Previews// BioShock Infinite

Posted 5 Jan 2013 12:00 by
Same story, different world? Not exactly, but BioShock Infinite does include many nods and winks to the 2007 original. One such similarity is evident at the very beginning - the manner of which you are thrust from a stormy sea location to a dysfunctional, utopian city.

In BioShock, your nameless character dived thousands of leagues under the sea to an abandoned underwater city once ruled by capitalism and science. Here, you’re shot skywards to a heavily-populated floating North American state, governed by cult religion and superstition. Rather than solving the mystery of an already-destroyed wonderworld, in BioShock Infinite you participate in events that could lead to its destruction.

For as visually stunning and serene Columbia is when you arrive, there exists a dark side to its governance. Civilians who first visit the floating world are required to undertake some form of baptism to accept the word of the kingdom’s ‘Prophet’ - a bearded chap who claims to see the future, called Father Comstock. As you’d expect, because of his powers he is revered throughout the land - save for a pocket of resistance fighters known as the Vox Populi.

Your character also has personality, purpose - and above all, a name - from the start. As private investigator Booker Dewitt, you end up arriving at Columbia via rocket-powered lighthouse (don’t ask) to complete an as-yet unexplained ‘job’. This job involves finding Comstock’s daughter, Elizabeth, and escaping with her alive. As Booker experiences frequent flashbacks throughout the course of the game, you start to understand the ‘debt’ he has to repay and why he isn’t necessarily keen on doing the job in the first place.

Seeing the world of Columbia for the first time is just as captivating and gripping as your initial look at the grand city of Rapture, but in a very different way. Amazingly colourful, full of vibrant life and nowhere near as claustrophobic, BioShock Infinite evokes positive feelings - a perfect world, a nation in harmony. But it’s the same kind of faux-happiness that you would encounter at the beginning of a century-old version of The Truman Show.

Flamboyant statues of US Presidents decorate communal parks, while chirpy violin music plays in the background and automatic mechanical horses ferry people about in carriages. There’s even a “BEE Sharps” quartet group that serenades you in song before flying away in a skyboat. For all of its futuristic ‘country-in-the-sky’ premise though, Columbia is still ruled by 1910s-inspired technology. Gramophones and kinetoscopes detail the world around you, while collectible ‘voxophones’ allow Dewitt to listen to musings from various NPCs.

Various cultural trends of the era are also exaggerated in BioShock Infinite to highlight a somewhat extreme social mindset, and suggest a subtle dictatorial and cult lifestyle. Smoking is prominent in Columbia, but advertisements push a new brand of cigarettes that have been made ‘specially for kids.’ A turning point in the game’s pacing and action comes when Dewitt unwittingly wins a raffle and gets his ‘prize’ - the chance to throw a baseball at a mixed race couple.

Naturally, this wound me up as much as Irrational likely intended, and with the option of lobbing the ball at the raffle man instead the decision was a no-brainer. At this point though, Dewitt gets arrested by city guards based on the tattoo that has suddenly appeared on his hand. This mark, according to Columbia law and religion, is basically the sign of the antichrist - the ‘false prophet’ that seeks to rob the land of its peace and serenity.

This is where you start to really notice that familiar BioShock formula - gameplay (particularly combat) still relies on a combination of aggressive and tactical spells (Plasmids now come in the form of Vigors) along with traditional gunplay. Various vending machines are peppered throughout Columbia that offer upgrades as well as health packs and salts (which are needed to perform Vigors).

But BioShock Infinite improves on its predecessor by taking advantage of the vast open space that Columbia offers. Battle arenas and set-pieces are multi-tiered, with enemies appearing at various heights to ensure that you stay on your toes. To get around quickly and efficiently, Dewitt has a tool called the Skyhook which allows him to cling onto floating rails and move along them at great speed.

It’s a very simple mechanic - simply jump to cling on, jump on solid ground to get off. There’s no chance of accidental death, and you can alter how fast or slow Booker travels from rail to rail. You still get an extra hand spare so you can shoot bad guys while you rocket along the skytracks - which leads to some rather exciting scenes later on. Oh, and the Skyhook also makes for a rather meaty melee weapon. Very satisfying.

Preparing for combat at every turn does take some getting used to. There’s plenty to explore in Columbia - houses to sneak into, multiple routes through stages and many conversations to engage in whilst in populated areas. While they all add colour to the Columbia setting and storyline, most of the scenes I saw amounted to nothing more than a setup for a combat scenario. Once you get paranoid enough to think that almost everything could be a threat to you, you’re unlikely to get caught out.

The extra elevation that comes from being a city in the clouds also causes one or two issues, when it becomes difficult to ascertain exactly where enemies are coming from. In one scene, Dewitt and Elizabeth get attacked by a number of snipers at the top of a building - if you’re not sharp enough to get to cover, and don’t have the time to take a discerning look around, you won’t find the culprit in enough time before you receive a bullet in the head.

Elizabeth, on the other hand, adds a new dimension to an otherwise solitary gameplay experience. She offers virtual companionship inbetween battles as any NPC buddy would, but she isn’t completely useless - she can find ammo, health, money and other items whilst you’re shooting at enemies, and can also pick locks when you’re stuck in a room.

My initial fear was that this could make the game a little too easy, but it seems like Irrational have been playing around with the balancing here. At times, Elizabeth will shout at you that she can’t find the right resources, or needs more time to find helpful items before she can chuck them at you. She’s not an instant ammo replenish, ready whenever you need it.

Elizabeth can also aid you in battle through the use of Tears. With her strange, almost psychic powers, she can open a ‘window’ to another dimension or time space, resulting in the placement of helpful environments or objects that normally would not be in Columbia. There are offensive and defensive Tears that you can use, although only one Tear can be made at any one time.

One of the first times you see this in action is during the lead up to a boss battle, where you have the option of having Elizabeth create a ledge to reach higher ground, or a huge pillar in the centre of the arena with a turret for extra protection. You’ll be able to tell when a Tear can be made because such objects will appear ghosted in the area you’re fighting in.

Of course, this all comes with its own level of threats. The first time Elizabeth makes a Tear in front of you, you encounter Songbird - an absolutely massive, foreboding and deadly bird that is dedicated to protecting Elizabeth from escaping Columbia. That was the only time I got to see Songbird properly, and even at this early stage in the game, he’s particularly frightening.

With Irrational getting a little bit of extra time to polish off BioShock Infinite, it’s clear that the studio isn’t letting that go to waste. The game ran pretty smoothly and this opening section in particular really has that same spark of magic that ran current in the original BioShock. We may have a while longer to wait for the full game, but something tells me that it’s going to be very much worth it.

Comments

Nosgoth1979 11 Jan 2013 14:46
1/1
Infinite looks awesome but after the disappointment of Bioshock 2 I’m trying to keep my excitement under control. I already put it in my rental queue though, hoping that my skepticism will be proven wrong. Besides I rent all my games first these days. I used to do a lot of pre-orders and blind-buys, but it got too expensive. Then one of my coworkers at DISH suggested I start following his game-buying rule. Now I get all my games through DISH’s Blockbuster @Home first, then after thoroughly play-testing it, if I still want to own it, THEN I buy it. It’s saved me a ton of money, especially considering it’s a flat pay-by-the-month service, so my checking account doesn’t even know how many games and movies I rent in a month.
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