As mentioned, I recently finished Bioshock Infinite. I’ve seen a lot of reviews call either it or the Last of Us the “best game of this generation”, no doubt referring to the PS4/XBone (yes, I’m going there, like everyone else) coming up this holiday season. It’s been seven years and eight years since the PS3 and XBox 360 were released, respectively. Is Bioshock Infinite the very best game in that span?
I’m not sure. There are certainly other games I personally have enjoyed (not the least of which is the original Bioshock). I’ve decided to do a top ten list and, after a break, will discuss why I’ve placed Bioshock Infinite where I have. Console games only; I’m leaving off sports games, even though I play them a lot, simply because they belong in a class of their own.
Honorable mentions: Saints Row 2 (didn’t want two games on the list in the series), Worms, Lemmings (same company, nice HD remakes), God of War series (fun for a few days, but little staying power), Star Wars: Force Unleashed (huge fun, if sometimes frustrating; both are worth picking up), Dead Rising 2 (which I got for free!), Heavy Rain (good for a playthrough or two, but the actual gameplay kind of sucks) the original Bioshock (if I had a top 11, this would be #11)
10. LA: Noire — The first of three Rockstar games. Heavy Rain had a better story, GTA IV had better gameplay, but LA: Noire is a great mix of the two and deserves to go in the middle. Also, my first platinum trophy!
9. GTA IV (plus expansions) — If I’d never played Saints Row, I’d never know what I was missing. Gritty, realistic gunplay, but GTA just takes itself a bit too seriously these days. Niko didn’t connect with me as a character, the way Cole Phelps or John Marsten did.
8. Saints Row 3 — I don’t know if I’ve ever had more fun playing a game, just pure unadulterated fun, than when I’ve played this series. The side missions in 3 were just plain better (Insurance Fraud is a personal favorite, and it’s done better in 3).
7. inFamous/inFamous 2 — Brilliant games, both of them. Gripping story, great gameplay (I’ve personally beaten inFamous some five times). Gameplay is much better in the second, which has a tighter feel.
6. Arkham Asylum/Arkham City — I’d have platinums on both if not for the challenges. You feel like Batman, and there is no way that can possibly be a bad thing. Good use of villains from all over the rogue’s gallery, not just the memorable ones.
5. The Uncharted series — If not for the uber-zombies in the first two games, it’d probably be top three. Great balance of gameplay and story, all the characters are likeable, surprisingly light and funny.
4. The Assassin’s Creed series — As a whole, the Assassin’s Creed series couples a superb storyline, with actual historical research, that spans a long time. It does stealth better than just about any other game apart from the Deus Ex series. (I’d say it’s just ahead of Metal Gear Solid 4 — too many gadgets — and on par with the Thief Series). Combat is fluid and satisfying. A lot of excellent characters and tremendous replay value. As a series, it may be one of the best in gaming, at least to me. Assassin’s Creed III drags down the average a tiny bit, with lots of bugs and a thoroughly unlikeable main character. (On the flipside, it has the best combat in the series). The block puzzles in Revelations were stupid, too.
3. Metal Gear Solid 4 — For a long time, this was my favorite PS3 game ever. The entire Metal Gear Solid series is terrific (note that I’ve not played the most recent one or MGS3, but I have seen the entirety of MGS3 over a spring break with another person playing) and 4 is the best of it. It’s the oldest game on this list, and I sadly don’t have a copy right now, but it was pure genius.
2. Red Dead Redemption (+ Undead Nightmare) — Westerns don’t get a lot of love these days. (The remake of True Grit was superb and a worthy exception.) Only the criminally underrated Gun springs to mind among video games (along with Red Dead Revolver, which I’ve never played). A great central character, awesome supporting cast, breathtaking score. Good balance between being challenging but not impossible. Undead Nightmare was a fun little addition, too, well worth the extra cash.
1. Bioshock Infinite — More after the break, but for now, better in every respect than the original. Elizabeth may be the single most captivating character ever brought to a video game screen. As a single game, Bioshock Infinite is better than any one installment of Assassin’s Creed. If I were to rehash my favorite games of all time (and didn’t have series on it), I’m not sure any Assassin’s Creed would appear apart from possibly Assassin’s Creed II. Bioshock Infinite would. Ultimately, the question I asked was “Greatest Game”, and so I have to make Bioshock Infinite #1.
Warning: Ahead there be spoilers. I’m going to be talking about Bioshock Infinite’s plot, including the ending and how it connects to Bioshock the original. Seriously. Don’t click more if you don’t want to know or don’t already know.
In gaming, it’s hard to be more controversial than the original ending to Mass Effect III. Bioshock Infinite isn’t, not really, but it’s gotten a lot of ink and some people do hate it. Why?
