The original Bioshock was something of a ground breaking game for shooters – at least on consoles – as it placed so much emphasis on the depth of its story. For some shooters, the world they took place in was little more than a space to dump some characters in to give you something to shoot at, but Bioshock tried to go that much further, creating a “what if?” fantasy that would suck you in. Set in an underwater city known as Rapture, Bioshock took place in a world created by shrewd businessman Andrew Ryan, who longed of a society free from the constraints of “petty morality”, where scientists, artists, and people in general could do as they please, without an overbearing state watching over their every move. With those noble goals in mind, Ryan created Rapture – but as those who played it know, the utopia didn’t turn out quite as expected...
Bioshock Infinite follows a somewhat similar route, in the similar-yet-entirely-different sort of setting of Columbia. Floating high amongst the clouds, Columbia is a city, a world, created by the US for the World’s Fair. A display of American exceptionalism and genius, Columbia travelled the world to show off the finest US culture had to offer – but it also harboured a secret. Far from simply being a showcase, Columbia was also a floating battleship, which could rain destruction upon almost anywhere in the world. After getting involved in a real international incident by opening fire on the Boxer Rebellion in China, the US disavowed Columbia’s actions, and Columbia seceded from the union.
Several years have passed by the time you set foot in Columbia, with the rest of the world having somehow forgotten it existed. Playing as Booker DeWitt, the game begins with you being transported in a boat to a mysterious lighthouse in the middle of the sea, with only a single instruction to follow – bring us the girl and wipe away the debt. As you explore the lighthouse, an increasingly bizarre sequence begins, which eventually leads to you being blasted high above the clouds, before coming to land amongst the balloons, buildings and bridges of the floating miracle of Columbia.
Styled in the way of 1900s America, Columbia initially seems like a really nice place. A touch on the overbearing religious side (you have to be “baptised” before even setting foot in it), but still pleasant enough. Possible best described as Disney’s Main Street USA does steampunk, Columbia is for all intents and purposes a normal city – children run around playing, a father carries his son on his shoulders on their way to the fair, couples lie arm in arm admiring the incredible views, while period music plays on gramophones in the shops. The Disney-esque vibe continues, too – before too long, you’ll end up catching the tail end of a parade celebrating Columbia’s founding, while a bit later on, a hover barge randomly flies up alongside you with a barbershop quartet on board, who start serenading you with a cover (somehow before it was written) of God Only Knows. But sadly, Columbia is not all that it seems, as some dirty secrets lie beneath the surface.
As you continue to explore, you’ll start to come across signs that warn of a “False Shepherd” who will come to take the “lamb”. The posters say you’ll be able to identify him thanks to the letters ‘AR’ he has branded on his hand – letters you just so happen to have branded on yours. And while the citizens of Columbia seem pleasant enough, there’s something altogether unsettling about their religious fervour. While these people aren’t Christian, their religion is obviously based strongly on Christianity, but instead of worshipping a God, they worship a Prophet - the founder of the city, Father Comstock. It’s never really explained why – how these people left their strong Christianity behind (after all, the people were taken from late 1800-early 1900s America, so it’s a fairly good guess they’d have been strongly religious) and decided to follow a different religion – and sadly, it’s not the only motive that remains unclear, as we’ll get to later.
But while the people on the surface of Columbia seem happy enough, a war is raging below the surface. Those in power - Comstock and his cronies, are engaged in something of a civil war with the Vox Populi, a group with a deep, passionate and personal hatred for Comstock, and those in power. A city of two worlds, while the rich live on the top in decadence, deep in Columbia’s underbelly lies a very different world, where the Vox, employed in Victorian style workhouses, are exploited and abused for a pittance. Sick and tired of their conditions, frustrated at not having a voice, the Vox Populi have become an increasingly militant group and are now armed, dangerous, and blinded by their hatred for the “ruling class”.
And then there’s Elizabeth. Referred to as being Columbia’s “lamb” in Comstock’s typically religious spiel, Elizabeth is the girl you’ve come to rescue – but that’s going to be easier said than done. You see, for reasons that aren’t immediately clear, Elizabeth is central to Comstock’s central prophecy – that eventually, the “seed of the Prophet shall sit the throne, and drown in flame the mountains of man”. As Comstock’s heir apparent, and the one his prophecy says will lead Columbia to victory over the “Sodom below”, he’s gone to great lengths to keep her safe from harm – to the point of locking her in a giant tower above the city. With an entire populace who’ve been trained to look out for you, breaking Elizabeth out of the tower won’t be easy – but that’s what you’ve got to do. Bring them the girl, wipe away the debt.
Luckily, you have plenty of assistance on your side. As a first person shooter, a lot of your time in the game will be spent in firefights with either the police, the city’s automated turrets, or even their 'robotic patriots', as they try to stop the “False Shepherd” from reaching his goal. But while you’ve got a selection of weapons at hand to make your job that little bit easier, it’s your sort-of supernatural powers that’ll really make the difference. Known in game as Vigours, these powers can be collected by finding the eight bottles hidden around the game. Effectively letting you cast a magic spell at the touch of a button, you can shoot a lightning bolt at your enemies, make them levitate in mid air, or blast them with a cannon of water - sometimes even combining two together. Most vigours also have a secondary fire function, too, letting you adapt to different situations – whether you want to plant a lightning trap on the ground rather than fire a bolt, or create a shield that’ll absorb bullets and fire them back at your enemies.
