Hands-On: BioShock Infinite
Considering I got the chance to play through a rather significant amount of BioShock Infinite, you should be warned that there are potential spoilers below, especially if you want to experience the introduction to Columbia first hand.
BioShock Infinite has been in development for a long time. It’s been delayed not once, but twice. However, unlike most other titles that undergo this usually disastrous process, Irrational’s latest title has come out looking better and better each and every time, making the three week wait until it’s release tick away as slowly as possible. Just be thankful that you didn’t have to play BioShock Infinite ahead of release day like I did yesterday. Not because it’s bad, no nothing like that. It’s because getting my hands on the first few hours of the game has left me drooling for the chance to get more.
Let’s back things up a bit before I get ahead of myself here though. Yesterday I had the privilege to test out some (dated) code that made up a large portion of BioShock Infinite’s opening. Before we got our hands on it we got the chance to sit down with one of the PR managers at 2K Games, who walked us through what we would be playing as well as revealing some information about BioShock Infinite’s world that hasn’t really made it to the top of the headlines. One of the most alluring things about BioShock Infinite is it’s antagonist, Father Comstock, an elderly man who took Columbia to the skies and then proceeded to seceded it from the United States of America. What makes Comstock so interesting is not how closely he is related to BioShock’s original antagonist, Andrew Ryan, but just how those similar ideals take on a new form in this latest title. Comstock has built an almost cultist religion around Columbia, with the Founding Fathers being hailed as gods. Comstock himself sits at the top of “The Founders” order, who keep watch over the floating metropolis and ensure that it’s greatest treasure doesn’t escape. That would be the beautiful Elizabeth of course.
Without giving too much away, Elizabeth seems to be serving a much larger purpose than previously expected. We’ve seen her ability to open “tears’ into other dimensions, suggesting that she has uncontrollable powers at her disposal, but what exactly does Comstock want with her? These are answers the players will seek to uncover while travelling as Booker De Witt through Columbia, and there were several hints at a larger, more dark conspiracy lying deep underneath the warmth and colourful streets of the floating city. Irrational Games have boasted extensively about how Elizabeth is more than a simple A.I, claiming that she is almost like another player taking the journey with you. There’s a lot of potential in Booker and Elizabeth’s relationship alone, and Irrational are no strangers when it comes to strong character development and meaningful relationship formations, so this is definitely something to be on the look out for when the game launches. The short presentation also touched on several pillars of gameplay that mixed up the action, including the massive Sky-Lines seen in previous demos and of course the very plasmid-like Vigor powers that Booker will be able to acquire, but it was only when I sat down to play that I saw just how much of an impact these had on the actual gameplay.
The opening sequence echoes the original BioShock’s prelude, with Booker De Witt on route to a massive lighthouse in the middle of the ocean. In his possession is a box containing a pistol, a cryptic note and a message, “Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt.” Booker De Witt has seemingly got himself involved with the wrong people after coming back from his spell in the army, and now in 1910 he’s found his reckless ways catch up with him. His only choice is to travel to a city he’s never seen or heard of, to find a girl named Elizabeth and bring her back to unharmed. Upon arriving at the lighthouse, Booker makes his way inside, a bloody body inside reminding him of the type of people he is dealing with. After using the cryptic message to sound three bells at the top of the tower, the sky thunders with the sound of massive horns, illuminating the clouds in a dark red and leaving Booker quite frightened about what he’s actually got himself into. A door opens, a chair rises out of the floor and Booker gets himself strapped in for a one-way ride upwards, breaking the clouds to behold the wonder in the skies…Columbia.
Much like the slow ride through the underwater streets of Rapture filled players with a sense of bewilderment and excitement, so too does the slow decent into Columbia. As Booker tries to comprehend what he is seeing, a massive series of floating cites high in the clouds, the vessel he arrived in begins to descend into one of the parts of Columbia, eventually coming to a rest in a very temple-like structure. Water flows beneath his feet as he makes his way through the corridors, eventually stumbling upon a group of people deep in prayer. After asking for passage into Columbia, Booker is told that one does not enter Columbia without being baptized in the way of The Founders, already displaying the deep religious and cult-like roots of the floating metropolis. After nearly downing in the process of being “baptized”, which treats players to a very short dream sequence, Booker awakens in a park, on the surface of Columbia. Around him stand statues of the American founding fathers, godly figures that are worshiped by Columbia’s citizens. Knowing where to begin looking for Elizabeth, Booker heads in the direction of a distant statue, allowing you to take in the sights and sounds of Columbia as you go. This is probably where you’ll notice a stark comparison to the first BioShock.
