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It's been a long wait for the third installment in the Bioshock franchise, and after the critical acclaim heaped on the first two games, hype was appropriately sky-high. Before dicussing whether that clamour was justified, however, a caveat is called for - contrary to much of what you might have seen relating to the game, this is no blood-soaked shoot 'em-up. Sure, there's plenty of sending enemies tumbling from rooftops with sniper rifles and no small amount of wasting grunts with shotguns to the face - but for every clip of ammunition, there's more than a dollop of quantum physics and mind-bending plot twists.
But if you've ever played Bioshock, you knew to expect that, right? This is a game as cerebral as it is stirring.
~~~ The City in the Clouds ~~~
Set in 1912, some three decades before the underwater city of the first two games was even built, we join our protagonist Booker Dewitt in a rain-blasted rowing boat off the coast of Maine. He is bound for Columbia, a floating sky-city which ceded from the United States years back and disappeared into the clouds. He is handed a case containing a photograph of a young lady and a pistol, and is reminded of his mission: Find the girl, clear the debt.
Imprisoned somewhere within this labyrinthine fortress in the clouds is Elizabeth, the girl in question. He is tasked with bringing her back to New York, but knows nothing of his employers' motives. As he arrives in Columbia, however, one thing quickly becomes clear - they aren't going to give her up without a fight.
Columbia, like the below-the-waves city of Rapture before it, is at once a utopia that speaks of the greatness of human ambition and a damning indictment of the darker side of our species. It is an architectural and scientific marvel, yet is riven by racial tensions and jarring inequality. Ruled by a prophetic leader named Comstock who preaches in biblical tones and seems to have foreseen Booker's arrival, it is a place with much to hide - and getting his hands on the girl looks like being only the start of our hero's problems.
~~~ Best of Three? ~~~
Comparison with the game's predecessors are natural; not only were the Bioshocks 1 and 2 gripping action-adventures, they were set in a world that was a haunting masterpiece of conception and creation. Rapture was quite simply stunning, and it would have been understandable if Irrational - the makers of the title - had chosen to set the third adventure in the same hugely-lauded setting. Bravely, however, Columbia is a world apart - at least visually.
The same dystopian dynamic underpins the city, but it couldn't look much more different. A sun-washed, gleaming metropolis, it is also alive and fully-functioning, giving the experience a very different feel to that of Rapture, a crumbling wreck scarred by civil war. The graphics are simply exceptional, and never miss a beat - just exploring the environment is a joy.
In other ways as well the game follows this familiar-but-different riff, including an intriguing nod to the original at the climax. Gamplay largely follows the patterns established by the first two games; explore the city to uncover a variety of power-ups and unearth more about the story, then dispatch enemies with a combination of conventional weapons and unnatural powers - here called Vigors (previously Plasmids). Where before they were injected, now they are drunk, and alongside some old favourites like the abilities to throw electricity and fire, you can also summon hordes of bloodthirsty crows to do your bidding, or sweep your enemies away with torrents of water. Just as certain Plasmids could be cunningly used in combination with the environment to dispatch of your foes (the abundance of water made electricity a natural ally), so too can Vigors be twinned with the world around you. It's great fun to use the waves created by Undertow to sweep attackers off the edges of Columbia and plummetting to their doom.
There are new guns too, but this part of the gameplay has never been Bioshock's strength - indeed, it's true that for all of the franchise's visual glitz and gripping storytelling, it hides a pretty pedestrian shooter. A good number of the battles are pretty mundane, the fighting a little repetitive and the enemies not all that different save for the extent to which they can take a beating. There are some exceptions, such as the creepy-as-anything Boys of Silence that fleetingly appear towards the game's climax, but for the most part, the shooting is just something to get out of the way so that the story can progress.
Still, what a story.
You quickly work out that something's not right about Columbia, but you never quite piece it all together until the game's dazzling finale. What makes the big reveal so effective when it finally comes is not just the culmination of great plotting, but expert characterisation, too. The creators of the game invest real time and effort in fleshing out the key players in this drama, especially Booker and Elizabeth, and so involved are you in the action, you can't held but sit on the edge of your seat as the story builds to its stunning conclusion. It's not the kind of thing you expect from a video game, but it's increasingly what Bioshock delivers. The plot isn't of the type that saw the about-face twist of the original Bioshock, but in some ways it's better - it certainly makes you think a whole lot more.
~~~ High Hopes ... Realised? ~~~
I expected so much from Bioshock Infinite that at the back of my mind, I was almost simultaneously anticipating disappointment. However - the game delivers, layering depth and atmosphere on top of a story that hooks you and reels you in before a stellar endgame. Perhaps the greatest strength of the title is that it pairs epic scale - vast showdowns with hordes of enemies, and some seriously big and daunting overarching themes - with the up-close and intimate; characters that make the game tick and provide a connection that brings it all to life.
After the original Bioshock, there was a danger of diminishing returns - certainly the second in the series lacked the freshness and intensity of its forebearer. By relocating this installment, though, and laying on a story that's enormously ambitious, this is every bit as much a triumph as the first in the franchise. Gaming just doesn't get much better than this.