From the very first moment, the very first time you see anything, Bioshock Infinite immediately draws parallels to the first game. You’re out in the ocean, with a large lighthouse towering above you. The first time you see Columbia; the hidden city, floating in the sky, it immediately forces you to recollect your first glimpse of the fallen underwater dystopia of Rapture. You know, from that moment, that you’ll be drawn in to a world that will captivate and mesmerise. It’s unmistakably, and undeniably Bioshock.
You aren’t, however, in for a too familiar experience. It’s too easy to believe that Irrational Games has merely copied Rapture and pasted it up in the sky. The mechanics and basic plot outline are disquietingly similar. In the original game, you played as a gun-toting, power-wielding outsider, exploring an extraordinary setting – created to preserve an ideal – in an otherwise unreachable location; piecing together bits of information, trying to find out exactly who, or what you are.
In Infinite, you’re a gun-toting, power-wielding outsider, exploring an extraordinary setting – created to preserve an ideal – in an otherwise unreachable location; piecing together bits of information, trying to find out exactly, who, or what Elizabeth, the “lamb of Columbia” really is.
Bioshock and its impending sequel are, in many ways, two different sides of the same coin; essentially differing views of the same whole. There’s a great deal of contrast. Where Bioshock offered a dark, lonely and gloomy tunnelled view of a city that had already collapsed, Infinite gives you a brighter, airier, more ethereal and open look at one that’s on the brink, yet to fall.
Unlike with Bioshock’s protagonist, we know quite firmly who we’re playing as; ex-Pinkerton agent Booker DeWitt; a down-on-his luck solider who’s found himself indebted to the wrong kind of people. It is they who send him to Columbia to free or perhaps kidnap Elizabeth, the lamb of Columbia, locked away in a tower to free him of his debt.
Ferried to the tower that catapults you to Columbia by a mysterious couple who keep showing up, Booker is handed a box containing a gun and sent on his way. Inside the tower, Booker is reminded of the absolute seriousness of his task; bloodied handprints stain the walls and, near the top, a head-bagged corpse spells out the consequences of his failure. From there, strapped to an old-world chair, he finds himself, not dragged by a bathysphere to a subterranean underworld, but propelled instead to a disjointed, floating city in the clouds.
This docking bay where he lands is a sight to behold; doubling as a cavernous cathedral – the first glimpse at the game’s religious overtones – is illuminated by thousands of candles, sparkling and reflecting in the crisp layer of water that carpets the area, religious and ideological propaganda filling the space. That religious fervour, an obvious recurrent theme, continues; entry to the city is only granted to those who’ve been baptised. The city’s adorned with statues of America’s founding fathers, propelled to divine significance.
Once again we have a stark contrast. Instead of the nearly hedonistic objectivism of Andrew Ryan’s Rapture, we have purer ideals from Columbia’s father, the worshipped white-haired, and white bearded prophetic figure of Father Zachary Comstock. Columbia’s place in the clouds is apt; majestic and filled with wondrous sights and sensations, it seems like Heaven.
People, happy people, litter the streets – happy to talk to you about Columbia’s purity. Kinetoscopes, those single viewer video players that lined penny arcades in days of yore fill in the history, accompanied with the audio diaries you’re already familiar with. Jovial children play in the streets, filled as they are with pre-war Americana. An a cappella quartet harmonises an anachronistic rendition of the Beach Boy’s “God only knows.” The initial weaponless wanderlust-driven exploration – drinking in all the wonder of the place, paints Columbia to be a paradise.
A quick scratch beneath the surface, however, reveals a genuine ugliness – and it’s not too long before you find yourself bloodied, in possession of a metal gear and half a man’s face, with everyone around you screaming. It’s jarring, and though it sounds wanton and gratuitous, comes after an unflinching, direct representation of a real-world issue. It’s one of many issues that will be confronted within the game, with Columbia serving as a battleground between the purist Founders and the voice of the people, underground resistance The Vox Populi. The Skyhook, the whirring piece of metal you just thrust in to an officer’s neck is both melee weapon and method of transportation.
Skylines, the city’s zipline transportation system, worm their way through, in and around the city’s buildings, and the magnetised skyhook gives you the means to use them. A simple, context-sensitive button press and you’re propelled skywards, weaving through the air at breakneck speeds. It’s about the only way to get to the tower that holds the captive Elizabeth. En route, numerous battles and encounters give Booker chance to experiment with Vigors, which replace Bioshock’s Plasmids. Taken as a drink, these Vigors grant their consumers exceptional abilities.
Bucking Bronco, available from the game’s optional but cleverly disguised as fairground attractions tutorial, gives players a dash of Telekinesis, able to throw people in to the air. Possession allows players to turn enemy machines – and later people – from foes in to friends; a necessary tactic in a landscape littered with automated turrets. Devil’s Kiss, the acquisition of which is memorably gruesome, allows Booker to throw explosive balls of fire or lay immolating traps. Shock Jockey gives Booker control over electricity, while the last Vigor available in my limited play time, Murder of Crows spawns – as its name suggests – a murder of flesh-eating crows , particularly useful for dispensing with multiple enemies.
Gear replaces the first game’s Tonics, granting Booker more passive abilities; one such gear added a small explosion of fire to his melee attack, while another causes a fiery shockwave to ripple through the ground whenever Booker dismounts from a Skyline.
Along the way, through audio logs, Kinetiscopes and posters you begin to piece together Elizabeth’s captive childhood, giving you more pure reasons to want her freed. Before actually meeting her, you’re treated to a voyeuristic moment, observing Elizabeth in much the same way as her life-long captors have; as a lab experiment. It also gives you a glimpse as to why she’s so important; toying with her own picture of the yet-to-be-built Eiffel Tower, she briefly opens up a tear in the fabric of time and space, to an early-80’s Paris.
After her eventual rescue, a series of scenes that play out like a rollercoaster ride, Elizabeth becomes a companion – but she’s not the sort of AI partner you’re used to. Ken Levine and the team at Irrational Games promise a revolutionary AI and based on initial impressions, they could be right. Elizabeth’s lifelike reactions to everything are impressive – she’ll engage in conversation, note landmarks and comment on things around you. And scripted though it might be, it continues regardless of where you lead her.
Later, she becomes less of a mere companion – and more of a helpful bit of assistance. Elizabeth’s ability to rip apart reality’s fabric allows her to help within combat; pulling in ammo, the Salt that powers your Vigors, health and even cover to make things a little easier.
Unfortunately, this is where my preview ended – and I was left, am still left with so many questions. There’s a large air of mystery, multiplied. who is the mysterious couple that keeps reappearing? Is Songbird, the large, possibly mechanical creature that protects Elizabeth genuinely interested in her wellbeing, or purely her captor? What is it that drives Father Comstock and his fervent followers? The paltry few hours I had with the game raised infinitely more questions than they provided answers, and I’m left wanting more.
Bioshock raised the bar for narrative-driven shooters, and everything I’ve seen so far assures me that Bioshock Infinite will exceed it.