'Bioshock Infinite' snap judgment: Taking to the skies, and taking on religion and race

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Before I had a chance to pick my jaw up off the floor, the barker commanded Booker to throw his ball at the sinful miscegenators. Up prompted my first real choice in the game: I could have Booker throw the ball at the couple, or at the barker. I threw it at the barker.

Well, I tried to. As Booker’s hand rears back, someone notices the incriminating brand on his right hand. All hell breaks loose, and the real first-person-shooter gameplay begins.

This is where the BioShock-iness of BioShock Infinite really kicks in. Like the previous games, you can wield a series of conventional guns with your right hand, and a series of supernatural powers (or vigors) with your left. The two powers I was able to obtain during my demo were the “Possession” vigor — which lets you take over machines and people to your favor for a short time — and the “Devil’s Kiss” vigor — which fires a volley of incendiary grenades at your enemies. (I was quite sad that I never had the chance to use the “Murder of Crows” vigor, in which you can unleash, well, a murder of murderous crows.)

The biggest innovation is the wrist-mounted magnetic grappling hook that allows Booker to leap from floating building to floating building even if they’re not connected, as well as ride the magnetic rails that run throughout Columbia. The hook also makes for a particularly brutal melee weapon.

Though I never got there myself, once Booker finds Elizabeth, she’ll also tag along as a helpful companion, tossing health and ammo if you need it, as well as apparently manipulating rips in the fabric of space-time that have been causing some odd anachronisms throughout Columbia. One such anomaly I encountered: A barbershop quartet, singing the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.”

The Good: Unlike the ruined and crumbling underwater city at the heart of the first BioShock, Columbia is still a vibrant home to many regular citizens, some of whom talk and interact with you, so you’re not forced to trudge through yet another exquisitely designed graveyard. Even better, Booker talks, and has real personality — at one point, he grouses, “Just ’cause a city flies doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its fair share of fools.”

What I was most taken with during my demo period, however, was Columbia itself. As I noted before, it’s a stunning creation, even more so than Bioshock‘s Rapture, since you can actually see so much of it drifting around you. From what I saw of the level design, the city is also more interactive than Rapture, and much more vertical.

But even though Columbia is called the “New Eden” by its founder Father Comstock, the game isn’t pulling its punches in its exploration of the toxic excesses of American exceptionalism, especially when it comes to religion. At one point, Booker encounters three statues, of Ben Franklin, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson, dressed in robes like deities, each of them respectively wielding a giant key (for invention), a giant sword (for strength), and a giant scroll (for knowledge). The sight of three robed citizens kneeling before these statues in prayer made me laugh out loud at the audacity of it; actually, this sight is what prompts Booker’s aforementioned sardonic aside. And then there’s that anti-miscegenation moment, one of the most shocking story turns I’ve seen a game make in a long time. If BioShock Infinite can maintain that level of storytelling boldness throughout the game, it may be one for the ages.

The Not-So-Good: If the world of BioShock Infinite feels bracingly unique, its gameplay feels a bit familiar — at least in the stretch I got to play. Granted, I didn’t get much experience with the grappling hook, and I never got to play with Elizabeth, both of which look like crucial elements of the game. Let’s hope that variety can match the splendor of just watching Columbia levitate around you.

Excitement Level: With the release date pushed back another month, I’m just that much more anxious about getting my paws on the full thing. On a scale of 1 to 10 of anticipation, BioShock Infinite is a solid 9.

Read more:
15 Scariest Videogame Scenes Ever
21 Videogames Begging to Be Made into Movies
‘BioShock 2′ review: Can diving back into Rapture ever be the same?

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