Before rising into the beatific clouds and getting lost in the wonder and tragedy that is Columbia, let me state clearly: There is not a serious gamer alive today who shouldn't drop everything and play "Bioshock Infinite."
From the moment you arrive in this cloud city to the final moments, the awe that awaits you is a masterpiece of storytelling and gaming.
Instead of arriving in Rapture -- the setting of earlier "Bioshock" games -- where basic services and humanity had long since deteriorated, you show up in Columbia at its economic zenith. Industry hums along and the people are cheery and gleeful, yet you sense an undercurrent that all is not right.
Soon you discover harsh realities about this supposed utopia -- a hyper-religious aura and massively overt racism. Columbia is an unsettling place, but only to you the outsider, and once you are branded an anti-Christ figure, it's all-out war between you and the inhabitants of this floating metropolis.
You play as Booker DeWitt, a private investigator from New York sent to Columbia in 1912. The game attacks your eyes and ears in every amazing way possible, as the city lives and breathes as a World's Fair exposition in the sky, with gleaming white turn-of-the-century buildings and equally white citizens that revel in the splendor of their own achievements.
Yes, you shoot guns and partake in other fetch quests and tropes you've experienced in other games of the genre. But pinning the first-person-shooter label on "Infinite" does enormous disservice to the gameplay. You can grapple and glide along the high-speed rails that connect parts of the city; consume Vigors (think plasmids from the original games) that unleash special magic and environmental powers onto enemies; discover Voxophones, which tell you gripping backstories to the events of the city as it slowly crumbles around you. With so much to do, at no point do you worry with how much time it takes to uncover it all.
"Bioshock Infinite" also tackles one of gaming's more historical failures: the companion artificial-intelligence character. Usually these partners remain devoid of usefulness and tact, often putting themselves in harm's way, getting in the way or just otherwise reminding the player of their overall annoyance. Here we get Elizabeth, an atypical damsel in distress. Yes, she needs rescuing, but she's far from a pushover and comes with powers of her own and a wicked mechanical protector called Songbird.
Visually, the game excels in almost every facet, while audibly the city feels alive with machines constantly at work and multiple characters and experiences to eavesdrop on. The story crackles with insights and examinations on faith, American exceptionalism and race. The game works best when you make difficult character decisions and see the outcome three (or 13) hours later instead of instantly.
Developers have complained about the need for new consoles like the upcoming PlayStation 4 and the Xbox "Insert Future Name Here" to take video gaming to the next level. But if there were more games in the stratosphere of "Bioshock," I think we'd have less concern about new technology and more interest in mastering what already exists.
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC
Publisher: 2K Games
ESRB Rating: M, for Mature
Grade: 5 stars (out of 5)
(Follow Chris Campbell @campbler or email him at email@example.com.)