Every version of the Icarian myth ends with the gruesome death of the boy who flew too close to the sun. Though Ken Levine’s six-years-in-the-making BioShock Infinite takes place in a floating city, it escapes that flaming fate: The game not only stands up to the impossible expectations that followed 2006’s BioShock, but exceeds them. At worst, the game merely singes its wings as it introduces increasingly convoluted twists into its space-and-time bending narrative, but even then it’s kept aloft by the strong emotional bond between its two protagonists and the even more gripping connection between player and controller, which smoothly seems to offer an infinite number of ways to blow past the opposition.
Things begin simply, with a disgraced private detective, Booker DeWitt, seeking to repay a gambling debt by freeing a girl, Elizabeth, and delivering her to New York. But the scope of his task (and arsenal) only grows from the moment he’s launched to the fictional airborne city of Columbia. A whirling hook allows him to both rip apart enemies within melee range and to grapple onto the city’s cargo-shipping sky rails; experimental vigors grant him manipulative and elemental powers, such as Possession (which turns enemies into allies) and Shock Jockey (which electrocutes foes)—and once Elizabeth is rescued, rifts can be opened to give him the environmental drop on opponents, with grappling points abruptly appearing overhead, oil slicks creeping up below foes, or walls popping up to provide much-needed cover. He’s got a standard arsenal as well—pistols to RPGs and everything in between.
As the game increases in difficulty, players are forced to creatively combine attacks: For instance, pull a Tesla Coil through a rift, use the Undertow skill to yank a foe to it, then stun that enemy with the Murder of Crows vigor so that they can’t escape. Moreover, unlike BioShock, the mini-bosses are no longer optional; in fact, they’re faster, unavoidable, and consequently more frightening. Whether it’s the grenade-tossing Firefighter, the unflinching Mechanized Patriot (for those who wanted to see George Washington with a Gatling gun), or the Hulked-out Handyman, there’s a reason these enemy types are called Heavy Hitters. Given the purer FPS experience of Infinite (no more hacking mini-games or research tasks), these fights are at least fair ones. The gameplay is smooth enough such that skill is always the deciding factor.
The attentive design has also yielded a story as daring as the original’s, though the focus has shifted from a cautionary tale of unchecked capitalism to an alternative world of segregation, class warfare, and religious fanaticism.
The attentive design has also yielded a story as daring as the original’s, though the focus has shifted from a cautionary tale of unchecked capitalism to an alternative world of segregation, class warfare, and religious fanaticism. (Perhaps not so alternative.) Booker begins by traveling through the shiner sector’s bustling fairgrounds and educational exhibits, and the propaganda boasts of Father Comstock’s “New Eden.” But such shine comes at the exploitation of a worker class: Innocuous, educational kinetoscopes warn of “The Irish Problem,” and the backside of the beautiful Battleship Bay boardwalk is filled with “coloreds”-only bathrooms awash in feces. It’s not until Booker descends into the factories of Fink City that you even begin to see the oppressed members of the Vox Populi rebellion. Lower still are the smog-filled slums of Shantytown, whose average citizens are too sickly even to protest.
Infinite is a first-person shooter, but one that’s set within a giant museum, and you can’t help gawking and learning something as you set about blowing it all up. Thanks to the spontaneously generated conversations between Booker and Elizabeth, even those who rely on the running portion of the run-and-gun action will have their attention drawn to the societal implications of a rich gated community like Emporia and the whitewashed violence perpetrated against interracial couples. Despite such racism, the game itself is far from black and white when it comes to its villains: As Elizabeth’s powers grow more unstable, you’ll get a glimpse at what a Vox Populi-led city might look like, as well as what Elizabeth or Booker might have done with the sort of power that Comstock so casually wields.
Ultimately, that sympathy justifies all the wild storytelling: It makes you care, even if just a little, before you pull the trigger. Sure, that giant mechanized Songbird keeps trying to kill you, but when it bites the dust, you’ll likely feel sorry for it: A Voxophone (one of 80 hidden, plot-supplementing recordings) found on the corpse of a Handyman reveals that he was a married man whose wife still loves him. Even in the middle of the game’s epic finale, leaping from bridge to bridge of a giant airship bombarded by zeppelins, players may find themselves pausing to marvel at it all—and when the choices are entirely removed and Booker is left to do the unthinkable, players may pause completely, unable to proceed. In an infinite universe, anything can happen, but in Infinite’s, the specifics are what get you.