Gamers and critics often talk about videogaming’s Citizen Kane moment – have we had it yet, will it ever come, does it matter? If you ask us, Irrational’s Ken Levine has had a couple to himself. Rather than one defining moment that will flip the industry on its head, his games have robustly demonstrated what the medium – and the first-person genre in particular – is capable of. Irrational sets benchmarks. BioShock Infinite is just the latest Levine moment.
Ken would probably resist the comparison to Kane, purely because his games have such an apparent distaste for absolute autocracy. For Kane (and Andrew Ryan), in BioShock Infinite we have Zachary Hale Comstock, the self-proclaimed Prophet Of Columbia, who lords over the game’s magnificent cloud city with religious zeal and a fervent commitment to the Founding Fathers of the USA.
As Booker DeWitt, a hired gun with a military past, you’re sent to Columbia by a mysterious client who demands that in order to erase your significant gambling debt, you must return to New York City with ‘the girl’.
The girl is, of course, Elizabeth, the star of BioShock Infinite’s marketing material and the driving force in its expertly crafted narrative. It’s far from a spoiler to say that you do soon find her, and the pair form a believable, organic and emotionally resonant relationship as they travel and fight together through the game.
Before that, though, the player is treated to an astonishing opening hour that both recalls the original BioShock and completely eclipses it. Columbia is revealed in a similarly triumphant slice of theatre to that famous Rapture curtain-pull, but once you land in the city in the sky, BioShock Infinite’s own themes come flooding to the fore.
In terms of atmosphere, immersion and vision, Columbia is peerless. It feels simultaneously real and unreal; at once completely believable and totally surreal. The sense of place is palpable, but through Booker – the first vocal protagonist in an Irrational game – your place within Columbia never feels comfortable; you’re always at odds with your surroundings.
They’re some surroundings, though. Even on ageing Xbox 360 hardware, Columbia is stunning: the palette is rich and bold, the detail outrageous. NPCs chatter away to each other, sometimes letting you in on world-enriching details, sometimes just idly passing the time. Occasionally they’ll acknowledge you, or a crowd will turn and stare directly into your eyes, and it’s as startling and uncomfortable as it is in real life.
The opening 30 minutes or so play out without a gun in your hand. You simply soak in the world around you as cleverly disguised tutorials teach you the systems in play without ever feeling forced or strained. It’s almost a shame, then, when the inevitable combat does actually kick in, especially as it does so in such deliberately jarring fashion – jumping from sumptuous celebration into hideous violence in the space of a few seconds.