UNDATED (USA TODAY) -- Think back about this video game console generation and its greatest moments, and near the very top is 2007's BioShock. It's a game that sticks in players' heads for countless reasons: the underwater setting of Rapture, the Big Daddy, Andrew Ryan, those crazy vending machines dispersing ammo, weapons and superpowers.
BioShock was also a shining example of video game storytelling. Players weren't interrupted by canned cut scenes, but learned about Rapture through hidden tape recordings, signs or messages scrawled on walls or other clues.
Studio Irrational Games hopes to capture similar magic with "spiritual successor" BioShock Infinite, a spectacular journey that should remind video game players why this franchise is among the best at telling stories and staging explosive combat filled with diversity.
BioShock moves from the depths of the sea to above the clouds, as players explore the steampunk-inspired sky city of Columbia in 1912. The floating metropolis teems with American pride, led by the mysterious prophet Zachary Comstock. Players follow lead character Booker DeWitt, an agent hunting down a young woman named Elizabeth, who is protected by the powerful Songbird.
The story unravels as players weave through the lively streets of Columbia, with hot dog vendors selling food or kids playing by a fire hydrant. They spot signs urging Columbia citizens to protect the seed of the prophet and watch for a false shepherd that might lead them astray. Through Voxophones and Kinetoscopes scattered throughout the world, players learn more about Booker, Elizabeth and how Columbia was born.
As with the first BioShock, Infinite always seems to dangle that narrative carrot in front of you to keep moving, such as a fresh discovery that unearths more questions about Booker's mission. It also touches on mature themes players might not encounter in a video game, including faith, religion, government and racism, to name a few. Columbia also hosts an ongoing struggle between the city's Founders and the rebellious Vox Populi. The results are a story that's both fascinating and -- as it nears its conclusion -- shocking.
The setting is very different from the original BioShock, yet Infinite retains a lot of the franchise's DNA through its combat system and mechanics. Plasmids are replaced by Vigors, elixirs that bestow players with special powers. Possession allows players to briefly control human or robotic foes, while Bucking Bronco suspends enemies in the air for easy shooting with a broad arsenal of weapons. Instead of EVE from the first BioShock, players manage Salts to use Vigors. Even the zany vending machines return, this time with 1912 flair. Players scrounge for food, ammo and salts in barrels, crates, desks and other objects.
Most of Booker's movement is by foot and through the air via Skyhook, a contraption he wears to zip across the city's various skylines. Along with navigation, skylines come in handy when surprising enemies with vicious aerial strikes.
The Booker-Elizabeth relationship is integral to Infinite's experience. She seems constantly engaged, whether dancing along a beach boardwalk or choosing between brooches at a shop. Elizabeth also creates inter-dimensional tears that open portals to other worlds. During combat, Elizabeth can pull items into Booker's universe to assist in battle, such as health packs, turrets, or more powerful weapons.
She also tosses Booker health packs, salts or ammo whenever he's in a bind. If she spots money, she'll pick it up and toss it to Booker. Elizabeth is able to play a key role throughout the game without players ever feeling like they must manage her presence.
When combining Elizabeth's abilities with Booker's stable of Vigors and firearms, players end up with highly diverse combat that never feels dull. For example, players can use Murder of Crows followed by Devil's Kiss to unleash a flurry of flaming birds at enemies, or launch foes in the air with Bucking Bronco and use a grenade launcher style Volley Gun to wipe them out. Players are never low on options during battle.
Infinite might not have a villain as memorable as the Big Daddy, but the roster of beefier foes can be just as challenging. The Handyman is a beast that leaps across environments slamming foes, while the Motorized Patriot is an animatronic recreation of George Washington hunting down Booker with a chain gun.
If there's any knock to BioShock Infinite, it's that replayability is limited once the 15-hour campaign wraps up. There's a much tougher 1999 Mode where enemies are stronger, navigation is shut off, and food items do less to replenish health. Players can also revisit the campaign to uncover more Voxophones or Kinetoscopes, as well as other hidden secrets, but not much else beyond that.
However, there are so many things BioShock Infinite does right that it's really difficult to ignore. Between the story, characters and action, Infinite is easily one of this year's best interactive endeavors.
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: Irrational Games
Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Rating: M for Mature
Release Date: March 26
Score: 4 stars (out of 4)