In BioShock Infinite, players must be comfortable with the concept of parallel realities.
What appears to be a peaceful street could be a war-torn battleground in a different version of the world. A person can be alive in one place, dead in another. Male here, female there — or never born at all.
As hero Booker DeWitt confronted these truths through the abilities of his companion, Elizabeth, I toyed with the same ideas in my own mind.
If just a few things had happened differently, how would my life change? Could I be smarter? Richer? Happier? No matter how many parallel realities I ponder, I cannot imagine one in which BioShock Infinite is not among the best games I've played.
It all begins with the setting of Columbia. The sky city is beautifully realized, from the early 1900s-era buildings bobbing on the clouds to the zeppelins soaring by.
As Booker walks down the streets, he is surrounded by a living Norman Rockwell painting; kids play in the water from a leaking hydrant, people gawk at technological marvels at the local fair, and a general store sits unattended but for a note about the honor system.
Life in Columbia seems perfect, but the real fun comes from discovering the ugly side of the city.
Booker wanders Columbia alone at first, but once he saves the young woman named Elizabeth from captivity, the adventure begins in earnest. Elizabeth is with Booker for most of the events that follow, and she is among the best AI companions I've ever had. You don't ever need to worry about protecting her, which prevents the experience from feeling like an escort quest. Not only does Elizabeth stay out of harm's way, she actively helps Booker by finding ammo and health, making her a valuable ally in gunfights.
She also can open doors to alternate realities called "tears," bringing in objects such as rocket launchers, automatons and cover from other worlds.
Booker's tools in combat are less mysterious. He plows through enemies using firearms, brute force and creative powers. I picked off foes with my shotgun as they fought off the murder of crows I summoned. The upgradeable weapons and abilities — augmented by the skylines and Elizabeth's powers — give players plenty of space to develop their own style of play.
The encounter design could use more variety (you walk into a lot of wide-open areas full of tears and wait for enemies to pour in), and the meager penalty for death doesn't keep stakes high unless you're playing on the brutal-but-rewarding 1999 difficulty. Despite those issues, combat on the whole is fun and satisfying.
My favorite aspect of Infinite is the one about which I can say the least: story. The build-up is slow, but it works wonderfully thanks to the small ways other elements flow into the narrative.
My only complaint on the narrative front is that the hulking Songbird is under-utilized; for such a cool concept, the beast is relegated to the role of screeching deus ex machina. Otherwise, the remaining story threads are tied together to create one of my favorite game endings in years.
Replicating the achievements of the original BioShock is a challenging goal (as 2K Marin's sequel demonstrated), but series creator Irrational Games returns with a fresh vision and redefines what the BioShock name means.
Infinite is more than a new setting, story and characters; those elements are seamlessly integrated with complex themes, a mysterious plot and entertaining combat to create an amazing experience from beginning to end.
About: A new BioShock from the developer of the original, with similarities and differences in all the right places.
Pros: The controls and combat are great, plus a fantastic soundtrack sets the tone perfectly. The story is also top-notch.
Cons: The splendor of the setting looks great from a distance, though some textures are pretty rough up close.
Availability and price: $59.99 on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC
ESRB rating: M
Game Informer rating: 10/10
Metacritic rating: 9.5/10