Unlike Rapture, Columbia is an alive and thriving city, with people going about their daily business and the streets clean of any gruesome acts of violence. Everything is light and seemingly good natured, and its hard to imagine that this wonder of a city holds such dark secrets beneath it. You’re able to walk into shops, interact with other people along your route and over hear conversations concerning the civil war between Comstock’s Founders and the revolutionaries known as the Vox Populi, whose conflict explains why things go south very quickly when Booker arrives. Comstock can be seen on massive posters nearly everywhere, as well as “The Lamb of Columbia”, who so happens to be the imprisoned Elizabeth.
Booker eventually reaches a carnival being held in a massive square, and this is where things slowly start to kick off. Here Booker gets the chance to test out some Vigors before actually acquiring them in combat, and the whole carnival itself acts as a small tutorial that can either be engaged with or skipped entirely. It’s a nice non obtrusive way to let players get to grips with early weapons and Vigors, showing off a keen sense of design and contextual awareness at the same time. Here Booker also acquires his first Vigor, Possession, that allows him to be-friend a robot guard and proceed past a guarded gate. It’s not long before Booker finds himself in the middle of a massive crowd waiting for a raffle to commence, and it’s at this point that Bioshock Infinite really starts. A short moral decision later and everyone knows who Booker is, and why he’s in Columbia. I won’t spoil exactly how that takes place, considering it ties into the deeper narrative, but let’s just say it wasn’t the best move on Booker’s part.
Quickly disarming a nearby police officer grants Booker access to the Sky-Hook, which serves as both brutal melee weapon and utility for later in the game. Instead of walking you through all the combat encounters that happen after this point (there were many), let’s talk about combat as a whole for now. Gameplay hasn’t really changed from the first BioShock here in Infinite, with Booker able to store various weapons and Vigors at once. Throughout the demo I got to try three very different Vigors, two of which are extremely familiar. Possession allows Booker to make an enemy an ally for a limited time, and upgrading the vigor via vendors adds additional properties to the ability, such as targets committing suicide after the effect has worn off. Devil’s Kiss is a lot like Inferno, allowing Booker to toss out an fiery explosive ball that deals incredible damage to foes, with splash damage ensuring large groups of enemies are not obstacle. The last Vigor, which I only found near the end of my short playthrough, was named Murder of Crows. Before acquiring this Vigor you see it being used on a prisoner, with a large group of crows tearing the flesh right off of him. That’s probably the best way to describe what this useful Vigor can do, spawning crows from your hand that devour enemies ahead of you while also weakening them to your regular damage.
Vigors work in the same way plasmids did in the original Bioshock, except instead of Eve players now use “salts” to cast them. Possession and Murder of Crows took a large chunk of salts whenever used, and it was abundantly clear that Vigors would have to be used a lot more wisely than plasmids. Thankfully, combat usually took place in large areas which allowed a lot of creative freedom in attack co-ordination. This contrasts the tight corridors of Rapture, and it’s a welcome change which allows firefights to feel a lot more frantic and larger in scale. Often you’ll find yourself up against multiple waves of enemies, so having a large space to move and plan around in opens up BioShock Infinite’s combat in a glorious way. Gunplay is as satisfying as ever here, and each weapon, whether it be the World War I pistol or the quick firing assault rifle, feels and sounds powerful. Combined with the ability to set each Vigor as a trap allows you to be rather creative against you varying foes, which is welcome after you see how varied they can become.
Even in the early moments of the demo, various enemy types attempted to end Booker’s stay in Columbia prematurely. From normal police officers to ghastly figures carrying coffins on their back, Infinite seems like it wants to keep players on their toes at all times. A regular firefight took a few turns for the worst while I was playing, as the entrance of a guard wielding devil Kiss changed the entire dynamic of the fight, forcing Booker out of cover and into the open where a robotic turret was lying in wait. BioShock Infinite provided a stern challenge even in the opening stages, although death seems to carry the same consequence as previous titles. Gone are the Vita-Chambers, replaced with “tear” like rips into another dimension which allows Booker to rejoin the action, at a price. Enemies regain some of their health after Booker respawns, and be prepared to pay a pretty penny to gain your life back too.
But probably the most exciting part about my time with the demo came when I realised that a lot of what I was playing was what we have seen in recent trailers, meaning that there is still a lot of BioShock Infinite that Irrational has intentionally kept from us. Judging from the stellar opening sequence and the small bits of action I had the chance to experience, I’m eagerly waiting to see what else Columbia has in store for Booker and Elizabeth, and just how evil Father Comstock really is. Ending off my playthrough was the first meeting between Booker and Elizabeth, which has already been shown off in a recent trailer, although the sequence was still captivating and interesting to watch play out. What happened next though was the highlight of the entire demo for me personally, but I’ll rather let you experience it yourself when the game launches on the 26th of March for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC.