Columbia, Bioshock Infinite’s floating city in the sky, is a vividly imagined place, a marriage of impossible engineering and incredible artistry. Its buildings sway amongst the clouds buoyed atop huge zeppelins of air; its streets are lined with rose gardens, picnics, statues of the founding fathers and candy floss stalls; and its population is drunk on the religious and xenophobic preachings of its founder and self-styled prophet, Zachary Comstock. It’s a lavishly detailed landscape, a picture of early 20th century America at its most opulent, optimistic and frightening, and it’s an utter joy to simply soak in.
The same could be said of many videogame settings, but what sets Columbia apart is Irrational Games’ realisation of the impossible as an interactive environment. Take Columbia’s transportation network, the Skylines for example. A less ambitious title would have used them in one or two tightly controlled set-pieces. Irrational has made them a fundamental element of Infinite’s gameplay, employing this snaking series of undulating rails as a useful tool in your combative arsenal. They’re not only a world-fleshing piece of imagination, but a strategic aid to reach higher ground.
Infinite consistently integrates ideas and exposition that could have been consigned to a tutorial or cut scene into its in-game world. It’s the natural progression of those first-person storytelling techniques established by the original Half-Life – your viewpoint is never abandoned and environmental details such as posters, graffiti and the chattering of passers-by build a picture of the place. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in Infinite’s opening sequence, which succinctly establishes the games’ setting, story and gameplay through a mesmerising hour-long sequence of events.
It begins at a lighthouse, one that houses both the introductory plot points and your transportation to Columbia. You are Booker DeWitt, a man tasked with retrieving a woman named Elizabeth as payment for your debts. Inside embroidered wall-hangings invite would-be-pilgrims to wash away their sins in a basin of water, and a corpse with a hole in its head foreshadows Booker’s fate should he fail.
Later on a carnival sequence cleverly disguises Infinite’s gameplay tutorial. A shooting gallery challenges you to aim down the scope of a carbine at cardboard cut-outs of the Vox Populi – a militant insurgency group of the oppressed working class currently revolting in Columbia. And promotional samples of Vigors – the left hand mutating, elemental power-granting equivalent of Bioshock’s Plasmids – are being given out for free, along with their power replenishing salt solutions.
Infinite‘s artistic and engineering achievements in videogame storytelling are apparent from the outset. It still relies upon many of the techniques established within the original Bioshock – audio diaries and short period cinemas explaining Vigors and Columbia’s creation conveniently line your path. They’re not the most elegant way to convey information, but as a method of setting tone, building backgrounds and expanding the world, they’re effective, engrossing and essential to Irrational’s ambitious vision.
The most impressive element of this vision comes in the form of a young woman named Elizabeth. If Columbia is the soul of Infinite, then Elizabeth is the heart, usurping Half Life 2’s Alyx Vance as the most impressive AI companion yet created within a videogame. She’s a true character, with emotional states, a fleshed out backstory and a youthful sense of wonder that draws you through, and into, the world of Columbia.
Elizabeth isn’t an entirely seamless presence. Her insistence on flipping you a coin directly after an emotional peak can weaken the impact of a moment, and her over-used ability to pick locks on your command feels like a contrived way to integrate her into the world. But for the time that she spends feeding you facts about Columbia’s history, throwing you salts in the heat of a battle, running ahead in the periphery of your vision or simply gazing with child-like curiosity at a set of steam pipes, she’s a fabulously woven illusion; quite simply Infinite’s greatest achievement.
Infinite is the story of Elizabeth more so than of Columbia, and her tale is complex, hinging on her ability to rip ‘Tears’ in time and space. Towards the end of the game the themes and ideas so well established upon your arrival at this city – the racism, religion and American exceptionalism – begin to take a backseat as her history and relationships slowly unravel. Thematically they remain ever present, but more as window dressing than as fully explored topics.
At times Infinite lacks its predecessor’s succinctness, bordering on the convoluted in its latter half when plot twists come thick, fast and translucent. It’s difficult to make sense of everything that happens, but Irrational’s greatest narrative accomplishment here is that so many of the events and happenings throughout the game, even the seemingly trivial ones, become clear when viewed through the lens of its final few reveals. A staggering level of thought and consideration has been put into Infinite’s world in the context of its concluding chapter.
