I may be a little late to the party on this one, indeed I finished this game last week, but with so many reviews praising this game to such a great extent, I thought I'd throw in my two cents and say that yeah, they're right.
One of the first games I played on my XBox 360 (and one of the first in HD) was the original Bioshock. It's an incredibly immersive and spooky game, with some great gameplay mechanics and a story and soundtrack that blew anything else I'd played recently out of the water. It is widely regarded as one of the best games in recent years, and while the sequel was still good, it was pretty much more of the same game. Bioshock Infinite, in the years it was in development, had an awful lot to live up to.
Infinite sees you play as Booker DeWitt, a man who is down on his luck until he is approached with an offer to wipe away his large debt by visiting the city of Columbia and brining back a girl. Unfortunately, the Columbia is a floating city, above the clouds, run by a man proclaiming himself a prophet, who has locked the girl you are after in a well protected tower. But, not one to turn down a challenge, Booker presses on. While the city seems perfectly pleasant at first, it doesn't take long for Booker to be identified and exposed to the dark side of Columbia, and thrust on a violent and mind-bending adventure.
Bioshock Infinite follows the basic mechanics of its predecessors. You are transported to a fantastic city that incomprehensibly exists somewhere a city should not, given strange powers to fling from your left hand while shooting from your right, and guided through several areas to reach your endgame, only to be hindered somewhat along the way. So yes, this is clearly a Bioshock game, but it really is set apart from the previous instalments.
The most striking difference is in the setting. Yes, clearly Bioshock Infinite is set in the sky while the first was set under the ocean, but Bioshock revelled in its run down, abandoned atmosphere, thrusting crazed, drug addled lunatics at you to attack with wrenches, while making sure you never came into contact with a friendly human being throughout the whole adventure. But Infinite goes for a different approach, letting you wander throughout the beautiful city through several long gameplay segments, letting you eavesdrop on the residents' conversations, see people go about their daily business, even the combat is well populated and a lot more intense than before. These differences could well have been a downfall for Bioshock Infinite, but they are executed so well that it makes the whole experience a lot better than the original.
Of course, what would the setting be without a story to go with it? Infinite doesn't exactly lead you by the hand narrative wise. You start out knowing just as much as Booker, pretty much nothing, and while you figure out the main plot points by playing through the game, and becoming exposed to the more corrupt, racially pure aspects of the city, exploration really helps to uncover a lot of the points you may miss just blazing through. Conversations between white citizens and black menial workers really add layers to the racial inequality that keeps the city going. You visit the most affluent areas of the city, and the most run down, to really see how the two sides live. Propaganda lines the walls, and the audio logs from Bioshock make a return as well, which provide deep insights into certain aspects of the city, and explain a lot of the questions you may have while playing. This game simply immerses you in the story and atmosphere of Columbia, forcing you to really pay attention to everything, seek out every last bit of information you can to get an idea of what is happening in the city.
But that's just the stuff you can explore and find during regular play. The actual main plot is riveting as well. As you rescue and try to escape with the girl in the tower, Elizabeth, you become a target for Comstock, the prophet in charge of the city, forcing you to battle your way through his legions of men, becoming embroiled in a revolution that has been brewing long before you arrival. While the plot regularly allows you to explore for a little while, you're never far off from the next part of the story, and it's definitely interesting and varied enough to keep you going until the conclusion. While you may feel somewhat confused about what's going on towards the end of the game, I assure you that everything is explained in one of the best endings I've probably ever seen, one that kept me thinking for days afterwards and has rewarded me with my understanding of certain things on my second play through.
So yes, great story, great setting, what about the gameplay? In essence, Bioshock Infinite is a shooter, with a few RPG elements thrown in. You can upgrade your powers and weapons, equip gear you find to attain certain perks, but you must choose wisely as to which powers and weapons you'll use the most to clear the waves of enemies. These range from foot soldiers, to RPG wielding guys, to the "heavy hitter" enemies like the chain gun wielding motorised Patriot robots with faces of the founding father of America, or the terrifying Handyman, a man in a huge, clunking mechanical suit that will hunt you down and make short work of you. Regular combat with the smaller guys is normally intense enough as the flank you and wear you down, but when the heavy hitters come out things get a lot more intense and creepy, at time more so than the first Bioshock.
Thankfully there is a wide variety of weapons and powers, or vigors, to help you obliterate everyone. You can pick enemies off from afar with a sniper rifle or carbine, or go in for the kill with shotguns or chain guns. You can also use vigors to throw fiery grenades, send out a murder of crows to swarm groups of enemies, or throw them up in the air. Best of all, you can combine some of these vigors for a greater effect, like setting your crows on fire. One of the best weapons, though, is the skyhook. Introduced as a melee weapon attached to your hand that will decimate anyone's face, you are soon introduced to rails that allow you to ride along like you're on a roller coaster, picking off enemies from above or leaping on top of them with a devastating attack. Taking too much damage? Just hop on a rail and escape, only to come back again at full force, launching rockets from above. The skyhook provides a lot of fun and variation in an already packed combat system.
You also have Elizabeth with you most of the time, and Elizabeth is probably the most helpful sidekick in gaming history. While most rescue mission result in you having to escort a frail woman out of an area riddled with bad guys, in which she keeps wandering into the line of fire, right off the bat this game tells you that you don't have to worry about Elizabeth, she can take care of herself. The relief I got from reading that was immense. But not only can Elizabeth take care of herself, she helps you out a hell of a lot too. If you die, she will revive you. If you're looking through trash cans and boxes for money to spend, she'll normally find some money and throw it to you. Even in the heat of battle she will manage to dig up ammo, health packs, even salts to replenish your vigors, when you need them the most. Without Elizabeth by my side, I wouldn't have made it through some of the tougher battles. But apart from being a great sidekick, she is also a fantastic character. She reacts to everything, be it major plot revelations to the smell of a bathroom, and her personality really develops over the course of the game, and by the end I really cared for her. In part because she wasn't dying every five minutes, but mostly because she is a wonderfully fleshed out character that lends herself to this amazing story.
I think it's pretty clear that I enjoyed this game a lot. The city of Columbia is a truly mesmerising place to explore. It's beautiful, dangerous, and totally immersive, populated with fantastically developed characters that take part in a fantastic narrative that in the end even wins out over Bioshock's. Once I was finished I just wanted to play through again to really understand every little aspect of the game, and while combat did get a little stale towards the end of my first play through, I have been switching up my techniques the second time around to keep things a lot more fresh. Bioshock Infinite has succeeded in its highly difficult task. It's a sequel that surpasses its predecessor in every way with its differences, similarities and all, and it's the best game I've played in a long while.
My rating: 5/5