For the last four decades, countless American corporations have tried and failed to break into the lucrative but famously fickle Japanese market. While a few high-profile exceptions succeeded—folksy Kentuckian restaurateur Col. Harland Sanders, of all people, among them—most have failed to properly consider the specific tastes endemic to the archipelago’s culture. In Japan, one American brand reigns supreme over all others, however.
What do a crooning French candelabra and a steel-drummin’ Trinidadian crustacean have to do with a Massachusetts-based game developer helmed by a Vassar-educated drama major? A supreme, almost fanatical attention to detail, for one. Irrational Games creative director Ken Levine typed up screenplays in Hollywood back in the early ’90s before he ever shipped his first title, so he understands the paramount importance of building an enthralling world, painting a believable picture, and providing the player with the tools to immerse themselves in his creations as much as technology allows. His 2007 undersea opus, BioShock, was the thinking person’s action game, bringing thoughtful contemplation to the too-often-brainless genre of the first-person shooter.
Disney appeals to that same sensibility in fans around the world, but particularly in Japan; Tokyo Disneyland is the most-visited theme park outside of the United States for a reason. Every last stairwell and streetlamp serves a purpose and has meaning. Every costume design is painstakingly reproduced. And everything is scrubbed astonishingly clean so that every visitor can view the park as intended. Anyone who’s been to Japan can tell you that this seemingly absurd fascination with minutiae extends across all levels of society, including game development. Few American game designers have the obsessive, microscopic-level sensibilities of auteurs like Hideo Kojima or Suda51—but Levine is most assuredly one of them.
Now, I’m not suggesting that BioShock Infinite will end up as some runaway hit in Japan (though it certainly deserves to); it’s likely that the game’s primary audience will still tend toward American fans of first-person shooters. But Western players who are drawn to the impressive, imaginative worlds and staggering details of Japanese game design will find themselves quite at home in BioShock Infinite, even if they don’t necessarily consider themselves devotees of the genre. This experience belongs to them as much as any gamer.
It’s 1912, and the world is a rougher, crueler place. That’s particularly true for pushing-40 protagonist Booker DeWitt, a hard-boiled New York City private investigator with a shady past and a willingness to get his hands dirty in order to erase his considerable debts—even if it means heading for Columbia, a mysterious breakaway American republic floating above the clouds off the coast of Maine.
The Disney connection is even evident here, as Walt himself was inspired by the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, a landmark celebration of the American spirit that marked the true beginning of the country’s place at the table with the great European powers who’d dominated the 19th century. A gleaming temporary metropolis known as the White City was constructed in Chicago on the shores of Lake Michigan, and the result was a bizarre pastiche of backward jingoism (the fair ostensibly celebrated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the Americas, after all) and forward-thinking technology (the most famous before-his-time genius, Nikola Tesla, demonstrated alternating current in the exposition’s Electricity Building).
Just as this seminal American event inspired Disney to create an enchanting escape to another world, so, too, did it prod Levine to create one of his own—while simultaneously exploring the perennial ideas of American nationalism, American exceptionalism, and, yes, even American racism. For me, the connections are inescapable and utterly fascinating: BioShock Infinite’s Columbia is, for all intents and purposes, a dark, twisted version of Disneyland itself.
In fact, the sights and sounds of Main Street, U.S.A. in Anaheim wouldn’t look out of place in Columbia, whether it’s an impeccably dressed barbershop quartet, flickering kinetoscope images, a rip-roaring shooting gallery, or an old-fashioned ice cream parlor. Underneath its touristy exterior, after all, Disneyland can be a rather jingoistic place, with the Animatronic, stovepipe-hatted Mr. Lincoln robotically instilling nationalistic fervor in the minds of wide-eyed tykes for nearly 50 years.
Columbia venerates the great American Presidents, too, albeit in far more sinister ways; the dark underbelly on display here shows how those lofty patriotic ideals that birthed Disneyland can be twisted into something monstrous in the wrong hands. (But for those who think Disney was far more enlightened than what you’ll find in Columbia, check out the now-laughably offensive “What Made the Red Man Red” musical number from Peter Pan, released 41 years after the setting of this game.) And just like the Disneyland Railroad links the various lands at the heart of the Disney experience, a spectacular Sky-Line transportation system connects Columbia’s various ports of call. (Again, there’s a dark truth here; the American railroads were cruelly built on the backs of Chinese and Irish immigrants.)
I don’t say this lightly—and this isn’t some surreptitious attempt to horn my way into a BioShock Infinite TV ad—but Columbia is simply the most intriguing, fascinating setting I’ve ever set foot in as a player. A week after completing the game, I’m still constantly thinking, analyzing, and even dreaming of my time there. As an eagle-eyed history buff constantly on the watch for anachronisms, I found that everything rang authentic to the time period, and Irrational’s artists did a commendable job tweaking real-life turn-of-the-20th-century propaganda posters and advertisements so that they feel right at home in Columbia. I’m curious to see whether this Red, White, and Blue backdrop resonates as fully with non-Americans, but I think any gamer with a willingness to explore will be just as amazed by the experience.
