“Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt”.
With this instruction, Booker DeWitt is dispatched to Columbia, a sprawling city that floats above the United States after a political and geographic secession. DeWitt is a fomer Pinkerton and veteran of Wounded Knee, compelled by gambling debts to accept this ambiguous reprieve. But he is not the only one in search of a fresh start. Columbia is a city founded on an imagined return to America’s true ideals; racial purity, the message of the Founding Fathers and a divine mission. The Puritan city on the hill has left the face of earth altogether. “What is Columbia but a new ark for a new time?”, the city’s founder, leader and self-styled prophet, Zachary Comstock asks rhetorically. We find out about the flood soon enough.
Bioshock Infinite is the second sequel to the phenomenally successful BioShock. Much like its forebears, political critique is embedded in the world creation. While the seabed city of Rapture is an experiment in anarcho-capitalism, Columbia takes aim at the tenets of the radical reactionary elements of the US Republican Party. The Prophet presides over a cult of the American Founding Fathers, with devotees praying to Washington, Jefferson and Franklin, repudiating the apostate Lincoln (one ruling class cult worships John Wilkes Booth for doing the heretic in). The city’s affluent Anglo-Saxons live lives of luxury, propped up by an impoverished underclass of Chinese, Irish and blacks, justified by ideologies of racial hierarchy. One memorable scene sees labourers compete at a work auction, aggressively underbidding each other for the time they can complete a job in. The class conflict that emerges from this division gives birth to a revolutionary army, the Vox Populi, dubbed ‘anarchists’ by the establishment. Unfortunately, the writers’ efforts for ‘balance’ make the Vox every bit as despicable as their oppressors. The world should not be painted as black and white, but a dull grey canvas is not the only alternative.
The city’s divine purpose? This is made clear early on: “The Seed of the Prophet shall sit the throne and drown in flame the mountains of man”. It is this seed, the Lamb, Elizabeth, who Booker has been sent to rescue, and the plot will be figured as a struggle between DeWitt and Comstock over her fate. A young woman with immense powers, Elizabeth is imprisoned in a great tower, guarded by a terrifying mechanical bird. Most of the game will unfold with Elizabeth accompanying Booker as they struggle to escape. But although she fulfills many of the criteria, she skilfully subverts the trope of the Damsel in Distress. An interesting and sympathetic character, she evades the gaming cliches associated with her status. Instead, she is useful – providing support to the player by scavenging for supplies and unlocking doors. Her special powers, opening doors to other realities, provide crucial points of plot progression as well an interesting twist on game mechanics – she can access allies and aid for the player mid-combat. But her character and role are more significant. Her dialogue and backstory have enough life to them that the player comes to miss her when she’s absent and, when her fate becomes more tenuous, genuinely concerned.
As purely a gaming experience, BioShock Infinite cannot quite match up to its illustrious predecessor. Combat is not particularly varied or customisable, and neither the large number of guns and ‘Vigors’ (magic powers, a la Bioshock’s Plasmids) or the Skyrail system compensate for this. Although the last quarter introduces some welcome variation in play, most of the time shooting is the sole method of progression. It’s notable here that the hacking sub-games, an enjoyable diversion from the original’s main action as well as a way to access additional resources, are replaced by a ‘Possession’ Vigor, which offers the chance to take control of opponents on a simple point and click basis.
But if shooting-people-in-the-face is mainly a way of propelling ourselves through Infinite’s world and narrative, it should be remarked that these are very fine indeed. The two are both detailed and grand, combining sweeping visions and careful empathy. The world is intricate enough to reward attention and the level creation is masterful, with Comstock House towards the end a nerve-shredding joy. The soundtrack is excellent, and the 1912 renditions of the Beach Boys and Soft Cell (and their later explanation) are a pleasure to encounter. The science of alternate realities that underpins the plot is somewhat of a poetic licence, but it’s never tiresome. The characters, from Elizabeth to DeWitt to the baffling Lutece siblings are well-written and intriguing, while firebrand Fitzroy can speechify to rival Mother Jones. Columbia might not match Rapture’s grim claustrophobia in play, but in breadth and depth it more than rivals its submarine forebear.
Bioshock Infinite is available on Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC. Reviewed on Xbox 360