CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As the final credits scrolled across the screen, accompanied -- fittingly enough -- by a heartfelt rendition of "Will The Circle Be Unbroken?," the true greatness of "BioShock Infinite" revealed itself. For even though the experience itself had come to an end, my struggle to come to grips what had just happened was only beginning.
"BioShock Infinite," like its predecessor, is one of those rare video games that stays with the player long after its conclusion. And just like the original "BioShock," gamers will be talking about "Infinite" for years to come.
"BioShock Infinite" begins with a familiar trip to a lighthouse, but rather than taking another descent into the underwater world of Rapture, protagonist Booker Dewitt is sent skyward into the floating city of Columbia. Set in 1912, Dewitt's trip to the seemingly tranquil city is for the sole purpose of retrieving a girl -- Elizabeth -- and returning her to New York in order to clear a debt. But in true "BioShock" fashion, nothing is quite what it seems in Columbia and soon the war hero-turned-Pinkerton detective finds himself protecting Elizabeth in the midst of civil unrest all while be pursued by a giant robotic bird that is tasked with keeping the girl locked away in her tower.
As was the case with Rapture in the first "BioShock," the city of Columbia is as important a character as any that Dewitt meets in his journey. But whereas Rapture was literally dark and frightening, Columbia's dark and frightening side sits just beneath what is an otherwise idyllic surface. Townsfolk go about their daily routines on streets littered with the prophet Comstock's racist propaganda while in the factory district, workers slave away while being forced to live in slum-like conditions. You feel the tension created by this cultural and economic divide, and it soon boils over into all-out rebellion, all of which further complicates Dewitt's mission.
But the real stars of "Infinite" are Dewitt and Elizabeth.
Early on, Dewitt clearly views the girl as little more than a means to an end. His backstory is revealed slowly through dialogue with Elizabeth and other characters, and despite the many bad things he may have done in his past, it was easy to root for Dewitt to succeed, especially once his true feelings for Elizabeth began to shine through. Indeed, as their relationship grows during the course of the game, Dewitt soon shifts his focus toward keeping Elizabeth safe at all costs. Elizabeth is such a wonderfully written and brilliantly acted character that I couldn't help but feel that obligation to her, too.
Even though it's obvious that, like Columbia, Elizabeth may be hiding a darker side, she is such a sympathetic character that you're willing to risk anything to protect her. From a gameplay standpoint, however, Elizabeth is more than capable of taking care of herself. She regularly offers money and ammo, points out hidden items you may have missed and can unlock doors and safes. She can also access tears in the fabric of time to teleport in weapons and health kits, sometimes swinging the course of a battle in your favor. Best of all, she stays out of the way during combat situations, allowing you to utilize the full complement of your weapons and special powers without having to constantly monitor her safety.
More than anything else in "Infinite," it is the combat that most closely resembles the original "BioShock." Dewitt is armed with an assortment of firearms ranging from traditional pistols and rifles to more elaborate weapons like rocket launchers as well as vigors - "Infinite's" version of "BioShock's" plasmids. These vigors allow you to set enemies on fire, levitate them in the air, force them to fight on your side or attack with a flock of crows, to name a few. Like plasmids, these vigors can be upgraded and made even more powerful and, when combined with new stat-boosting clothing items, transform Dewitt into a formidable foe for any opponent. These vigor attacks, along with the standard weapons and the ability to use the sky rail system to quickly traverse many battlefields, gives the combat in "Infinite" an open feel that allows you to cater battles to your play style.
Enemies range from basic human soldiers to frighteningly fantastic creations like the Handyman -- a giant half-man, half-machine whose agility belies his immense size -- and the motorized Patriots, mechanized chain-gun toting replicas of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Given the variety of enemies and your arsenal, no two battles ever felt the same and I often found myself barely surviving each encounter. And even though there are no Vita Chambers on Columbia, death doesn't result in a severe penalty, instead only costing you some cash.
If there's one area in which "Infinite" comes up short when compared to the original "BioShock," it's the visuals. Whereas "BioShock" raised the bar with its ambiance and use of lighting in 2007, "Infinite" simply doesn't have that "wow" factor in 2013. It's not ugly, but the colors aren't as vibrant and the textures can't compare to some of today's graphical goliaths. The audio is excellent, with superb voice work bringing to life all the major players. And the soundtrack is likewise impressive, especially its use of some rather creative remixes.