Ambition is the greatest strength a human has, and yet also their most crippling folly. How can ambition force one man to build a religion, another to gamble, and a young girl to dream of Paris? Bioshock Infinite is an ambitious game. Like its name, it offers limitless potential; but infinite is only as big as the mind can comprehend. This is a game of so many themes, styles and ideas that a lesser force could have lost grip on what holds the collective together; ambition. Ken Levine, Creative Director of Irrational Games, has not just rewritten the rulebook for sequels but ripped it page by page and thrown it in the air to be scattered as far and wide as possible. The result is an impossibly gripping adventure, a narrative of high ideals and low morals draped over the framework of a pacey shooter and magnificent environment. The aim was ambitious; the result: irrepressible.
The premise of Bioshock Infinite is really very simple; find the girl, escape and pay your debt. This, at least, is the assumption of Booker DeVitt, gambler, Private Investigator and survivor of Wounded Knee who ascends via a lighthouse rocket-chair to the proverbial heaven of Columbia, the quintessential (literal?) American dream. Floating high above the U.S.A, the gleaming Columbia, originally a set in the 1893 World Fair, seceded from the United States after destroying Peking during the infamous Boxer Rebellion. Set in 1912, Columbia is a utopia of high Western ideals built on the back of exploitation and racial hierarchy. Red, white and blue tapers drape from Art-Nouveau buildings, the wealthy skim through life on a flotilla of pleasure enforced by religious devotion, while the under-classes, the Irish and ethnic minorities, clean up unseen after them. The architect of this ultra-America is Zachary Hale Comstock, a man of well-meaning but brutally flawed evangelical ambitions who created this whiter-than-white zealot state to offer a better life to his followers. Typically, it is to the detriment of everybody else.
Like the recent Dishonored, Infinite offers a mixture of caricatured observations and steam-punk sensibilities in its linear yet apparently enormous game-world. Propaganda looms over the citizens, guards herd workers, roller-coaster esque rail-links zig-zag the map and fantastical machinery powers the city. As an environment, Columbia is remarkably well-developed, full of wonderful details that give the city real personality. When you stand still, the screen sways slightly. Held up by a mixture of propulsion and balloons, Columbia floats in the air and is thus constantly moving, represented by the constant motion of the buildings. Flattered by sunlight, Columbia is remarkably bright, creating an entirely different atmosphere to the previous Bioshocks. Columbia features an alternative American history and lore, created by Comstock, in which George Washington is a prophet foretelling the rise of Columbia and Thomas Jefferson a war-mongering badass (think Charles XII of Sweden mixed with Arnold Schwarzenegger). A surprisingly huge city, the best way to progress is via the rails of the local transport system, clinging for dear life to a claw-like device which also serves as a particularly brutal weapon.
As you progress from the gleaming streets into the underbelly of the city the inequality of Columbia becomes apparent, with immigrants and non-whites brutalised. The Vox Populi, an anarchist movement, stands up for their rights in a guerilla war against Comstock, but whose interests they are actually furthering remains unknown. But my, what a beautiful world they are fighting over. Bioshock Infinite, even on the ageing Xbox 360 is a magnificent achievement, a sparkling mix of detail and careful style. Characters are wonderfully emotive, with suitably big expressions to match their words. There are subtler moments too; Elizabeth shudders when her heritage is mentioned, while even the most fervent of believers can be seen to doubt their words when challenged with reason. The near constant sunlight shows off the fantastic lighting dynamics of the engine, matched by the shadows of the indoor areas.
Wrapped in political misgivings, shrouded by the spectre of popularised, suffocating religion, the real heart of Bioshock Infinite is in the relationship between DeVitt and the girl he eventually rescues, Elizabeth. Locked in a national monument for her entire life, Elizabeth is a bright and fascinating character. As a companion, she is even better. With wide-eyed wonder she observes this new world, peers at new objects, asks the right questions and slumps impatiently when you take too long. Her enthusiasm is infectious; you discover the world with Elizabeth, and admire the simplicity of her ambitions – to see Paris. For DeVitt, she is a valuable ally in combat too. Elizabeth can open ‘tears’, alternative realities which can be placed into this world. This can mean an opening to explore new areas, a turret in combat or merely an invaluable health pack. Tearing adds a real edge and sense of choice lacking in other areas of the game; blast your way through, or kill with ingenuity? Meanwhile, the relationship between the two main characters keeps the breakneck narrative ticking along. Like every character, DeVitt and Elizabeth have distinct flaws, but come together to bring out the best in each other. Come the end, the magnificent finale, you won’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Within this thematic pondering does indeed lie a videogame. A heady mix of adventure and shooting, Bioshock Infinite attempts to match exploratory endeavour with expansive shooting. Somehow it works. Weapons are basic and possibly too effective, but the inclusion of tears keep things interesting. Vigor gives DeVitt supernatural abilities, similar to Plasmids in the earlier Bioshocks. These could have been used better; electricity and fire has been done many times before, while others like the firing crows are utterly useless. Not so Possession. This allows the player to gain control of an enemy to use for their gain; when the time runs out, the foe commits suicide. Very useful, very funny. Greater enemies require a combination of Vigors to defeat them, but most can be seen off with a mere shotgun blast, at least on the lower difficulties. For those who like a challenge, ‘1999’ mode is like a kick-in-the-teeth; difficult, but suddenly the potential of the Vigors and weapons opens up.
Somewhat against the vogue of freedom in games, Bioshock Infinite is undoubtedly linear, but all the better for it. Think of it like a director taking control of a film; anybody can move a camera, but only those who have planned, researched and imagined the angle can really pull it off. Although there is little real choice of movement, except arbitrary backtracking and the occasional opportunity for choice (typical RPG-light kill/spare moments), the result is a masterpiece of linear narrative. It’s not how you do it, but why you do it. At no point does the player ask why they cannot go over there; instead they respect the fact that they go where they do to serve a greater purpose to the narrative. That is an achievement.
Not all, however, is quite as sunny. Although the inhabitants of Columbia add much to its character, their actual implementation is bizarre. When you pass a NPC (non-playable character) they generally say something, or take part in a conversation. So far, so normal. However, the problem is not that they say one thing, but that they only say it once. As soon as they finish the music cuts, and they stop and stare as if you’ve eaten their lunch. It is utterly unnerving, and I almost gave the game credit for it until it became clear it was a design mistake. The argument that the game is moving you on is understandable, but when such a detailed world has been created, one that actively encourages study, why effectively block off further interaction? At one beautiful point, Elizabeth discovers dancing. A wonderful moment, sure, but after ten minutes of her revolving it becomes worthy of a meme.
It probably goes without saying that Bioshock Infinite is one of the great games of this generation. Any prior knowledge of the series is necessary; Infinite stands as a beacon to its own glory. Proof that ambition and imagination can be successful in video-games, Infinite mixes a sweeping, grandiose narrative with gritty details, tough themes and a sly sense of humour. Fun to play and majestic to explore, highly polished with huge production values, Bioshock Infinite presents not just a great adventure but probably the best linear-narrative game of any generation. It could possibly be even better, but for the sake of my dictionary of superlatives I’m glad it isn’t. Unmissable.