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In our preview of Ken Levine and Irrational Games’ BioShock Infinite, we check out the first two-and-a-half-hours of this highly-anticipated, story-focused FPS, avoid (as much as possible) comparisons with past BioShock instalments, and tell you why this is one March blockbuster title worth keeping an eye out for – even if you’ve never played any of the previous games.

Set in the year 1912, in BioShock Infinite you play as former Pinkerton agent (Pinkerton being the biggest private military contractor in the United States at that point in time) Booker DeWitt who now earns his keep as a private eye.

DeWitt owes some bad and mysterious people a lot of money with no real means of paying it off. Knowing that they’re never going to get their money back, DeWitt’s creditors decide to offer the former Pinkerton agent and skilled P.I. one final chance to clear his debt: infiltrate into utopian, floating city of Columbia – a proverbial “Heaven on Earth” of sorts – and whisk away a girl named Elizabeth who’s lived her entire life atop an ivory tower there. Fail, and DeWitt’s life is as good as forfeited.

Fortunately for him, then, that wide-eyed Elizabeth would love nothing more than to be let out of her comfy but steely cage, and explore the world outside.

Well, there was a brief moment where Elizabeth was frightened out of her wits, when DeWitt decides to drop in on her humble abode unannounced. But her eyes lit up the moment our hero shows the princess a key that unlocks the path to freedom, and adventure.

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There’s only one problem: Father Comstock, a prophet who governs the evangelist city of Columbia, is out for DeWitt’s blood for he believes our hero to be a “false shepherd” who will lead the city’s faithful denizens astray. His demonisation of DeWitt leads to entire strides of law enforcers and civilians alike going after our hero, complicating matters.

Meanwhile, Songbird, a mechanical fowl who’s served as Elizabeth’s protector and caretaker for the past 15 years, freaks out and tears the city asunder when it finds out that its charge had gone missing.

There are also supposed to be two competing factions of enemies – the Founders and the Vox Populi – who hate each other’s guts but otherwise share the similar goal of of hunting down DeWitt.  But we didn’t really get to see how that plays out in the two-and-half-hour demo that we went hands-on with.

What did we get to see, then?

Let’s start from the very beginning, shall we?

 

“No Difficulty” setting turns BioShock Infinite into a First-Person Adventure

Sky-Line

The first thing that stood out to me as I dived into the BioShock Infinite demo, was that Irrational Games is trying to make as few assumptions about the player as possible.

Although Infinite is technically the third game in the BioShock series, and there will obviously be gameplay and thematical similarities between this game and the previous two instalments, the developer is treating Infinite almost as if it’s a standalone piece of brand new intellectual property (new IP). You’re not missing out on a lot even if you’ve never touched BioShock 1 and 2.

Better yet, you don’t even need to be a regular first-person-shooter (FPS) gamer to have a good time in BioShock Infinite – on top of the “Easy”, “Medium”, and “Hard” difficulty settings that return from past games, there is now a new “No Difficulty” setting that promises to let casual gamers experience the story and the consequences of their choices at branching points without fear of constantly dying.

That said, I played the demo on the “Medium” difficulty setting, and even though I consider myself a regular FPS gamer, I found myself constantly scrambling for health pick-ups. Infinite is certainly not a stroll in the park, and is quite challenging even on the default Medium setting.

 

Ascension

You do not need to be a BioShock returning player to experience Infinite in its full glory. But even in the game’s opening sequence alone (the first few minutes of which you can see in the video embedded below), it’s clear that if you’ve been a faithful follower of Ken Levine’s work, then there are going to be references and parallels that you can revel in.

Booker DeWitt begins his journey towards Columbia by taking a rowboat ride to a secluded lighthouse in the middle of nowhere. There, he sees a few of the appalling sights that the BioShock series is known for, before strapping himself into a rocket and ascending into the evangelist city.

Compare that to the first BioShock, in which the protagonist swims to a lighthouse (also in the middle of nowhere), and descends into the underwater failed-utopia city of Rapture, almost as if it were Hell. A banner bearing the phrase “No gods or kings, only man” greets you on the way down towards Rapture.

