Backlog: Enraptured by Columbia Edition

Greetings from Sunny Columbia You'll notice a common thread between everyone's Backlog contributions this week: BioShock Infinite. There's not much that needs to be said about Irrational's successor to 2007's BioShock, a game now infamous for its uncanny ability to shine an uncomfortable light on the things people take for granted when playing a game.

I'm still pushing myself to wrap up Tomb Raider before I immerse myself too deeply in Columbia's dogmatic commitment to American exceptionalism, but there's something just so alluring about Columbia's rich, detailed tapestry that's clearly just moments from falling into total ruin. It's hard to keep myself away from it for too long.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Doug, Aaron and Spencer all have plenty to talk about after taking a tour of Columbia, so let's not waste any more time here. Enjoy! -- Nick Cummings

Doug

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Before jumping into the Real Important Stuff: I’ve continued to play Skullgirls a bunch this week. Word has it the game’s recent Japanese release has found it become something of a cult hit with the local fighting game community, so I’m going to try to hop online and test my might. I went to one of the local game stores the other day and almost bought a fighting stick, too. Help, guys - I might be going too far with this whole fighting game thing.

Also I’ve popped WWE 12 back in but I’m a weirdo who likes seeing what rivalries a slightly advanced random-number generator can come up with. Or when tag teams split up and then become rivals with their former partner. Video game drama!

Now, for the big daddy of the month: BioShock Infinite. I haven’t checked an in-game clock yet but I believe I’ve played about five hours. I’m well past the beginning, and I’m wading in waist-deep to all the nonsense that’s been happening afloat Columbia. The combat is crisp, all the weapons feel powerful, useful, and diverse, and the different tonics you can use are creative and pack a punch. Mixing tonics and firearms results in a potent combat cocktail, and even when you’re occasionally overwhelmed (or getting fired on from distance), it’s rarely frustrating. The times you have to play rock-paper-scissors with combat keep things fresh, too, and are just rare enough to keep from feeling too forced.

More importantly, the game’s setting and story are both unfolding in impressive ways. We know that Irrational Games knows how to make great settings -- BioShock’s Rapture felt alive and integral to the game in the way few settings do. I would place them up there with Rockstar (for the Grand Theft Auto games) at the top in that category. BioShock Infinite’s Columbia lives up to the high mark set in its predecessor. Not only does it feel like a complete whole, but Columbia will provide you with even more context to the story if you look in the right places. The details added in to support the story are incredibly thoughtful, and speak to both Irrational’s skills and the time it spent on the game.

So with much more left to do in the game, I’m enjoying my time so far. I’m waiting for the story to unfold and provide a big, ground-shaking twist à la BioShock, and I have a sneaking suspicion I know how that could happen. I may address some of my concerns at a later time, but I’m still on the ride for now.

Aaron

Backlog - Bioshock Infinte Aaron

I suppose the only way to discuss BioShock Infinite without ruining the experience is through very broad strokes:

A. You’re a dude who was a soldier and has a shadowy past.

B. Debts are involved.

C. Soldier dude (you) is given a seemingly easy job by clandestine figures to settle those aforementioned debts.

D. The job forces you into a wondrous new world of unexpected curiosities.

E. Everyone there is crazy.

F. A girl is involved.

G. Said girl is not what she seems...

H. Shooting is involved.

That all sounds pretty formulaic, right? Sure, but if we’re leveling with each other (and considering how enamored our staff is with this game) there’s more at play than a trite story -- more than a surface glance belies. There’s a reason that the Silicon Sasquatch crew, for the first time ever (?), are all playing the same game, at the same time, and loving it.

Marshall McLuhan’s oft-quoted phrase, “The medium is the message,” most certainly applies to the excuses we’re making for Bioshock Infinite’s sameness. It’s a shooter, you’re a guy who shoots things and then you shoot more things to save a girl from the grasp of evil. However, Bioshock’s trappings liberate it from what would make any other game boring.

How is Bioshock the exception? You won’t understand if you haven’t played it, because from the moment your character, Booker, steps onto the streets of Columbia the answer is all around you. The atmosphere of Columbia is the medium with which Bioshock Infinite's message is delivered. We’ve been given a populated playground that repulses while it entices; one that is wholly unsettling thanks to the disturbing machinations of Zachary Hale Comstock.

Irrational Games, at the direction of Ken Levine, has made a city alive in Columbia. While Rapture was decrepit and rotting, Columbia is vibrant and flourishing (albeit in a perverse, early-20th-century racist sort of way).

The art direction is inspiring. Every color pops, from the orange and yellow fires melting the flesh on your hands to the bright, deep hues of the sky surrounding the floating city. Stylized as the characters are, every propaganda poster and parasol seems ripped from photos of the 1900s. Irrational’s attention to detail has bought my sincere respect.

I’ve caught myself wandering off to look at every corner of each new level, to take in what Columbia really is. This development team knows how to realize environments and make them compelling. As was the case with Rapture, I want to listen to each audio log and uncover all the hidden goodies to study the history of my surroundings -- almost like an adventure game.

So while I can’t spoil the frankly confusing/compelling plot, I can share how gorgeous this game is. Experiencing Bioshock Infinite is not the same as playing any given shooter.

Simply put: You must play this game.

Spencer

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Like the rest of the crew, I’ve been playing BioShock Infinite. And I’ve got to be real with you, dear reader: it’s good. It’s almost to the point that I might call it overpoweringly, offensively good.

I jumped aboard the hype train for the original BioShock just a week or so before release. I hadn’t been following the development, nor was I paying attention to the credentials of its developers. The setting seemed cool and dieselpunk-ish, the gameplay appeared brutal and clever (and, to me, reminiscent of Clive Barker’s Undying). Once the game unlocked on my Steam account, the hype was justified; I played BioShock through at least twice, with a couple moments of screaming at my monitor (to the chagrin of everyone in my living room) to show for it.

For as good as it was, one aspect of BioShock let me down. The city of Rapture, the vast, underwater Objectivist haven that serves as the game’s setting, was as compelling as the story itself. But the game takes place after the city has fallen into ruin - structures are dilapidated, whole sections flooded, the citizens spliced and twisted beyond all reasonable recognition. I hoped beyond hope that there would be a mod or some DLC or, really, anything that could let me explore the city in its prime.

BioShock Infinite is not set in the same world as BioShock (at least, as far as we know). However, there are numerous thematic echos, aspects that show the same hands, the same kind of vision in developing the sequel. With improved tech and a long development cycle, it seems like Irrational was able to finally bring to life many things it had hoped to create back in 2007, and one of these is the city.

For all the rest of what makes BioShock Infinite great - the writing, the acting, the sound design, the gameplay - perhaps the most compelling feature for me is the city of Columbia. Whether alive and vibrant, or tarnished with death and destruction, the city is absolutely radiant. Every level has been staggering - entirely captivating in both its realism and whimsey - and seeing ordinary citizens at work, play, and in turmoil adds a depth to the experience present in few other games. While the word’s been thrown around a lot in description of Infinite, Columbia really is unparalleled. I can’t wait to see what Irrational conjures up next.

Anyway, I’ve also been playing Battlefield 3 with my brother. Shit is jokes.