BioShock: Infinite came out last week, and everybody is talking about it for one simple reason: It's easily the best game in recent memory. That doesn't mean it's perfect, however. There are a host of issues that might scare you away from Infinite before and even while you're playing it. I want to address those issues as somebody who shared those same concerns. And I will spend the first page of this column doing so. There will be no spoilers on the first page, not counting the comments -- but then, if you're worried about spoilers, you should already be ducking the comment section like you owe it money.
"LOL HE BEEN DED THE WHOLE TIME!1!!"
Beyond the page break, however, spoilers shall abound. On the second page, I'm going to try to piece together what really happened in BioShock: Infinite, and for that, I'm going to need your help. Listen, I'm a genius -- I know that because my mom told me so, even though she was furiously air-quoting at the time -- but I still have a slew of unanswered questions about the story of Infinite. Looking around the Internet, it seems like I'm not alone. So here's my proposition: I'm going to put down my questions and theories on the second page, and if you have the answers -- or just better theories, which is entirely probable if you're not an air-quote genius -- go ahead and post them in the comments. I'll edit the second page throughout the day, putting up the most intriguing, helpful, valuable, or just balls-out trippy information that you guys put forth. Together, maybe we can headlock this beautiful work of art and force it to puke up some answers.
"C'mere, beautiful: I'm going to punch you in the guts until you vomit up metaphysical meaning."
But first, here are a few things wrong with BioShock: Infinite, and why they're actually not wrong at all. If that sentence throws you, then stay far, far away from this game -- there are much worse paradoxes in store. Remember: This page is spoiler-free, but the definition of "spoiler" varies widely. I'm not going to reveal anything not already covered by a synopsis or a review from a game site, but some people will get furious if you so much as mention the protagonist's name. If that's you, you might want to stay away from this article, the entire Internet, other people, and possibly small children, because it sounds like you've got some rage issues.
One of the more common complaints about BioShock: Infinite is that it's just retreading the same ground as the first game. There is a lighthouse, there is a man, there is a city. Columbia -- the impossible flying city where BioShock: Infinite takes place -- has seceded from the world. Just like Rapture, the people mindlessly follow the influence of a megalomaniac, and the mighty utopia they've built is all set to crumble. Just like Rapture, there are steampunk weapons, strange sci-fi monsters, potions that give you superpowers, and lots and lots of cranks to turn.
But BioShock: Infinite, unlike BioShock 2, knows that it is repeating the structure of the first, and it is doing so intentionally. Infinite plays with its past in a very clever way that, once you realize what it's doing, makes for a fresh and rewarding gameplay experience. Also: You get a claw that lets you zip around on a citywide network of gondola lines. You can even leap off said lines and plummet six stories with your fist outstretched while an enemy below stands frozen in terror at the world's most telegraphed comet-punch, which is exactly as awesome as it sounds.
If you played the first BioShock, you remember that it was a pretty light combat system. One hand for magic powers, one hand for weapons. No cover systems, squad-based combat, or combos -- just the interplay of powers and weapons. Infinite is the same thing: If you want to take cover, you stand behind some boxes. If you want to pull off a bitchin' combo, you shoot a guy ... twice.
But don't let that dissuade you. The aforementioned skyline combat is very satisfying, and Infinite adds both a gear system -- equipment that changes and augments your abilities -- and a more substantial upgrade system for the powers, any two of which you can switch on the fly. By playing with upgrades, combos, and gear, you can tailor the fighting style much more to your strengths. For example: I am terrible at shooting games, but excellent at punching people until their heads explode. So I focused my gear on rewards for melee kills, and my powers on protection from ranged damage and quickly closing gaps. A common complaint is that people found the shooting sections boring, to which I ask: What shooting sections? I fired about 10 bullets that whole game, and spent the rest as a living hurricane gale with electric fists. I was Patrick Swayze up in that shit: I'm like the wind, I'm out of your reach. Also: I'll tear your goddamn throat out.
Infinite is a very pretty game, but most of that is due to novel level design and lighting effects. Outside of those, yes, Infinite does look quite a bit like a reskinned BioShock. Enemies, weapons, powers, and even environments will feel very familiar to people who've played earlier games in the series. This was so prominent that it really bothered me for the first half of the game. I frequently paused and marveled at the beauty and authenticity of their world design (always a strong suit of the BioShock franchise), but I kept passing through great halls and cramped little houses that gave me intense deja vu. Did they just put a different book texture on this library wall, because I swear to God this place was in the first game. And there's a big mechanical guy around this next corner -- yep, there he is, just like in the first game. Right?
But -- without going into any spoilers, you're just going to have to trust me on this -- BioShock: Infinite has a way to turn all of this around for the player. Just when you start to feel disappointed that the level design is so familiar, the game wipes out all of your complaints retroactively. I was seriously about to give up on Infinite, feeling like I've played it all before, but I struggled through to the halfway point, and it was all worth it.
BioShock: Infinite is Resident Evil 4, but you're with Ashley all the time. I know that sounds like a tenth circle of ironic hell reserved for obsessive co-dependents, but the second you meet Elizabeth, your companion, the game very clearly spells out in giant text across the screen: "YOU DO NOT HAVE TO TAKE CARE OF ELIZABETH."
She can't be damaged, and she's not part of the fight. She has some unique, if somewhat ... obtrusive ways of helping you during a battle, but there's not a single instance where you have to fight off waves of attackers coming for her, or shoot the guys that are dragging her away, or reload because you accidentally emptied a clip into the back of her head when she suddenly ran off to chase butterflies in the middle of a fucking firefight. Nobody's pointing fingers, but we're all pointing shotguns at your sassy little bangs, Ashley.
Not if you just stand here for seven hours.
Well, yes, but no. In terms of gameplay time, the story can be completed in a dozen hours or so. But that's if you're the kind of player who, when dropped into a breathtakingly complete and immersive world full of subtle detail and hidden exposition, immediately takes off in a dead sprint after the objective arrow, barely pausing to shoot anything that moves in the balls. If you burn right through the game as fast as you can, you can finish Infinite very quickly. But if you do that, you're going to be very confused by the ending, because you didn't stop to collect half the story.
BioShock: Infinite is as dense as your inbred cousin who needs a cheat sheet to work the microwave. There are serious rewards for taking your time, exploring every offbeat path, and collecting as much as you can. If you play through Infinite once in 10 straight hours, that's fine -- you'll probably have fun. But it is definitely worthwhile to go back and play it again with that endgame knowledge in your head. On my first playthrough, I went very slowly -- even taking notes, because I'm a giant hemorrhaging dork -- and it took me 20 hours. If you played it like that, then first things first: Can we be friends? We can swap geeklogs! But second, you probably don't need to play it again. However, if your first playthrough took 10 hours, you've got another 10 hours in replay that will be richly rewarding.
All right, that being said, go ahead and hit the "next page" button and let's talk about the ending, what was really going on in BioShock: Infinite, and why my nose won't stop bleeding even though I haven't done coke in a fortnight.