Wow. That's the first word that comes to mind when I think of BioShock Infinite. What Ken Levine and Irrational Games have done is bring the series full circle with a story that is meaningful, emotional and surprising. It's everything good about BioShock rolled into one game. There's so much love and care put into Infinite that you'll get lost in its world, characters and storyline.
The story of BioShock Infinite is full of mystery. You play as Booker DeWitt, a former Pinkerton agent and US Cavalry member that has a past he has to atone for. To clear his debt, he has to travel to Columbia to get Elizabeth, a girl with special powers, locked in a tower and guarded by a giant mechanical bird. That's all I'm going to tell you about the story, because I loved it so much that if I talk about it, I'll spoil everything for you. Let's just say there's a lot of class discrepancy, racial tension and strong religious themes at play.
The weakest part of the game is the visuals. Now, I'm not saying that they're bad. I'm just saying they're the weakest link in a pretty strong chain. It's a role player on a championship squad. Characters have that same look and feel that you've come to know from previous BioShock games, but the age of the Xbox 360 is certainly showing here. After seeing video of what Infinite looks like on PC, it's hard to not be envious.
That said, the flying city of Colombia is a marvel in design. With my first steps into its 1912-America streets, I was engulfed in the world Ken Levine has spoke of all these months. I felt like I was walking down Main Street at the Magic Kingdom in Disney World – ya know, if the Magic Kingdom was full of murder, cult-like religion and racism. Watching the sunlight come in over the clouds and illuminate the street of Columbia – which absolutely bleeds American Exceptionalism – is truly a sight to behold. Make no mistake, though, what creepiness in atmosphere it lacks compared to the first BioShock, Infinite is equally creepy in its message and tones. Also, they absolutely nailed Elizabeth. Her animations, transportation and mannerisms makes you feel for her. Watching her lean against a pole when talking or cower in fear from the Songbird is really authentic.
Likewise, Infinite features the most impressive voice acting and music that I've heard in a video game… ever. The music that you hear creates the same effect that “Somewhere Beyond the Sea” did for the first BioShock. Hearing a barbershop quartet sing four-part harmonies really matches the time period, as does hearing a ragtime-waltz version of Tears for Fears' “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” The conversations across Columbia, and the voice recordings you come across, bring the city alive even more. There are some great bits of dialogue that you'll come across just as you pass through the city. However, the real highlight of the voice acting belongs to Troy Baker and Courtnee Draper, who voice the main characters of Booker DeWitt and Elizabeth. You hear the emotion of their plight in every word they speak. Booker's tortured past a is obvious, and Courtnee's work as Elizabeth will bring you on the verge of tears. I didn't cry… I swear.
The combination of the voice acting, music and Columbia create an atmosphere that surpasses the one that enraptured me in BioShock. Like I said, the city and its inhabitants are so alive that you could literally spend hours exploring every nook and cranny of Columbia. I found myself just walking around and reading posters or signs around the city. They all add to the overall experience and adds to the ingenuity of the story. Also, while the dialogue between Booker and Elizabeth is full of drama, sprinkled with some genuinely witty/funny comments between the two, the dialogue of Rosalind and Robert Lutece will steal the show. I can't express in words how entertaining these two characters are, and they serve as the best example of the brilliance in BioShock Infinite.
The combat in Infinite retains a lot of the elements from BioShock, but it's more action-based and is faster. Combat feels like organized chaos, especially against the Handyman enemies you'll come up against. Vigors are the equivalent of Plasmids. While they're generally offensive based, they can be layed down as traps to add some strategy into how you approach a fight. Booker also has a small arsenal at his disposal, starting modest with machine guns and pistols, and evolving to more impressive firepower. Of course, upgrades can be bought for all of the weapons and Vigors. New to BioShock is the Skyhook. Not only does this let you travel by the intricate rail system in Columbia, but it makes for some awesome executions and melee attacks.
Booker also gets equipment that add special effects to your melee attacks, Skyhook attacks, and things of that nature. You can change what you have equipped in your head, legs, chest and boots slots whenever you please, but finding the equipment is no easy task.
Once Booker meets Elizabeth, combat changes for the better. You don't have to babysit Elizabeth; she'll follow you around and fend for herself. The AI on her makes her one of the better computer-controlled companions I've had to play with. She helps you in combat by periodically throwing you health packs, salt (which power Vigors), and ammunition. She also finds money for you and tosses it to you with deadly accuracy. Girl has a cannon for an arm. How she really changes combat is by manipulating the environment. Elizabeth can open tears (though I won't tell you what a tear is exactly), bringing forth turrets to help you, weapons and ammo, and peaks to grapple onto with your Skyhook. It adds a lot more strategy to what is pretty much straightforward combat.
I was worried that Elizabeth aiding you so much would make the game too easy. While the aid does alleviate any pressure on lack of ammo, you'll still die in fights. Let's just say her companionship is welcome – until the one time I had to reload a checkpoint because she stopped in a doorway and wouldn't move. That was the only time she blocked me in the 10 to 12 hour campaign, but Booker does have a little trouble navigating scenery.
I can't find any true faults with this game. From the beginning, it's a captivating ride that you don't want to end. Even when it does, you'll want to start a harder playthrough immediately (you'll get just that with its 1999 mode). The game's villain isn't quite Andrew Ryan, but Ryan wouldn't fit into Columbia's story. And ultimately, it's the story that shapes the gaming experience of Infinite.
When all is said and done, Bioshock Infinite might not just be the game of the year – but the game of this console generation.
[Reviewed on Xbox 360]