American jingoism, super-powers, epic gun fights and mecha-George Washingtons from Irrational Games- what's not to like?
"Is it someone new?" These words terrified me in BioShock, when a hook-handed splicer eviscerated an unknown benefactor as I watched from the helpless and prone position of the bathysphere. Mocking, terrifying and clearly mad, this scene turned out to be perfect snapshot of the world of Rapture - the waterlogged utopia.
In BioShock Infinite these words are said again, but this time by a baptising priest, christening me into the new world of Columbia. After emerging from the bathysphere-like rocket that launched me into the clouds, I am soon confronted by this cassocked figure. His words and tone convey a sense of zealousness and cruelty, locked behind a smile and seemingly compassionate demeanour. And this perhaps best representation of Columbia - the mile-high paradise.
While both games share much of the same form, the content has a different feel. Whereas Rapture filled me with a sense of bygone wonder and sinister horror, Columbia is an idyllic paradise in the clouds, a new garden of Eden, but one that is rotten to the core with an as-yet-unseen original sin.
I'm not afraid of Columbia in the same way that I was afraid of Rapture, but I'm probably more fascinated by it than I've been with any game world since Half-Life 2. I feel as if I am in a dystopian paradise run by a preaching Butcher Bill from Gangs of New York- it's brilliant!
The pristine streets and post-card quality scenes of cherub-faced children, dapper gents and elegant ladies hide a very ugly core - bigotry, slavery and theocracy. One of the first whiffs of theocratic B.S. comes upon awaking from the near drowning, or "baptism", when you are confronted with Greek god-like statues of America's Founding Fathers, George Washington, Benjamin Franklyn and Thomas Jefferson.
They are revered as divine figures by the citizens of Columbia and are offered prayers, tributes and shrines. In reality, this would have especially bothered the real-life Franklyn and Jefferson who were almost unflinchingly secular, the latter figure was even known for rewriting the Bible to omit anything supernatural. However, it is also Jefferson that best represents this deeply flawed paradise, as he who wrote the American Declaration of Independence neglected to include women, Native Americans or the slaves in his list of those "created equal". He even owned slaves, and reportedly fathered children by them.
BioShock Infinite isn’t afraid of hitting you in the face with the topic of racism, with set pieces that highlight a sinister world view, such as being pressured into choosing between being discovered by armed guards or throwing a baseball at an interracial couple during a carnival. This is later developed into amazing set pieces as you fight your way through the propagandistic "Hall of Heroes" and hold off assaults in the racist dioramas of Native Americans at Wounded Knee and of the Chinese Boxer Rebellion. Audio recordings, like those in BioShock, are secreted around the world that shed more light on the life of the free and the servitude.
Now that we're talking about combat; I'm surprised by how different it is to BioShock. While there are similarities, with the plasmids and vita chambers replaced by near-identical tonics and a companion's healing ability, this is where the similarity ends. BioShock Infinite is faster, much faster. Enemies come thick and fast and often from multiple levels. As you zip along the floating city's train-like transit system, sky-lines, with your handy sky-hook you can leap in and out of combat, taking out enemies with fatal leap-attacks. The sky-hook itself is a nasty close combat weapon. Melee fighting takes on a greater importance in this title, with gruesome chainsawing (via your track zipping sky-hook) and the inclusion of execution moves that allow for instant-kills once an enemy has been tenderised enough. The weaponry and tonics all felt familiar enough, however this could change as the game progresses. However, he biggest change to combat comes from your companion, Elizabeth.
She's set up as the reason you're there in the first place, you've been hired to get her out by any means necessary. While introduced as something akin to a fearful science experiment, Elizabeth is shockingly naive about her place in the world and has the ability to open 'tears' into alternative universes. For her part, Elizabeth brings you ammo and health kits when needed and often points out things in the environment of use. Using her reality warping powers she can even revive you when you die, but most importantly she can bring into the game's reality objects that can be useful during a fire-fight, such as ammunition, cover, supplies and more.
The enemies I faced were fairly familiar when compared to what's been teased in trailers and screenshots; no Silent Boys, robotic George Washingtons or Handy Men yet, although a Handy Man was on show during the carnival scene and came across a lot more pitiable than I thought it would. What I did face was soldiers, and lots of them, some clear analogies of the KKK but augmented with the raven tonics that allow them to conjure swarms of ravens to peck enemies to death. Additionally, I faced troops boosted by the destructive power of fire-ball tonics who are set to explode when you kill them.
Of course I keep using the word "I" here, but protagonist Brooker DeWitt is more than just a mere set of hands for me to operate, unlike the former game's protagonist. Instead he is presented as a more fully realised character. You see his face, albeit only in reflections, you hear his comments, you get a glimpse of his life in flashbacks and you feel guilt as well as irritation as he takes advantage of naïve Rapunzel-like Elizabeth. And while she is certainly billed as an unambiguously good person, despite her ominous introduction, Brooker is not.
What the rest of the game has in store, where the red-army Vox Populi come into all this, and what the monsterous Songbird exactly is, I do not know and will have to wait and see. Perhaps what is more interesting to me is the consistent presence of an off-beat British couple, who turn up once in a while with an odd turn of phrase and a helpful item. Who these people are and what they have to do with Colombia is as yet unclear, but I somehow doubt they're benevolent. Finally, what is exactly is Elizabeth and why does Brooker have "A.D." scarred on his hand?