In fact so much thought and attention has been given to fleshing out the world of Columbia that a few underdeveloped elements of Infinite’s universe stand out as odd. What is the Songbird? Elizabeth’s much publicised malevolent protector/imprisoner suffers from a relatively underdeveloped backstory. How do Vigors work? The science behind Bioshock’s Plasmids was a fundamental part of its narrative, here you’re asked to accept the existence of their Columbian equivalent simply because they’re an essential ingredient in the series’ gameplay. And just why are so many of Columbia’s citizens willing to give their lives to try and stop Booker DeWitt? Bioshock‘s splicers were deranged lunatics driven mad by extreme substance addiction and the horror’s of war; Infinite‘s adversaries exist as shooting targets.
That these world-building inconsistencies are noticeable is more a testament to the completeness of Irrational’s vision elsewhere than an indictment of the whole experience. Infinite’s bigger problem is a structural one, namely the balance between its narrative and gameplay. It aims to, and mostly succeeds at, telling such a far-reaching and multi-layered science fiction story that your control is often limited to movement and viewpoint whilst its big events play out in order to ensure some level of direction. These sequences are so well directed that reverting back to the main gameplay element – shooting – simply isn’t as engrossing.
It doesn’t help that Infinite isn’t as interesting of a shooter as its predecessor. Bioshock suffered from overly stiff controls, but the tightly bound corridors of Rapture were coupled with a strategically diverse range of Plasmids, weapons and enemies to make for a thoughtful First Person Shooter, emphasising planning over bullheadedness and systemic knowledge over raw firepower. Infinite feels smoother to play, having ironed out the series’ control issues, but it’s based on a thinner set of more streamlined mechanics that, in tandem with the wider playgrounds of Columbia, give it the feel of a traditional, and frankly duller, shooter.
Gone is Bioshock‘s ecosystem of interacting parties. Walk into a hall in Rapture and you would often find a Splicer attacking a Big Daddy, which was a situation you could capitalise on by hacking into the local security system to take advantage of their weakened state. Infinite‘s new gameplay elements – the Skylines and Elizabeth’s ability to tear cover, turrets and supplies into battlefields on your demand – do give combat a chaotic, visceral thrill, but it remains less strategically rewarding. Yes, you can plant Vigor traps on the floor if you want, but in these expanded battlefields and frantic, reactionary scenarios you’d be hard pressed to place them with any strategic forethought.
Many sections are simple wave-based kill boxes, requiring little tactical thought beyond discerning the most powerful combination of Vigor and weapon, and there’s a great deal of overly powerful combinations at your disposal. Collectible items of clothing boost Booker’s abilities, ranging from improved health and salt replenishment to a combustible twist for your Skyhook’s already ample melee. It’s all too easy to outfit yourself in ridiculously powerful attire. Matching the battlefield-hopping Charge Vigor with boots and a shirt that give health and salts after every kill, for example, gives you a superhuman level of mobility and resource regeneration.
Infinite also lacks any truly interesting opponents to match the legacy of Bioshock’s Big Daddy. The Handyman is a mindless bullet-sponge, while a set of motorised patriots themed around ex-American Presidents are simply slow moving turrets with a hidden weak spot. The Songbird fulfills a similar narrative role as the Big Daddy, serving as Elizabeth’s protector, but his assaults of Booker only ever occur in directed set-pieces.
Gameplay issues aside, Infinite’s audio design is an absolute triumph. Discordant strings stab at you for gunning down Columbia’s military, and sorrowful compositions accompany Elizabeth’s emotional reveals. Throughout, Infinite has some wonderfully composed accompaniments and dynamic tracks, but it’s some abstract uses of in-game music that really stand out – think barbershop quartet Beach Boys.
It’s these incredible world-building details that draw you into the experience of Infinite, not the shooting, which makes its predominance a shame. Irrational have made a Bioshock that is smoother to play, but less fun to play around with; built on grander ideas, but less coherent ones. It isn’t a flawless second coming, but its almost peerless storytelling, imagination and attention to detail make it well worth playing. Never mind pigs, when Infinite works, you’ll believe a city can fly. It’s just a shame that it doesn’t soar.