BioShock Infinite is a game better than the sum of its parts.
Even by last gen's standards, it doesn't have the best graphics. Its textures and models would need work to stand up to something like The Last of Us.
The shooting gameplay is competent but not as tightly designed as a major military FPS. It's essentially a carbon copy of the systems from the original BioShock, released six years earlier.
The story is dense and in some places left unexplained. Some say it leans too heavily on the Deus Ex Machina.
I don't care about any of that. BioShock Infinite is not a game that should be broken down into numbered categories at the bottom of the page to create an averaged score. It's a game that should be assessed based on the full experience. And from my experience, BioShock Infinite is the best game of the seventh console generation.
The graphical fidelity of BioShock Infinite isn't on par with the best of the seventh console generation, but it is still the most gorgeous game of its time. The strength of BioShock Infinite is the aesthetic, not its texture quality. Irrational didn't intend to create a photorealistic world, they wanted to make a beautiful world in which to tell their story. One that would demonstrate the themes of the story through the environment and carry weight with its destruction.
The same people who would tell you it's not the best looking game on the console would also praise the games comprised mainly of brown dirt and gray buildings—Infinite is original. The design of Columbia, the turn of the century aesthetic set above the clouds, provides things not seen in any other game. There are views in Infinite that will take your breath away; there is design that will make you stop just to look around. That is the strength of a game with great design over one that has great systems.
BioShock Infinite does not look like real life, it looks better. Every graphical choice in the game serves to build the game's amazing environment and serve its incredible story. There are so many times in this game that I stopped just to look around at the impossibly beautiful Columbia that I couldn't care less about an apple with a few corners.
Its gameplay is fun. Its shooting mechanics aren't as tight as a Call of Duty or Battlefield and the systems aren't revolutionary, but playing it is a blast. The plasmid/shooting system remains satisfying throughout. It has just enough variety in guns and powers to keep things fresh but not enough to feel excessive. The addition of the Skyline system keeps the speed of the combat up and lets it take place over large areas—it gives you a great sense of freedom and makes you feel powerful.
The gameplay also does an incredible job informing the story. You are supposed to love Elizabeth. She's kind, she's smart, she's skilled and her naivety and lack of experience clash effectively with all the terrible characters you meet, including yourself. If all this were established in cutscenes and set-pieces, it would probably be enough, but her presence in combat endears her infinitely more to the player. You're escorting her but she's never in danger. This means that the "escort mission" problem of hating your companion (see Resident Evil 4) is never an issue. She also finds ammo, health and salts to toss you in the thick of battle, and her powers allow you to change the battlefield on the fly. It all makes the game feel like Elizabeth and Booker vs. The World rather than Booker vs. The World and Elizabeth is Also There.
The story is engaging, original and well-told. Kicked off in medias res with Booker's mission to retrieve Elizabeth to wipe out his debts. It becomes a story about conflict, loss, family, race, equality, revolution and multiverse theory without ever feeling forced. The story is told adeptly through gameplay, through conversation and through classic game mechanics.
The Voxophone collection provides a massive amount of important information, to the point that missing one or two can drastically change your understanding of the story. This is smartly done to provide players the means to acquire as much story as they want. If you're intrigued by what you hear in early messages, you'll hunt down more and gain understanding; if you're there for the shooting, then you can ignore them.
This also demonstrates smart design. Gamers like collecting things; it gives a sense of accomplishment, lengthens the game and theres probably an achievement for it. So if people are expecting it why not use it as a story delivery device and avoid monologues or massive amounts of reading?
The story is brought to life perfectly by spectacular performances, specifically Courtnee Draper as Elizabeth and Jennifer Hale & Oliver Vaquer as the Luteces. The key story concerning the girl and her extraordinary powers is intriguing and explained just enough for understanding but left ambiguous enough to allow discussion. Its ambiguity and various ways of interpretation are what make this game's story special. It poses questions to the player that can have you thinking idly about the conclusion long after you've put down the controller.
All this would make a fantastic game, but what makes it the best of the seventh generation? It is how every part of the game lends itself perfectly to the creation of moments. To me, BioShock Infinite is a game of moments.
The moment your rocket breaks the clouds and you see Columbia: "Hallelujah"
The tutorial sequence at the fair, which elegantly introduces the gameplay to you while also establishing the environment.
The anachronistic music, which serves to develop the world that Columbia exists in.
The moment you first meet the Luteces behind the gate and flip the coin. You see the number of times the coin has come up heads. Later, after you've gotten further in the story, you might start to think if the coin flips were more about you.
When you are given a choice between the Bird and the Cage and because choices in games matter, you pick one that means something to you. A small interaction that hammers in a major theme of the story 6 hours later.
The first time you go into a tear and realize something truly strange is going on with the Luteces.
When you find a guitar and Elizabeth sings, a moment of peace for both characters.
The moment your nose bleeds and you realize who Comstock really is.
The moment Elizabeth takes you and Songbird to Rapture. A fanservice callback to an old game that actually makes sense in the story.
These are moments that give me goosebumps to this day. They are moments that make you pause the game to just think and say "...shit." These were the moments that made me play Infinite three times back to back and spend days on the Internet listening to podcasts, reading story analyses and looking at timeline charts.
BioShock Infinite is a game that stays with you, and it's not about graphics or guns or trophies but about how every part of the game comes together to create one of the most unforgettable experiences you can have with a controller in hand.
And that's why it's the best game of the seventh generation.