Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.
In many ways, Irrational’s BioShock Infinite is the team’s “What If?” scenario for the first game. What if Rapture were a bustling, functioning underwater city? What if its denizens weren’t out-of-their-mind Splicers? And what if the player wasn’t an empty, mind-controlled vessel?
It’s not like BioShock actually needed any of that though, our foray into the fractured world of Andrew Ryan’s aquatic dystopia was, in my opinion, one of the most memorable experiences ever crafted in gaming, and to top that with a new adventure under the same banner is both bold and
compelling in attempt alone, and while Infinite borrows much from its submerged older brother, it also expands upon and, mixes up, much of what made BioShock so good in the first place. All the while, similarities aside, it etches out its own mark through a sense of design only the best in the business are capable of, and despite sad news of yet another delay, Irrational can be forgiven for taking the high road in terms of "it's done when it's done".
To begin with, the city of Columbia is not a hollow shell of its former self. It’s definitely not the utopia its founder, Father Comstock, envisioned, but upon arrival the floating haven is full of hustle and bustle; teaming with life and vibrancy and standing as the absolute antithesis to the dank, dark and broken world of Irrational’s first effort. Not that the team would have you know that from the outset though, as we’re cleverly introduced to the game’s protagonist, Booker DeWitt, in almost identical fashion to BioShock except instead of being on a plane, Booker is in a rowboat on the harsh high seas in the middle of a rainy storm. Off in the distance is a lighthouse -- a beacon of hope in such tumultuous waters and your soon-to-be launchpad to the clear blue sky.
How you wind up on Columbia is something I don’t want to spoil, but the water motif continues through your initial introduction to the city and, rather ironically, ends in a baptism. It’s all either a clever nod to the team’s first BioShock title, or a stronger indicator that both games do exist in the same universe and are much more linked than we’ve been lead to believe. But I digress.
It’s fair to say Jack had some
character in BioShock, but in the face of Infinite’s Booker, it’s hard to think back to playing through the entire first experience with as little attachment to your Plasmid-infused avatar as what’s on offer here. The team make this a standout element, too. Early on you have a chance to use a blessed wash basin to "wash away your sins", activating this, however, leaves Booker ignoring your request and saying "good luck with that, pal". For fans of the first game, the similarities are going to stand out, but it’s the disparate elements that truly pop.
This is probably most notable in the game’s overall tone. Where BioShock started in an almost horror-like direction, Infinite is immediately inviting. The city of Columbia is truly alive; humming birds flutter about its myriad gardens nestled comfortably and uniformly next to its busts of heroes and men-turned-gods. The paved streets move beneath your feet as the weight of it all pulls on balloons inflated with both righteousness and mirth. It's denizens (early on) speak in only quaint ways; revering the Founding Fathers, Comstock, the Lamb and barely acknowledging the separatist Vox Populi or their plight -- for the hoity-toity of Columbia, ignorance is bliss.
It’s gorgeous too. Bloom lighting fills the screen as you move through swaying streets and alleys. Some shops are open for your perusal, while others are closed for the festivities you’ve conveniently arrived just in time for. Every once in a while you can survey the greater aerial landscape and Columbia’s various towers and floating isles almost resemble a child’s vision of what Disneyland must look like, before they actually get there. But most amazing of all is how functional this fantastical location feels as you move through it -- the team’s attention to context in design cannot be understated, it all makes me wish there really was a floating city.
Well, that is until the proverbial waste hits the Sky Rails. The game’s introduction to combat and its call-to-action moment is one of the most jarring I’ve come across as a gamer, and it won’t soon be forgotten. Equally, nothing is held back in mature content, both bloody and confronting. Racism, for example, is handled with aplomb as Columbia, for all its US separatist leanings, is still caught in the segregation era and each black person you come across reacts in a way befitting the time and their mistreatment in it. It’s in this period exposition though, Booker becomes even more appealing as the game’s lead, as he clearly rebukes the challenging mindset of the day.
The juxtaposition then, between Columbia’s inviting, bright design and its darker underbelly is an engrossing way for the dynamic narrative at play to progress. Pacing is, so far, top-notch and despite the game’s apparent openness, Irrational do an incredible job funneling the player into their narrative web. But it’s almost devoid of cut-scenes, preferring instead to give you backstory and side-quests through exploration of the world. Booker, and eventually Elizabeth (who the devs lovingly refer to as “Liz”), will converse about the world around them, but it’s all based on how you play and where you lead them. And having two characters of different direction lead this overall arc is, seemingly, an excellent idea and, so far, has me desperately wanting to know more about where they’re both headed, and where they both come from -- equal elements the game hinted at exploring during my time with it.
From a gameplay perspective, DeWitt will gain new weapons and “Vigors” as you push through, Vigors being the Plasmids of BioShock Infinite. There’s more in the way of character customisation too, and it does feel a bit RPG in this respect. You can find clothing, for example, that you can wear in combinations of four, each with different buffs -- hat, shirt, pants and boots. Shooting feels better here than it did in BioShock (at least on console), and controls are more in line with most modern shooters today (read: Call of Duty), however, elements such as ironsights are relegated to R3 rather than the left trigger, which is now used for your equipped Vigor (you can have one active and one passive, or bring up all you’ve gained via a selection wheel). You can also lay traps with your Vigors which helps in the more open combat environments of the game-world.
Obviously this is a good lead-in to one of the most notable standouts for Infinite, in its Sky Rails. Booker will have access to these pretty early on in the game, and moving between -- or along -- them is as simple as pointing your crosshairs to where you want to jump to. There are also stationary hook points you can leap to, giving you recourse between floating points, or access to various houses with loot chests or side-quests.
In combat the Sky Rails offer incredible opportunities, and I can’t believe that it actually made me want
to dabble in a BioShock Infinite multiplayer component built around them. I’m hoping these are also utilised in a progression puzzle sense further into the game, but in terms of just getting around the world, it’s the most compelling I’ve experienced since gliding in Batman: Arkham City.
Finally, Elizabeth is a character who is hard to ignore. Her “Tears” and cooperative demeanour are just tools to help you get through the challenge at-hand, but her personality is infectious and I’d argue there hasn’t been a support character like her in videogames before -- at least not in as dynamic or compelling form. She’s a torn, unbroken young adult who’s lived a sheltered, boxed-in life. She’s also been used as a propaganda tool and a lab rat, yet all to her own ignorance. The exploration of her freedom, like a bird out of its cage for the first time, is a factor I cannot wait to sink more into, and we’ve barely been in touch with her prison guard, Song Bird.
To say that my time with the game in hands-on form not only proved it’s anything but
smoke and mirrors, and already a strong contender for Game of the Year (I know, I know it’s early, but believe me, the ingredients are there) is only telling half the story. It’s also just a thing of beauty; a rare gem of a game that will take players on an unforgettable journey with believable, fantastical characters. It’s a story that can only be told in interactive form, and it does it in such a dynamic and indelible way, that it will be a hard one for any other game in 2013 to top.
BioShock Infinite is a truly unforgettable experience, and we've only scratched the surface.