As you’d probably expect, though, Elizabeth is far too major a character in the game for you to only come into contact with her towards the end, and only a few hours in, you’ll be breaking her out of her tower. Initially cautious and untrusting of you (after all, no-one ever visits her in the tower – she’s completely cut off from the outside world), Elizabeth plays a key role in the game, in more ways than one. When she first steps foot outside of the tower, she has her own Little Mermaid-esque moment, as she gazes around in wonder at everything the world has to offer – the smells, sights, and sounds of a world she’s never experienced. As you go on, the relationship between Booker and Elizabeth will develop, as she opens up about her past, her relationship with her father, Comstock, and her somewhat fantastical ability. Although she hasn’t been able to leave the tower, Elizabeth can create portals to other worlds, seemingly at will, opening tears between two versions of reality. Although you can only do this at specific points in the game, it’s incredibly handy during battle – letting you create a turret or some cover at the touch of a button by opening a hole to another dimension. The skylines that litter Columbia – kind of an airborne cable car system where you hang on with a metal hook that whisks you across the line - add another element of strategy to the battles, and help keep Bioshock Infinite feeling unique. Get into a tricky situation, and you can simply leap onto the nearest skyline and leg it to safety – or, if you’re feeling particularly cheeky, turn around, and highlight the enemy to perform a skyline strike, as you leap out of the air, and clobber them with your skyhook.
But Bioshock is a game that also has several problems – not least of which, sadly, is with its storyline. For a start, although you can emphasise with Elizabeth, she doesn’t half suffer from a bad case of Lara-itis, as she flits between being disgusted with you for having killed someone, to chucking you ammunition so you can do it again a few seconds later. “Oh my god, you killed him!” “Need ammo?” Her entire character just ends up coming across as being all over the place, as there’s never enough of a pause after the big reveals for you to properly digest things – one minute she’s depressed about her past, the next she’s making an off the cuff remark about how easy it is to pick a lock.
But by far the biggest problem with Bioshock is how it seems to be trying to make a clever comment about so many things, but it approaches them with such little subtlety that none of them have the impact they're supposed to. Take the racism, for example. Considering its setting, you would expect some sort of racial discrimination to be going on – but Infinite handles it incredibly poorly. While there’s all the things you’d expect – separate toilets for “Whites” and “Coloureds”, things get taken to the point where it just turns into a farce. All around Columbia, you’ll be smacked around the face with racism – posters talking about having “faith, family, and racial purity”; giant emblems in the floor that say “Protecting our Race”; other notices that have caricatures of Black, Asian, and Mexican people with a similarly charged statement about race and the “foreign hordes”, while the Vox Populi use several racial slurs themselves. While it’s undoubtedly the point to make you feel uncomfortable, the racism never seems to be justified or explained - it's like it exists only for shock value, and because it's used to so often, it ends up not being all that shocking at all.
And in fact, it’s the lack of justification that hits Bioshock Infinite the hardest. The first game was interesting because it was a plausible, if unlikely, scenario. What would happen if you created a society where science, artists, and people knew no bounds? The answer, it turned out, was that they’d push science so far they’d create a substance, a drug, that they all loved so much, it ended up driving them mad – but there’s no such hinting at insanity here. Here are a group of people from America who were taken up on an airship, and suddenly ditched their religion in favour of worshipping a guy who founded a city, and blindly followed his bidding every single day. There was no substance here that drove them mad – they seemingly just chose to abandon everything they held dear to become some lazy, politicised caricature. They’re patriotic, they’re nationalist, and seemingly because of this, they're also racist, and intrinsically evil. You aren’t meant to hate Comstock for brainwashing them, you’re meant to hate the people themselves, caricatures though they are. But it never feels right. With no moderation, no dissent, and no reasonable voices amongst the citizens of Columbia – bar, perhaps, the one person who comes up to you at one point in the game with the incredible quote “Don’t worry, I’m not like them, I’m a progressive!”, one of the most essential parts of Bioshock's world - its citizens - are so two-dimensional, they repeatedly suck you out of the game. It’s not that a game can’t be politically charged, but Bioshock tends to handle what should be complex themes badly, to the point where it almost becomes a distraction from the main story, and the relationship between Booker and Elizabeth. The game would have been far stronger without it.
As the game goes on, it starts to lag in pace, as the story switches between getting more interesting, and more convoluted, before the eventual climax sees you defending something from wave after wave of enemy attack. As anyone who’s ever played a game will tell you, defence sections are the most frustrating ones ever, so it’s a shame that Bioshock decided to end on a low note. The ending itself, which attempts to tie together most of the loose ends in the game, doesn’t make all that much sense to begin with either – like the matrix, things get rather convoluted, to the point where dozens of topics on forums and message boards began popping up to discuss what happened - although perhaps that was the point.
In all, Bioshock Infinite is a decent game, but one that fails to live up to the lofty standards set by its predecessor. Delving too much into politics, and not enough into the human interest story between Comstock, Elizabeth, and Booker, it’s the plot that lets Infinite down the most. With some unique gameplay ideas (the skylines are particularly cool), the fact that Infinite tries to be like Bioshock, yet doesn't do Bioshock as well as the original did simply highlights its flaws. While it won't be remembered as fondly as the original, Bioshock Infinite is one shooter fans will still want to check out.