This is not the BioShock we know. Linked only thematically to the first two titles, BioShock Infinite promises a breath of fresh air - seriously, the other two were set underwater - for veterans, and an open entry point for new players.
It is set in the breakaway city-state of Columbia, the year is 1912, and the world is getting used to the idea of American exceptionalism.
Forget about the city upon a hill, though - this one floats above them all. Up there in the clouds, the citizens have taken their ideals to uncomfortable extremes, under the leadership of a bent prophet. They pray to Washington, Jefferson and Franklin for guidance and then use their wisdom to persecute minorities and perpetuate filthy levels of sexism, all protected by police who wouldn't have been out of place under Hitler.
It is your bad luck to be the prophesied "false shepherd". A veteran of the US Cavalry, Booker DeWitt is tasked with recovering the "lamb" - a mysterious young woman named Elizabeth - and delivering her in order to clear a debt.
You might understand how that might upset the locals. You can deal with them in this first-person shooter using a range of firearms, supernatural abilities, and a clever tool called the Sky-Hook. That allows you to ride overhead cables in a flying fox-like fashion and butcher enemies with brutal efficiency.
Elizabeth is a disapproving accomplice, albeit willing, and she's a great character: a triumph of voice acting, animation and design who out-Disneys cinema's favourite princesses. Mechanically, she is a supporting character whose abilities include opening rifts in space and time to supply Booker with items and tricks, but she provides a blessedly liberal counterpoint to all the happy fascists.
The sound design is top notch, with many layers of incidental audio bringing Columbia to life. Some of the best bits are so subtle that impatient ears will miss them, like the barbershop quartet doing sweet justice to the Beach Boys' God Only Knows, or the clever Cyndi Lauper infusion later on, and don't worry about the apparent anachronisms: the plot has them covered.
Some of the character sprites are too crude to belong in the amazing world they inhabit and that's a shame, because in most other games they'd have been acceptable. It's hard to accept the wooden movements of the holy folk moving through a serene, hymn-filled chapel ostensibly full of joy and peace. It's written everywhere but on the lifeless faces of the characters within, save for the bully who baptises Booker half to death.
Columbia is a big place and you are propelled along at a reasonable pace at most times. That does slow down at points and, if you're prone to wandering, can mess with your focus. This creates an uneasy feeling when contrasted against he heights this game achieves in other areas.
BioShock Infinite is the first game I have played in a while that feels like it has life-changing depth - something I haven't seen in a game since Final Fantasy VII and, for the record, I'm still playing that one regularly. Like a great novel, film, or record, the game feels dangerous and comforting, compelling and distressing. The dense layers of plot, dialogue, music, visuals, and action are packaged almost without fault. BioShock Infinite feels like it might become an all-time great. History will tell.
Platform: Xbox 360, PS3, PC