In a London train at rush hour, we’re all sex offenders. Personal space is invaded by two, sometimes ten individuals of various colours and creeds who you wish would have the courtesy of at least buying you dinner before they clumsily groped your arse cheeks.
Like any distressing event, you eventually learn how to crawl inside your own skull and think that it will all be over soon enough if you just try to relax, and my skull was a good place to be at around six o’clock yesterday evening because it was filled with over two and a half hours of gameplay from 2K’s upcoming Bioshock Infinite. Well worth getting molested for.
While I’m against writing anything that might be construed as a ‘spoiler’, do bear in mind that this is a preview article and as such small ones might be present.
Emerging from a tumultuous storm, players find themselves in the shoes of Booker DeWitt. This is no seemingly random plane crash survivor, nor a monster with a past, but your average scumbag human being circa early 1900s. Plot devices in Bioshock Infinite follow the welcome patterns laid out in previous titles of the franchise with audio diaries, visual clues, and interactive projectors as the new feature; all optional of course.
Without saying too much, our friend Booker is sent into the clouds to infiltrate the majestic floating city of Columbia and bring back a certain girl called Elizabeth. He doesn’t know who exactly he’s working for, nor does he know why they’re interested in this particular citizen, but it’s clear from the way he approaches things that he doesn’t have much choice.
There are cutscenes carried out through the first person, which prove immersive as we get to know Booker and his quarry, Elizabeth. Immersive, horrifying, and funny in places, it’s really the voice actors that make the scenes compelling and the character models are so well coordinated you’ll think you’re watching a film…Which you kind of are.
We all remember that moment in Bioshock when we saw Rapture for the first time and with Bioshock Infinite that sense of simultaneous discovery and disbelief bubbles up on a frequent basis. Columbia is a colourful and joyous counterpoint to Andrew Ryan’s nightmare, but don’t let the clear skies and happy citizens fool you. It’s about as dark as games can get with its content.
Propaganda and mass brainwashing are brought to the fore from the start of Booker’s arrival in Columbia. If Rapture was conceived as the most extreme form of liberalism, Columbia is its polar opposite in the form of a deeply embedded and pervasive conservatism. At the head of this cheerfully oppressive doctrine is the ‘prophet’ Comstock, a man who holds the people’s hearts and minds by the short and curlies. Columbia is his vision; a city built to glorify and praise the core values of white, God-fearing America, and guide the rest of the world to what he believes are their rightful places.
Where Rapture had long since descended into chaos at the point of your arrival, Columbia is still a fully functional and independent city. People fill its streets, have jobs to do, there’s also a police force, in short everything is very neatly organised and wrapped with the sense of greater purpose in fulfilling Comstock’s vision – whatever that might be. And this in itself is far more disturbing than looking at the ruined dream Rapture was.
Comstock’s dream is alive and you can hear the beating of its heart through the overheard conversations of the populace, as well as key scenes where you get a look at what Columbia’s people are really like. Throughout my play session of Bioshock Infinite there were times when Booker could mix with the locals and go unnoticed. People smiled at him and engaged him in conversation, so it was genuinely unsettling to see how quickly they could turn to violence when they realised his agenda.
Suddenly you’re smacking guards about with a Sky Hook device, picking up their firearms, and aiming for headshots. People run away screaming while others switch on their latent party tricks and start shooting fire at you from their hands. It harkens back to the chaotic fights you had with Rapture’s masked splicers, but your enemies this time around are a tightly controlled and organised group of people who each have their assigned roles as combatants, and by Christ can they make life difficult.
Light troops are uniformed officers who are armed with rudimentary melee weapons and firearms, from pistols to machine guns. Heavier troops are armoured, wielding fiery Vigors and bigger weapons such as rocket launchers, and they can back you into a corner while the small fry assault you in waves. Then there are the big guys, the tanks of the battlefield, like the much talked about and tragic mechanised monster, the “Handy Man”. There are other foes to consider on top of this lot, but this is a basic breakdown of the threats you’ll face as you progress into Columbia.
Instead of Plasmids the people of Columbia, through means as yet unknown, have developed “Vigors” that bestow plenty of weird and wonderful powers upon the wily user, including the ability to attract a flock of crows to tear at enemies and the more familiar powers of lightning and flame. One early Vigor gives Booker control over machines, which proves handy in situations where automated turrets rain bullets in your direction, and there are minor alterations in the way offensive powers work so that the gameplay is varied. You can turn a fireball into an explosive trap by holding down the trigger, for example.
You can no longer carry a dozen firearms and all the ammunition in the world to shove down the throat of a Big Daddy. Instead you have two guns and two Vigors equipped at a time, the latter of which you can swap out from a quick menu. This has a streamlining effect on the combat and means that you’ll be able to focus more on bringing down the baddies as opposed to fiddling with gun or power selection menus. Additionally, and perhaps controversially, Booker is equipped with a ‘magnetic field’ to repel bullets…A shield, then. Med kits and Bioshock Infinite’s equivalent of EVE boosters are no longer items to be carried around, but rather instant effect pick-ups.
While this means we’re leaning more and more towards the mainstream shooter, things are grounded in the realm of Bioshock by making gun effectiveness and power usage interdependent. You simply won’t be able to fight Comstock’s army without applying all available tools to the situation; rely on your powers alone and you’ll get your teeth broken; rely on your guns and a tank character will charge you down.
What makes this a game worthy of the title Bioshock most of all, however, is the setting. Columbia is dazzlingly beautiful, sporting a unique architecture that’s part colonial and part steampunk, with towering monuments and open plazas reminiscent of European styles. It’s not a mishmash of design like Rapture was, though; there’s a distinct uniformity to Columbia and the way it’s organised around a giant effigy of an unknown woman, and the most outlandish feature of them all is the rail system connecting it all together.
Once you’re in possession of a Sky Hook, Booker can make giant leaps onto any of these rails and with the godlike power of magnetism travel from one part of the city to another. Firing your guns from such a position might seem like a tricky prospect, but pressing the right stick allows you to hone in on your targets with absolute precision, and furthermore you can aim your landing to deal a crushing blow against any enemy beneath you.
The rest is all familiar Bioshock goodness, with customisable slots for perks and purchased upgrades to Vigors and guns. Finding hidden tonics can increase your health, shields, and salt levels for casting Vigors.
However, what we all wanted from Bioshock Infinite more than anything else was that thick heady atmosphere of isolation in a world of ideals gone horribly wrong. 2K has nailed that to the point where I uttered words to the effect of, “Fuck me”, several times in the course of two hours as a parade of ultra-conservatism and monstrous propaganda was burned into Booker’s unblinking gaze. Sander Cohen was crazy, but I’ll sit and chat with him about his “masterpiece” any day over spending time with some of the people in Columbia; the chances that I survive Cohen are significantly higher.
It is Bioshock, kids, but not as we know it. On March 26th you’ll have your chance to breach Columbia’s defences and see what all the fuss is about.
You can pre order a copy of Bioshock Infinite from our preferred retail partner That Game Shop here.