Excessively gory scenes of combat spoil what might otherwise have been a philosophically, historically and theologically intriguing third entry in the acclaimed "BioShock" franchise.
"BioShock Infinite" (2K Games) is set in the America of 1912, but not as history records it. In this alternate reality, charismatic prophet Zachary Comstock has founded a city -- Columbia -- that literally floats in the sky above the land of the free via the wonders of science. In an extreme version of secession, Columbia has separated itself, physically as well as legally, in order to create its own theocratic paradise.
Predictably, though, all has not turned out for the best. In fact, racist authoritarianism has triggered a civil war between Comstock's forces and a group of pseudo-socialist revolutionaries known as the Vox Populi.
Enter the gamer, taking on the persona of Booker DeWitt -- a recovering binge drinker and gambler. As is typical with this series, however, the player is initially confronted with a host of unanswered questions.
Thus DeWitt is offered an opportunity for personal redemption by figures whose identity and motives are not made clear. They assign him the task of rescuing Comstock's daughter Elizabeth in order -- as they cryptically put it -- to "wipe away the debt."
Like a character in a storybook, Elizabeth has been locked away by her father in a tower guarded by an enormous mechanical creature known as Songbird.
DeWitt accepts the quest. But, soon after entering Columbia, he finds himself denounced by Comstock's followers as the prophesied "False Shepherd" -- a local version of the Antichrist. This puts him in the crosshairs of both sides in the struggle for control of the airborne metropolis.
As DeWitt battles hordes of enemies, "BioShock Infinite" fulfills virtually every cliche about violent videogames, right down to exploitative gunfights and even gross-out beheadings. As a result, ethically minded gamers committed to the sanctity of life are deprived of a potentially rich narrative that at least touches on a number of specifically religious themes.
To gain entrance to Columbia, for instance, DeWitt must first be baptized, a process that here leaves him briefly unconscious. Given that he's in search of redemption in some form, does baptism represent a step on the path to that goal -- or merely a numbing distraction?
How are we to interpret the fact that Comstock's deceased wife -- a casualty of Columbia's strife -- is referred to by his adherents as "Our Lady," and that she gave birth to Elizabeth, so we're informed, in miraculous circumstances?
And what are we to make of Comstock's agenda in creating Columbia? Does every effort to establish heaven on Earth inevitably go awry as his has?
Most fundamentally, is "BioShock Infinite" an attack on religion as a whole or merely a critique of some forms of misguided faith?
Alas, any meaningful engagement with such issues is forestalled in favor of an endless round of slicing, dicing and dismemberment.
Played for review on Xbox 360. Also available on PlayStation 3, Microsoft Windows and Mac OS X.
The game contains constant bloody violence, multiple suicides, occasional profanity, frequent crude language and some racial slurs. The Catholic News Service classification is O -- morally offensive. The Entertainment Software Rating Board rating is M -- mature.