BioShock Infinite draws you deep into a thrilling alternative past, reimagining the USA of 1912 as a steampunk fantasy of floating cities, clockwork monsters and deadly mystery.
The action takes place in the flying metropolis of Columbia, a spectacular city in the sky founded by Father Comstock: political leader, religious zealot and hardcore nationalist. When former Pinkerton detective Booker DeWitt first arrives in Columbia, the place – a cluster of shifting, hovering islands linked by zeppelins and zip lines – seems almost heavenly. Bathed in sunlight and in the midst of the cheery chatter of its inhabitants, DeWitt could be forgiven for forgetting why he came to Columbia – to rescue Elizabeth, a young woman held captive here since childhood.
Even before he reaches Elizabeth, however, the city's mask begins to slip, and DeWitt finds himself a wanted man. Thanks to a strange mark on his hand, he's soon on the run from Comstock's agents, which include police officers, mechanical militia men and the soulless, sinister Songbird, an avian robot tasked with preventing Elizabeth's escape. Fleeing his pursuers with Elizabeth in tow, Columbia's facade cracks wide open and DeWitt discovers the terrible secrets behind Comstock's surreal city – but will he be able to save himself from the evils all around?
Dazzling, awe-inspiring, breathtaking – all terms that somehow fail to capture the scale of BioShock Infinite's splendour.
The visuals are radiant from the start, when Booker DeWitt finds himself ascending to the top of a storm-buffeted lighthouse, strapped into a chair and rocketed up into the clouds to dock for the first time in Columbia. The city is magnificent, a living, detailed landscape strewn with jaw-dropping vistas. Titanic statues loom out of the blue as zeppelins swim among skyscrapers; every so often, a hummingbird flits from the rose beds to hover before your eyes.
The sound is similarly sublime – literally so at the beginning of the game, when DeWitt finds himself in a flooded temple glimmering with candlelight and resounding to the strains of spiritual songs. Later, when the plot thickens and danger closes in, the initial atmosphere of peace and tranquillity seems ever more inspired for its irony.
Best of all, there's nothing to jolt you from the experience, with intuitive controls and easily accessible inventories ensuring the action flows ever onward. The overall effect is of stepping into a particularly vivid and fantastical dream – one you never want to leave.
Booker DeWitt is a compelling hero. At the outset of the game, little is revealed of his past or personality; all we know is that a shadowy group has forced him to travel to Columbia to free the imprisoned Elizabeth. It is only through his interactions with Comstock's city, its people and eventually Elizabeth herself that we begin to get the measure of the man. His story, as you can imagine, is tantalisingly tortured.
Elizabeth is also central to the game, both as a catalyst for action and as an active participant in it. From the moment of her rescue, she is a constant presence, and her strange, supernatural powers play an important part in DeWitt's attempt to escape Comstock's clutches. Her curiosity and emotional insight open the way to new discoveries, and you'll soon find yourself worrying for her as if she were your own flesh and blood. Luckily, she quickly proves that she can look after herself.
Above it all – even above Columbia, which is a brilliantly realised character in its own right – floats the complex, malevolent figure of Father Comstock. As you progress, you'll sift fragments of fact from the legends that surround him, uncovering the true history of his leadership – and witnessing for yourself how power and ideology can poison even the loftiest ideals.
War in heaven
Combat in BioShock Infinite is fast, frenetic and lots of fun. With loads of different ways to deal death – including a host of plundered firearms and an ever-evolving range of supernatural "vigors", which allow you to throw fireballs, paralyse foes and so on – the trick is to know your arsenal well. That way you can combine the best traditional weaponry with the most fearsome paranormal powers and wipe out anyone who stands in your way.
Every so often, Elizabeth will come to your aid, using her dimension-warping abilities to provide you with handy stuff like gun turrets, and you can also use Columbia's Sky-Line system to get the jump on your enemies from on high.
In BioShock Infinite, combat is a vital part of the story, and with each fight you feel that you're moving towards a greater goal. It's this respect for intelligent narrative and satisfying structure that propels the game forwards and keeps you desperate to find out what happens next. Although of course, endings can't always be happy...