Bioshock Infinite aims so high - fittingly, since its alternate-reality 1912 city of Columbia literally floats atop clouds - that it’s a wonder it successfully hits any of its lofty goals at all. But it does hit them, again and again. A stunning original world of retro-sci-fi technology and gorgeous scenery. A cast of fully fleshed-out, memorable characters who deliver real emotional impact. A great villain and a greater monster. New and thrilling ways of traveling and changing the world around you. A story twist most people won't see coming. Even when it does occasionally miss, another hit follows so quickly that the stumble almost feels like a setup to increase the effect. Infinite comes through as a true, worthy follow-up to BioShock, one of the most-renowned shooters of this generation.
This world is easy to buy into because its characters believe in it so convincingly, chief among them our player character, war veteran-turned-PI Booker DeWitt. He's a reluctant hero on a mission, vaguely referred to as a less-than-virtuous man with a shady past. The first hour chronicles DeWitt’s unusual journey to Columbia under orders to recover a teenage girl named Elizabeth so that he might “wipe away the debt.” Though he begins as both a bit unlikeable and mysterious, eventually Booker's backstory is fully filled-in and brought to a satisfactory end. Under your stewardship, he oscillates between doing good deeds and some clearly bad ones, but his words and actions eventually left me thinking of myself as a fan of the man by the time the credits rolled.
Two things evolve Infinite past its predecessor, however, and the first is one of its central characters: Elizabeth. Our mystery girl rarely leaves your side once she joins you a short time into the campaign, and unlike the vast majority of AI companions throughout the ages, she requires zero babysitting. To the contrary, she'll take care of you, tossing you ammo and health in the heat of battle, randomly throwing you money at idle moments, and even bending the layout of a combat area to your will using her dimensional-portal-opening abilities.
In firefights, that means you might have the choice to teleport in any one of a flying gun turret, a wall of cover, a powerful weapon, or a stash of medkits. It’s yet another option that'll affect how the fight plays out in a big way - a layer that makes Infinite’s combat so refreshingly nimble. The guns may not be wholly original, and the vigors may be familiar, but in concert with the Elizabeth wildcard and the open, large-scale play spaces, Infinite offers tangible, meaningful choices in each encounter.
Elizabeth herself, in fact, plays a central role in BioShock Infinite’s story, and in the moment-to-moment experience. Once she’d established herself at my side, any period of separation was noticeable. Not only does the action revert to feeling very much like BioShock 1, but it made me feel as if something was genuinely missing: emotional depth. Over our time together, Elizabeth's expressive performances elicited everything from sympathy to fear and even guilt. She provides motivation and moves the story forward. And from a purely mechanical perspective, it’s a half-miracle that she never gets in the way - but she doesn't. What's great about Elizabeth is that her presence always adds something, and never takes anything away.
Booker and Elizabeth have a strong supporting cast to work with as well. Almost from the moment Booker arrives on Columbia he's antagonized by Zachary Comstock, aka “The Prophet,” who makes for an easily hateable villain both for his morally reprehensible views on race and for his oddly personal verbal attacks towards Booker over loudspeakers and other communiques.
Meanwhile, Booker’s most physically imposing opponent is the Songbird, the gigantic robo-fowl assigned to "protect" Elizabeth in a tower. He is constantly in your rearview mirror, as it were, ominously threatening you each time he appears and giving chase in exhilarating running sequences. I wish he'd shown up more often, really - among all the players in Infinite, his is the arc that feels the least developed. That’s not to say his story isn’t satisfying, just that I was left wanting more.
And what of the rank-and-file bad guys you’ll be shooting at? Some of them seem borderline comical, like the Patriot robots modeled after George Washington, who Columbia’s residents revere as a god. Then there are the Handymen -- intimidating 10-foot-tall proto-cyborgs who freaked me out the first time I thought I'd escaped them but, in fact, hadn’t. They’re much more agile than they look. At least the AI is wise enough to use cover and the Skylines to keep you on your toes and even the odds.
From the moment you begin fighting your first barely competent Columbia cops early on, vigors - bolster your offense with potent table-turners like the target-zapping Shock Jockey or Charge’s directed speed burst. My go-to, Bucking Bronco, floats targets up in the air for a few moments, letting you pick them off like (paralyzed) fish in a barrel. Some vigors are essentially reskinned abilities from the first BioShock, and all are familiar from one game or another; the ability to charge them up to lay them down like mines is the only thing that really sets them apart, though I rarely saw fit to use their secondary functions. But they're a useful toolset, and odds are you’ll find a couple you favor above the others -- particularly in their impressively powerful upgraded forms. Since vigors are activated on the left hand while guns are held in the right, they combine with Infinite’s fairly standard collection of old-timey pistols, machine guns, grenade launchers, rocket launchers, and stat-boosting gear in unique ways.
Infinite’s combat is nimble in the truest sense of the word thanks to its other great evolution: the Skylines. Something akin to self-guided, one-man roller-coaster tracks, Booker is able to hook onto these metal rails with his Skyhook gauntlet and speedily navigate around Columbia's large open areas, often dangling perilously over the abyss below while moving from floating island to floating island. Riding a Skyline is surprisingly intuitive, useful, and perhaps most impressively. You are in full control at all times, to the extent that you're never forced into any significant encounters while you’re riding them. If you prefer to take the action to the ground, you can.
Bioshock infinite is a brilliant shooter that nudges the entire genre forward with innovations in both storytelling and gameplay. It trips over itself in a couple of spots, but not in any way that should keep you from embracing it with your utmost enthusiasm