‘Bioshock Infinite’ reaches new heights

Photo provided by 2K Games/Irrational Games -- The character Elizabeth is shown in a scene from the video game '
Photo provided by 2K Games/Irrational Games -- The character Elizabeth is shown in a scene from the video game '"BioShock Infinite,' which tops AP critics' list of the best video games for 2013.

Reviewer’s Rating: ★★★★

Nowadays, it feels as if America is coming apart. The political left and right seem to be drifting further and further away from each other every day, and rhetoric about certain states succeeding from the Union or forming separate societies that hold the values of the founding fathers fills our airwaves. What if those so-called traditionalists actually left the Union? What if they formed a society of their own, high above the clouds? That big “what if” is the basis for “Bioshock Infinite.”

The first game in the “Bioshock” series played with a similar concept in 2007, pitting the player against the citizens of the Ayn Rand-inspired underwater city Rapture. In that game, the dream of scientific progress unfettered by morals or altruism had already gone sour by the time the player arrived. “Infinite” brings the player to a floating city named Columbia, where the evils of good old-fashioned American exceptionalism, classism and racism threaten to bring the idyllic city crashing to the ground.

The year is 1912. Former soldier and gambler Booker DeWitt undertakes a mission to retrieve a girl from Columbia for an unknown client. At first, the city’s stunning vistas and happy folk would suggest that the city’s founder, Father Comstock, succeeded in creating a paradise on (or above) Earth. However, the city’s obsession with piety and a warped interpretation of the vision of America’s founding fathers can’t hide the war going on within, and Booker is soon dragged into the conflict.

He finds the girl, Elizabeth, quarantined in a tower and protected by a terrifying avian automaton called The Songbird. The reason for her isolation is immediately apparent: She can create “tears” in the fabric of space/time, allowing her to interact with realities that are not her own. Though Elizabeth realizes that Booker is far from a knight in shining armor, she has no choice but to work together with him to escape from the paradise that has been her prison all her life.

“Bioshock Infinite” is overflowing with a thousand tiny moments that make up a grand story that keeps the fantastical steampunk city of Columbia grounded in real history. Exhibits depicting racist caricatures of Chinese Boxer rebels and savage Native Americans at Wounded Knee contrast sharply with beautiful gardens, artificial beaches and omnipresent propaganda. “Infinite” refuses to revel in wanton nostalgic Americana without showing the other side of the coin, and is better for it.

For all the brilliant social commentary “Infinite” provides, it is first and foremost a first-person shooter. The heavenly backdrop only highlights the violence that Booker inflicts on his enemies with an array of guns and special powers known as “vigors.” While Booker can only have two guns and two vigors equipped at once, switching between them mid-combat ensures that staining the beautiful halls of Columbia with your enemies’ blood never gets dull. Booker can summon crows, fireballs, lightning and even force enemies to temporarily fight against their own allies.

This is all old hat to “Bioshock” veterans, however, so “Infinite” introduces two major elements to keep things fresh: the Skyhook and Elizabeth’s trans-dimensional abilities. Early on, Booker gets a magnetized hook that allows him to use the city’s many gondola rails as a way to get around and to flank enemies. Elizabeth can do this too, but her abilities go way beyond that. Far from playing the damsel in distress, she is invaluable to Booker, reviving him in combat, picking locks, finding ammo, and summoning allies and objects from another dimension to temporarily aid him in battle.

The creative complexity with which the player can brutally dispatch his foes seems at odds with the game’s subtle indictment of violence. “Infinite” is two different things: an example of everything good (and bad) about America and a hyper-violent shoot-’em-up that is guilt-inducingly entertaining. It’s telling when the biggest problem a game has is that its component parts succeed too well. Is it social commentary or just an action game? “Infinite” may well represent the zenith of what a big-budget shooter can achieve in terms of mature storytelling within video game conventions.

By turning a mirror on America’s troubled past, “Bioshock Infinite” is startlingly relevant to today’s fractious political landscape. It is a game of breathtaking beauty and shocking violence, and it is the duty of every American gamer to play this game.