No one creates a world quite like Ken Levine and his team at Irrational Games. Sure "Battlefield 3" is more graphically impressive and "Ni No Kuni" is more artistic than anything done by Levine and company, but when it comes to building a place that players want to explore and inhabit, they have no peers.
That sums up the magic of "BioShock Infinite." The long-awaited follow-up is almost like a reflection of the original. It involves a lighthouse, a fantastic city and a girl. But where "BioShock" was about the underwater city of Rapture and Ayn Rand's objectivism run amok, "BioShock Infinite" looks to Columbia, a shining city in the sky, and a patriotism wrapped around religious fundamentalism.
It's a game focused on the best and worst of America. It's unapologetic in depicting the country's racism in 1912, along with the ideas of eugenics and segregation. Columbia is another one of Levine's utopian cities that breaks down as players peel back its glossy surface.
As Booker DeWitt, players have a mission to bring a girl named Elizabeth back to New York. She's located on Monument Island, one of the floating structures in Columbia. A seemingly easy job turns into a trip to crazyland when DeWitt -- in a move that echoes Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" -- wins a raffle and is offered a horrifying choice.
That's when the Norman Rockwell-ish facade of Columbia melts away and the players must fight their way through the armies of cult leader Zachary Comstock. They'll have to use an arsenal of firearms and vigors (potions that bestow powers to the drinker). It's a familiar formula for veterans of the series. DeWitt can mix and match vigors to compound their effectiveness, allowing for experimentation in combat and several styles of play.
Adding new twists are Elizabeth and a clothing system. Elizabeth can manipulate the environment, bringing in cover, grappling hooks and ammo to the field. The clothing system lets DeWitt use four pieces of vestments that modify his attacks, defense and other traits. For example, a hat can make foes burst into flames if he strikes them. Some shoes decrease the time for shields to recharge.
The final pieces that immerse players in the world is the Skyhook and the mystery surrounding Comstock, Elizabeth and DeWitt. The Skyhook lets DeWitt travel across Columbia quickly on a roller coasterlike railway. It shows the verticality and breadth of the floating city while providing a novel way of locomotion. But what will keep players hooked is the enduring mystery behind the trio's past.
And that's what fuels the latter half of the campaign. "BioShock Infinite" moves from the sins of America's past and pushes into high science fiction and the characters' dark history. Players explore metaphysical effects as well, as DeWitt and Elizabeth deal with setback after setback. But throughout their struggle, they never lose sight of their collective goal. There's always a burning determination to fight for their freedom and redemption.
If choice was the major conceit of "BioShock," then "BioShock Infinite" is about the search for free will in a situation that doesn't appear to have any. It's about refusing destiny and constructs of religion. It's a satisfying baptism into worlds of violence and quantum physics.
And that act, baptism, reminds me of a question asked early on in the game, which is key to the campaign. A central character wonders: "One man goes into the waters of baptism. A different man comes out, born again. Who is that man who lies submerged? Perhaps that swimmer is both sinner and saint until he is revealed unto the eyes of men." That sacramental act symbolizes DeWitt and the player's journey and reveals that even though it takes place in the sky, "BioShock Infinite" still somehow takes us underwater.