BioShock Infinite In-Depth Hands-On Preview – What a Wonderful World
Written Saturday, December 15, 2012 By Dan WebbView author's profile
The original BioShock is generally revered as one of the greatest games not only of this generation, but of all-time. Irrational Games managed to create a visually stunning and compelling dystopia deep below the ocean’s surface, one steeped in mystery and bizarre goings-on, mixed with fresh gameplay and some gripping story twists to make it an unforgettable experience.
How do you go about beating or even matching such a successful foray into the wilderness? Well, according to BioShock Infinite’s Creative Director, Ken Levine, you do so by effectively rewriting the formula. For one, you take the graveyard city of Rapture that rots on the ocean floor and set a sequel in a completely opposite setting. That’s right, Irrational has gone right up into the heavens, miles above civilisation and set its sequel among the clouds of a floating city called Columbia. A city that’s brimming with life. Yeah, it makes no sense to us, but that’s the beauty of BioShock Infinite, Columbia is the polar opposite of Rapture, yet it feels oddly familiar. That unease of being in a mysterious world remains and I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Columbia is a more rewarding and compelling location than Rapture ever was.
Before we justify such bold words, we’re not going to delve into the story so much in this here preview, so you can read on without a care in the world. Suffice it to say, what we experienced of the story thus far was a complete joy and we’re intrigued to see how it pans out. Oh, and as for the opening, Irrational has managed to recapture the brilliance and wonder of the original’s opening once again in Infinite.
BioShock Infinite sees you take up the role of ex-Pinkerton agent, Booker DeWitt, who’s tasked with heading into the floating city of Columbia to rescue the imprisoned Elizabeth as part of repaying his debt to some seriously nasty people. The first four hours of the game saw us exploring Columbia, freeing Elizabeth, and attempting to escape the creepy and hostile floating city, with Elizabeth in tow.
I say four hours, but it’d be easy enough to spend another four just soaking up the atmosphere of Columbia – and that’s no exaggeration, either. In the first four hours alone we traversed through a majestic church with our ears being soothed by the voices of a thousand angels, we played mini-games at the fairground, we looked around souvenir shops, watched happy couples picnic in the glistening sun, watched a barbershop quartet called the “Bee Sharpes” serenade a couple from a floating airship and waited for a bridge to drop while a parade floated blissfully by.
It’s a beautiful world, one full of beaches, boardwalks, fountains, vendors, horse and carriages, hummingbirds, resplendent statues and grandiose waterfalls; you can’t help but marvel in its delights. We often spent minutes at a time eavesdropping on conversations, watching families pose for photos and even had ladies ogle us on the beach, “I bet he’d look good in a swimsuit!” one of them even remarked. Or something to that effect.
For those who put in the extra time to listen and collect the Voxophones – Infinite’s audio diaries – and the Kinetoscopes – Infinite’s video diaries – you’ll walk away with a much richer experience and a keener understanding of this floating piece of architectural majesty.
Of course there’s a flipside, an uneasy and nervy side, and once you venture further into Columbia you’ll start to know how Alice felt when she tumbled further into the rabbit hole. The choices of the upper echelons of Columbia and its quasi-factions start to cast an imposing shadow over what should be heralded as a piece of mastery. When walking through a twisted frat house of sorts for the “Order of the Raven” and seeing them worship the presidential assassin, John Wilkes Booth, with a huge 30 foot statue in the lobby, and wandering through “Soldier’s Field,” a theme park designed to brainwash the youth of the city into accepting national service, you start to question the sanity of its creators.
Segregation of the masses is very much a core part of life in Columbia too, what with it being 1912 and all, and with toilets for the “whites” featuring marble sinks and gold faucets, while everyone else has to use the grotty stocks and putrid urinals, life on Columbia looks less and less like a utopia, and is more reminiscent of what life was like down in Rapture.
The unanswered questions of the mysterious Columbia are very much a part of Infinite as it was with Rapture and the original BioShock. You’ll often question why they had Elizabeth locked up; who or what the huge mechanical beast, Songbird is; what’s with the blind devotion to “the Prophet”; who Slate is and what his connection is to DeWitt; and who the other faction are.
Then there’s the more subtle mysteries, like who are the mysterious couple that you bump into at pretty much every turn? It’s definitely not just a coincidence either; what’s with the “AD” branding on the back of DeWitt’s hand; what’s with all the ‘glimmers’; and what the hell is up with the death sequence? Gone are the VitaChambers, and instead DeWitt is transferred back to some monochrome office building, presumably in the past, before opening its door and being thrust back into the world of Columbia.
You’ll no longer spend your time harvesting Little Sisters either, but instead you’ll find various choices dotted throughout the game. What significance they have remains to be seen yet. For instance, at one point the aforementioned mysterious couple will offer you the choice of a necklace of sorts for Elizabeth to wear, one with a bird emblazoned on it, another with a cage. There are decisions to be made throughout that affect the minute-to-minute gameplay too, like choosing to rebel against the authorities when you win a raffle or effectively stoning an interracial couple instead; or hurrying up a conductor who’s having a suspicious conversation on the phone at the ticket office with harsh words or a gun in the face.
