When the BioShock torch was passed on to 2K Marin for BioShock 2, it seemed all but certain that Irrational Games (creators of the first BioShock) would move on to something new, or at least anything without BioShock in the title. This was the belief of many until yesterday, when I sat down in a haughty New York City hotel for the unveiling of BioShock Infinite.
After teasing the familiar underwater scenery the series is known for, the trailer reveals BioShock Infinite for the skyward sequel it actually is. The CG trailer took us through a first-person roller coaster ride of what can best be described as Rapture meets Pixar’s Up.
That’s the trailer, and that’s all you’re going to get to see (for now), so if you’re like me you might have been a little put off by it. I mean, of all things Irrational Games chose to stick with BioShock; I’d say that was a surefire surprise. After all-but abandoning the series, Irrational’s return seems almost Infinity Ward-esque, providing the real sequel while another studio (2K Marin) kept 2K’s investors happy.
That’s the pessimistic view, and if you come out of the trailer thinking that way I don’t blame you. But after seeing a live, real-time demonstration of the game in action my thoughts quickly did a 180.
BioShock Infinite is a sequel in name and themes, but other than that it’s its own beast. It’s admirable; rather than revisiting the same material, Infinite is a brand new, unique, fascinating world. Once again you’ll explore a place that’s new and mysterious — a city in the sky built on the ambition of the American dream.
When Irrational’s creative director, Ken Levine, stopped in the middle of the presentation to give us a brief history lesson – the state of America at the turn of the century and it’s empirical attempt to annex the Philippines – it was more than flavor text. Just as Bioshock explored the downfall of an Ayn Randian utopia, Infinite sets its sights high with an alternate history breakdown of America during its meteoric rise to superpower status.
Its world, a city in the sky known as Columbia, is thick with patriotic imagery. Take every bit of Victorian architecture you’ve ever seen, stick some balloons on the bottom, cover it in American flags, and you’re only scratching the surface. It’s vibrant, lively, even hopeful, and yet, the truth is revealed as soon as we meet Columbia’s inhabitants.
BioShock Infinite begins as a rescue mission. You play as Booker DeWitt, a former Pinkerton agent sent to the floating city of Columbia to rescue a woman named Elizabeth. She’s the one using telekinesis in the trailer, and that’s only scratching the surface of her abilities. The rescue mission quickly morphs into Booker and Elizabeth working together to survive, using their powers in tandem against hordes of enemies.
The in-game demonstration began with a brief stroll down the streets of Columbia. The first thing that stood out was the perfect visual density they’ve established. Similar to the original BioShock, Infinite is a game that invites players to become enthralled with the world around them. To Booker’s left, a horse-drawn carriage passed by, complete with a seemingly mechanical, or at least heavily-armored horse. Propaganda posters lined the streets, a statue grasped an American flag, and a politician dressed as Uncle Sam was the first person that attempted to murder Booker.
From there things quickly escalated. The combat in BioShock Infinite is familiar, but if Cliff Blezinski were around, he’d probably describe it as bigger, better, and more badass. The first difference is the distance that combat can be engaged in. Booker began with a sniper rifle, picking off enemies on adjacent floating islands. When it came time to progress, he used a hook to zip-line from one island to another via Columbia’s rail-line. These moments were spectacular to see in motion – the mode of transport is essentially a vertigo-inducing roller coaster ride. Not only that, but enemies can use them too. In one moment, the player crossed paths with an enemy zip-liner and knocked them off into oblivion.
As the demo proceeded, we saw a whole slew of abilities for Booker. Telekinesis was used to toss cannon shells back at enemies, a dash attack allowed him to push one poor soul off of a ledge, and there was even a new version of the bee swarm called “murder of crows” (I think you can figure that one out).
What was persistently so stunning about this demo was the constant motion of the world. As it’s multiple islands connected were by bridges in the sky, the different pieces tend to bob up and down at different rates. It’s something that’s both technically stunning and visually breath-taking, and seems to have gameplay ramifications as well.
At the climax of the demo, Booker is joined by Elizabeth, who uses her powers to dispatch an entire mob that’s been chasing him. In that specific moment, she exemplified her true power and how big of an impact it can have on the game world. She pulled in a rain cloud, formed a puddle beneath the mob, and used lightning to finish them all off. From there, the rest of the demo had a gloomy atmosphere – the result of Elizabeth’s weather manipulation.
The point of Elizabeth, it seems, is to give you both a character to connect with and an AI partner to cooperative with. You can use powers in tandem, and in one example she creates a molten ball of scrap metal that Booker throws with telekinesis. The downside of all this power is the physical toll it takes on Elizabeth. Irrational wasn’t definitive on the mechanic, but it seems that it’ll be important to wisely manage her use of powers so that she doesn’t overdo it.
If Columbia is the iconic counterpart to the original BioShock’s city of Rapture, then certainly there has to be a Big Daddy in there too, right? Well, the final moments of the demo featured not one, but two rather large, intimidating creatures. The first was a sort of Frankenstein’s monster – a mustachioed, freakshow strongman with hulking robotic appendages. It put up a hell of a fight, but it was nothing compared to the demo’s final enemy.
That unforgettable roar of the Big Daddy is attached to what will probably be the game’s most intimidating villain. Keeping with the flying theme, this beast is a dragon-sized, metallic eagle. Its attack marked the end of the demo, and topped off what went from a tepid reaction on my part, to wild enthusiasm. It’s nice to be a BioShock fan again.