A head in the clouds is an idiom normally assigned to the whimsical musings of idealistic dreamers. At Irrational Games it appears to be a declaration of faith. The hype surrounding their follow-up to BioShock was bound to go supersonic, but the wild ambition and blissful imagination that visible in BioShock Infinite's announcement and subsequent preview cycle sent expectations through the troposphere. Irrational was expected to reach for the stars, but what were the odds they were actually going to pull another one down?
BioShock Infinite states its intentions immediately; it's not much interested in conventions. World building and tone, two aspects of narrative design typically assembled through bombast or technical prowess, are near the top of BioShock Infinite's priorities. Rather than channel the player through contextually relevant but obviously forced tutorials, BioShock Infinite takes its time and devotes its opening act to pure exploration. Columbia's premise, a levitating city forged in 1901 and having dismissed itself from civilization a few years later, merits interest by concept and earns appreciation through its beautiful and surreal construction. It would have been a crime to deny the player the right to peacefully absorb its sights and sounds before getting down to business. For that opening hour I thought of - and honestly would have been fine with - BioShock Infinite as a Dear Esther experience of maximum absorption and minimal interaction, but greater complexity and a treasure chest of ideas were still waiting to be discovered.
A comparatively weak premise serves as a sacrifice to back loaded character development. "Rescue the girl" might literally be the oldest call to adventure in gaming, however BioShock Infinite takes its mission seriously and keeps its secrets securely in its back pocket. It's now 1912, and Booker DeWitt, a former Pinkerton, owes a considerable debt to an enigmatic collector. He accepts an assignment to rescue a young woman named Elizabeth from her captor in Columbia. Booker's confidence is diminished through flashbacks that are equally harrowing and oblique, but finding and escaping Columbia with Elizabeth is apparently worth any cost. Booker's journey through Columbia also feels unique in that he's exploring and escaping from a city that, at the outset, has yet to suffer its inevitable fall from grace. Unlike BioShock's Rapture, Half Life 2's City 17, or Fallout 3's Capital Wasteland, Booker isn't getting to Columbia after some sort of cataclysmic meltdown, but rather he serves as the agent of chaos under which it finally collapses.
Most of my notes taken during BioShock Infinite's opening act appear to be either mindless superlatives or ridiculous hyperbole, however a second playthrough validated every observation. Walking into Columbia and witnessing monstrous city blocks levitating independently and simultaneously absorbing iridescent color as far as the eye can see is technically astounding and visually arresting. When genre peers are content to critical path the player through an escalating series of neatly decorated hallways, BioShock Infinite steps back, takes its time, and grants the player the freedom to indulge its endowment of detail. There's always an alley off to the side or corner out of the way, and while many have an extra goodie in the form of money or audio logs, others exist simply to satisfy an omnipresent curiosity. Questions raised through BioShock Infinite's narrative and environment beg to be answered, and unraveling that mystery through an insatiable consumption of Columbia's insane visage is one of the game's better payoffs.
A consistent and confident art department opens Columbia's doors, but a disciplined sense of presence carries the player over its threshold. In constructing BioShock Infinite's gradual revealing moments, Irrational exercised a remarkable amount of restraint and control. The Fireman enemy's chaotic debut, which can be heard well before it's seen, is both terrifying and bewildering. A similar rush is endured when Booker's hand reaches through a door to expose a Crow, an opponent with a coffin strapped to his back and the ability to teleport as a murder of crows. Hoping on your first Skyline, feeling it move at a breakneck speed, and realizing it's not a cut scene is enthralling, and sitting back and absorbing the sheer impossibility of Battleship Bay's sky beach is utterly paralyzing. BioShock Infinite even keeps its monsters under wraps, offering only Cloverfield-like teases of Elizabeth's enigmatic guardian, Songbird, through ephemeral, unfocused passes. BioShock Infinite is packed tight with iconic moments that are effortlessly absorbed but masterfully constructed, and each leave a distinct impression in the mind of its beholder.
Columbia should feel implausible and eccentric, but it's kept in check through a myriad of very human dilemmas. Columbia is drenched in the era of American exceptionalism and broadcasts the idealistic future of the more radical members of that particular era. Zachary Comstock, Columbia's founder and leader, manages a messianic presence and his followers, the Founders, demonstrate objectively cultish behavior. Through its plot, BioShock Infinite explores the problems with theocracies, a population in complete resistance of segregation, and the plight of union-less laborers. Irrational handles every subject with a clear and yet delicate execution. At no point does irrational pigeonhole or particularly criticize a specific religion or organization, though it's easy to draw parallel lines from an assemblage of influences. BioShock Infinite’s collection of themes are rich, heady material and foster a backdrop often ignored in favor of ideas that either won’t alienate audiences or wind up slandered on cable news. BioShock Infinite isn’t thus diluted, and it’s better for it.
