At first, I’ll be honest…I didn’t love BioShock Infinite the way I did its predecessors.
In fact, I kind of disliked it. It didn’t feel like a Shock game. The palette was too bright, the characters all human and in good cheer. Yeah, sure, the soundtrack in just the first ten minutes was incredible, and the visuals great, but I wasn’t…terrified. I wasn’t sprinting wild-eyed as an unknown person screamed at me, or trying to lay low in a bathysphere while a maniac tried to claw her way in. Where was the heart-pounding terror? After the first ten minutes, there wasn’t even anything super, overtly sinister happening! It took a little while for it to catch with me, but when it did…it all sort of made sense. Be warned, there are minor spoilers in this review.
This isn’t really a horror game in the way that BioShock or System Shock were. Keeping that in mind, it’s easier to approach the game as a subtle thing, instead of an opportunity to jam a buzz saw which is also a grappling hook into the faces of bad people…though, there’s plenty of that as well. The action is crisp and fluid, the weapons and powers fun, and the aid of Elizabeth invaluable and creative. The visuals are bright, clear, and quite a joy to look at. The same akimbo-style weapon system returns, with Vigors (plasmids/magic) on the left, and a firearm on the right. Guns are meaty and varied enough that I found myself switching my loadout reasonably often, keeping only my favorite pistol or the carbine that was clearly an M1 Carbine. Ammo shortages and different situations encouraged this, never really making it seem as if there was a single overpowered weapon. The soundtrack is absolutely incredible and a testament to the skill of Gary Schyman.
If there’s any problem with the game, it’s that it feels rather short. I beat it the first time in sixteen hours, and I felt as if I was meandering. This was, however, on ‘normal’ difficulty. I highly recommend ‘hard’, if you can bear the challenge. I highly suggest being slow and thorough with it- there’s a lot to see, to hear, and to understand. Also, the amount of pineapples in the game is somewhat perplexing, considering both the climate and location of the flying city of Columbia, though that seems like a minor trifle with the game design. It was present in every –Shock game, mutants inexplicably carrying cakes or Big Daddies with bottles of wine, so I don’t take particular umbrage to the quirk of a policeman or Founder bringing a cake to a gunfight or to Booker consuming every scrap of food in finds on bloodied bodies or in trash cans. A man’s gotta eat, right? That, and the highly irritating checkpoint-save system. I was looking high and low for a more conventional save system, so that when it came time to go to work or school, I could simply save and walk away…but there’s none to be found. It’s incredibly frustrating to not have the capacity to save before heading out for the night/day, only to come back and have to retrace your steps for fifteen or twenty minutes.
The trick is, the game comes at you sideways. It’s not scares based on the monstrous ‘other’, like Splicers or the Many. The game is scary based on the monsters inside of the characters- Comstock’s and the Founder’s obsession and zealotry, Booker’s unflinching capacity for violence, the overt racism of all of Columbia, the rage and greed of others. They’re reflections of what any given person could be, might be, and very occasionally are in the real world. The section of the game after the opening sequence, once you arrive in Columbia, is at once breathtaking and skin-crawling. The sights of the cathedral is breathtaking, and the bizarre zealoltry can really get under your skin. It’s unsettling- there’s a surface level of wholesomeness, followed up by some Jonestown-level eeriness right under the surface. It keeps getting more intense as the game continues, a thick veneer of wholesomeness over something rotten to the core…much like the main character. From the loading screen, you can pick up a few clues to his sordid past; a Pinkerton Detective badge, and a box bearing the markings from the 7th Calvary with specific reference to Wounded Knee. If you know your history, you’ll know that Pinkertons were synonymous with strikebreaking (literally, breaking the strikers in the 1860’s-90’s- torture, blackmail, infiltration, murder, and assault were the tools of choice) and other generally unsavory business They were so vilified that the government had to pass a law against hiring them. The 7th Calvary were the perpetrators of the massacre at Wounded Knee– which plays a role in the game’s story. Needless to say, the main character is a man who’s done some awful things…and he’s still the good guy in all of this, with the exception of Elizabeth. It helps to be well grounded in history with this game, and to understand the references and the history of the era to fully understand the game. The game uses sin, redemption, and faith and centerpieces, all the while making subtle jabs at the current political situation in the United States and at Mormonism, evangelism, communism and a few other major belief systems.
In the end, I can only recommend the game highly. I’m working my way through my second playthrough, picking up all of the subtle foreshadowing, hints, and conversations I missed the first time. BioShock Infinite is definitely a contender for Game of the Year, and failing that, Soundtrack of the Year.