"A Glimpse of the Infinite"
There are few games that have the ability to, in their opening moments, cause the player to genuinely gasp in awe, fear or delight; BioShock Infinite is one of these games. The main character, former Pinkerton agent Booker DeWitt, is first dropped off at the ominous lighthouse that also served as the origin point of the last two installments of BioShock, only this time, rather than finding a way down, Booker is looking for a way up. As Booker climbs the spiral of the lighthouse, coming across ominous messages and a scene of gruesome torture, before finding that the peak of the lighthouse is not just a beacon, but a launch site. Strapped in, shot up and struggling, as soon as Booker clears the murky clouds, his first look at the floating city of Columbia is also ours: and she seems like heaven. His awe is genuine, and the player shares it. These moments of revelation, of shock, of beauty and horror define BioShock Infinite and prove that this instalment of the series is not just a successor to the previous games, but a reinvention.
When the first installment of the BioShock franchise appeared in 2007 (originally a Windows/ Xbox 360 exclusive but later ported to both PS3 and Mac OS X), it topped many game-of-the-year lists, and for good reason. The writing was exceptional, the world fully-realized, the art direction beautiful, and the aesthetic complete and authentic. The first journey to the fictional city of Rapture, now leaking and languishing beneath the ocean, pressed the limits of the kind of narratives and depth of gameplay that is possible within the FPS genre.
The major fault of BioShock 2 was simply that it was more of the same: the player returned to Rapture, was able to play as a Big Daddy, and further explored the narrative of the city's decadence and decay, but ultimately the game came off feeling stale, a revisit rather than a narrative sequel. BioShock Infinite remedies this and more. It is so much more than a sequel: it is a complete reinvention, using a few of the same concepts but applying them to a completely different element. Just as it was possible to believe in Rapture, to sink completely into the suspended disbelief of a city under the waves, BioShock Infinite's Columbia feels exactly as real as a city atop the clouds, and exactly as new as that first visit to Rapture.
The game is set in an alternate-reality version of 1912, at the height of American exceptionalism. The player controls Booker, who has been sent to the floating city of Columbia to find a young woman named Elizabeth, who has been held in the city for twelve years. Booker frees Elizabeth, and both find themselves pursued by the two groups currently at war beneath the seemingly pristine veneer of Columbia: the Founders (who want to keep Columbia elitist and "pure" to racist and genocidal extremes) and the Vox Populi (often referred to as the Vox, a group characterized as domestic terrorists who represent the general public). While Booker fights with guns and Vigors, Elizabeth has powers of her own that allow her to influence the time-space continuum.
If there is one way in which BioShock Infinite continues to be indebted to its successors, it is the game mechanic. As the first BioShock was deeply inspired by System Shock II, so Infinite remains based on the same system. Plasmids from the previous game (transformative elixirs that both change the player and bestow special abilities) have become Vigors, and they are powered by Salt rather than Adam. Resurrection pods are still in place, as are med kits, and you can also heal by eating food items in the game. The mechanic is familiar enough to feel as though those games take place in the same universe, but neither do they detract from the freshness of the game at all. This is a clear case of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."
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Natalie Zina Walschots is a music writer, poet, and editor based in Toronto, Ontario. She writes about comic books, video games, combat sports, sadomasochism, feminism, and difficult music for a number of publications, both in print and online, and currently serves as the Managing Editor of Canada Arts Connect, as well as the Reviews Editor of This Magazine. She also has published books - DOOM: Love Poems For Supervillains and Thumbscrews, which won a Robert Kroetsch Award.
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