There's a lot going on in BioShock Infinite's bigger picture, and the challenge of weaving it all together into a cohesive finale is the game's greatest accomplishment. Richard Kelly's follow-up to Donnie Darko, Southland Tales, also tried to jam a glut of themes in a cohesive package and consequently exploded under the weight of its bloated narrative. In lesser hands BioShock Infinite might have suffered a similar fate, but instead it opts for an approach similar to The Matrix. Underneath the gorgeous set pieces, engaging gunplay and surface-level themes is a devilishly complex tale wrought with philosophical presumptions and open ended questions. BioShock Infinite's ending sequence seizes its reveals at perfect moments, and the implications fundamentally shift perception of early game dialogue from innocuous filler to foreshadowing evidence. There isn't a word wasted, and playing through the just the first hour a second time, I was taken aback by how intrinsic and specific the dialogue appeared. Nothing changed, but a learned mind made for a newly revelatory experience.
With all of that in mind, there remains a sting of social consciousness about being another gruff male action hero set forth to save a woman apparently incapable of saving herself. A female as a defenseless plot device is a trope that I would be totally OK with never seeing again, and when I first met Elizabeth I was prepared to accept BioShock Infinite as a marvelous display of art-focused creativity but terminally arrested by focus group interference. It was geared to be the same old story. But then, all at once, it wasn't.
It wasn't that Elizabeth requires protection (she doesn't) or her interactions with Booker are needlessly sexualized (they're not), but rather because I saw her dancing. Yeah, dancing. Shortly after the Booker and Elizabeth meet, and after one hell of a roller coaster action sequence, the two wind up marooned at Battleship Bay; Columbia's otherworldly beach resort. While Booker recovers from almost drowning and tries to collect all of his marbles, Elizabeth runs off to explore beachfront attractions. As Booker I meandered through Columbians decked in early 20th century beach gear, stood bewildered as I heard what appeared to be Cyndi Lauper song, and eventually discovered Elizabeth on a pier across the bay. She was encircled by people clapping their hands, and she was dancing along to their melody. It took me a couple minutes before I realized that sequence was looping until I interacted with Elizabeth because I was awestruck that a game would take the time to flesh out a character by showing her dancing in a circle of strangers.
Characters in games almost always feel so matter-of-fact, like machines dispensing tool tips or groan-inducing one liners, but Elizabeth is flesh and bone. The rationale for her playfulness in a time of impending peril is slightly contrived but understandable; she's been cooped up in a tower her entire conscious life. She's read countless books on endless subjects, rendering her a jack-of-all-trades conveniently suited to Columbia's quirks. This renders Elizabeth a character nearly identical to The Brother's Bloom's Penelope Stamp, but one could forgive either a coincidental similarity or an acknowledged influence from that fine film. In either case we've yet to see a companion character as well realized or deliberately unexploited as Elizabeth.
Blowing another paragraph on this might seem overly indulgent, but it's god damn important. Ever since Valve lost interest in finishing Half Life 2 we've been collectively waiting for a foil as smartly constructed as Alyx Vance. Elizabeth picks up the baton and runs away with it. Whether she's interacting with and subsequently startled by an item in a souvenir shop or keeping pace with Booker, Elizabeth's dynamic actions are one with Columbia's environments and architecture. Her ties to BioShock Infinite's gameplay are weaker than early footage implied, but she's never intrusive and usually indispensible. Booker takes precedent as the player-character and marketing showpiece for BioShock Infinite - and I guess a playable female lead in a first-person-shooter remains a dream for another time - but Elizabeth is absolutely the star of the show.
Elizabeth also as the ability to open "Tears," rips in time functioning as windows to another time and another place. Narrative implications are story beats I'd rather not spoil, however Tears also have a light gameplay payoff for Booker. Certain objects in the field will have a sort of translucent fuzz indicating they can be activated, one at a time, by Elizabeth. It could be a cache of med-kits, a sentry robot, or a wall for cover. Essentially functioning as combat options, Tears are not particularly impressive on its own, but collectively they're one part of BioShock Infinite's sweeping combat suite.
Booker accumulates a fairly standard arsenal of firearms. Guns dropped by either the Founders or the rebel Vox Populi run the gamut from familiar to eccentric. Sniper rifles and repeaters join handguns and shotguns, while heavier artillery is resigned to rocket and grenade launchers. All of the weapons are elaborately designed and do well to conceal their otherwise bog-standard trappings, but ultimately they are what they are; functional, and completely in service to Vigors.
Vigors are BioShock Infinite's version of BioShock's Plasmids, which for the uninitiated translates to a magic attack affixed to the left trigger. Bound to a meter labeled Salts, eight Vigors in all are available. Return to Sender is an absorption shield, Possession turns sentry guns or human enemies over to your side, and Murder of Crows engulfs everyone within range in a cloud of panic-inducing crows. In a pinch each Vigor can work well enough on its own, but are better served when combined with each other or as a form of desperate crowd control. Early on it was my preference to employ Bucking Bronco to lift a couple guys in the sky before blowing them to bits with my shotgun, and later on I skipped that second step and used Deluge to issue a minuscule tidal wave that flipped them off the edge of Columbia. Each Vigor also has a strategy-friendly alternate option, though aside from employing Devil's Kiss as Crow traps I rarely had the patience or foresight to use them.
