In an alternative 1912 there’s a sky-city called Columbia, where bridges connect drifting suburbs at pre-set times and shops dock for an hour before floating to the next district. That’s the unusual setting of BioShock Infinite, a first-person shooter in which you play an agent sent to rescue a girl from this anachronistically high-tech city that somehow seceded from America by simply flying away. With little else in the backstory to go on you’re flung into this sumptuous location, which looks like the dream of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair come true. You’ll gape at enormous statues of the founding fathers, gardens full of hummingbirds, an airship crewed by a barbershop quartet and other delights — but there’s a dark side to the heavenly city, an underbelly of bigotry and oppression.
This is when BioShock Infinite remembers it’s a shoot-em-up. The first time you’re attacked by the city’s authorities is thrilling, but the 15th is less so. The joy of exploring Columbia is dimmed by fatigue; when every plaza becomes a battle arena you’re unimpressed by their architectural vision. Attempts at livening up the fights with skylines to swing from, superpowers called “Vigors” and a likeable companion only partly mitigate this. The consequence of emphasising combat is that even between fights you stop seeing wonders and start seeing places you can scrounge ammo for the next shoot-out.
BioShock Infinite is ambitious, introducing themes such as the relationship between American exceptionalism and racism, but it sidelines those themes in favour of bigger fights and a story that veers into science fiction and twisty character revelations. Imperfect as it is, Columbia’s still worth visiting. I just wish I could have been pointing a camera at it instead of a gun.