Computer games are not typically big on learning experiences, but the Bioshock games buck this trend big time. The first two, which I haven't played, are set in an underwater city called Rapture where the ideals of objectivism – of the Ayn Rand kind – rule supreme. The third, Bioshock Infinite, takes place in a floating city called Columbia where the veneer of a sunny day out at the carnival or the beach hides the dark world of racism, religious fundamentalism and political intolerance underneath.
On its surface the game is a simple shoot-em-up with elements of role-playing thrown in for good measure. You have the ability to take on enemies with traditional weapons such as guns and rockets as well as more supernatural weapons called vigours. Vigours allow you to summon a murder of crows, pull enemies towards you with a watery lasso and possess people and machines to fight on your side. How you use these is up to you and having the right combination of traditional and supernatural weapons on hand will determine how easy or difficult your progress through the game is. My favourite vigours were possession and murder of crows.
Without giving away too much of the plot, the story is pretty simple: you are a world-weary ex-Pinkerton detective called Booker de Witt who is dispatched by forces unseen to recover a girl called Elizabeth from Columbia. You do this in order to pay off a debt that was incurred in a way that is never entirely clear. The first small section has you wandering the streets of Columbia taking in the atmosphere and marvelling at the beauty of the place. At this point I was so blown away by the level of detail in the game that any fighting would have ruined it for me. You can imagine that your character would have been equally gob-smacked upon landing in Columbia, making this a perfect introduction to the world in which you are going to be spending a good few hours.
Combat, when it starts, is relatively straightforward – spot the enemies and take them out with whatever weapons you have at hand. The world is designed to keep you on the designated path. This is not an open world environment and while there are small areas that you can choose to explore there was no point in the game where I was unable to easily determine where I should be going next. And if this was a problem, a left click brings up a green arrow showing you the path to your next objective. Right from the start it is clear that this is a game that is about the story, and everything else is there to support it.
Also, once you find Elizabeth you have a willing ally who scrounges health, ammunition and other supplies and throws them to you in a moment of need. The number of times this will save your bacon is impossible to count. Luckily you never have to keep Elizabeth alive (she has a remarkable knack of staying away from bullets) so you can focus on the task at hand, which is killing anything that moves. She is the heart of the game and while your character is more important to the story than you might realise, the designers have done a magnificent job of making her a real person instead of a cardboard princess in a tower who needs to be rescued.
The story takes a number of twists and turns and I ended up sitting on the couch afterwards thinking: "Did that just happen? I didn't see that happening." I can warn you that you should prepare yourself to be confused about exactly which version of reality you are in at any given time. However, once you learn to stop worrying and love the tear, that confusion evaporates.
The game is not perfect. Combat could be better, there are times where you are presented with the option of doing something good or bad but these choices are largely superficial and have no bearing on the ultimate outcome of the game. If you want that kind of game you should stick to Mass Effect.
These criticisms are minor. The brilliance of the game is that it knows exactly where its strength lies and exploits that. It delivers in spades where it matters and you won't notice where it doesn't. I would lay money down that when it comes time to name the game of 2013, Bioshock Infinite will be one of the top contenders. This is one you shouldn't miss.
Did I mention the story?
Some choices have no repercussions
Combat is OK