As a longtime gamer and film nerd, I’m more than familiar with the endless comparisons made between the two mediums. When Bioshock was released in 2007 some hailed it as the Citizen Kane of videogames. Set in the underwater city of Rapture circa 1959, the game featured a primary antagonist, Andrew Ryan, who had a passing resemblance to Orson Welles. Bioshock was a comment on the grand notion of freewill and more specifically, what it means to chase the American Dream like Kane. Still, Bioshock was a satire of the work of author Ayn Rand more than newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, but never mind; it’s indisputably one of the best games of all time.
Me, I take issue with all those constant film allusions. While I recognize that videogames have evolved through aping a lot of techniques from cinema, the arrival of a new title in a beloved franchise is more akin to a new album by a favorite band. In Halo, Mario Bros., heck, even Grand Theft Auto, you pretty much know that a lot of what you want/expect is essentially more of the same. At the same time, you hope that the developer finds a way to refine and explore the same themes they have in their previous work. Filmmakers do this too. Marty Scorsese’s movies usually explore redemption via Christian guilt, but for me a new game feels more like a new offering by Radiohead than simply a blockbuster sequel.
Ken Levine, the brain trust behind the original Bioshock, has, with the third title, Infinite (he skipped out on Bioshock 2; you can too) done exactly what I would want from a new White Stripes LP (come on, Jack and Meg, make a new album!) by exploring similar ideas while working within the gameplay aesthetics of a first person shooter. (Did anyone expect Infinite to suddenly be an RTS?)
Booker DeWitt is a private investigator hired to extract a young gal named Elizabeth from the flying city of Columbia. The year is 1912. The city is run by a religious zealot called The Prophet by its citizens. He’s seceded Columbia from the United States. Racial purity is preferred over the rantings of that devil of a president Lincoln; here, John Wilkes Booth is immortalized with a statue. So even though Booker’s armed with plenty of guns and vigor enhancements (like possession or bucking bronco), he’ll have his work cut out for him if he’s to get the girl and unravel the mystery of the balloon-floating city in the clouds.
So here were are again, this time as Booker DeWitt instead of Bioshock‘s Jack. This time there’s no Big Daddies, but a really big Songbird: a flying iron-clad terminator monstrosity. This time there are no Little Sisters to protect or exploit, but there is the similarly-dressed Elizabeth. Out with the underwater city of 1959 Rapture, in is 1912’s floating city of Columbia run by The Prophet. Andrew Ryan need not apply.
For me, this is the best way to approach a new title in a franchise. Not as a 10-hour film but as a new piece of entertainment from a band I adore. Like a great album, you’ll want to take it in, and listen (er, play) over and over.
With that said, then, how does Infinite stack up?
9. There’s Always a Girl
Both Clapton and Lennon fell for Prudence. I fell for Elizabeth.
Levine has said in interviews (see the above Q&A from this year’s BAFTA) that one of the biggest goals for Infinite was getting the player attached to Elizabeth emotionally, not just as a keeper of extra ammo (which she is too). While she’s an expert at lock-picking, she’s no pack mule like the companions in Skyrim were. She’s a woman who’s been trapped in a tower since infancy and it’s no coincidence that our first encounter with her is in a library. She’s modeled after the brainy Belle from Beauty and the Beast (the Disney version, not the horrible CW one). She even sounds like Belle. And she can sing!
We’ve had great NPC’s in games before (Sully, Uncharted), but what makes Elizabeth stand apart is the kind of thing you could miss entirely on your first play through. Take my advice: upon entering an area slow down and allow her to sniff the virtual roses. What she says and does is dependent upon context and proximity. Sometimes, you’ll hear her comment on the latest adventure of Duke & DimWit (a funny send up of the Boy Scouts), other times, she’ll begin to dance. All of her actions are certainly scripted but I doubt one you’ll see them all in one sitting. These tiny moments add up over the course of the game’s 12-15 hour campaign, resulting in a companion who feels like an actual human being. Like I said, I can’t stress enough that this is not Call of Duty; you shouldn’t just burn through the levels. Especially when there’s so much to take in, like horribly outdated stereotypes. Speaking of…
8. Fun with Racism? No, but Highly Engaging. Think South Park musical, not Slim Shady rantings.
Another Disney connection not lost on anyone who’s ever visited “It’s A Small World,” is that the Bioshock games are like interactive theme-park rides. Upon entering the Hall of Heroes you’ll be greeted by automaton George Washington who speaks of the “yellow-skinned, slanty-eyed who betrayed us with their lies” as you tour an outrageous retelling of the Boxer Rebellion. Throughout Columbia there are plenty of not so subtle reminders of The Prophet’s mission for racial purity. His voxophone recordings (old vinyls that play pre-recorded messages) that explain “white man’s burden” is effectively unnerving. Going through a horribly decayed Irish/Colors Only bathroom and then entering a pristine room for Whites Only is a terrific example of how games can literally show without telling.
Interestingly, and probably for the better, I didn’t hear any use of the N word or any other major racial slurs. Columbia is, after all, a polite society. I did enjoy hearing a young woman remark to a ice cream vendor, “Six flavors? What’s wrong with good old vanilla?”
