Well this one came as a surprise. Sat in a specially-mocked-up fin de siècle lounge surrounded by walls of rich mahogany and ensconced in what might be the most comfortable leather couches in existence, Jon and I prepared to witness a developer demo of Bioshock Infinite a mere eight days after Ken Levine announced its existence. Turn of the century light fittings hung from the ceiling, fake leather-bound books adorned bookcases towards the back and period propaganda posters hung from the walls, the largest of which screamed 'For God and Country...It Is Our Holy Duty To Fight Against The Foreign Hordes'. Someone had clearly gone to town on this.
Felix's preview from last week highlighted the plot details revealed by Ken`Levine but here's a quick recap to follow that trailer.
The setting is Columbia, a floating city meant to have been a beacon to the world showcasing the undeniable power of America's ideals and ingenuity at the turn of the century. Unfortunately, its vast potential as a weapon (a 'floating Death Star if you will' as Lead Artist Shawn Robertson described it) led to massive factional infighting as idealism and altruism turned to oppression and nationalism. But this is not the faded, destroyed beauty of Rapture, oh no. Columbia is still colourful, living, breathing and vibrant, which makes it all the more sinister.
The year is 1912 and you play Booker DeWitt, an ex-Pinkerton Agent living in disgrace. He's approached by a mysterious man who needs him to track down a woman named Elizabeth for him. She's currently in prison on Columbia and is incredibly powerful, positioned at the centre of the civil unrest - half the populace want her freed, the other half want the key thrown away.
Thus Booker finds himself in Columbia, with assistance from the mysterious man, after all Columbia has been lost for years. Our demonstration began about a third of the way through the game: Booker has found Elizabeth but they've just become separated again.
The demo began with DeWitt on the floor after an assault and, as his vision clears and he dusts himself down, his eyes focus on a mural before his eyes that echo the sentiment of the poster we first saw when we entered the preview room.
A bizarre amalgamation of steam engine and horse-drawn cart passes by offering newspapers as a respectable housewife sweeps the portico of her burning house. A floating building wafts past and, as it does, the building's clock tower breaks and topples towards you, crashing into the ground in front of you, the tower's bell skidding to a halt inches before hitting you.
Everything is unnervingly still. Several members of the audience whisper a 'WTF?' to no-one in particular, their jaws still open marvelling at the sheer beauty of the graphics. To say that Columbia looks good is an understatement. The slightly exaggerated art style, similar to that of Bioshock, all large, expressive faces and haunting eyes, has to be seen onscreen to be believed. Watch that trailer above again and then imagine playing a game that looked that good. If this is anything to go by, you'll probably be able to.
As Booker continues to look around and get his bearings we begin to hear something of a polemical, political rant.Amidst swathes of signs that bear homilies such as 'They'll take your gun. They'll take your wife. They'll take your business. They'll take your LIFE!' and 'For Faith. For Race. For Fatherland!' stands the perpetrator, a moustached man that the signs indicate is called Saltonstall. Apparently he's not a fan of foreigners.
Disturbingly, as you approach and investigate the stacks of crates filled with rifles, he turns with abnormal speed and his eyes begin to flash red. 'Who are YOU?!' He demands loudly, before shouting for someone named Charlie to attack you, which he does...
...hurling a swarm of crows at you.
A gunfight ensues, Charlie snuffs it over the edge of the platform but Saltonstall leaps towards one of the rails that connect the floating cityscapes, using some kind of mechanical hook to latch onto the rails, which resemble a bizarre fairground ride. Meanwhile, DeWitt looks over the edge to where Charlie fell and notices a curious bird-shaped bottle which he then summons to his side - Force-style - and chugs down. The screen warps, fizzes and crackles: Booker, it would seem, can now command electrical powers.
Unfortunately, Saltonstall appears to have found a cannon and is firing it at you. 'FIRE!' yells a voice is the distance, before the ground behind you explodes after a shell hits. Popping out his own mechanical hook, Booker goes after Saltonstall. At no point does the camera pan out, your POV remains firmly behind DeWitt's eyes and this rollercoaster ride proves nerve-wracking. Saltonstall jumps on at the other end and hurtles towards Booker, but a swift kick sends the older man crashing into a nearby building with a gory splat.
DeWitt remains the target of gunfire even after dropping down from the rail and the trading of bullets escalates until, forced to run for cover, Booker dives into a bar. Rather comically there's a slight pause where everyone seems drunkenly confused or unperturbed, but then someone shoots the gramophone and weapons are drawn. Thankfully, the telekinesis DeWitt exhibited earlier is useful for yanking a shotgun from the nearest gunman and blasting him in the chest with his own firearm. Booker leaves quickly, in a hail of bullets.
Out into the streets and things get progressively worse for our protagonist with more and more people descending upon him from every alley and avenue. It's at this point that Elizabeth decides to show up again. After blasting a couple of people with lightning, she conjures up a mini typhoon and screams 'Hit it now!'. As Booker firse lightning towards it, a huge electrical storm is created, engulfing and cooking their antagonists.
Of course, just when you think that you're safe, a giant mechanical hand sends you flying. A giant mechanical boot stomps towards you and that thing from the trailer stands before you. There's clearly a man's head in there somewhere, but his organs appear to be swimming around in fluid and encased in armour. He's enormous...and he's pissed off. Try throwing things at him and he just hurls them back. Thankfully with Elizabeth's help you manage to dismantle the bridge he's standing on, but he doesn't go down easy. 'Fall...fall, damn you...FALL...FAAAAAALLLLLLL!!' Booker screams.
Everyone, on and offscreen, finally lets a breath escape. There is a split second of quiet.
'That was the thing that attacked you earlier, right?' Booker asks.
'No...' Elizabeth responds.
Suddenly, with a massive lurch of sound, an enormous mechanical birdlike creature with a glowing head of a Big Daddy swoops onto the building above you, clutching at the darkening clouds with its massive mechanical hands and releases the rumbling call that first struck terror into us back in 2007.
'That's it...' says Elizabeth heavily.
And the demo ends.
We've been searching for words to describe this game to other people and we're beginning to find that existing words simply don't do it justice. There wasn't a pair of pants in the room that hadn't been utterly ruined by the end of that presentation and it was entirely telling later on in another preview that when asked what was the best thing we'd all seen at Gamescom so far, all eleven of us simultaneously shouted Bioshock.
Fantabulawesomega. There are four words for excellent in there...and it still doesn't quite describe how excited we were when we left that room. 2012 can't come soon enough any more.