by Michael Wense

¬†Whether you’re a musician, a writer, or a video game studio, follow-ups are hard. Especially when you have a product that makes an impact like the original BioShock made on the video game industry back in 2007. The pressure of living up to the experience of the original can often result in a let-down, but luckily, developer Irrational Games has shucked the sophomore album syndrome by producing one of the best video game experiences of the year so far.

BioShock Infinite takes place in the early 20th century among the clouds, on the fictional floating city of Columbia. Players interact with the world through the eyes of Booker DeWitt, a man tasked with recovering a young woman named Elizabeth for an unnamed employer in New York City. Along the way, DeWitt finds himself up against a fierce protectorate for the girl–people who believe that she’s destined to lead them in spreading the ultra-conservative ideals of their leader, Comstock–in addition to a separatist faction of revolutionaries called the Vox Populi looking to overthrow Comstock’s harsh rule.

The game is a first-person shooter filled with pistols, machine guns, and RPGs, but the more interesting combat aspect comes from “vigors,” semi-magical endowments that let you throw fireballs, electrify enemies, and send flocks of ravenous crows at unsuspecting baddies.

But while combat is a big element of the game, it’s the story that makes BioShock Infinite a must-play.

One of the biggest (and, in my opinion, most interesting) trends in video games today is the emphasis on taking players on a narrative journey. Infinite weaves together a tale that engages players and makes them confront some unsettling themes.

The story doesn’t shy away from taking a hard look at the potential horrors of revolution, racism, and religion. In one scene early on, the player is forced into a choice whether or not to throw a baseball at an interracial couple put on display by the ultra-conservative townspeople.

One of the game’s most impressive feats (aside from the visuals, which look fantastic) is the AI behind Elizabeth, who becomes something of a traveling companion fairly early on. Whereas some games might be content to have you playing protector, here Elizabeth is smart enough to hold her own. In combat, she’s able to help you by tossing ammo or health packs your way. She can also open up transdimensional rifts to give you access to weapons, cover, and more.

Seriously, the AI behind Elizabeth is fantastic, and she has personality. Not since Half-Life 2‘s Alyx has a game companion been so multi-layered and fun to be around.

Also fun are Columbia’s Sky-Lines, railways traversing the city that Booker is able to latch onto via a rotating hook he scores early on in the game. The Sky-Lines add some vertical fun to things, letting you leap up and zoom around levels, dodging fire until launching off and landing on enemies.

Whether you’ve played the earlier BioShock games or not doesn’t matter. The game’s a standalone adventure that you can pick up and immediately start losing yourself in the crazy, awe-inspiring world that’s been set up.

Even with being so story-focused, the game has a good amount of replayability, too. Columbia has a good number of nooks and crannies to explore, rewarding you with new gear to give Booker different offensive and defensive traits and achievements (or trophies, depending on your platform) for discovering things like audio recordings and other secrets.

BioShock Infinite is one of those games that can be recommended wholeheartedly. Seriously, do not miss this game.

Check it out on Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 at your local Slackers today.