In stark contrast, when you ascend into Infinite’s Columbia, a rendition of Amazing Grace plays in the background, and the city’s point of entry is decked with evangelistic messages. The very first person you meet in Columbia, a pastor, describes the place as “the closest you’ll get to Judgement Day”. And he’s absolutely right – in fact, the only way foreigners like DeWitt would be admitted into Columbia, was to be baptised right on the spot.

DeWitt undergoes said baptism – the pastor puts his hand over DeWitt’s face and immediately our hero’s head is emerged in a pool of water – which he later describes as “getting drowned”, and passes out. We then get to see a quick flashback scene that takes place at the private investigator’s offices, before our hero regains consciousness and begins scouting for his objective (tapping up on the D-pad will bring out a quick guiding arrow on the ground should you ever end up lost).

 

Fall in love with Columbia’s flawed utopia

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For a while now, gamers have debated on what the chief differences between Japanese-developed games and Western-developed ones are, and so far  the most sound assertion I’ve heard is that Japanese-made games tend to focus on coming up with iconic characters (spiky hairstyles and paper-thin personalities notwithstanding), while games from Western developers tend to focus more on the universe and the various ways you could interact and explore with its environments, while providing characters that would believably thrive in those environments.

BioShock Infinite is certainly a shining example of that latter games design philosophy. While Booker DeWitt, Elizabeth, Father Comstock, and Songbird are all interesting characters in their own right, playing through the demo I couldn’t help but feel that these characters really play only a supporting role, second fiddle to the city of Columbia itself.

Of course, it also helps that the views in Columbia are absolutely breathtaking, and the game’s graphical prowess render the utopian setting quite stunningly.

As DeWitt explores the city, you’ll encounter many scenarios and facets of life on Columbia that add colour to the city itself, rather than aid in character or plot development.

For instance, the game’s combat tutorial are a series of fun fair stalls where you can practice your aiming and eventually learn the first of several supernatural powers (referred to as “Vigors”) – Possession – by gulping down a free drink sample. After which you use your newfound power to take control of an android gatekeeper who will now assent to issuing you an entrance pass, acknowledging that it must have made a mistake earlier in not being able to access your identity records.

Why is it that grabbing a free sample of a drink at the local fun fair can lead to DeWitt gaining supernatural powers? It wasn’t really explained to us, but it certainly gives players a hint of the sort of boundaries and skewered morality that Columbia – as a whole – possesses.

Also at the same fun fair, you’ll encounter a lottery raffle that DeWitt must participate in (for story reasons) before you’re allowed to proceed – the crowds won’t let you through otherwise.

Prior to entering the raffle, a mysterious messenger hands DeWitt a note advising that he avoid “picking #77” – something that he inadvertently does when grabbing a random baseball, coincidentally marked “#77”, from the lottery raffle, making him a winner. The raffle crowd cheers.

But not DeWitt, who is instead disgusted.  For the prize he won was the opportunity to be the first in pelting an interracial couple – tied up and discriminated against – with the baseball he picked out.

At this point, you’re given an option to either hit the left trigger to throw it at the couple, as prescribed, or hurl it at the announcer in a fit of rage.

I chose the latter, but before my decision could fully play out, a law enforcer grabs DeWitt’s right arm, sees the “AD” mark on his hand, and brands our hero as the prophesized “false shepherd” who would ruin the city – based solely on a mark on his hand (although the frantic first-person first-fight that as a direct result of the situation didn’t win DeWitt any friends).

Some of these incidents that you encounter in Columbia will even shock you. While on Father Comstock’s blimp, for instance, there  is a scene where a religious zealot – a civilian woman – takes the most extreme of measures to ensure that DeWitt would not be able to get to his destination (not without a detour, anyway – the entire city is hooked up with magnetic rails called skylines that you can ride on).