But what ultimately separates BioShock Infinite from its predecessor isn’t the obvious switch from sea to sky or traversing the turbulent time of William Howard Taft—it’s the inclusion of an AI partner, the enigmatic Elizabeth. While the interactions between her and Booker don’t quite reach the heights promised in the game’s legendary E3 2011 demo, Irrational succeeds admirably in making her feel like an equal partner on this journey. Even when the rest of the EGM staff had left for the day and darkness enveloped the office, I felt strangely comforted that Elizabeth was there to explore the sometimes-horrifying sights of Columbia with me, as she constantly darted around and chattered about what she’d found. And I also knew that, should anything untoward unfold, she’d have my back.
We often take the lazy shortcut in comparing games to big-budget movies. In many cases, the flimsy, lowest-common-denominator narrative arcs—such as they are—fit that mold. Big brute finds gun. Big brute shoots Nazi Arab space aliens. Big brute blows up London with a rocket launcher.
BioShock Infinite is more akin to Lost or Game of Thrones—a cerebral weekly serial where each story beat sets up the next and the wheels are constantly churning. We’re introduced to this fantastic-yet-familiar setting where things don’t seem quite right, and the questions keep piling up. The enjoyment in the journey, then, comes from brainstorming, speculating, and trying to crack the code.
During the course of my playthrough, I wrote out more than 50 theories and unanswered questions—and it would’ve been many more if work responsibilities hadn’t called me away far too many times. Think of BioShock Infinite as a series of measured, one-hour episodes rather than a brainless action flick featuring several massive punches to the face that lose their meaning almost immediately. When BioShock Infinite clocks you in the temple, it means it—and you feel it.
This is a slow burn, and it’s worth playing through that way, taking in the assorted sights and getting to know the various players in this inviting, disturbing city in the clouds. So many videogames hold your hand and tell you what to think or shove quick-time events in your face and instruct you what buttons to press. BioShock Infinite gives you a world, asks you to explore it, and trusts that you can find the vast majority of the answers yourself. In all, I spent 27 total hours in Columbia and took my time to investigate every last nook and cranny—and I still didn’t find all the scattered audio recordings (which return from the original game and are far more effective as a storytelling tool here) or optional content.
The game also gives you choices, but they aren’t anywhere close to as cut-and-dry as harvesting a young girl’s ADAM for your own benefit. In the EGM offices, debate ensued after I made a decision that, to the casual observer, might seem horrifying—but put in the context of the game, I felt utterly compelled to make it. That moment was far from an aberration, as there are no easy answers in Columbia.
That’s partly because BioShock Infinite unfolds the way it should—when the world of Columbia is still firing on all cylinders. In the original BioShock, players arrived at the submerged Objectivist dystopia of Rapture after it had already been reduced to an undersea horror show. While the setting was appropriately fascinating, you couldn’t wholly identify with Andrew Ryan’s vision after being accosted by shrieking, mask-wearing Splicers seconds after emerging from the rickety bathysphere.
That’s not the case here; DeWitt arrives in Columbia as the city is shining its brightest. Don’t be misled, though—a conversation with a random denizen here can be just as harrowing as an encounter with a drill-wielding Big Daddy. By the time conflict does arrive, the seeds of investment have been planted, so you have an emotional interest in the outcome. Perhaps most importantly, BioShock Infinite doesn’t compromise its narrative to placate a particular group or suit a specific agenda. Everyone complaining about this game on the far right and far left—guess what? You’re all wrong about BioShock Infinite’s ambitions.
Not every moment in Columbia is an absolute showstopper, though. For one, the lack of manual saves can and will frustrate players, as the game doesn’t always do a great job of spacing out its autosaves. Furthermore, a couple of hours toward the middle feel like wasted potential, and even BioShock Infinite isn’t immune from the eye-rolling fetch quest that slows the proceedings to a crawl.
Thankfully, the setting remains vibrant in every corner of this tropospheric world’s fair, so I can’t complain too much about spending more time in it. Every area is distinct in its design and purpose, and you can actually imagine the city planners as they mapped out this metropolis—everything makes surprising sense from that perspective. The original BioShock was one of the most psychologically draining games I’ve ever played, but this makes that experience look like a cakewalk in retrospect. By the end of BioShock Infinite, I’d been as immersed with the setting as I’d been with Dragon Quest VIII, as mind-screwed as I was after playing Metal Gear Solid, and as terrified as I’ve ever been playing Silent Hill. (Then again, I have a genuine, paralyzing fear of antiques, so perhaps this setting might induce more chills in me than in most players.)
