Review: ‘Bioshock Infinite’ – Ken Levine Builds His Floating Dark Tower

[Spoiler warning: details about the ending of “Bioshock Infinite” will be lightly discussed in the following review.]

Bioshock Infinite” is certainly the most literate game of this generation (or really, that I’ve had the chance to play), blending pop culture, turn of the 20th century history, and science fiction together into a mash of a competent first-person shooter. But as well-sourced the Irrational Games’ Creative Director Ken Levine’s vision is, and as clever as its twists are, this journey to the floating city of Columbia suffers the same big budget malady of interesting worlds undercut by the thin characters that populate them.

“Infinite” offers the “Bioshehock” series its first voiced protagonist with Booker Dewitt, veteran of wars foreign and domestic whose gambling debts have him owing shadowy, potentially dangerous men–a debt he can wipe clean if he will only travel to the floating city of Columbia and retrieve Elizabeth, a mysterious girl locked away in a tower and protected by a mechanical, flying beast call the Songbird. And within an hour of the start of its campaign, “Infinite” becomes a road trip (of sorts) with a rogue with a tortured past an idealist young naif through 1900’s isolationist fantasy as floating city.

Columbia is the star of “Bioshock Infinite,” the multi-level floating collection of islands is itself a mystery and a catalog of a turning point in America’s history. The Founders, the rich, white upper class, venerate the founding fathers, God, and spiritual/political leader Zachary Hale Comstock in equal measure, while the poor and people of color scramble for lives below in squalid Shantytowns, a source of cheap labor and where the armed rebel movement the Vox Populi will find its soldiers. Its police force and commercial concerns zip around using the omnipresent Sky-lines, rails that dip and wind between the islands of Columbia and provide Booker means of gaining new vantage points in combat. From the many kinetoscopes detailing Columbia’s splintering off with the United States to the casually racist conversation of NPCs and snatches of purposefully anachronistic music and technology, it’s clear early on that something is odd about this floating city.

But the true mystery here is the origins and nature of Elizabeth, a wide eyed young woman whose life lived at the top of a statue has allowed her to read and cultivate the ability to make tears: rip in space time that open paths to new realities or temporarily drop in objects into “our” world. Why she was locked away and what she’s meant to do are questions that are answered to varying levels of satisfaction by the conclusion of “Infinite.”

Mechanically, “Infinite” is fine, building on the maturation of the shooter mechanics from the slow-moving first game to the more refined dual action of Digital Extremes’ sequel with an emphasis on verticality in its many encounters with the NPCs of Columbia. Shoot with the right trigger, use your plasmids (called Vigors here) with your left using a brutal melee attack mapped to the X button to get some distance between Booker and the heavies. The variety and scope of the Vigors offers plenty of opportunities for combination and experimentation, with holdovers from the first two games (you’ve got your fire and electricity abilities) mixed in with new ones like a swarm of crows to distract enemies. While the Vigors offer a satisfying burst of choice, with the exception of the shotgun, the other arms littered throughout Columbia seldom pack enough kick to feel powerful during encounters. Of course Booker can upgrade his guns (and Vigors) at the many vending machines, but the loot drops are somewhat stingy (at least on the recommended “Hard” mode for veteran shooter players), forcing you to prioritize a few smaller upgrades for weaker weapons or a couple of larger upgrades for the better ones with little appreciable difference in how quickly you can take down enemies.

Sky-line combat is a brilliant idea although I never really got a knack for it: enemy placement is so dispersed during some of the encounters, that as I’m zipping along at top speed, I’d often miss them and have to either loop around for another shot or try to switch to a parallel line to change directions. Sky-line melee attacks are deeply satisfying, though, offering a chance for a quick kill (or at least large energy hit) on a ground-based enemy. Likewise, hidden clothing options for Booker offer mods that will, for instance, freeze his health whenever it’s restored with an item or add a flame effect to his melee attack. Booker has four slots and there are plenty of these upgrades hidden throughout Columbia worth searching out (“Bioshock Infinite” is collectible crazy, by the way).

The one doing all of this shooting is the troubled Booker, a cut and paste of the typical killer who secretly has a heart and also a really, really dark past. Dewitt and Elizabeth offer the standard rapport for this kind of setup, with the idealistic youngster yearning to discover the outside world alongside someone who’s seen too many of its horrors. If the template ain’t broke, don’t fix it, but it is kind of well-trod, this relationship, and you can, for the first two acts call out where the two characters will grow to accept one another.

Elizabeth–at least for the first two-thirds of “Infinite”–exists solely to interrogate the competing philosophies at play in Columbia, exposing one of the narrative’s most uncomfortable weaknesses. Levine, who again uses the question of wealth and class as a backdrop as he did in the original “Bioshock,” this time with the added twist of an eye-rolling moral relativism in the game’s insistence on not taking sides in the battle between the isolationist monied white Christian upperclass of the Founders and the multi-ethnic proletariat of the Vox Populi. As depicted here, both sides are filled with unambiguously mad-eyed killers (I had to roll my eyes when Elizabeth says “They’re all the same”–no, they’re just written that way).

Part of my complaint here stems from the irrational (no pun intended) wish that this backdrop was in the foreground a little more and that Levine could have used “Bioshock Infinite” to tell a story about class and race. But that’s faulting the game for not being the one I want it to be instead of assessing it as the game as it exists. And as it exists, the battle between the two factions lacks heft precisely because neither one is philosophically different at their core, with an “exterminate first, ask questions never” ethos. Why go through the trouble of painting such a detailed, and well-informed picture of that era without having anything to say about it? Why explicitly call out “maker and taker” philosophy without using it for anything more than a shortcut to paint baddie Jeremiah Fink as a cold-hearted industrialist?

It’s a smart game, but not one that’s especially wise in using all of those smarts to tell its story. By the time the last act and a pair of twists about the world and its characters come to the fore, everything else frustratingly feels like a (well-designed) sideshow to the real story that Levine and Irrational were intent on telling. One of the final act revelations which calls into question the very reality of the game (and has some clever ties to the first “Bioshock”) work in that initial “aha” moment, but alongside the rest of the story, it feels like a stray vector that could have been plugged into any other shooter with a tinge of science fantasy.

The scope and ambition of “Infinite” brushes up against the constraints of trying to figure out the damned twist, and in the pursuit of answering core questions about its pair of mysterious leads (I’m increasingly feeling “Donnie Darko’d” by the ending), the game loses sight of the rich world which made it so interesting.

“Bioshock Infinite” is available now on the Xbox 360, PS3, and PC from Irrational Games.

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