7. “Wait til ya see the cover!” Propaganda Posters as Good as Album Covers
6. Skyhook Riding Never Gets Old.
There should be some fresh ideas on display too, right? U2’s The Joshua Tree was epic but Achtung Baby! re-energized the Irish rockers. Likewise, the use of the skyhook as a means to travel and to attack from above is a new direction for Bioshock gameplay. Previously, you could travel in the bathysphere, but really those were just load screens. Early on, Booker gets a mechanical hook device that attaches to his arm. Being able to swing from metal rail to rail is exhilarating and also an interesting comment on the “on rails” feeling that inhabits all shooters.
5. The Big Ideas Work
Hopefully, you’ve finished the original Bioshock since I’m about to discuss that game’s big twist.
SPOILER WARNING begin.
Two-thirds through the original Bioshock‘s campaign you realize that the dude that has been guiding you cheerfully with his polite catchphrase “would you kindly” was actually controlling you. Jack (you) was brainwashed long ago to always act on that command. Which is a rather brilliant observation on the nature of games themselves: they only work if the player acts.
SPOILER WARNING end.
Obviously, for Infinite he couldn’t do the same twist. There are some, to be sure, but nothing as game-changing. More thoughtfully, there’s a focus on the religious process of being born again. Booker must submit himself to The Prophet flock in order to begin the game. And every time you die, it’s hard not to consider that that is very much a player experience, restarting again…. to say nothing of “saving” your game.
4. Those Two: the Guy and the Girl
The game begins with Booker being dropped off to a lighthouse (will there always be a lighthouse?) by a man and woman in a row boat. Only the man rows but they both prattle on and on existentially on the nature of routine and habit. You’ll encounter them throughout the campaign, and most of the time, they seem to be completely ignoring you, more focused on their game of Heads or Tails. I looked forward to each and every encounter with them. As much I adore Elizabeth, I think these two are the crown jewel of the entire Bioshock series. Like Flavor Flav, they keep showing up at the weirdest times.
3. Gameplay is Easy to Pick Up and Level Design Keeps it Interesting.
For all the love I have for Heavy Rain and LA Noire, I wouldn’t say that they are “fun to play”, exactly. Even The Walking Dead: The Game, which was really awesome, had extremely clunky gameplay mechanics. These are games I play more for their lofty ideas and ambition, and suffer the unintuitive controls. Thankfully, like the Portal games, Bioshock is always fun to play. I never tired of Infinite‘s “Murder of Crows” vigor power that would drive a baddie crazy with birds. Learning your new powers is always a hoot as you’re treated to an old-timey silent kinetoscope movie. I tend to pick few abilities and focus solely on one but there are a great number of them that on my second or third campaign I look forward to giving a whirl. Also great: Elizabeth never gets in the way during battle. You could cry foul that she doesn’t ever seem to get shot but then again, she is the precious “lamb” of the tale so maybe The Prophet ordered his people not to hurt her? That’s probably me stretching.
Another great aspect: I rarely tired of all the shooting I was doing. I credit that to the variety in level design. A Zeppelin and a crazed shanty-town show off how these areas are not just the same space with different backgrounds. A cemetery forces the player to change tactics.
If you’re ever not sure which way to go, simply hit up on the directional pad and a glowing animated arrow points you in the right direction. As simple as Pac-Man munching on those pellets.
2. THAT Ending…
For those who want to remain unspoiled, just know that I thought the end was much more satisfying than the “kill big boss” ending in the original; however, I’m not quite sure I was able to take it all in with one sitting. I can say without spoiling that I think the end makes sense and does a great job of making you look back on the entire story in a different light.
MAJOR SPOILER begin.
I actually don’t wanna say too much here either, but I LOVED seeing Rapture again. Booker: “An underwater city. Ridiculous.” Awesome. In my wildest dreams I never thought that would happen. It comes at the perfect time too. I only wish the cyclical nature of the story hadn’t already been explored in well, every other major sci-fi tale in the 2000s: starting with The Matrix trilogy to BSG, Lost and all the way up to Mass Effect 3. (Even to some degree, Fringe.) Yet, it does feel earned.
MAJOR SPOILER end.
1. The Gayest Quartet Ever!
Like Rapture in the original game, Columbia seems to exist in an alternate universe. Without spoiling any major details, there’s plenty of music that references late twentieth-century pop. Most, like Tears for Fears or Cyndi Lauper tunes, sound very much like the originals but the most sublime is “Columbia’s Gayest Quartet” doing a barbershop version of The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows”. I say, “timeline schmimeline.”
Okay, My One Pet Peeve
1. I’m Sorry, What Did You Say? I Didn’t Have the Subtitles On.
As you make your way through Columbia you’ll encounter many citizens that have plenty to say. As you approach them, their conversations become louder. If you choose to walk away, the dialogue goes out. I have no issue with this. If you are so inclined you can simply stand in front of a mother who scolds her son for kissing Irish girls. The problem is that Elizabeth is a central character whose dialogue I want to hear. All of it. Unfortunately, if you happen to be running or walking to a destination and she’s trailing behind you, you may lose hearing her witty comments. Suddenly, Booker replies, to which I thought, “wait, did she just say something?”
At first, I figured maybe it was my 5.1 stereo set-up, but I tinkered with all sorts of options opting for straight two-channel stereo. No matter what, if Booker has his back to another person you simply can’t hear them, which drove me crazy. I could be in a tiny elevator with Elizabeth and because I’m in front of the lift button I can’t hear her. Dumb.
I know, I know, I can just have the subtitles on but frankly, I find them distracting.
Final Verdict: I’ll wait until I play Grand Theft Auto V September 17th but I’m pretty confident Bioshock Infinite will make my top five of 2013. Just play it. ASAP.