All other shooters seem so grey and dull compared to BioShock Infinite's whirlwind of colour, fantastical scenes and incidental detail. Set on a city in the sky in 1912, it's a fusion of the vintage and the impossible, within which it spins a yarn of alternate realities and simmering social tensions. The most important fusion, then, is that of cannily mainstream action and science fiction, and thoughtful political and historical destruction. Visit GamePro UK.
It's almost a shame that BioShock Infinite's a shooter, as telling its tale from behind a gunsight limits the interactions the player can have with its fabulous, skybound world. You can play virtual tourist, soaking in the many sights, sounds and disturbing social structures of this pre-digital city, and in that regard the first-person perspective at least is ideal. The power of Columbia, this ultra-religious, racially intolerant community which has chose to secede from the United States, comes from getting your boots on the ground, rummaging through its streets, shops and secret dens to gradually uncover its secrets and its strange, violent history. But once the time comes to engage with any of the people you see, all you can do is pull or not pull the trigger - and, most of the time, you'll have to. Non-enemy characters are sadly little more than living statues, mere window-dressing for an amazing and beautiful setting.
There's one key exception: the mysterious Elizabeth. You, as debt-ridden private investigator/mercenary Booker DeWitt, have been sent to Columbia to retrieve this young woman. You don't know why, you're not sure who for and you don't know what you'll encounter en route. Elizabeth turns out to be a prisoner of Columbia's self-elected ruler/despot Zachary Comstock, a 'Prophet' adored by Columbia's well-to-do white population, but less so by its black inhabitants, who are treated as virtual slaves. Allegories for American history, and indeed more contemporary social problems, run deep, though the need for BioShock to also be a rollercoaster adventure means it doesn't go into too much detail on the issues it raises. But raising them at all, within the context of a big-budget, mainstream shooter targeted at the Call of Duty crowd at least as much as it is the more discerning adult gamer, is a minor miracle.
Even so, the plot's fixation on the mystery of Elizabeth, and her quickly-revealed ability to open temporary access to alternate realities, means the nature of Columbia and its society is increasingly sent to the background. Elizabeth is a fascinating and charismatic non-player character, and one who's by your side for the bulk of the game. Mercifully, she doesn't get in the way, she doesn't need protection and she's not an annoyance. In fact, her ability to call on aid from those alternate realities and to chuck you any health, ammo or cash she comes across as she follows you across Infinite's often huge spaces makes her an invaluable companion. You'll even miss her when she's not there.
Who she really is and what her powers can really do is central to the game's elaborate and twist-heavy plot. Opinions may be divided about how it all pays off, but what's for sure is that it's very carefully and thoughtfully done, never doing things for shock or spectacle alone. Perhaps it's not, in the final analysis, quite as compelling as the strange, discomfiting nature of Columbia and some of the dark vignettes you'll encounter, but in the context of your average videogame plot it's a masterpiece.
The action is perhaps less remarkable, due to rather humdrum enemies and oddly similar-feeling guns, but it's still a flexible hoot compared to your average machinegun-fest. As with earlier BioShocks, you mix and match guns with magic, here named 'Vigors' and capable of felling or incapacitating enemies with the likes of fire, electricity, water-tentacles, psychic control or a horde of angry crows. You're almost never forced into using one particular weapon or power, and instead free to choose which most suit you, plus spend the money you collect in your travels on upgrading them. The guns might be a little homogenous, but the Vigors are almost ludicrously powerful and vicious - really satisfying to use once you've found your rhythm.
Added to that, in the larger levels, are Skyrails, sort of rollercoaster tracks running above Columbia which you can speed around on to dodge or hunt down enemies at speed. These could do with showing up more often, in fact, as the high-speed battles are the game's most thrilling, but at least they don't outstay their welcome. And added to that is another helping hand from Elizabeth, who can conjure up weapon stashes, cover, grapple points or friendly automatons on demand during the bigger fights.
It's a world of improvement in both spectacle and flexibility from your average shooter, but even so it won't be the action which lingers in your mind after the simultaneously compelling and infuriating final scene plays. It'll be Columbia itself, surely one of the most amazing game-places ever created. Sure, it's apparent that Infinite has had access to a budget most games can only dream of, but the level of artistry in its world, its architecture, its backstory, its eerie past-meets-present soundtrack and the realisation of Elizabeth proves that most every penny was well spent. BioShock Infinite might share a targeting reticule with all those games of bald space marines and sweary soldiers, but they seem so dated, limited and cheerless by comparison.
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NEXT PAGE: our first look Bioshock Infinite review, from late 2012 >>