In nearly every way, BioShock Infinite is a great game. It's a brilliant example of art direction that negotiates the limitations of our aging technology with a stylishly unrealistic, beautiful and meticulously crafted world. The sound design is magnificent, from the music soundtrack that spreads its references throughout history, to the sound effects that evoke the machinery of Rapture. The combat is gripping, taking a successful formula and bulking it out in ways that make it more demanding, tactical and entertaining.
You're expecting a 'but', and we've got one. The only place where Infinite falls any distance short of brilliance is in its own audacious plot. Only the last six years of modern Doctor Who prepared us for the confusion, frustration and furious desire to talk about it that BioShock Infinite generates. Ye Gods, will you want to talk about it. You'll hunt down people who've shared the experience, with the words "but wouldn't?" and "surely if?" returning stubbornly to the tip of your tongue.
We'll get back to that. First, Columbia. A city created by an energised American government and set free from the sins of the earthbound Union by the Prophet, Zachary Comstock. It's more impressive than any screenshot can show. An ever-changing palette is given a heavenly sheen by sun-sodden clouds and misty lighting. On your first entrance, you might overlook some of the more subtle touches. Pause to glance from one bobbing island to the next, and you might miss the shop drifting gently into its moorings. Gawp at the inflatable balloons of the Founders, and you might fail to notice the more important golden statue, fizzing and changing gender in the foreground.
Walk full speed through the baptismal chamber, and you might miss the way the floating candles tip and extinguish as you pass. This brought out our GCSE English instinct, reflecting on the symbolism of extinguishing candles in a church. That's the beauty of BioShock Infinite. It begs to be stared at, and deserves to be analysed.
It's such a harmonious place that the beginnings of combat are abrupt. It's entirely natural, though. Even before everyone else knows, you're made aware from the posters around Columbia that the AD tattoo on your hand marks you out as the False Prophet. But it's only when the open racism of Columbia becomes apparent, that your hand is literally forced. The tableau at this uncomfortable event is as theatrical as it is obnoxious, and it arrives with your first binary choice: do you react against this atrocity, with the righteousness of your modern gamer's eyes? Or do you try to blend in with those cheering racists?
BioShock Infinite isn't a game of choices. Most frequently, it revels in the singular option, wisely avoiding the awful multiple endings of BioShock, and the Molyneux-esque moral stupidity of "Kill Child? (Y/N)" Whatever you choose at this spectacle of contemporary intolerance, you're exposed as the prophesised enemy of Columbia, and that's when the combat begins.
It's easy to forget, what with the celebrated sense of importance, that BioShock is a game of simple, creative violence. Booker DeWitt steals, refines and perfects the old physical-magical combo system that BioShock began with a wrench and an Electric Bolt. The range of Vigors may be smaller than the Plasmids (eight, as opposed to 11), but each has a dual function: Devil's Kiss acts as either a grenade or a mine, depending on a tap or a squeeze of LT. Undertow can propel people off ledges for a potential instakill, or draw enemies in for a melee strike. Others are appropriate only on certain enemies: large enemies are immune to the incapacitating bounce of Bucking Bronco, possessing humans requires an expensive upgrade, and using yourself as a battering ram with Charge can leave you in a seriously stupid position.