It's tempting, and easy, to rave about how Irrational have chosen to aim for the clouds, or, where appropriate, that the game takes place in heaven. But instead I will say this: the first Bioshock was one of the best games of this generation. In comparison, Infinite feels like a quantum leap.
On the surface the two games are very different, but the similarities are many. Both take place in a high-tech utopia, ruled with an iron fist by a visionary - and possibly insane - leader. Both take place in the past. Both combine firearms with supernatural powers. Both start at a lighthouse in the middle of the ocean.
But where Infinite's really different not only from its predecessor, but almost all shooters on the market, is in the story. It's a complex tangle of threads that masterfully reveals itself slowly but assuredly, through dialogue between the main characters, monologues from enemies, audio diaries, conversations between the world's inhabitants, and through the environment.
The year is 1912. We are in Columbia, a city that flies in the sky and is filled with a strong religious community who have said goodbye to "Sodom below us", because common Americans are too sinful, and not sufficiently patriotic. The self-proclaimed prophet Comstock is in charge of it all, and worshipped almost as a god.
We play as Booker DeWitt, former soldier and ex-Pinkerton agent who has been sent to the city to rescue the captive Elizabeth, and thereby freeing him of his debt. The girl's held by Comstock, who in all his propaganda refers to her as the Columbia Lamb, and prepares her to one day take his place.
Until that day, however, she's locked up in a tower, another Rapunzel, as Elizabeth is regarded as dangerous. She can open so-called Tears - rips in reality - creating alternative versions of the world. Who's paying DeWitt for the mission is not clear, and there's a smouldering rebellion underneath Columbia's candy-coated facade. As for what happens next, you'll have to experience for yourself.
Even if we play as Booker, in many ways it's Elizabeth who is both protagonist and the game's star. She is charming, funny, likeable and trustworthy. You spend the majority of the game with her while jointly trying to escape Columbia. Considering how any game with a heavy emphasis on AI comrades can easily foul the concept in execution, this is an enormous risk by Irrational. But, they throw themselves fully behind it.
And it's a gamble that pays off. Elizabeth feels like an asset rather than a drag, and you miss her when she's not by your side. She's never in the way, and there's no moment - from the time we first meet - that you have to protect her. She can handle herself.
That's actually understatement. Even though she doesn't pick up a weapon and start shooting, she helps in the heat of battle. She can regularly throw ammo, health kits and Salts (which replenish the aforementioned supernatural powers) to you, as well as opening small Tears that provide access to useful tools sick as automatic turrets, weapon bunkers, oil slicks and more. Outside of battle, she finds money to pick locks, break codes, and points you in the direction of stuff you might have overlooked.
Combat choices are a pure pleasure. You've got your machine guns, shotguns, sniper rifles. But there's also heavy ordinance, rocket and grenade launchers. All can be upgraded with larger magazines, heavier damage, quicker reload and so on.
Weapons are supplemented by Vigors, the supernatural powers allowing you to cast fire, lightning, wind gusts and more. The Vigor list is long and varied, so you'll easily find some that fit with your style of play. A personal favourite is the Bucking Bronco, which fires enemies into the air and holds them there, allowing you to comfortably pick them off one by one. Another is Return To Sender, letting you stop enemy projectiles and fire them back from whence they came.
The interaction between firearms and Vigors is fabulous, and it just gets better by the fact the environments really encourage you to stay in motion. The Skyways, long cables built for cable cars that stretch and connect the many floating islands, can be leapt onto and slid along via a grappling hook picked up early in the game. Doing so can grant you a much-needed height advantage or quickly get you out of a tight situation. In addition, much of your gear (clothing that provide a number of useful passive abilities) interacts with these Skyways. So, for example, you'll automatically reload when you jump on one of them, or become temporarily invulnerable when you leap off at the other end.
I'm honestly impressed with how well it works: the combination of great weaponry and mechanics is unfortunately rare in the genre nowadays. Infinite even betters the original by lacking any of the stupid boss battles that were one of the few complaints of Bioshock. The only issue is the initial difficulty is rather mild. Seasoned FPS players should stick the game on Hard from the start and never look back.
But Bioshock Infinite offers much more than just action. Columbia feels like an exciting, vibrant place that hides a multitude of secrets, and you are rewarded for exploring with gear, money, audio diaries and upgrades for health, salt and shield. I've completed the game twice now - the first time was more of a rush through, taking me eight hours to do so. The second I explored every corner, examined every locked door. The play time was closer to sixteen hours, which says a lot about the content within.
At the same time the pacing is near perfect. Heavy action is superseded by quieter sequences, the game regularly allowing you to walk undisturbed between crowds and absorb the city life (until you steal from someone or hit a guard in the face). There's plenty to discover.
Columbia is fantastically rendered, and a lot of credit goes to the visuals for creating the mood. Bioshock Infinite is one of the best looking games I've ever played (for clarification, I reviewed off the PC version). Lighting is nothing less than stunning, from the way sunlight breaks through the clouds, cathedral candles gently caress the building interiors, how smoke and flames rise on the horizon. From the great panoramic views of statues, open spaces, dirigibles and other neighbourhoods, all these mix with distant clouds, and the smaller details like shop decors, propaganda posters, signs and so on - it's all excellently done.
The characters' style is caricatured, which is probably a wise decision. The less important and random NPCs may not have quite the same level of detail such as Elizabeth, but the central characters that we encounter again and again all look fantastic.
The atmosphere is accentuated by an exemplary soundtrack. The script is excellent and voice acting is strong, whether you're overhearing a casual conversation or in the middle of the story's key moments. Still, it's worth highlighting Troy Baker and Courtnee Draper in the roles of Booker and Elizabeth, and for their great chemistry.
The music also deserves praise as the soundtrack perfectly supports the dramatic moments. The percussion-heavy approach to the score matches the combat intensity brilliantly. There's also a large number of songs included on the soundtrack, many of which I find myself humming while walking through Columbia. 1912 versions of '80s classics like Girls Just Want to Have Fun and Everybody Wants to Rule the World contribute to the mystique of the world.
As stated, Bioshock Infinite can last anywhere between eight and sixteen hours or more, and I'd recommend you dial the difficulty up and get carried away exploring Columbia. Do so, you'll find an experience that few games this generation can match. I sat with a lump in my throat come the closing credits, and was in a state of elation for hours afterwards. The graphics are wonderful, the atmosphere great, soundtrack superb. The action is amazing, the story affecting. I've tried damn hard, but I couldn't find anything to dismiss during my time twice-through with the game. Irrational Games have created a masterpiece.