Make no mistake, though: This isn’t merely an old-timey storefront window at which players will passively gawk. I had plenty of fun with BioShock Infinite’s gunplay as well, despite the fact that I’m not really big on first-person shooters outside of Metroid Prime, the Team Fortress series, and the original BioShock. The impressive array of Vigors serves the purpose of Plasmids from the first game—special powers that can augment your attacks or stun the enemy in sometimes-gruesome ways. And while you can’t carry more than two gun types at a time, I never had issues with this limitation. Unlike many games of this ilk, there simply isn’t a “right” way to engage in combat. You can play BioShock Infinite as a straight-up run-and-gun, you can retreat and snipe from afar, you can leap onto Sky-Lines and infuse combat with an aerial flair, or you can use Vigors to incapacitate enemies or even turn them on each other.
Oh, and you can also unleash Elizabeth’s potent powers to turn the tide of battle. This is one area where the game does match a target demo; the 2010 reveal footage featured Booker and Elizabeth teaming up to defeat scores of rampaging Columbians. While the particulars have changed, the overall goals haven’t. You can call in a freight hook to escape an onrushing brute, animate an automaton to unload on a sniper, or unlock a stash of medical supplies when you’re down and out. Elizabeth will even toss you health and ammo when you’re running low, but it never feels like it cheapens the challenge—it’s more like rewarding you for finding a way to survive the oppressive onslaught. Elizabeth’s powers strike just the right balance of keeping things challenging while still offering a helping hand when you need it most. Late-game encounters augment these powers in rewarding ways, taking advantage of the strategies you’ve learned along the way. To call this a mere “first-person shooter” does a disservice to the combat diversity.
If you’re a novice when it comes to the genre, please don’t let that deter you from jumping into this experience. I played through on Medium difficulty and managed just fine for the most part, and after sampling both Easy and the punishing 1999 Mode, I think the game should satisfy those seeking a more casual experience as well as hardcore, masochistic players who’ve been following Ken Levine since System Shock 2. In fact, this game has finally convinced me: I don’t dislike first-person shooters at all; I merely detest the unimaginative, banal settings and stories they perpetually inflict on players.
For all of its spectacular vistas, adrenaline-filled Sky-Line battles, and mind-bending storytelling, BioShock Infinite isn’t a bug-free experience. A couple of times, Elizabeth called me over to inform me that she’d found a lockpick, but after scouring the entire room from top to bottom, I could find no trace of its existence. (Maybe the ol’ Master of Unlocking herself, Jill Valentine, swooped in and swiped it first?) At another point, Liz tossed me a Silver Eagle coin—and a dollar sign proceeded to stay on the screen for more than 10 minutes, only going away after I received another stash of money.
But you know what? It’s silly to let one instance of Elizabeth walking into a wall, a low-res texture on the side of a building, or a flickering chair leg sully this utterly rewarding experience. For the overwhelming majority of the time, BioShock Infinite is an absolute visual marvel. I didn’t notice any screen tearing, and slowdown only became a factor in the most hectic of battles. BioShock Infinite may be optimized on PCs, but it’s a spectacular, unmatched visual experience on consoles as well.
BioShock Infinite has even done the impossible: It’s made me a believer in downloadable content—at least in this one particular instance. I’m actively looking forward to purchasing the three Levine-penned episodes on the way that promise to flesh out the world and some of its peripheral characters. We may never get another BioShock experience after this, given the uncertainty of the oncoming console generation (and taking into mind Levine’s current zombified state), and I’m not quite ready to let go of Columbia and its myriad wonders, twists, and turns just yet—and I imagine the average gamer won’t be able to, either. What’s more, I can’t wait to watch other players as they embark on their journey of discovery and see their reactions to the sights and sounds—and the decisions they wrestle with along the way.
I’m not saying all videogames need to be exactly like BioShock Infinite. That would be unrealistic and, frankly, boring. The medium’s large enough to include the gaming equivalent of the B-movie, the predictable, comfort-food Japanese RPG tropefest, the mind-bending puzzler, and the mindless Army-men shooter. I do worry, though, that videogames have become too much about hulking dudes with gargantuan guns this console generation. And, yeah, Booker DeWitt may be a man with a gun, but that’s where the similarities begin and end. I’d be severely disappointed if this is the last gasp of the big-idea, big-budget game—a thousand more tales like this deserve to be told, and BioShock Infinite deserves to be experienced by every gamer of every possible stripe.
To the casual observer, BioShock Infinite may look like just another game starring a scowling, testosterone-infused hero cocking a shotgun at onrushing enemy hordes. But just like Irrational’s 2007 trip through an undersea Objectivist paradise gone mad, this is far more than a simple first-person shooter; the experience will make players think, inspire them to explore, and leave them emotionally spent by the time it’s all over. With BioShock Infinite, Ken Levine cements his status as one of gaming’s elite creative minds.
M – Mature
|BioShock Infinite is available on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox 360. Review code was provided by 2K Games for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of one to five stars.|
A proud Japanese RPG and serial-comma enthusiast, Andrew attended E3 for more than a decade. His least-proud moment? That time in 2004 when, suffering from utter exhaustion, he decided to take a break on the creepy, dilapidated—and possibly cursed—La-Z-Boy at Konami’s Silent Hill booth.