 

Combat, and Elizabeth’s role in it

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Throughout the demo,we were able to play with an assortment of regular weapons – the pistol, an automatic rifle, a sniper rifle, shotgun, and a machinegun – all of which handled fine. You’re only allowed to carry two weapons at a time, and you switch between them quickly by hitting the right bumper on the Xbox 360 controller (or its equivalent on the PS3 and PC versions), which I found to be mighty handy in a number of situations where DeWitt was flooded with an entire platoon of soldiers from near and afar, switching between the shotgun for close encoutners, and the sniper rifle . All while darting side to side to get in and out of cover. The gunplay here is simple, but timeless.

With most weapons you can click down on the right analog stick to enter an “aim down sight” zoomed mode, but I found the mounted sights on all of the available guns to be fairly difficult to accurately aim with – fans of Call of Duty’s red dot sight will know what I’m referring to. Fortunately, even without entering the zoomed mode, the default targeting reticle that Infinite gives you is excellent for nailing headshots – I found it to be more accurate than the zoomed mode.

On top of the firearms, DeWitt also has a variety of Vigor supernatural powers to aid him with – Devil’s Kiss is a fireball, Murder of Crows send out a flock of birds that bite at and stun enemies, and Levitation sends foes spiraling into the skies, during which they take additional damage.

Most Vigors have a regular firing mode, and an “alternate fire” that you activate by holding down the spellcasting button – usually the alt. fire is a form of trap that you can lay on the ground for an area-of-effect.

bioshock infinite death from above

New to BioShock Infinite is the ability to hook on to the aforementioned skylines that not only allow DeWitt to travel between various locations, but also lets you pull off a “death from above” manoeuvre whenever you dismount from a hook or skyline.

And finally, near the end of the demo we played, Elizabeth reveals that her latent supernatural powers – the ability to open up a wormhole, which she calls a “tear” – can allow her to scavenge supplies (ammo, health, “Salts” which are required to cast Vigors, and weapons) from an alternate dimension and throw them over to you. While in the heat of battle Elizabeth will occasionally call out to you, informing you that she’s got a fresh batch of supplies that she’ll throw over to you when you’re ready (hold down the context-sensitive “Reload” button).

Not once did Elizabeth get in the way of combat. At the beginning of every firefight Elizabeth always finds some cover for herself, and doesn’t require you to babysit or save her from impending foes (because they’re after you, but not allowed to lay a finger on her). BioShock Infinite is not about escorting Elizabeth; rather, her role is to support you in combat, and open up additional tactical possibilities.

The most interesting of those possibilities we were offered only a brief taste of. Near the end of the demo, there’s a battlefield filled with ghastly outlines of turrets, hooks, and other terrain features that you can tell Elizabeth to activate to afford you some cover or other such useful tactical advantages.

Elizabeth can only make one of the aforementioned structures materialise in Columbia at any point in time. So if you need a turret to put out some suppressive fire, then you will not be able to activate the hook at the next bend that you may need to use in order to safely get to your next objective.

 

Who – or what – is Elizabeth?

The demo we played ended in a museum called the Hall of Heroes, after a series of gruelling battles in the hall’s claustrophobic rooms that concluded with  a boss fight (Heavy Hitter: Motorised Patriot) and DeWitt getting his hands on the Shock Jockey Vigor, which we unfortunately didn’t get to use.

Just prior to the end of the demo, however, DeWitt and Elizabeth enters a room filled with pictures and writings that document some of Columbia’s hidden history, and it is there that the duo begin to put together a theory as to why Elizabeth had been kept prisoner in the floating city to begin with.

We’re not going to reveal what that theory might be, of course, but we’ll say that several events prior to entering that room – when DeWitt first meets Elizabeth at her home, when the Pinkerton agent’s former comrade-in-arms Slate goes on a random tirade about what Comstock did to his legacy, and in a quick encounter at Battleship Bay where Elizabeth was seemingly recognised by a former acquaintance – will hint towards what’s going on.

Find out for yourself who or what Elizabeth might be on March 26, when the full game’s released.

For all we know our parting scene in the demo could be just a red-herring; we’ve only played for less than three hours, after all. Series creator Ken Levine has said before that BioShock Infinite’s playtime is roughly equivalent to that of the first BioShock.

 

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