Bioshock awed me back in 2007 with its commentary on the role of the player in video games as well as its critique of Objectivism and unrestrained capitalism. Its main flaw was, that after that momentous encounter with Andrew Ryan, the game continued for an hour and a half.
The success of Bioshock brought us a direct sequel in the form of Bioshock 2. But while mechanically sound, it had little to add to the story or experience. It did exactly what a sequel should not do - imitate the original rather then expand on it. Now we have Bioshock Infinite, born from the team that made the original. And It soared above my every expectation. It is very much a Bioshock game, but it avoids treading old grounds completely and emerges as one of the best gaming experiences I have ever had.
I wont talk a lot about the gaming mechanics. They do their job well. Battles are hectic and the weapons at your disposal feel just about right. Ammo drains quickly so you'll often change several weapons during several of the longer fight scenes, and since you can carry only two at a time - you will have to scavenge the environment for alternatives mid battle. And there are plenty alternatives to go around, so you'll often have plenty of opportunities to experiment with different weapons and tactics.
But weapons are only one half of your arsenal. Tonics play in much the same way as Plasmids did in Bioshock. Each has a direct attack mode and a trap mode. And the system works well with traps usually affecting multiple targets while direct attacks are immediate.
The battles are usually typified by frequent mobility thanks to the sky lines. The sky lines are rails that usually encircle an arena, allowing you to move from one side of the battlefield to the other or just avoid an enemy while you gather your wits. They don't have the extensive freedom some of the previews implied, but they certainly serve well as an emergency escape route or a way to surprise the occasional entranced enemy.
Finally there's Elizabeth, your companion. She will quickly scamper in the chaos of the battle but would occasionally offer you ammo, health or salts (which powers tonics), which you can catch and use with a button press. She always offers you the item you need at that moment, but not often enough for you to relay on it.
Death is not a serious hindrance. Elizabeth will "bring you back to life" minus a few dollars. It's not a serious punishment by any means, but since every upgrade to your arsenal requires money, you'll feel compelled to avoid it if possible.
Bioshock Infinite is the story of Elizabeth and Booker DeWitt. And it is a well crafted story. It's about redemption through actions or faith and how these characters dealt with guilt and hope.
"Bring us the girl and wipe away your debt." is the sentence that catapults both player and Booker into Columbia. But that simple objective becomes more menacing and meaningful every-time it is uttered. After a while that seemingly simple directive becomes anything but simple- and it raises the questions that are at the core of the game and its plot.
Like the original Bioshock, Infinite has a measure of its plot directed at the player himself, but it is done so deliberately subtly that it remains hidden until the end and while it permeates much of the game, it does not rob the characters themselves of meaning or substance.
The characters work perfectly.
Booker manages to strike a perfect balance between player and character. He has enough personality to be distinct, enough history that we understand his motives and actions and yet the player is never divorced from the character and is free to act in the world.
Elizabeth never fits the niche of a median in distress. She is confident and independent even as she is inexperienced and a bit naive. She depends on Booker but never hinders the player and both come to care about her through their shared experiences. She truly is a marvel in terms of game character, as she dodges every pothole that made escort characters unrealistic or just distasteful in many games. Elizabeth is fun to be with and as a player I slowly came to care about her well-being in a way few games have managed to rival.
Your opponents in Colombia are less developed as characters. But they work well to represent their respective ideologies and faiths. Each comes close to being a caricature, but we get to see them act in different situations and thus eventually see nuances and traits that arn't readily apparent. It's nothing compared to the drama of Dewitt and Elizabeth, but it colors Columbia and its people. Don't expect the through social critique Objectivism got in Rapture, but there's certainly some serious satire on the social background of the united states. Both capitalism and socialism are shown in shocking extremes. But it is the religious aspects that get the main stage.
Religion is such a pervasive element in the game I hesitate to say it's a critique of religion (although that is a major part in the plot). Rather, religion or more specifically, Born again Christianity, is the theme of Bioshock Infinite. Baptism, confession, absolution and ascension all resurface time and again throughout the game and plot in deliberate references to events and themes. It is a masterpiece of interwoven metaphors that often become literal in the way few works of fiction can create. The element of water and submersion is insidious to behold as it hides in the background waiting for a knowing eye to view the foreshadowing of events and emotions it embodies. I have few games, or movies or books for that matter - that play such skillfully with theme and metaphor.
It is hard to tell you what is so good about Bioshock Infinite without rambling on and on or spoiling the whole thing. It is best experienced as it is, without preconceived notions. Let it in, and before you know it, it crawled under your skin and wrapped itself around your heart. Even a week after finishing it, I still find myself hearing the sounds of Columbia and reminiscing on my time there with Elizabeth. And I suspect I will find myself doing so for many years to come.
Bioshock Infinite is as close as I got to heaven (gaming-wise).