Fireballs & Mind Control

‘BioShock Infinite’ Review: Already the Game of the Year

Critics are swooning over Irrational Games’s new game, and Brian Ries says it deserves all the applause.

Take-Two Interactive Software/2K Games/Sony

It all begins with the Founding Fathers.

As I stood there, in the fountain, staring up at white-marbled statues of Father Washington and Father Franklin, two pilgrims knelt before me, whispering prayers to the men who made America great. I looked around, took it all in, and panicked that I didn’t have a gun.

These people weren’t right. But then again, nothing really was.

For this was Columbia, a fictional city high up in the clouds, and the year was 1912. I was former Pinkerton agent Booker DeWitt, the strapping protagonist of early Game of the Year contender BioShock Infinite, and I was on a mission to save a girl in a city departed from the American mainland in the throes of its own civil war.

The latest game in the BioShock series is most definitely the game of the moment. It’s been on shelves just a few days, but BioShock Infinite already sits atop Metacritic’s list of game rankings for 2013 with a near-perfect 96 and falls in the top 20 games of all time—beating out legends such as Half-Life, Madden 2003, and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Copies are flying off the shelves. Gamers are glued to their screens. And critics are swooning.

Videogame website Destructoid says the first-person narrative shooter is “damn near perfect,” IGN calls it a “brilliant shooter that nudges the entire genre forward,” and Gameplanet says BioShock Infinite is “one of the finest games to be released this generation.” Capturing the mood of a press tired of action games with half-assed stories, one critic calls it “the sort of game we dream of reviewing.”

Having played it for quite a few hours, I can heartily agree. Guiding protagonist Booker DeWitt through the mayhem that Columbia throws the player’s way is a delight. And for those seeking action, I can safely say there’s no shortage of ways to cast off attackers who want the player banished from their city’s walls—by hand, by gun, or by Vigors, magical potions that give the player special powers like summoning crows, fireballs, or mind control.

But it’s not just the action that makes it great. It’s the story. Like the BioShocks that came before Infinite, developer Irrational Games and mastermind creative director Ken Levine—with his reputation firmly cemented as one of the best in the industry—have created something set apart from all others.

The city the player sets out to explore is set against a backdrop of American exceptionalism. It is a floating World’s Fair that was launched by President William McKinley but quickly disavowed by the U.S. government when it fired upon a group of Chinese civilians. Left to float on on its own, Columbia becomes a very dark city-state, with a ruling class led by the ultra-nationalist Zachary Hale Comstock—Father Comstock to its citizenry—driven by fear that only a religious fanatic could muster up. Racism. Xenophobia. Class warfare. These are themes that are soaked throughout Infinite.

But Booker, it turns out, is only there to rescue a woman held captive. But to complicate his quest—because what would the game be without the odds overwhelmingly stacked against the hero?—his arrival has been foretold to Columbia by Comstock. Therefore, the player is constantly on the run, being chased from the streets as the “False Prophet” sent to bring about Columbia’s downfall. The plot, as it plays out through hours of gameplay on screen, is compelling. It kept me up into the wee hours of the morning—and I’m barely halfway through.

For an industry that rarely takes risks on unique intellectual properties when the guarantee of shoot-’em-ups is always plastered on the balance sheets, the detail given to crafting BioShock Infinite’s story—built entirely around the place that is Columbia—is all the more magical. It deserves all the applause.