BioShock Infinite - First Hands-On
BioShock Infinite - First Hands-On
BioShock Infinite - the game we previewed last year, and again two and a half years ago - is not the game we will all play come March 26, 2013. The game we knew was thematically understated, and it shied from pointing too large a finger at the talking points it had. It was a game where they focused on the gameplay and downplayed the focus on the narrative. It was a game about redemption, a game about a group of people in well over their heads, a game about rescuing a princess.
BioShock Infinite saw Booker DeWitt saving Elizabeth from peril at the hands of the Songbird - a monstrous steampunk beast, all loud noises and terror with more than a little bit of Big Daddy in it. She needed saving then, as much a stranger to the world of Columbia as Booker himself - but an even greater stranger to the world outside. She needed her hand held in more ways than one - and so BioShock Infinite was essentially an early 20th Century-themed escort quest.
That's not the game I played.
The game begins with Booker being rowed to a lighthouse - one in the middle of the ocean. Fans will get it straight away - though it's not a completely identical proceeding. As you ascend the building Booker's dilemma sets in when you cross a dead man tied to a chair, a bag over his head. I took forever to ascend the stairs the first time, as I was playing the game like I might BioShock - opening every container as I searched for cash and food to replenish my health.
Once again though, the lighthouse is there to provide the player with a connection to Earth - or a version of it - and to hold the mode of transport to our new home. BioShock had its Bathysphere, and Infinite has a rocket. I was momentarily put off by the rocket to be honest - I'm not a rocket scientist, but this one looked like the sort which might not exist for at least another decade (BioShock Infinite is set in 1912.) Then I broke through the clouds to see a city floating in the air and I felt a little bit silly.
Further into my playthrough I saw that the team at Irrational aren't afraid to abandon temporal linearity - we see Paris in the 1980s when Elizabeth opens a Tear (rips a hole in the fabric of space and time) and at one point we listen to a boardwalk band play Girls Just Want To Have Fun. As a fan of time travel fiction, I can't see what they put together here.
Landing the rocket (via parachute, I think) I get to see just how deep an indoctrination process it is for a person to become part of Columbia when I'm baptised in the name of Comstock (the Dear Leader of this city). I'm confronted by statues of the Founding Fathers, and before long I'm wandering through Columbia like any other citizen. Artistically it's a gorgeous city - flowers and brightly coloured clothing combine to stand out beautifully against the bright blue of the sky. It's a stark contrast to the deep, dankness of Rapture - reflected wonderfully in the life present in the city. On PC it looks even better again - though that's par for the course these days.
Columbia is not one great mass, either. Instead city blocks - separated normally - float around to connect up so that you might visit them. The attention in Infinite to detail is of the standard you'd expect from the Irrational team - and here it's shown via signs noting the schedule of these moving parts of the city (though I should note that they show up scripted, and you don't appear to be able to wait eight hours for one to leave... with you stowed away aboard.) It's how I'd imagine Venice might be, if each block floated freely and was powered by something I don't yet understand.
As we wander through the early parts of the game, propaganda runs rampant. Seemingly mandatory parades float through the city to remind us of how good a man Comstock is, and the Vox Populi are painted as evil at every opportunity.
Eventually I make it to a carnival, filled with games and vendors showing off their various vigors and inventions. Two of these games are sideshow alley shooting galleries, and in both we kill Vox Populi instead of ducks. We also get an opportunity to check out the some of the Vigors for the first time.
Vigors are the magic you'll wield in your left hand in Infinite - the Plasmids of this world. Each appears to be able to be thrown normally with a quick squeeze of the left trigger/tap of the RMB or used as a trap by holding down the button. In my playthrough I saw one which let me possess man and machine, firebombs cast from nothing, the ability to summon a deadly flock of crows and the Bucking Bronco, which lifted everyone in an area into the air so I could shoot them with ease.
Once I left the carnival I'd see no charm in Columbia any more.
A lottery is just about to be drawn, and Booker has bluffed his way into the VIP area for those allowed to enter the draw. As you enter though, a small boy runs up to deliver a Telegram. At first you wonder how the young boy might know to find you - but then the telegram warns Booker away from making certain decisions as if it's sender knows the future, and the boy's arrival makes more sense.
In my playthrough Infinite was full of moments like this - where you'd think 'wait a second' before the realisation dawned on you. It's a tricky effect to pull off, but they appear to do it very well in Infinite - and it's the sort of thing which really helps you connect with the player character.
At the lottery, everyone is given baseballs with numbers written on them and when the reality of this curious draw mechanism dawns on you, you're given the opportunity to take Booker's decision into your own hands. The winner of the lottery gets first throw of the baseball at an interracial couple - they're to be stoned in a quaint and horrifically American manner. Yep, that escalated quickly. As the player you get to choose - do you throw the ball at the couple or the announcer.
I don't think I know anyone who would actually choose to throw the ball at the couple, except out of some sort of curiosity. I ran out of time before I made it back there on my second playthrough - that said, I'm not certain I could choose the couple anyway. More than that, the crowd of jeering racists all baying for their opportunity to hurl a baseball at this couple made me even more uncomfortable - and so when Booker is caught out as an imposter moments later and the game gives you your first gun, I was only too happy to deal with my discomfort the way I always do in first person shooters... I shot every one I could.
Later the couple found me and thanked me for my intended kindness with a new piece of gear - a typical reward for a binary decision, I guess, though ultimately unnecessary as there was little choice.
