The Real District of Columbia
Expectations in the industry were high when Ken Levine returned to the BioShock stable to head up the third installment, after having opted out of the corporately-churned-out BioShock 2 back in 2010. Understandably so. Sequelitis ran rampant when players returned to Rapture for a second outing, and it was formula over substance all the way. But with Levine back at the helm, great things were set to happen as players took to the skies and explored the floating city of Columbia, in a game whose ideas felt as fresh and wondrous to me as my original trip under the sea.
With the original BioShock, I was entranced by the never-ending sense of claustrophobia that the glass underwater tunnels brought, an unending expanse of water bearing down on you at any given moment, runnels of water slipping between cracks an uneasy reminder of the complete and utter lethal-ness of the environment. At the same time, viewing breathtaking vistas of colorful foliage populating the ocean floor while listening to smooth jazz sounds from a comfortable cigar lounge made for a dreamlike quality that’s hard to replicate.
But replicate is exactly what BioShock Infinte set out to do, and I’d say damn successfully, too! Essentially doing a one-eighty and going from pressurized bathyspheres and leaking bulkheads buried under miles of ocean to the wide-open spaces and bottomless drops of Columbia’s sky-borne environments, Infinite carried with that same sense of wondrous awe that made the first BioShock so memorable. Cruising along on Columbia’s Sky-Line rail system, especially when jumping from one to the other or engaging in combat while perilously hanging suspended over certain death by one arm was quite an adrenaline rush, and continued to make my hair stand on end for the entire length of the game.
Said combat is the one thing I could’ve done without. It’s been present in each entry in the series so far, and for my money hasn’t changed a whole hell of a lot – ‘Plasmids’ are now called ‘Vigors’, but the idea is the same. Maybe it’s because I’m not particularly good at it, but as far as I’m concerned, the combat always has and always will be the price to pay to enjoy what truly sets this game apart: its setting.
My absolute favorite part of Infinite is undoubtedly its extended opening: entering the city of Columbia by way of rocket lift, being on the receiving end of an unnerving baptism, and simply wandering through the city’s fairgrounds, taking in the sights and amazing architecture. All capped off by the sinister reveal of the violent lengths to which the classism in this city has progressed (a literal ‘jaw dropper’ for me). In other words, the entire length of gameplay leading up to the first instance of combat. There were many more sincerely fascinating moments throughout the game – the floating barbershop quartet, Booker and Elizabeth breaking into an impromptu song in the hidden room of a local speak-easy, the early, surreal encounters with Songbird – the list continues on. If I could have distilled all these memorable elements into a condensed game formula free of the first-person shooting permeating the whole experience, and thus give BioShock Infinite more of an adventure game flair, I think the resulting product would have been an improvement for sure.
As it stands, the long list of water cooler moments that simply deserve to be experienced is enough to outweigh the reservations I held about the relentless combat, and anyway I’m sure there are many who would have lamented its absence. Far and away, BioShock Infinite remains, much like the first entry in the series, an experience that deserves to be savored for all the things it does right in presenting what is easily one of my absolute favorite game settings of 2013.