As a longtime gamer and film nerd, I'm more than familiar with the endless comparisons made between the two mediums. When Bioshock was released in 2007 some hailed it as the Citizen Kane of videogames. Set in the underwater city of Rapture circa 1959, the game featured a primary antagonist, Andrew Ryan, who had a passing resemblance to Orson Welles. Bioshock was a comment on the grand notion of freewill and more specifically, what it means to chase the American Dream like Kane. Still, Bioshock was a satire of the work of author Ayn Rand more than newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, but never mind; it's indisputably one of the best games of all time.
Me, I take issue with all those constant film allusions. While I recognize that videogames have evolved through aping a lot of techniques from cinema, the arrival of a new title in a beloved franchise is more akin to a new album by a favorite band. In Halo, Mario Bros., heck, even Grand Theft Auto, you pretty much know that a lot of what you want/expect is essentially more of the same. At the same time, you hope that the developer finds a way to refine and explore the same themes they have in their previous work. Filmmakers do this too. Marty Scorsese's movies usually explore redemption via Christian guilt, but for me a new game feels more like a new offering by Radiohead than simply a blockbuster sequel.
Ken Levine, the brain trust behind the original Bioshock, has, with the third title, Infinite (he skipped out on Bioshock 2; you can too) done exactly what I would want from a new White Stripes LP (come on, Jack and Meg, make a new album!) by exploring similar ideas while working within the gameplay aesthetics of a first person shooter. (Did anyone expect Infinite to suddenly be an RTS?)
Booker DeWitt is a private investigator hired to extract a young gal named Elizabeth from the flying city of Columbia. The year is 1912. The city is run by a religious zealot called The Prophet by its citizens. He's seceded Columbia from the United States. Racial purity is preferred over the rantings of that devil of a president Lincoln; here, John Wilkes Booth is immortalized with a statue. So even though Booker's armed with plenty of guns and vigor enhancements (like possession or bucking bronco), he'll have his work cut out for him if he's to get the girl and unravel the mystery of the balloon-floating city in the clouds.
So here were are again, this time as Booker DeWitt instead of Bioshock's Jack. This time there's no Big Daddies, but a really big Songbird: a flying iron-clad terminator monstrosity. This time there are no Little Sisters to protect or exploit, but there is the similarly-dressed Elizabeth. Out with the underwater city of 1959 Rapture, in is 1912's floating city of Columbia run by The Prophet. Andrew Ryan need not apply.
For me, this is the best way to approach a new title in a franchise. Not as a 10-hour film but as a new piece of entertainment from a band I adore. Like a great album, you'll want to take it in, and listen (er, play) over and over.
With that said, then, how does Infinite stack up?
9. There's Always a Girl
Both Clapton and Lennon fell for Prudence. I fell for Elizabeth.
Levine has said in interviews (see the above Q&A from this year's BAFTA) that one of the biggest goals for Infinite was getting the player attached to Elizabeth emotionally, not just as a keeper of extra ammo (which she is too). While she's an expert at lock-picking, she's no pack mule like the companions in Skyrim were. She's a woman who's been trapped in a tower since infancy and it's no coincidence that our first encounter with her is in a library. She's modeled after the brainy Belle from Beauty and the Beast (the Disney version, not the horrible CW one). She even sounds like Belle. And she can sing!
We've had great NPC's in games before (Sully, Uncharted), but what makes Elizabeth stand apart is the kind of thing you could miss entirely on your first play through. Take my advice: upon entering an area slow down and allow her to sniff the virtual roses. What she says and does is dependent upon context and proximity. Sometimes, you'll hear her comment on the latest adventure of Duke & DimWit (a funny send up of the Boy Scouts), other times, she'll begin to dance. All of her actions are certainly scripted but I doubt one you'll see them all in one sitting. These tiny moments add up over the course of the game's 12-15 hour campaign, resulting in a companion who feels like an actual human being. Like I said, I can't stress enough that this is not Call of Duty; you shouldn't just burn through the levels. Especially when there's so much to take in, like horribly outdated stereotypes. Speaking of...
8. Fun with Racism? No, but Highly Engaging. Think South Park musical, not Slim Shady rantings.
Another Disney connection not lost on anyone who's ever visited "It's A Small World," is that the Bioshock games are like interactive theme-park rides. Upon entering the Hall of Heroes you'll be greeted by automaton George Washington who speaks of the "yellow-skinned, slanty-eyed who betrayed us with their lies" as you tour an outrageous retelling of the Boxer Rebellion. Throughout Columbia there are plenty of not so subtle reminders of The Prophet's mission for racial purity. His voxophone recordings (old vinyls that play pre-recorded messages) that explain "white man's burden" is effectively unnerving. Going through a horribly decayed Irish/Colors Only bathroom and then entering a pristine room for Whites Only is a terrific example of how games can literally show without telling.
Interestingly, and probably for the better, I didn't hear any use of the N word or any other major racial slurs. Columbia is, after all, a polite society. I did enjoy hearing a young woman remark to a ice cream vendor, "Six flavors? What's wrong with good old vanilla?"
7. "Wait til ya see the cover!" Propaganda Posters as Good as Album Covers
6. Skyhook Riding Never Gets Old.
There should be some fresh ideas on display too, right? U2's The Joshua Tree was epic but Achtung Baby! re-energized the Irish rockers. Likewise, the use of the skyhook as a means to travel and to attack from above is a new direction for Bioshock gameplay. Previously, you could travel in the bathysphere, but really those were just load screens. Early on, Booker gets a mechanical hook device that attaches to his arm. Being able to swing from metal rail to rail is exhilarating and also an interesting comment on the "on rails" feeling that inhabits all shooters.