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Sunday, April 14, 2013

Bioshock Infinite Review: Through the Booking Glass and what Elizabeth Found There

Once in a blue moon, a piece of popular art makes an impact some will claim it doesn’t deserve. Irrational games has done something here a lot of people won't understand. They have once again turned a first person shooter into a barbed critique on human idealism. And once again I find myself not just completely enthralled by the floating city of Colombia, but genuinely moved by it's literal downfall.

The year seems to be 1912. You are cast in the role of Booker Dewitt, a former Pinkerton and wounded knee veteran, as he is sent to a city in the sky to extract a 19 year old girl being held against her will. At least this is the plan initially. Eventually the fringe elements of the story take hold, bringing to the fore front the major, mostly forgotten, racial issues of post civil war America. Seeing a black man in a white suit offering my character a drink while bowing his head is one of, if not the most, disturbing thing I’ve seen in a game. So while its setting may be patently ridiculous, it's history is deadly serious.

For all it's lofty story telling goals, of which it mostly achieves quite handsomely, this is a shooter. By the time you finish the game you will have killed just over a thousand people. The criticism that someone can't remain a relate-able character after engaging in such atrocity in the minute by minute game play is fair. And sadly the game just hangs a lampshade on it. But that lampshade is the cursory reference to being a Pinkerton strike breaker. I certainly didn't hear about them in history class and in that regard it's also fair to say that our past, much like this game, has a lot more blood on it then we'd like to admit to ourselves.

But it works. The game is engaging and exhilarating once you find your favorite gear load outs and tactics. Say I'm pinned down by a bunch of flying squad goons so I throw out a cloud of ravens from my left hand. In their confusion I’ll charge into the fray by hopping on a suspended roller coaster-esque fright track with my skyhook. Then I jump off on top of the flamethrower in the middle, and because of the hat I’m wearing, they all burst into flames. I win.
This ridiculousness will become second nature as you learn the language of the battlefield. You'll stop wondering how a new pair of pants makes your guns reload faster and just go with it. Because even if you hate the combat, a fair share of critics did, the story beats waiting on the other side are more then worth the effort

Infinite in a nutshell is a science fiction fairy tale. You have a princess to rescue who's locked in a tower, guarded by a monster, in a fantasy world. But it takes those elements and through literary slight of hand creates characters you grow to care about as they are tossed around by the tragedy of American exeptionalism. The Sci fi aspects are better left unspoiled, but the character of Elizabeth is not.
Games have tired and failed for years to create a companion character as interesting and emotive as she is. Sure she tries to buy the players affection by “finding” money out of nowhere like a phantom slot machine from time to time, but her story arch is layered in ways most films or novels never even bother with. She seems to be just another eye candy goal first. If you've ever wondered what would happen to a Disney princess if she was thrown into a violent populist uprising (as I have) infinite does not disappoint. Bit by bit she becomes the hero of the whole piece.

Infinite is a triumph. The hypnotic atmosphere coupled with a great script and lovable performances, makes lightning strike twice on this already charmed trilogy. This is a game for everyone, not that its appropriate for anyone under twelve, but that everyone should play it at least once. Especially if they are of the camp that believe video games are a mass opiate devoid of introspection. This is a story and a game that’s proud to be frighteningly weird whilst also portraying its history with stunning honesty. That is what makes it powerful and that is why they'll be talking,and arguing, about this game in history classes in the very near future.

If you finish it, I promise you will never forget it.

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