Reach for the skies
The original Bioshock was a story that ultimately revolved around one twist that was meant to pull the rug out from underneath you. Initially, Bioshock Infinite seems so thematically similar, right down to the story beats, that it seems like a palette swap: replace Rapture with Columbia, Big Daddies for Songbird, Plasmids for Vigors, call it a day. Fortunately, there is a lot more to Infinite's floating city of Columbia than meets the eye. It wouldn't have been out of place for the game to start out with a quote from Christopher Nolan's The Prestige: "Are you watching closely?"
For those that love a story that rewards close scrutiny, Bioshock Infinite will reward your curiosity. The gorgeous city of Columbia is filled to the brim with minute details that add colour to the world and provide hints to some plot points. The astute player can start putting the pieces together before the game reveals some of its more astounding twists. While Bioshock's main character was really the underwater city of Rapture, Infinite is all about a girl: Elizabeth.
That's not to say Columbia isn't given its due. Purely from a design perspective, it's a marvel, filled with vibrant colour, seedy underbellies and brimming with racial and class tension. You'll spend the first 30 minutes just marveling at the sights, listening to the citizens talking about their daily lives, and trying to figure out why it all feels wrong, somehow, despite its outwardly idyllic nature. Optional audio logs will once again supplement the narrative to add context and lore to the world, for those who want to absorb every single detail. Unlike Rapture, which had already fallen apart by the time Bioshock starts, it's easy to see how people could fall in love with Columbia.
But Elizabeth is the true star here. She's the girl you're meant to rescue, to get her out of Columbia. She was locked in a tower her whole life, guarded by the bio-mechanical Songbird, a truly frightful creature, yet the only friend she's ever known prior to meeting Booker, our protagonist. Booker and Elizabeth get off to a rocky start, but their relationship evolves in a very organic way, as they help one another in various ways. Booker doesn't need to look after her during play, but she can help the player by giving tossing him ammo or health, or by creating cover out of thin air, or raising a robot to fight for you. She's also quite the master of unlocking.
Her voice acting and facial expressions give life to her in a way that's believable, in a Pixar-like way: lifelike enough that you can suspend disbelief, but never veering into the uncanny valley, thanks to her exaggerated features. Furthermore, she's never an annoyance. She'll predict where you're going and run ahead of you, or examine the environment when you're doing the same, or just take a load off and sit down or lean back when all's quiet. The few times that she and Booker are separated, I started missing her almost immediately, and not just for her utility during play. She's smartly written, sympathetic, and strong.
The relationship between Booker and Elizabeth is the emotional underpinning for the story, which goes off in some pretty wild directions. It takes on some heavy material and it can be hard to keep it all straight in your head, but that's part of what makes it such a joy to experience. It slowly drip-feeds you with enough information that you feel like you're starting to figure out where it's going, but even the savviest players will probably be pretty shocked at least once or twice. There are some twists, in Bioshock fashion, but they're not so pivotal that the story loses all its interesting qualities once you know them - it's actually entirely possible to predict them before they happen, and still be surprised by some of the developments and sights the game throws at you.
Irrational Games wants to show you things, more than anything. The visuals in the game, while not top-tier from a technical perspective, as it's running on the ageing Unreal Engine 3, can be spectacular, thanks to some brilliant lighting and very careful scene composition, and some... unexpected sights. Really, there isn't an area in the game that doesn't feel carefully crafted with minute attention to detail. Playing through the game, it's easy to see why it took five years to develop. This is simply the kind of attention to detail that can only come from a lot of time, money and gifted artists and designers.
It's something of a shame that the actual action isn't nearly as best-in-class. The first two trailers for the game offered tantalizing glimpses of huge combat areas with sky rails running all over them, which Booker could use to zip around, over, and under the environment. In truth, most combat areas in the game are significantly smaller, and sky rails don't feature nearly as prominently as those trailers suggested. They're still around, and they're still fun to zip around on and jump on enemies from, but aiming from them is quite hard to do and generally not worth the effort. The rails mostly end up as a means of getting from A to B. There are still some exciting moments where you'll get the freedom to jump between floating barges and zeppelins aided by the rails, unleashing your guns and Vigors all the while, but unfortunately, most of the game is somewhat more straightforward.
Mostly, you'll be relying on your guns and Vigors, much in the same way as in the original Bioshock, only this time occasionally taking cover to let your shields recharge. Elizabeth will be your primary means of recovering health and Salts, fuel for your Vigors, mid-combat, unless you spot some in the environment or you loot bodies while fighting. There are some fun vigors to use though, like Charge, which lets you charge enemies with your sky hook, or a water blast that will send foes plummeting into the abyss. You can also give Booker some passive abilities by equipping four different pieces of gear, that will let you recover Salts by killing enemies, or shock all nearby enemies when you kill with a critical hit and the like. There's just enough there that you can tailor the combat to your style, but it's never as exciting as it feels like it could be, and sky rails just aren't the game-changer they could have been.
That said, the gunplay was never unenjoyable to me, one twice-repeated boss fight notwithstanding, it simply isn't up to the incredibly high standards Irrational has set for themselves in literally every other area of this game. The visuals, the story, the atmosphere, the music, the voice acting, the animation, the environmental design, every part of it is damn near immaculate.
So here I am, praising Bioshock Infinite to the skies (har), despite having only "good" gameplay. Let me be real: This is a 4-star game from a gameplay perspective. If you only want to play games with best-in-class gameplay, look elsewhere. But you'd be doing yourself a disservice. Bioshock Infinite is an experience that simply can't be missed.