First, parallel universes are inherently confusing. That has to account for some of the distaste. The way that Bioshock Infinite handles parallel universes can be galling, in particular. A lot of the choices you make in game (whether you kill Slade or not, which pendant you choose for Elizabeth), in fact, all of the choices you make, are meaningless. This, you may recall, was a big part of the Mass Effect 3 ending controversy. The difference is that in Bioshock Infinite, it’s intentional. In fact, it’s integral to the story.
Although he doesn’t realize it, Booker DeWitt has gone through most of the events of Bioshock Infinite many, many times before. (I believe the count is 117, if memory serves). The key difference this time is that Elizabeth-from-the-future teaches Elizabeth-from-the-present, through a card given to Booker, how to control Songbird. In every iteration before this, Songbird stops Booker before he can claim the Prophet’s airship. Songbird is also the only one (presumably) who can destroy the tower that keeps Elizabeth’s ability to make new tears (doors between parallel universes) in check. With the tower gone, Elizabeth can comprehend the possibilities behind every possible choice, because she can see the outcome of almost any possibility. With this knowledge comes the fact that many of these choices are irrelevant. For example, if you have coffee instead of tea for breakfast, it creates a parallel universe that’s identical to the tea-universe apart from that one choice. So whether you try to bean Jeremiah Fink or the interracial couple, the game doesn’t change. (It does change a tiny bit, in that a different person will give you Gear, either Fink’s assistant or the couple in question.)
A second reason it’s hated is because it paints the American South in a very, very bad light (not to mention religious folks). One of the best qualities of the game, from a historian’s perspective, is that there’s an effort to try to maintain some semblance of proper context. Booker DeWitt doesn’t moralize (and when he tries to do so, Elizabeth quite rightly calls him on it.) Indeed, if a raffle were offered in 1912 America where the prize was to hit an interracial couple with a baseball, I would imagine it would be quite popular, even in some places in the North. Yet that isn’t the most controversial part of the ending. Comstock, the game’s villain, who helps build the city in the sky and then threatens to destroy the United States for challenging his views of the future (and the way people are treated), is a Prophet. An Evangelical Prophet. In fact, as you discover, Comstock exists because Booker DeWitt decides to be baptized to cleanse his soul of his sins at Wounded Knee and as a Pinkerton. The “good” (better?) Booker is the one who rejects it.
Third, the whole reason Booker gets into this mess in the first place is because he sells his child, Anna (otherwise known as Elizabeth) in order to pay his gambling debts. He regrets it for the rest of his life, and the Luteces give him the opportunity to repair the damage (in order to repair the damage they themselves created by allowing people to glimpse parallel universes in the first place). Booker DeWitt is, from a strictly moral perspective, not a nice person. He struggles with it and tries to redeem himself. We don’t know if he does or not. He does try, though.
Fourth, the scientist will object, possibly strenuously, to the whole idea of building a machine using “quantum mechanics” to create openings to parallel universes. The game winks at this usage, as nobody understands how the “contraption” works apart from Rosalind Lutece (and her brother, who she actually pulled through from a parallel universe in which she was a man).
All of these are possible areas of contention. The ending doesn’t resolve neatly either: after DeWitt-become-Comstock is killed by the various possible Elizabeths, we don’t know what happens to the very last one. Is there still an Elizabeth or not? If you watch the credits, there’s one more clip: Booker waking up, screaming for his daughter, in 1893. We don’t know if she’s in the other room or not. So there’s a question there too: did the loop actually break, or did Booker make the same mistakes? I don’t know. I’d like to think he didn’t — I really, really like Elizabeth the character and a world she doesn’t exist in is not one I would care to visit. She’s dynamic, broken, and changes over the course of the game. I genuinely didn’t want anything to happen to her, and that’s rare, especially since she herself is relatively immune during the game.
Before closing, there’s one other controversy I’d like to describe: is Booker DeWitt also Andrew Ryan? The obvious answer is no. Ryan is born in Russia about the same time Anna is born, I am assuming. (Andrew Ryan has memories of the Bolshevik Revolution, and is probably in his late 50s/early sixties in Bioshock). The entire premise revolves around the fact that only people with Andrew Ryan’s genetic code can use the bathyspheres in Bioshock. Thus, Booker DeWitt is Andrew Ryan (or somehow related).
I don’t buy it. Booker is already in his thirties or forties in 1912, when the game starts. Too old for him to be Andrew Ryan. It is possible that Elizabeth is somehow related to Andrew Ryan, I suppose, or that in the parallel universe where Comstock is never born that Booker has a son instead. Then why would Booker go to Russia? Isn’t the easier explanation that the Rapture you visit in Bioshock Infinite is slightly different than the one in the original Bioshock, a parallel one? That seems more logical. Or that Elizabeth, being so special, is unique and the rules do not apply to her. In any event, perhaps the DLC will shed light on it.