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BioShock Infinite review: Cloud nine

Irrational Games' latest creation is bold, beautiful and as far from God as heaven is wide...

"If you have nothing to hide," inquires a demented robot dressed as an American patriot, while indiscriminately firing into a crowd, "then why do you run?" Welcome to the skybound state of Columbia, where madness, paranoia and state-funded terror rule. Welcome to BioShock Infinite.

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The reality is a far cry from first impressions. You gingerly ease yourself out of the cramped vessel that brought you to this place and survey the strange new surroundings. There's the same sense of fear and foreboding knotting your stomach as when you first descended into Rapture all those years ago. But the vibe here is different. BioShock's underwater city quickly marked itself out as hell on earth, but this time it seems you've ascended to a better place.

The room is a brilliant white, your path demarcated by candles dripping with religious subtext. Endless, chaffing, maddening whiteness eventually gives way to a picturesque garden, where hummingbirds zip around your head like something out of a Disney film, and robed disciples drink in the nectar of tranquility. Despite the soothing surroundings, there's still a stifling menace about the place, as though you're in the eye of a storm.

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"Where am I?" your character asks, vomit from the journey still evident in his throat.

"Friend, you're in heaven," comes the reply, "or at least, the closest we'll ever get to it." But as you'll come to learn, Columbia is as far from heaven as angels can fly.

Infinite boasts a bold and intelligent storyline that's unafraid to touch upon subjects which are traditionally seen as taboo in games

THE NEW WORLD

This is what the BioShock series does so well. It creates a beautiful, fantastical, improbable new universe, and then dumps you right in the middle of the hornet's nest without even telling you that the wasps can sting. As with Rapture, you begin your voyage with a clean mental slate. You know nothing about this new world you've been rudely thrust into, and so around every corner is a new discovery. As before, you learn the surreal through the mundane - posters on the walls hint at the populations's unhealthy preoccupation with ideas of patriotism and nationality; audiologs and kinetographs reveal the tumulterous events that have led Columbia to its current precarious state, one reveal at a time.

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Again mirroring Rapture, these messages are presented with an upbeat, optimistic slant, but it's already too late for a happy ending. By the time you start to piece together the true story about the foundations on which Columbia have been built, they've already long since begun to crumble.

An imperious city levitating high above the clouds, Columbia does seem at first glance to be closer to heaven that hell. But like Icarus, it's floating too close to the Sun, and it's on the verge of crashing and burning. Since seceding from the United States, the ruling Founders of Columbia have grown paranoid and weary, and their politics of hate - most notably their hardline stance against ethnic mixing - has raised the ire of a renegade group known as Vox Populi. The whiff of Civil War hangs in the air like a gas leak, and you're the one that's about to light the fuse.

As Booker Dewitt, an indebted New York investigator, you're catapulted into Columbia with the task of rescuing and returning a young woman to his creditors. Easy, right? Not only is said woman the apparent heir to the throne, but she has also been imprisoned in a giant statue for the last 12 years, where she's guarded by a metallic winged guardian named Songbird.

The whiff of Civil War hangs in the air like a gas leak, and you're the one destined to light the fuse

Busting Elizabeth (for that is her name) out of jail marks the beginning of the story rather than the end. For the most part she accompanies you in your attempt to escape an increasingly anarchic Columbia. Although unskilled in combat she is adept at avoiding confrontation, and occupies herself during firefights by scavenging dead bodies for health, ammo et al and tossing them to you on demand. As Elizabeth learns more about her fearsome powers, she gains the ability to drag in objects from another dimension - such as turret guns, grapple hooks and cover.

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But this is no buddy movie. Booker and Elizabeth endure an ever-fluctuating and difficult relationship as the games progresses, as Booker learns of Elizabeth's terrible true nature and Elizabeth learns of Booker's ignoble intentions. More pertinently they seem to learn about themselves too, as the plot escalates and reality turns out to be not what it seems.

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