BioShock Infinite, which we had our first glimpse of way back in 2011, is mind-blowing. The demo sequence chosen for that first behind-closed-doors session at E3 in LA showcased a series of events in which impossible things (even in the realms of videogames) were made real, and it seemed the very concept of what could be done in a game would need to be redefined.
It was our game of the show and thinking about it even now brings goose bumps to the skin.
Never heard of the game? A quick recap: the true sequel to 2007's BioShock, and built by the same developer as that first game, this new first person shooter is set aboard a giant, floating city. The year is 1912 and the world is, politically, a mess. This floating city - called Columbia - is no different; a microcosm of political schisms all its own seem to threaten its very existence. Into that milieu our hero (one Booker DeWitt) must stride, in order to rescue (or is that kidnap?) Elizabeth - a girl with extraordinary powers.
Columbia, it turns out, is less a large floating island on which a city is built and more a collection of independent, unconnected structures - including buildings, parks, and other (otherwise familiar) urban locales. They move independently of one another, too, alternately docking and then undocking to move on to another part of the city, in exactly the same way buildings in the real world don't.
Fortunately, other than jumping (which is also an option), or taking a ferry, there's a means of transport available that allows you to navigate around this extraordinary environment in a similarly remarkable manner: the skyline. By way of a skyhook, Booker and Elizabeth can jump onto rollercoaster-like tracks that permeate BioShock Infinite's preposterous principality, moving with great speed between different areas almost at will.
I say almost, because despite having now played the first four hours or so of the game, my experience is of a world that is somewhat constrained. You have more and more freedom as the game expands, but it doesn't pretend to be open world, either.
My session began right at the start of the game, a sequence you can see for yourself right here. If you're thinking, right off the bat, that the experience is wholly similar to the start of the original BioShock, be in no doubt that was the intention. It's immediately apparent that Irrational, the developer, is keen to ground players in that mindset, and it's not the only time you'll be reminded of their earlier work.
As you explore, for example, you'll find record players that feature character and plot exposition; small sequences that fill narrative gaps, explaining more about the world. It's hardly a new technique, having featured in many recent games, but it's nonetheless a welcome one; BioShock Infinite's world is detailed in the extreme and finding out more about it is a thrill you'll look forward to.
Unlike BioShock's post-apocalypse Rapture, Infinite's Columbia is alive and full of character. NPCs populate most areas, generally milling about and participating in all manner of carefree activity. Children frolic in the park, for example, chasing invisible insects or otherwise generally behaving in the way a child might have, before the invention of the Nintendo.
At one point, a flying ship, as part of an in-game PR stunt no doubt, descended to a nearby area for a seemingly impromptu barbershop quartet performance; the B-Sharps, as the group was known, quickly gathered a small crowd - including myself, as I opted to go and enjoy it, rather than continue to pursue my current quest. This whole experience, I later found out, was entirely optional and may even be missed altogether by a huge percentage of players. Rich? Textured? You bet; it was glorious, too.
Interestingly, the song the B-Sharps chose for this performance was by the Beach Boys - a band that's nearly 50 years from forming at the time in which Infinite is set. Is there some deeper meaning to this time dilation? Ken Levine, the game's creative director, isn't telling. Far from an isolated event, the choice of song is just one of many anomalies that hint at some sort of fundamental spacetime warp at the center of the narrative.
After exploring for a while, I found myself at a carnival of sorts, complete with sideshow events that I could actually play. Initially appearing as a particularly nice piece of set dressing, their real meaning was soon apparent: they teach you how to use the game's weapons. As tutorials go, their seamless integration is eloquently executed - no great shock, I'm sure, to any who are already familiar with Irrational's work.
In addition to an assortment of steampunkian firearms, the player is also soon able to weaponise themselves directly by way of unlockable psychokinetic abilities, called vigors. The first you experience, in the aforementioned carnival, is one called Bucking Bronco. With it, you can thrust NPCs into the air, making them especially vulnerable to your attacks or simply removing them from the fight for a short time. Like most of the game, it's clear that the inclusion of these abilities is to give players choices as to how they approach things, rather than simply replace the "rocket launcher" analog with hand-waving magic.
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