No one in video games likes taking on big political ideas more than Ken Levine.
In 2007's "BioShock," Levine and his team at Irrational Games tackled objectivism, building an undersea utopia-gone-bad from the theories of Ayn Rand. In "BioShock Infinite" (2K Games, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC, $59.99), Levine aims at a wider target: American exceptionalism, the idea that the United States is inherently morally superior to the rest of the world.
The year is 1912, and the setting is Columbia, a city that floats in the sky as a beacon of freedom. When the protagonist arrives, he's greeted by statues of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, transformed from mere founding fathers into religious icons.
But for all its beauty, Columbia is beset by racism and xenophobia, and there's trouble brewing between the high-living Founders and the downtrodden Vox Populi. A violent incident in the skies over China has led to Columbia's secession from the United States; as the game begins, the city's being led by war hero and self-described prophet Zachary Hale Comstock.
The hero, Booker DeWitt, is a former Pinkerton detective who's sent to Columbia to retrieve a mysterious girl named Elizabeth. She's been isolated by Comstock since she was 5 years old, guarded by an enormous flying robot called Songbird. Booker quickly helps Elizabeth escape, but getting her back to Earth is another issue.
The bulk of the action in "BioShock Infinite" consists of firefights amid Columbia's elaborate Gilded Age architecture. As with any first-person shooter, there's plenty of ordnance lying around, but Booker can also wield supernatural powers like a wizard from a medieval role-playing game. He can fling fireballs and lightning bolts. He can summon a murder of crows to peck at enemies. He can cause foes to levitate helplessly, or possess them so they join his side.
Franchise fans will recognize some of these as "plasmids" from the original "BioShock," although here they've been renamed "vigors." They still distinguish "BioShock" from its competitors in the crowded shooter marketplace - why just shoot the bad guys when you can levitate them and then set them ablaze?
Columbia itself is further distinguished by its "skylines," which are used to send cargo between its floating islands. Booker is equipped with a magnetic hook that allows him to swoop around on the skylines, an experience as exhilarating as riding a new roller coaster. The skylines also turn Columbia's outdoor plazas into massive, multilevel battlegrounds, adding a rewarding new strategic dimension.
The other valuable addition to the fight is Elizabeth herself. While she never fires a weapon, she will scrounge up ammo, health kits and "salts" (which power your vigors). She can also reveal extra weaponry by opening "tears" to alternate universes - a skill that becomes ever more important as the game proceeds.
Indeed, "Bioshock Infinite" is as much Elizabeth's story as it is Booker's. In her, Levine and Irrational have created one of the most vivid virtual characters ever, a woman who's smart, naive, resourceful, despairing, kind-hearted, angry - as well-rounded a human as you'll find in any medium. Much of the credit goes to the stellar voice work of Courtnee Draper, with a key assist from Troy Baker in the role of Booker.
"BioShock Infinite" sets a new standard for video-game storytelling, delivering a complex tale in often surprising ways. It's a brazen satire of some of the most unpleasant aspects of American history, from both sides of the political spectrum. It's mind-bending science fiction that isn't afraid to challenge its audience. Most of all, it's the story of two very messed-up people trying to survive in a chaotic universe. Four stars out of four.