The year is 1912, you are Booker DeWitt – a former soldier turned private investigator – who gambled, and got in deep with the sharks. Desperate to clear his slate, Booker is offered a deal – find a girl called Elizabeth and bring her to New York, and all debts are paid. The only problem is that this girl isn't even on Earth – she's in the clouds floating by above it. She's in the floating city of Columbia – a paradise of man-made technologies and religious enlightenment. Or is it?
After a dark, dramatic opening, Booker finds himself being shot into the sky, eventually docking with the floating city, and entering a dark world which will leave you questioning everything – be it religion, faith, technology, the law, morals or race issues.
Ruled over by self-proclaimed prophet Father Comstock, Columbia is a rogue nation which outwardly looks idyllic, but scratch beneath its veneer of steampunk American power and you quickly find just how rotten the soul of humanity is – and what it will take to finish the job.
Anyone familiar with the previous Bioshock titles – or even System Shock before them – will be instantly at home with the world of Bioshock Infinite. The game follows the conventions laid down by its predecessors – combining shooting with various 'vigors' that offer special powers, such as the ability to summon a swarm of crows, throw fire or suspend your enemies in the air.
A powerful melee attack is also available in the form of the 'skyhook' - a mechanical device which allows the people of Columbia to zip around the city's many floating environments via 'skylines', like personal monorails. It also allows Booker to decapitate his enemies with a meaty 'crunch'.
This triumvirate of weapons, vigors and skyhook makes the meat of the game very enjoyable, and offers a considerable challenge on the harder difficulties – it is, however, let down by a slightly awkward radial menu, which can make switching between vigors tricky while a 'fireman' is belching flames over your bare arms.
The game's lengthy campaign takes pains to place the player in a series of stunning, complicated environments, and keeps throwing objectives at you which make sense – but often come from left-field. However, unlike the previous titles Infinite indulges in wide-open spaces and rewards exploration.
Whereas the underwater world of Rapture featured in the previous Bioshock titles would often become a corridor-shooter, Infinite indulges in swooping battles on skylines, duels against hovering zeppelins and complicated puzzles which leave you scratching your head if you move off the beaten path. Add to this the abilities offered by Bookers' erstwhile companion – the mysterious Elizabeth – and the action ramps up a notch.
Once rescued (or was she?) Elizabeth's abilities quickly come to light. She can open 'tears' in reality, and pull things through to aid Booker in the fighting – such as ammo or health, cover, weapons or robot warriors. Exactly how she can do this is a source of deep concern for both Booker and the people of Columbia, but he isn't going to overlook her mysterious powers when they can keep him from being smashed into red paste by a chaingun-toting robotic George Washington…
The world of Columbia is a masterpiece of art design, both graphically and musically. It's clear that 2K have put their all into creating a world for the player to inhabit, and the environments you have to cross, be it a floating city or a gargantuan, military-themed theme park (complete with impossible waterfall and its own beach) never fail to amaze, and looking into the distance to watch the buildings of the city rise and fall on the clouds is simply stunning.
The score and voice acting is also excellent, pulling off both creepy atmosphere and uplifting melody at the same time – all backed up by both recorded and live conversations between Columbia's many NPCs, which offer an insight into just how broken the heart of the city is, beneath the shining exterior of progress.
Exploring the city via the skylines is a delight in itself – especially as Columbia feels alive in a way that Rapture never did – bustling with people – people who always have their own agenda. You're only passing through to clear your debt, but expect to be drawn into a wider plot, a revolution and many other unexpected twists along the way.
My one sticking point, however, is that despite the great art design, Columbia's beauty is often let down by the Xbox 360's ageing hardware. Up close the textures are often poor, and if you look too closely at the distant floating buildings you can see them for the 2D cutouts they really are. It's rather disappointing to come through an opening replete with flowing water, uplifting hymns, candlelight and mist in the air, then spot a poster for a robotic toy that is out of focus and grainy – it's jarring to the eye, and can spoil the immersion somewhere.
However, despite this, Bioshock: Infinite aimed high – and hit its target right in the clouds. In a sweeping, intense, lengthy campaign, the player is brought face-to-face with the darker side of human nature, even as the beauty and modernity of Columbia floats by serenely. There's so much to do and see here that replay value is assured, and you won't be disappointed.
Reviewed on Xbox 360
Check out Andy Hemphill's blog, which you can find after the jump