After choosing to rebel in the raffle scenario, we essentially got embroiled in a mini-war of sorts, but we did meet the couple an hour or so later in the game who thanked us, whereas when we refrained from pulling our gun at the ticketing office for the gondola, we took a knife to the hand, with Elizabeth later tending to the wound. It’ll be interesting to see how those scenarios play out differently and what their long-term implications are, if any. They are far less clean cut than save or harvest than they were in the original though – it’s shades of grey, baby!
From a gameplay perspective, it very much feels like a BioShock successor. Left hand are your Vigors – essentially Plasmids from the original – and the right hand is for your arsenal. Gone is Eve – obviously – and in come Salts instead. Aside from the name changes, it’s pretty much a carbon copy of the original. The first time you pick up a Vigor, you’re presented with a superb and unusually disturbing animation sequence as the tonic fuses itself with DeWitt and his hands, which is a nice touch.
We were let loose with four Vigors throughout our hands-on: Possession, which speaks for itself; Murder of Crows, which fires a murder of crows at your target, both distracting and damaging them; Devil’s Kiss, where DeWitt will throw a ball of fire at your foes; and Bucking Bronco, which kicks a group of people into the air and places them in a brief period of stasis. Combining them is where the fun comes from though, and if you upgrade them too, then things can get even more manic. For instance, upgrading Possession allows you to possess humans instead of just machines – using it on turrets is particularly effective – and upgrading Devil’s Kiss means that it’s no longer just one ball of fire your enemies will have to contend with. You can even set traps, instead of firing them, meaning you have a lot of options to consider when you’re fighting the local aggressors.
New to the franchise is what Irrational is dubbing “gear.” Yes, you can equip up to four pieces of equipment on DeWitt – each of which carry various attributes that will assist you in the battlefield. “Burning Halo” is a particularly good example, which causes fire damage every time you melee someone. Speaking of melee, using the new Skyline tool to eviscerate someone’s face never gets old.
“Skyline? What’s that?” I’m glad you, or should I say I, asked. The Skylines are one of Columbia’s forms of transport – usually for cargo – but they’re also used by the law enforcement folk and the like. Oh, and DeWitt too. Now, you’ll be forgiven for thinking that the first time you saw the Skyline sequences in various demos at E3 and so on, that they were on-rails. Well, that’s completely untrue and they are as free and easy to use as they looked in the demos. In no time whatsoever you’ll be jumping out of Zeppelins onto Skylines, jumping off Skylines and slamming someone in the face as you land, and so on. They really open some of the combat sections up and give you a new sense of freedom.
Your greatest battle aid, believe it or not, is Elizabeth herself though. As an AI follower I can safely say she never got in the way once, and she’ll spend her time scavenging ammo that you missed – or are too busy fighting to pick up – picking up cash, lockpicks and Salts that you might have missed too, and she’ll even feed your health mid battle when you need it most. Then there’s her whole ability to rip tears in the time-space continuum allowing you to bring certain advantages in from other parallel universes, like vantage points, automated turrets and more. She’s a pleasure to have along for the ride and she never feels like a burden.
It helps that she’s such a delightful character too. Always chipper, extremely intelligent and for someone who’s spent her life locked up in Columbia’s Monument Statue, she’s surprisingly carefree, socially adjusted and bizarrely normal. She’s like a kid at Christmas, revelling in the delights that we often take for granted.
With “Firemen” setting fire to whoever gets in their way, disciples of the Raven Order wandering around with coffins on their backs and transforming into a murder of crows at will, and Elizabeth ripping holes in time and space, you have to wonder whether DeWitt is the abnormal one in Columbia, and not Elizabeth or the other inhabitants. When you realise those crazies are considered fairly normal in Columbia, your perception of normality becomes warped.
BioShock Infinite, despite the new setting and new approach to the game’s main characters and what not, still feels like the original BioShock did. It has the same genius touches that the original had, if not more so, and is so incredibly detailed and lovingly hand-crafted that it’s a world you just won’t want to leave. You can feel the love, blood, sweat and tears seeping from every pore of the glorious game world. Columbia’s biggest mystery despite all of the wacky goings-on is how it feels so fresh yet so familiar at the same time. A joy to play, an even bigger joy to become immersed in, BioShock Infinite is shaping up to be the sequel to the original you and we’ve wanted, and unless something goes drastically wrong in the meantime, it’s definitely not too early to be tipping BioShock Infinite for 2013’s Game of the Year. Yes, we were that impressed. Your move Grand Theft Auto V!
BioShock Infinite is scheduled for a March 26th and March 29th release in North America and Europe respectively.