Developers: Irrational Games
Publishers: 2K Games
I walk away from spending several hours in the gorgeous company of Bioshock Infinite with an unshakeable feeling that I've barely scratched the surface. In that time, I've summoned many a malevolent murder of crows to kill countless soldiers; I've been baptised in the holy sanctum of Columbia, and urged to venerate a bearded loon named Comstock; I've leapt from skyrails and felled foes with a fiery impact, watching them wither and burn under my blazing boots and flaming fists; I've met Elizabeth and watched her tear open the fabric of space and time; I've possessed machines and men, turning those who get in my way on one another; I've heard the Songbird's deafening call and watched as he ripped apart a building's walls as if they were paper.
And I still haven't really got the faintest clue what's going on.
To be honest, that's what the 'Shock' series has always been about. From System Shock through to the original Bioshock, and now as we arrive at Infinite: a protagonist adrift but for a seemingly singular objective in a compellingly alien world. It's that world building which made the original Bioshock such a fundamentally engaging experience as we, enraptured by Rapture, couldn't help but be dazzled by the architecture and the design, impressed by the ambitions and ideals that fuelled its creation, and ultimately increasingly horrified and appalled at the distorted, decaying dystopia that it had become.
By contrast, Columbia is a city that seems at first to be wholly functional - a paradise in the skies into which Booker DeWitt is flung, tasked in simplest of terms to 'get the girl' and 'wipe away the debt'. By the time we meet the girl and literally rescue her from the tower in which she is kept under lock and key and constant observation, we're still none the wiser as to the nature of Booker's debt, and only beginning to see why Elizabeth might be a little bit special.
A handful of hours in Columbia is enough to ascertain one thing, though: Paradise is rotting.
This is new ground for Irrational. Previous games have had players root amongst the ruins of a fallen utopia, with the protagonist acting as a cipher, and those games playing out as twisted journeys of discovery, through which we are led (and misled) with deft subtlety. Levine and his team excel at providing just enough information for us players to make key connections and, as always, the devil is in the details.
But this is a living, breathing environment. The opening chapters of the game see you hopping from one colourful floating district to another, marvelling at the scenes around you. Whereas previous games might have felt a little like intrusion, here you almost feel like a guest, with NPCs cheerily bidding you a good day, salesmen eagerly trying to part you from your Silver Eagles, and stall owners at what resembles a village fête desperately trying to advertise their wares. Eavesdropping on as many folks as you can find will invariably give you access to small snippets of detail life up n the clouds, with cameo conversations delivering expertly woven vignettes that might very well come in handy a little way down the line.
Not that this is a game that bog you down in dialogue, it's more that every single frame of animation is filled with dense, rich information. The propaganda posters, advertisement billboards, and newspaper cuttings strewn about the place all provide contextual shading for the game's thickly-woven narrative. That you have questions throughout so much of the early game is precisely the point: these visual motifs are there to intrigue.
There are a number of similarities that this Bioshock title shares with its predecessor. The opening few minutes is, to look at it from a certain perspective, almost pure fan service. You start out on a plane, rummaging through a briefcase filled with a few photographs and a gun. Seconds later, you're in a boat, heading towards a lighthouse, only instead of taking a bathysphere down into the depths of the ocean, you're launched into the sky via a steampunk rocket capsule.
Once you're left to your own devices up in Columbia, too, things can begin to seem a little familiar. Again, you'll be rooting through cupboards, crates, and cabinets for weapons, ammunition, and useful items. Once more, you'll find yourself feeding your ears some supplemental storytelling with audio logs (or Voxophone recordings as they're known here), and replenishing your red and blue bars at sinister robotic vending machines. And when violence breaks out and the pleasant tourist dream you've been walking through for the first hour or two cracks and shatters in the most startling and bloody fashion (I won't spoil the chain of events here), you'll be tasked with juggling a range of weaponry and supernatural abilities (Vigors rather than Plasmids this time) to fend off your foes.
Bucking Bronco lets you levitate enemies into the air with a tap of the left trigger. Devil's Kiss takes the Incineration plasmid from Bioshock 1 and turns it into a incendiary grenade blast. Shock Jockey is ElectroBolt in all but name. Murder of Crows is basically a dark, feathered version of Insect Swarm, introduced in disturbing fashion as you peek through a doorway in the bowels of a shadowy cultist lair and watch a chained prisoner torn asunder in a cloud of pecking beaks and frenzied wings. Of course, as our joy over Dishonored reminded us last year, there are frankly too few games that pull off dual-wielding armaments and powers to a glorious degree. There are similarities, sure; but Irrational have done enough to make Columbia feel new and bewilderingly impressive.
Elizabeth is a huge part of that difference, with the companionship changing both the nature of the game, and our relation to it. Elizabeth provides another pair of eyes to keep peeled for additional items and hidden secrets, not to mention occasionally dishing out snippets of advice and holding a mirror up to Booker - adding extra depth to the characterisations at the core of the game, and offering a perspective slightly apart from Booker's own. Her ability to create 'tears' in the fabric of reality provides some unique gameplay opportunities too. Plucking gun turrets or additional Skyhook anchors from another time and place can be very useful in the heat of battle.
Ah yes, the Skyhook - a gauntlet of sorts that features a trigger-operated wheel of three magnetised hooks at its end. Within the first few steps you take in Columbia, I come across two guards marvelling over the device and commenting on its limited availability. Half an hour later, I'm grinding one into a man's face with deeply distressing results. Brutal melee combat aside, the Skyhook's main use is to carry Booker from floating district to floating district across a network of rails and anchor points. Happily, the Skyrails look rather expansive, meaning that you can jump about them at your leisure, with the only restriction essentially being their layout. It's to be hoped that wider, open areas later on in the game will allow for some speedy, open acrobatic aerial traversal (a hint towards a Handyman battle on suggests that this will indeed be the case). Need to get somewhere fast? Then it's all about taking to the skies. Indeed, it also adds a great deal of verticality to gunfights at times, with Booker able to leap down from above and bury the vicious-looking devices into people's skulls. An equipment upgrade scavenged later on gives him the ability to set people on fire when making a Skyhook leap. It may have led to some slightly unhinged cackling of empowered delight. Of course, this led to me dropping my guard, and the smart AI outflanked and ultimately killed me. Thankfully Irrational's Grim Reaper seems to care more about cash than souls, so I was able to respawn on the edge of the battle zone, albeit with a large chunk of cash missing.
It's nice to finally be able to play Bioshock Infinite for a good deal of time, frankly to be able to verify that it exists if not anything else. But, as I mentioned in the PWNCAST on Sunday, I came away with the impression that I'd only just scratched the surface. Another thing I noticed was that, walking out of 2K's offices, I suddenly had 'Girls Just Wanna Have Fun' in my head. It was only then that I twigged that there'd been far more going on in some scenes than I realised - the same sort of feeling I had throughout the original Bioshock, during Fez to a certain extent, and after every Christopher Nolan film I've ever seen - and that there'd been one or two very subtle temporal impossibilities. It's the sort of thing that makes you play or watch or read something again immediately.
And from what I've seen, Bioshock Infinite is going to have that in spades.