been held there since her childhood to pay off his debts. Once there, he discovers there is more to Elizabeth—and Columbia—than he first thought. When players first arrive in Columbia, the city is still a vibrant and living city that begins to fall because of Booker’s arrival and his task. This is a notable change from the original “Bioshock,” which was already in a state of destruction and chaos when the player arrives.
Another notable change in “Infinite” is the story and setting themes. The idea of Rapture was to emphasize and celebrate the individual that was free from the influence of religion, politics and cultural norms. Columbia, on the other hand, presents a city built on the ideals of early America, such as the Jacksonian era and the Antebellum South, and presents them at their extremes. This is highlighted in one section called the Hall of Heroes, which glorifies the Battle of Wounded Knee and the Boxer Rebellion, with displays presenting racist depictions of Native Americans and Chinese laborers and praising the efforts of America and Columbia, especially Columbia’s founder, Father Comstock. The addition of Elizabeth also adds a science fiction twist to the story because of her powers. Meeting her also introduces players to the Songbird, a mechanical monstrosity that chases the pair and appears at different points throughout the game threatening to kill Booker and recapture Elizabeth for Father Comstock. This all culminates in an ambiguous ending that make players reflect on the events of the game and the effect one choice can have on life.
Mechanically, not much has changed compared to the original “Bioshock,” with “Infinite” retaining several features, such as weapon upgrades and powers. The powers are gained through the consumption of vigors, “Infinite’s” version of plasmids from the original game. The powers provided include the ability to summon a flock of murderous crows or firing bolts of electricity. The most pronounced additions to the game are tears that can be opened by Elizabeth, providing ammo or aid as needed for different combat situations, and the sky-hook, which works as both a means of travel, by means of Columbia’s sky-rail, and in combat, with sky-rail attacks and executions that can be done on certain enemies when weakened. The enemies themselves provide a strong challenge, with stronger foes like the Handyman or Motorized Patriot appearing at different points to give an even greater sense of urgency to different combat encounters. This all comes together in gameplay that is fun and engaging during every encounter. These intense moments are countered by quieter moments where the player can take a few minutes to explore and listen to a city that is very much alive and beautiful. The opening moments reflect this, as Booker walks through Columbia for the first time, listening to the conversations of the city’s inhabitants and the recordings of characters like Father Comstock or the Luteces, Columbia’s greatest scientific minds. This is realized through excellent voice-acting by everyone involved, with even regular bystanders having conversations that feel real.
“Bioshock Infinite” is the best example of when story, mechanics and design come together into a one-of-a-kind gaming experience. From the intense, moment-to-moment combat to the somber story and dialogue moments, Irrational Games has created a title that resonates above and beyond any other title released this console cycle, with the exception of the original “Bioshock.” Undoubtedly the best game of the year so far, this is also one of the best achievements in video gaming ever.