Gear is an interesting part of the Infinite equation. Columbia, being an industrious sort of city, allows Booker to customise four pieces of clothing - from his hat down to his boots. This, combined with far more guns than were available in previous BioShock games means that the player is able to really tailor their shooter experience to preference.
Now it was obvious to the citizens of Columbia that I didn't belong, things started to move a little quicker. I was no longer Booker DeWitt, tourist - with a gun in my hand I was finally Booker DeWitt, Detective for Hire. I was finally on point, and ready to do what I'd come to do.
Then I watched what was essentially a Klan meeting in an 'aviary' and I had to slow down again.
You get used to propaganda in games. In the first BioShock it was used to remind you of the vision of Rapture and to give you an idea of how everything might have eventually gone wrong. In the Fallout games it was used humorously to add colour to the world. In Homefront it was used to fully imbue the player with a sense of how desperate their plight was.
At this point in Infinite, all it did was upset me. It upset me because it sounded completely plausible. The rantings of some lunatic as he talks about the superiority of the White Man is written with oodles of credibility - wonderful, in an utterly depressing sort of way.
To be honest, at this point in my playthrough I was wondering if I could bear to deal with this sort of thing for an entire game.
Games - like any other medium - should definitely be able to challenge us with confronting ideas and upsetting concepts. The risk for a game though is that the nature of the relationship between the player and the player character is much deeper than that of a viewer and characters in a film or book.
Through this, games can be more emotionally taxing - think about how people cried when Aeris died... it had less to do with the scene being particularly well written and much more to do with the investment the player had in the characters.
So Irrational were running into a risky situation here. Again, to point out a key difference between games and other media, a film will continue with or without your permission. For a game to continue, the player has to continue to play - and common stats say as little as 10-20% of players will finish a video game.
This means that if the weight of Columbia's baggage was too much for me to bear, Infinite would need something to ease the burden or it would risk losing me.
That something was Elizabeth.
The Elizabeth we saw before isn't the same as Elizabeth now. She was the princess in the tower - she had this terrible gift, this great power that she could just barely control. She was the prisoner of a massive beast, the Songbird, and when that terrible machine came for her she'd rather die than let it take her.
Now though, when the Songbird's cry reverberates through the testing facility she calls her home she runs. She has a terrible gift, but she uses it to help you now - calling in automatic turrets or skyhooks for Booker to swing from. She doesn't need saving - she's your willing companion as you roam the city of Columbia, and she'll even help you out by finding you extra ammo, health and money during downtime. You're not holding her hand, like Ico leading Yorda - you're simply leading a capable friend through a city.
What's most endearing is that she appeared to be driven by the same thing I was - curiosity. She'd spent her entire life in the tower, and she was enamoured with every little thing about Columbia. She'd read books and she knew how to crack codes and pick locks - but she'd never danced before, she'd never seen a real (fake) sea, like the one they have in Columbia. When presented with all the strangeness of this city in the clouds she reacts the way I do - with joy.
Best of all, when confronted by the lunacy of a city run by early 20th Century racists she questioned it. When confronted with the reality of her captivity, she was appalled. She's the perfect ballast for that sinking feeling you get when the game throws the inherent darkness of Columbia in your face - and believe me, it does again later.
Being that I'm a goofball though, my connection to Elizabeth does worry me. It worries me because Ken Levine has made a habit out of manipulating players - it was the key theme of BioShock, it was a punch to the gut in System Shock 2 - and the team at Irrational seem to love a twist ending. So Elizabeth worries me because there are just too many ways for it all to go wrong - and I just don't want that to happen.
I played the game from the very beginning, through meeting Elizabeth and on a little further as the world of Columbia fell apart. Along the way I was confronted with period appropriate and yet altogether appalling racism, dramatic nationalism - bordering on religious fundamentalism even - human testing and a government willing to outright lie to its citizens. It's less about shocking the player (though shocked is an appropriate reaction) and more about giving life to a thoroughly disturbing world. Just as Rapture was a huge part of BioShock, Columbia is a character in its own right - and the best written characters hide a layer of something less savoury beneath their charming exterior.
The game plays beautifully, but it'd be disingenuous of me to recommend anything other than the PC version, where the game looks as good as it plays. Zipping around Sky-Lines looks gorgeous and the system for letting the player jump from one to another works perfectly. Most importantly BioShock Infinite seems less like an escort quest and more like a coop game, played with an AI partner.
The only bad thing is that we now have to wait until March 26 to play the full game.
Comments on this Article
Sat 08 Dec 12, 12:17amHotcakes
Posted: Sat 08 Dec 12, 12:17am
Sat 08 Dec 12, 12:20amJoaby
Posted: Sat 08 Dec 12, 12:20am
Sat 08 Dec 12, 12:28pmHotcakes
Posted: Sat 08 Dec 12, 12:28pm
Sun 09 Dec 12, 10:05pmSweatyGremlins the II
Posted: Sun 09 Dec 12, 10:05pm
Mon 10 Dec 12, 1:40pmKalzedar
Posted: Mon 10 Dec 12, 1:40pm
Mon 10 Dec 12, 4:27pmAudi
Posted: Mon 10 Dec 12, 4:27pm
Tue 11 Dec 12, 9:31amlimimi
Posted: Tue 11 Dec 12, 9:31am
Post Your Comment
Recent News Entries
The War Z now Infestation: Survivor Stories, still not worth playing
We did it? Microsoft capitulates on internet and used games
Skulls of the Shogun coming to Steam, beta available with pre-purchase
Torchlight for free, up to 85% off 500+ other games in GOG's Summer Sale
E3 2013 - Interview with Infinity Ward