The fourth piece of BioShock Infinite's combat suite is its most stylish; Skyhooks and Skylines. While it's objectively Booker's default melee tool, Skyhooks are also a means of traversal when employed with Skylines. When in range Booker will be able to jump (hilariously far) and magnetically hook to a Skyline. When watching this motion at preview events it seemed "Skylining," for lack of a better term, would be difficult to handle and, though neat looking, impossible for those of us who aren't Mentats. Turns out, it's pretty easy. Though briefly disorienting because of its perceived speed, going back and forth and jumping on and off Skylines couldn't feel more under my control. It also looks incredible, and serves as yet another iconic moment in BioShock Infinite's collection of stunning sequences.
When learned properly, Skylines, firearms, Vigors, and Tears work in tandem to wreck shop in Columbia's happenstance combat arenas. Execute a diving attack from a Skyhook, Possess one of the small enemies, repeatedly Shock Jock a Patriot, and leave the rest to my shotgun. It gave me flashbacks to Bulletstorm, where every encounter felt authored and constructed with delicate care and yet completely open to improvisation. As an added bonus, BioShock Infinite rarely loses its context. If it weren't for Skylines it would be almost impossible to sniff out an upcoming encounter, as Columbia's art direction blends seamlessly into its cover areas and enemy spawn points. Columbia is a cohesive world through and through.
Pacing Booker's journey through Columbia is handled with impressive confidence. It walks without a single crutch, never breaking down into an immersion shattering minigame or flirting with a distracting one-off sequence. The loop of combat and exploration favors the latter, but is punctuated with dialogue interactions from Elizabeth. It's tiny, easily to overlook thing, but Elizabeth is always finding coins in Columbia's odds and ends. She must have dozens of different ways of telling Booker she found one, and by obliging a quick button prompt she'll flip it with considerable velocity and force a satisfying, Pavlovian snap when it hits Booker's hands. Small stuff like that demonstrates Irrational paid attention to the significance of details and came up with inventive ways to keep the player invested in both exploration and moving forward.
More traditional means keeping the player interested are also a part of BioShock Infinite. Vending machines will happily take your money and upgrade different aspects of either Vigors or weapons. Other upgrades can be found and selected to increase Booker's shield, health, or Salt. Booker can also find and wear different pieces of gear that function as combat perks. I was overly fond of a hat that had a 30% chance of inflicting possession upon a melee'd enemy and pants that extended said melee attack's range 3x, but there's a huge variety of hats, shirts, pants, and boots for Booker to play around with. Exploration also rewards Voxophones, BioShock Infinite's version of audio-logs. Occasionally you'll also turn up Vox Populi ciphers and become tasked with side missions to crack them and access a secret, goodie-filled room. None of this is required, but I can't imagine a reason why one wouldn't want to seek any of it out.
The strength of BioShock Infinite's art direction dictates excellence on any platform, but placing my 360 copy one on input and my high(ish)-end PC on another resulted in a considerable difference in visual fidelity. This is expected, and while the variance in technical prowess lessens the impact of Columbia's more striking set pieces, it leaves an otherwise ignorant player in an indifferent position. PC on ultra settings is absolutely the way to experience Columbia, but console players won't suffer a significant disadvantage (especially if they don't know any better).
Either means of absorption comes bundled with one of the best audio presentations in recent memory. The total sonic shift when exiting a building, that WOOSH of air as Booker walks outside, is palpable and every original sample from gun fire to the ethereal noises behind Vigors sounds distinctive. Songbird's cry, a fluctuating series of chirps consistent with an out-of-tune piano, is both ominous and terrifying, and the timing behind its sporadic implementation couldn't be more perfect. Irrational also has a keen ear for original takes on licensed music, and whether it's being sung by NPC's or audible in the background, each song is always meant to generate a recognized, melancholy sentiment in appreciative players.
It's tough to come up with complaints. I don't know how the voice acting was handled, but occasionally it felt like Booker and Elizabeth's exchanges lacked symmetry and felt like rapid fire cuts of lines originally delivered to stand-in actors. The Vox Populi also felt vaguely underdeveloped, like their larger role in the narrative was either subject to drastic cuts or incomplete revision. Eating cotton candy and hot dogs out of garbage cans to essentially repair bullet wounds is only weird because of how far BioShock Infinite goes to contextualize its other contrivances. My point is I have to resort to rambling thoughts in place of legitimate complaints because as work of modern interactive entertainment BioShock Infinite lacks any damaging negatives.