BioShock ranks among the top two or three games I've ever played, so my anticipation for Irrational Games' newest entry in the franchise was high. I therefore intend to document my journey through Columbia, the setting for BioShock Infinite, like a tourist visiting a favorite destination (and with more than one photo essay).

In the process, I will try to take screenshots that offer a new perspective on familiar settings for those fans who have taken advantage of the glut of media coverage, while likewise trying to avoid spoilers. Still, I do offer a spoiler alert for those images or descriptions that might offer too much detail than readers want.

Oh goody, now I can wash off all that water from the Atlantic storm I was just in!

The first setting is an iconic lighthouse like the one that opens the original game. I don't recall exactly how the presentation compares, however, I did take notice of blurry textures up close and some jagged edges. Also, water animation appeared more two dimensional than not.

The art design in general is solid, with details befitting the Maine coastal setting. And accents with a religious overtone or more threatening context can effectively make one feel like the proverbial fish out of water. I don't know what Ken Levine has against lighthouses, but in the BioShock universe they are effectively creepy gateways.

The Doors' Break On Through (To the Other Side) is stuck in my head, like this door.

One surprising glitch early on was being able to pass through the wood of a door to the lighthouse (above). Of course it doesn't impact gameplay and is a relatively minor quibble, but for a game so reliant on immersion and atmosphere, such a glaring collision detection issue was jarring.

Little known fact: Turn of the century nightlights used uranium, though not for long.

Among the gameplay options, I believe, is turning off item indicators and other in-game notifications. Given the blinding glare coming off this object (above), that might be an option I consider. It's interesting, though, how some of the same items (like silver coins) had a glint in some areas but not others, irrespective of lighting.

I wish I had faux money to keep in my faux drawers ...

Settings are well designed with the kinds of items one might expect from the early 1900s, though textures unfortunately can lack detail when viewed close up. Of course this is not atypical even for current gen games such as id Software's Rage (which the above reminds me of), but plenty of titles manage more meticulous composition.

He began to regret that his wife had to row to the mainland for the Band-Aids he forgot to pickup.

BioShock's Rapture was an iconic setting filled with beauty and horror, but in BioShock Infinite the developer doesn't wait till gamers progress to Columbia to add some shock value. Irrational Games has proven themselves adept at establishing atmosphere and this title continues that tradition.

Puzzles appear early and while this one was overly simplified it hopefully is a sign of more to come. (The symbols actually are recurrent and tie in with Columbia iconography.) Indeed, I earlier spent time studying a map and schedule in anticipation of possible puzzles later. I do hope there are some hacking games similar to those in the first title.

As in BioShock, the first glimpse of Columbia is an awe-inspiring image. One can only hope that Irrational has succeeded in creating a setting as well conceived and ultimately iconic as Rapture, which was arguably the strongest character in a game filled with memorable figures.

Behold, Comstock Candles! Follow the light to savings, at a store near you.

It's fitting that religious elements are so prominent in a setting among the clouds. Contrasting games, I find it interesting how one descends to Rapture where men rule, but ascends to Columbia (from practically the same lighthouse) where God figures more prominently. Of course, both are seemingly doomed by human frailties.

I don't think it's coincidental that on the way to Rapture (even in the lighthouse if I remember) one confronts at least one statue honoring chief architect Andrew Ryan, whereas on the way into Columbia images of reputed prophet Zachary Hale Comstock greet visitors, both influential men in their respective settings.

Someone forgot to turn off the baptismal font again.

The initial setting in Columbia is a kind of church and from the ubiquitous candles and stained glass to the pews, altars and statues, the design is effectively evocative. But what elevates the design is the layer of water underfoot (above, top) and the hymns that resound throughout the building.

While animation of the Atlantic ocean could seem two dimensional especially when splashing or surging against rocks, the water in the church ripples convincingly and has superior reflective qualities. The effect is sublime. And the choir adds a dimension of depth and contemplative mood wholly befitting the surroundings.

Ted hoped to one day overcome his misfortune as a Columbia care package teddy bear.

Like the buoys, fishing nets and lobster traps found in and around the Maine lighthouse, items in the temple convincingly depict their setting whether the church in particular or early 1900s Americana in general (above). These accents help inform the world of Columbia and can obscure the sometimes rough textures.

The water inside the church not only is a compelling aesthetic but of course has significant religious symbolism especially as a purifying agent. The fact that it also is reminiscent of the leaky underwater setting for Rapture is just icing on a richly designed cake.

A word of note: I think it's the dialog in this scene (above), delivered in the manner of a sermon, that not only reinforces the importance of religion in Columbia but hints at the stereotypes and xenophobia that reportedly permeate the city. It also suggests a possible cult of personality around Comstock.

Penny for your thoughts? And your soul! Mwwahahaha!

The fact that one has to be baptised in order to enter Columbia helps illustrate the degree to which religion is a part of Columbia life. That the scene above reminds me of the film Dark City either is the result of an overactive imagination or a conscious choice to instill a sense of dread in gamers.

"Please, oh please help us fix our Clapper."

The church is an interesting mix of inspired spiritual setting and at times oppressive environment, no doubt setting the stage for the reportedly complex and controversial issues that inform the narrative. This is not unfamiliar ground for Levin and company, who have demonstrated their acumen when weaving interesting, thoughtful stories.

This hummingbird considers poking awake the man in the distance. Never trust a BioShock bird.

At arm's length details do help establish a palpable sense of place. With creative design, impressive scale, a vibrant color palette and inspired locales, Irrational Games continues to solidify its legacy as a studio that raises the bar when it comes to creating vivid virtual worlds.

I've barely scratched the surface of Columbia, but despite minor superficial problems BioShock Infinite's compelling settings and overall imaginative art design beckon me to plunge further into Booker's (and Elizabeth's) story. And if it's anything like Rapture, the overall package including story and gameplay should create a memorable experience.