It’s not often a game comes along that makes me wish I could go travel back in time to experience it all again for the first time. Bioshock Infinite does that. It makes me long for a time where I could play through the tale of Booker and Elizabeth all over again.
Without digging too deep into Infinite’s wondrously complex story, there are a few things you need to know. It’s 1912, and former Pinkerton agent Booker Dewitt arrives in Columbia, a floating city in the sky to rescue Elizabeth, a girl trapped in a metal tower in the center of the city. It isn’t clear why she’s trapped in there or if she even needs rescuing, but, as Booker, you must stop at nothing to rescue her. Should be easy, right?
Wrong. It soon becomes apparent that Elizabeth isn’t your typical woman trapped in a tower—she can open portals to other lands, called Tears, that break all conventions of time and space. It’s not immediately clear why she can do this, but it’s not really important either.
The relationship between Booker and Elizabeth is the important thing, as they learn to work together and escape Colombia, taking down the charismatic cult leader Comstock while they’re at it.
During your journey the pair stumble upon Vigors that augment Booker with what are essentially magical powers. As you begin to collect more of these, they become a critical tool you can use to control the flow of combat. For example, is that turret giving you trouble while you’re trying to take down a group of enemies? Hit it with a blast of Possession and turn the tides in your favor as it turns on its own comrades.
Each Vigor has its own merits, akin to the plasmids found in the original Bioshock. My favorite was Return to Sender, which—as implied—captures every projectile headed your way and returns it to the sender in a powerful blast. It’s immensely satisfying to use, and integrates seamlessly into the flow of combat.
One of the most innovative things you notice about Columbia are the ever-present skyrails that encircle buildings and crisscross the sky. While they aren’t meant as a transportation system for the average citizen, as Booker you'll utilize them to navigate the world, both in and out of combat. They aren't just there for quick escapes, either; during combat you’ll find yourself firing a few shots into an enemy, hopping on a skyrail and shooting another, then hopping off to perform a Skyline Strike, knocking an enemy off his perch to plummet to the earth below. During my time with the game I found the skylines so much fun to use that I'm afraid they’ll ruin all other first-person action games for me from now on.
Elizabeth accompanies you everywhere, but doesn’t actively take part in combat. She doesn’t come across as a burden, either—this isn't a 12-hour escort mission. Throughout the game she does a decent job of hiding from enemy fire and throwing you ammo, health, or Salts that she finds around the environment. It's a nice support system that allows you to keep your attention focused on the combat and lets her do the collecting for a while.
You’ll need her help too, as you’ll be constantly scavenging for ammo or a fresh weapon so you can keep fighting. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—it keeps you from relying too heavily on one weapon throughout the entire game—but when you get in a bad spot, you’ll often be forced to grab the first weapon you can find and start shooting. Infinite can feel brutal and frenetic, but more often than not it’s your own fault you die. During my time with the game it rarely felt unfair; it always seemed simple to grap what I had done wrong when I died.
If there’s one thing that Bioshock Infinite does well, it's a design that clearly refuses to talk down to the player. I've avoided talking too specifically about what happens during your adventures in Columbia because the narrative is a big part of what makes Bioshock Infinite special—while playing, it feels like the game understands that you don't need everything to be spelled out for you: it simply offers up moments of drama and allows you to interpret them on your own. It sounds like a little thing, but—despite how games have grown as a medium—the task of interpreting a game's narrative is rarely entrusted to players.
This sense of respect for the player pays off: playing Bioshock Infinite was a more satisfying, personal experience than many contemporary first-person shooters. It's an experience I won't soon forget. Bioshock Infinite spins a tale of high-flying action and intrigue without relying on shock and awe tactics, opting instead for a level of narrative subtlety that left me sitting in complete silence trying to process what happened as the credits rolled by. It’s not one to miss.