During the long development of “BioShock Infinite” — the first release by the Massachusetts studio Irrational Games since the original “BioShock” transfixed players more than five years ago — there were open fears on blogs, in discussion forums and in conversations among video game journalists that the new BioShock game just wouldn’t be any good.
Surely that was why it was taking so long to make it, why its release was twice delayed, why the studio seemed to be bleeding personnel. Some people even asked themselves if the impeccable reputation of Ken Levine, the mercurial creative director at Irrational, was perhaps undeserved, given that it was largely dependent on only two games, “System Shock 2” (1999) and “BioShock” (2007), made almost a decade apart.
Everyone can stop worrying. With “BioShock Infinite,” which went on sale on Tuesday, Levine and his colleagues at Irrational have produced yet another video game that is a model of what the medium can achieve. This world — an alternate history with a dollop of science fiction that is set in the United States in 1912 — is dense, fascinating and inventive. The combat is exhilarating. The ending manages to be both mind-bending and moving.
The game begins at a lighthouse off the coast of Maine but quickly moves to Columbia, a utopian — or dystopian — city in the sky built by Zachary Hale Comstock, who calls himself an American prophet. Comstock has transformed this country’s secular religion of Constitutionalism into a theocratic system of white supremacy that worships the founders as gods.
Booker DeWitt, the playable character, is a former Pinkerton agent turned private investigator who was sent to Columbia to find a girl named Elizabeth and bring her to New York City. Booker and Elizabeth are caught in the middle of a civil war between Comstock and the Vox Populi, a violent leftist group modeled partly on the socialists and anarchists of the period.
Putting aside the obviously fictional element of an airborne religious community that has seceded from the American union, in many ways “BioShock Infinite” tries to provide an accurate portrait of the period. In particular, the signs in Columbia are saturated with crude racial and ethnic caricatures. In an early scene a mixed-race couple is threatened with violence by a city-sanctioned mob.
At the same time strange anachronisms — especially musical ones — emerge as Booker and Elizabeth make their way through Columbia. A quartet sings a barbershop cover of “God Only Knows,” by the Beach Boys. A woman in a shantytown delivers Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” as a spiritual. A calliope plays Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” There’s a soulful ragtime version of “Tainted Love.” (If the “BioShock Infinite” soundtrack is not for sale, it should be.)
Why these odd intrusions from the future are occurring becomes clear — mostly — by the game’s end. An early clue comes when Booker first finds Elizabeth, and she tries to hit him with a book titled “The Principles of Quantum Mechanics.” Elizabeth has the ability to see windows — she calls them “tears” — into other worlds. To say much more would spoil the pleasure of the surprise.
Elizabeth’s tears (as in rips, not boo-hoos) are handy during combat, when Booker can call on her to bring forth helpful objects: a structure to hide behind, a box of healing bandages, an automated turret and the like. Booker himself wields a relatively standard arsenal of first-person shooter weapons (this being, after all, a first-person shooter game, even if it is an unusually brainy and smartly written one).
He can also deploy magical powers that the game calls “vigors”: After drinking surprisingly effective snake-oil potions, he can hurl lightning bolts or flames or a flock of murderous crows, among other tricks. The enemies he fights include ordinary human soldiers, as well as mechanical sentries — most notably the Motorized Patriot, a robot George Washington that is best described as something out of a Hall of Presidents run by the National Rifle Association rather than Disney.
The most exciting aspect of the shooting and killing in BioShock Infinite is the Skyline, a roller-coaster-like system for moving freight in Columbia that Booker and others traverse by using hand-held hooks. When Booker leaps and attaches himself to a Skyline rail, the act adds an element of speed and altitude to the fight that is absent from most shooters. Riding it is a thrilling change of pace from the many current games that emphasize (much more realistically) the importance of hiding behind cover during firefights. It’s a shame that Levine and Irrational couldn’t develop a multiplayer component of “BioShock Infinite” that satisfied them: Just hanging out online and shooting your friends — or strangers — in these spaces would be joyous.
Not everything in the game is perfect. The world and the characters are so well drawn that small, video game-y things feel infelicitous. Why does Booker spend so much of his time rather creepily rifling through the pockets of freshly dead corpses, looking for ammunition and spare change? Why do some bodies turn into searchable lockboxes upon death? Why are there vending machines that sell weapons for coins (thus requiring Booker to spend so much of his time corpse robbing)?
To be fair, in a less ambitious game — and a less fully realized one — these absurd fictions wouldn’t be so objectionable. “BioShock Infinite” is confirmation that in the hands of the right creators, video games are the most sophisticated form of not just interactive entertainment, but of multimedia storytelling as well.
Beyond allowing you to shepherd a protagonist and his companion through a captivating world at your own pace, the game tells its story by deftly mixing text (mostly in the form of graffiti and propaganda posters), audio diaries (using a sort of portable phonograph) and moving pictures (through period-appropriate Kinetoscopes).
A game like this, which demands a deep and focused investment of player time and attention, is powerful evidence that narrative for people with long attention spans is thriving. You just have to know where to look.