Over recent days, the tranquility of my living room has been shattered by the cacophony of slaughter, explosions and large amounts of shouting present in Bioshock Infinite. I am roughly two-thirds of the way through the game, and in a perfect world I would have waited to finish it before I even thought about putting fingers to keyboard and sharing my thoughts. But so strong are these thoughts that even before I am anywhere near the climax, I simply have to get them out of my brain now while they are still fresh, because I am currently having an experience which reaffirms my faith in video games, and which reminds me why sitting in front of a television for hours on end mangling a controller is still a worthwhile activity.
There’s so much that I love about this game that I almost don’t know where to begin. At its most basic level, Bioshock Infinite is a lavish, spectacular action title. It looks and sounds amazing, but it also boasts a level of depth and sophistication that has been sorely absent from blockbuster video gaming for what feels like a very long time. This sophistication isn’t just present in the lucid, free form gunplay, but in every other facet of the experience.
The story sees the player sent to the floating city of Columbia, 30,000 feet above the earth, to rescue a mysterious girl. The city itself is a rogue nation of sorts, seceded from the United States and headed by Father Comstock, a charismatic demagogue who preaches a gospel of faith and racial purity. It is a captivating, horrifying vision of America’s religious right, their heads literally in the clouds and assured by their blind faith and immense self-righteousness. The opening moments of the game, where the lead character ascends to Columbia from a lighthouse before wandering through its streets, gave me a sense of wonder I hadn’t felt while playing for years. The player shares every bit of the avatar’s apprehension, discovery and amazement. As you wander the streets, couples sit on park benches and chat idly. You can eavesdrop on their conversations. The sensation of experiencing a living, breathing city is incredible.
Of course, it’s only a matter of time before matters get bloody, and things go south so quickly that I was almost left short of breath. The white-knuckle ride atmosphere hasn’t really let up in the eight hours or so that I’ve been playing the game, and there is a stunning supporting cast of capitalists, anarchists and delusional war veterans that makes for a rich narrative tapestry.
The game’s other protagonist, Elizabeth, is one of the best-realised characters ever seen in a medium notorious for reducing women to blank tropes or hyper-sexed fantasies. Inquisitive, helpful, strong-minded and empathic, her companionship through the game never once feels arduous or arbitrary. I get the feeling that years from now, she will be held up in lectures and seminars as a shining example of how to build a realistic, believable female archetype in video games, and she helps add some much-needed feminisation to the first-person-shooter genre, which in 2013 is practically choking on its own testosterone.
All through this game, I was left the impression that its makers wanted to make something challenging and esoteric, to tear down preconceptions and give players an experience that feels fresh and dynamic. The production values alone are incredible, with a script, voice acting, music and set-pieces on a par with Hollywood’s finest, but more than that there is a push to leave people with something to think about, to look past the action game and reflect on what it has to say about race, gender, religion and politics. Clearly, this is not Battlefield 3 we’re dealing with here.
I’d grown despondent in recent years over the number of FPS games that put the player in a war zone and make them walk a straight line, pulling the trigger until it’s game over, with only bland jingoism and military chest-beating for company. Bioshock Infinite takes all of this and turns it on its head. This is a bold, relentless and searingly intelligent game that will be talked about and dissected for years to come