Note: This review contains spoilers for the 2007 game, BioShock.
It's almost six whole years since Irrational Games came out with the fairly ground-breaking BioShock, way back in August of 2007. That game, billed as a spiritual sequel to Irrational's PC classic System Shock 2, took somewhat of a step back in the RPG department, but for console gamers, there wasn't anything quite like it at the time. Skipping over the wholly unnecessary sequel developed by 2K Marin, and it seems fitting that Irrational will be closing out this console generation similar to how they opened it.
You play as Booker DeWitt, an actual voiced and developed character, unlike the previous game's blank slate, Jack. The underwater city of Rapture is swapped out for the floating city of Columbia, where you are seemingly tasked to "bring back the girl, and wipe away the debt." Gameplay-wise, it's business as usual; if you've played BioShock before, you'll feel right at home, though there have been a few significant changes to the way the combat works in Infinite. There are a standard array of weapons, which all fall into the typical shooter archetypes: a pistol, machine gun, carbine, shotgun, etc. However, this time around, you can only hold two weapons at once, meaning you might want to think more carefully about how you enter an engagement, and be mindful of your ammo counts a bit more often than you necessarily would be in the first game.
The magical powers, called "vigors" this time around (which require salt, as opposed to EVE), are pretty similar, with the biggest change being able to hold down the button to make a trap version of most of them. Traps were their own specific plasmids in the original BioShock, so being able to easily create traps with the regular fire and lightning vigors in Infinite lead me to using traps a hell of a lot more than in the previous game. There's some decent variety in the vigors available, though I found myself sticking to a core few more often than not. The lightning vigor, or "Shock Jockey" is always useful, and the Bucking Bronco vigor lets you easily hit and briefly incapacitate large groups of enemies quickly, and with a few exceptions here and there, I didn't find myself deviating from this all too often.
Gone are the gene tonics from before, with character buffs coming in the form of gear, pieces of loot that you can find that provide a variety of random effects. Having a 70% chance to ignite enemies with a meleé attack, receiving brief invulnerability whenever you use a health recovery item, or your weapon having a 40% chance to instantly have its magazine refill without reloading are some of the effects which can definitely help you out of a sticky situation. Using the Charge vigor to instantly lunge into an enemy from a good distance away, then have him explode into flames upon impact never ceases to be incredibly satisfying. Also, available to buff yourself are Infusions, which are usually found a off the beaten path and each one allows you to increase your shield, health or salt capacity, giving you a little more option for your character than in the older games. You could be like me and try and evenly spread them across each stat, or you could min-max your character and raise your shields super high, at the expense of your health and salt reserves.
The only thing I found to be disappointing about the combat in Infinite was the weapon upgrades. Each weapon has a number of upgrades available to them that can be bought freely from vending machines throughout the game, but the only upgrades available for any of the weapons are standard damage, magazine-size, reload and recoil buffs. Compared to some of the more interesting upgrades in the previous games, as well as the fact the appearance of your weapons don't change after each upgrade, there's no real feeling of progression here. It's only a minor gripe, however, and the combat in Infinite is as fun as ever. It's interesting and there's enough breaks throughout the game that it never starts to feel overwhelming or repetitive.
The story is absolutely where BioShock Infinite shines, however. I obviously can't delve too much into details without encroaching on spoiler territory, but if you go through Infinite expecting a massive plot twist (this is a Ken Levine game, after all), you're not going to have that one particular "would you kindly?" moment from the first game. Although there is a particular twist that stands out, it's a combination of a number of things that come together to create a fantastic and absolutely satisfying conclusion to the story. The game is also absolutely littered with references and foreshadowing, which can make a subsequent playthrough an almost equally great experience.
The characterisation is also top-tier, with Elizabeth being one of the best and most realised video games companions of... well, ever. After first meeting her about an hour or so into the game, she remains by your side for the majority of the rest of your 10-12 hour experience. Outside of combat, she will occasionally find and give you money, and can also be used to lockpick various safes and doors that lead to hidden areas. The game will often remind you that in-combat, you won't have to deal with her as she can "take care of herself". This is because the enemy AI simply ignores her, which can lead to somewhat of a disconnect with that game, but it's something I managed to get over fairly quickly. She will often find and throw you health, salt and ammo in battle, and her special ability lets her use "tears" to call in objects from... somewhere. Again, spoilers. These can range from turrets and cover as well as just general supplies like ammo or med kits. As useful as she in combat though, she's also just a joy to be around. Irrational have very successfully crafted a character that you grow attached to and care about throughout the course of the game.
Irrational Games have created absolute masterclass in video game storytelling with fantastically crafted character arcs that leave you wanting so, so much more. This alongside gameplay that is as competent as ever means that BioShock Infinite is not only going to be one of, if not the best game this year, but one of the best games this entire generation.