Bioshock: Infinite starts, much as Bioshock starts, atop a stormy ocean with the player approaching a lighthouse. This time, though, we aren’t descending into the deepest, darkest bowels of the ocean. Instead, as we’ve all known since that fish tank was symbolically smashed in the first Infinite trailer, we are ascending into heaven.
A Brave New World
The game’s opening sequence, then, as the actually vocal playable character Booker DeWitt ascends from the water to the sky, is both a deliberate nod to and reaction against the original Bioshock. Infinite acknowledges its roots, then literally catapults the player away from them. Bioshock: Infinite is very much a Bioshock game. It’s starting from the same place, and it might even be going to the same destination, but it’s taking a different road to get there.
The flying city of Colombia and its leader, Father Comstock, complement Rapture and Andrew Ryan — a Yin to the other’s Yang. To Ryan’s secretive city, hidden in the darkness, Comstock’s city proudly floats over and looks down on the “Sodom” below. To Ryan’s ideology of individualistic objectivism, Comstock’s ideology is an embrace of manifest destiny (“It is White Man’s burden to care for the rest of creation!” he tells us at one stage), complete with all the xenophobia and racist imagery of the time. Each visionary takes the promises of the American dream down a different, delusional road to the same destructive ends.
The state of the cities as the player engages with them are also complementary. Whereas Rapture had torn itself to shreds years before the player submerged to its streets, Colombia is still alive. As the player first enters its streets, there is a chaotic life to the city. There is so much happening—so much to hear, so much to see. The vista of the towers floating among the clouds, with the sun casting glowing halos over angelic statues, is truly jaw-dropping. Closer, airships chug between towers and buildings dock and undock with each other. On the street level, children are playing; women and men stand on corners and discuss politics. Yet, the disorientation I feel, the sheer saturation of sights and sounds, is almost exactly like I felt when taking my first, confused steps into Rapture.
It was a good twenty minutes before I touched a weapon, but this is hardly a complaint. Infinite doesn’t push the player along; it wants the player to get to know this new world before they start tearing it apart. It wants the player to feel — as so many recent games do — partially responsible for what is going to happen here. And partially responsible the player indeed is. It is Booker who tries to throw the first stone (a baseball, actually. You’ll see.), and from there, everything goes down hill.
Right To Bear Arms
Once you do finally obtain a weapon (the wrist-mounted skyline tool that doubles up as wrist-mounted spinning blade, shortly followed by a pistol), combat is very much in the mould of the earlier Bioshocks with gun in the right hand and plasmi- uh, “vigors” in the left hand. There’s a satisfying weight to the guns that the first Bioshock lacked — a sturdy chunkiness and, like most recent shooters, a dependancy on iron sights.
Another compromise to modern tastes, one that will surely raise more eyebrows than a need to use iron sights, is the implementation of a two weapon limit (plus melee which now, thankfully, has been given its own button). This seems to work against the standard set by the previous games, which asked the player to constantly change between weapons to experiment with their environment. At various times, I found myself walking past specialist weapons like RPGs as I was too wary about dropping either my machine gun or my shotgun.
This weapon limitation aligns with what seems, from these opening hours, an overall more straightforward approach to combat. Hacking is nowhere to be seen in the opening hours of the game that we played (though a vigor is acquired early on that allows the player to remotely turn gun turrets against their own), and the lack of any kind of stealth options feels disappointing, especially in the areas that are peaceful until the player fires the first shot.
The opening skirmishes are much more straightforward run-and-gun than Bioshock 2’s open areas that often asked the player to set traps and use the environment. As the game progresses, though, the world does open up somewhat into the hub-like areas similar to the previous games, and very rarely does it actually feel like you are being pushed down a single, narrow corridor.
There is the promise, too, of players having more abilities to customise Booker’s abilities by equipping different kinds of gear, along with choosing different vigor and weapon upgrades. Gear acts somewhat like the tonics of previous games, altering the player’s abilities. In lieu of the environmental experimentation of the previous game, it will be up to the customisation and experimentation allowed by these load-outs that will have to keep the gunplay fresh.
Perhaps the most conspicuous addition to the combat is the Borderlands-esque numbers spraying off enemies with every hit, complete with “Critical!” hits in red, and “Vulnerable!” hits in yellow. This was a jarring and surprising addition, seemingly completely at odds with the game’s ambitions to build an immersive, living world. The logic behind this decision, I’m told, is to give more direct feedback to players experimenting with load-out customisation. Though, most crucially, it was stressed that these numbers, along with the red health bars over enemies’ heads, can all be turned off if the player desires.
Picture Book World
That the combat seems like a largely straightforward affair is not necessarily a criticism, though, as the combat really just seems like a (completely competent) carriage for Irrational to tell the story they want to tell, and to throw the player into the world they want to show.
And throw that player into the world they do. Colombia is a place you want to understand. Really, you don’t have much choice. Bioshock: Infinite is a tour de force of the kind of environmental storytelling Ken Levine’s games are known for. There is hardly a place you can look without finding out something else about this world. It’s an unavoidable barrage of newspaper headlines, propaganda posters, overheard conversations, coin-activated mutoscopes. For the most part, it works, and rarely feels like convenient exposition. However, it does occasionally feel ham-fisted. After seeing the same slogans on walls and posters at least three times, I was then halted at a road between two islands as a street parade of airships with the same slogans on them passed, blaring them at me over their speakers, just to make sure I got the idea. Regardless, Colombia feels like a city and a culture that you can’t help but to learn about.
The still-living city offers unique challenges to the combat design, too. Sometimes civilians run off screaming when the firing starts, and sometimes they join in the skirmish with a horrifying, patriotic zeal. At other times, though, they seem conspicuously unaware of the airship that exploded not very far away. As the conflicts intensify and the city inevitably falls apart later in the game, it will be a challenge for Infinite to ensure that the city still feels convincing as a city, and not just a series of videogame areas.
But more than environmentally, Infinite has the advantage (and perhaps the burden) of speaking characters to enrich its world. Booker is very much his own character, and not just a voice trying to guess what the player is thinking. Once Elizabeth enters the game (shortly after an incredible dramatic sequence that put the biggest, stupidest grin across my face), she and Booker are regularly having conversations, about the world and about each other, adding to the world in largely organic ways. A constructive tension exists between their world views, allowing a range of perspectives to be brought up organically in each situation.
Elizabeth is not just a passive thing to be dragged around (though her ‘girly’ weakness is occasionally cringeworthy). She will often run around rooms searching for loot, offering to throw Booker health kits in the middle of a fight (or, less helpfully, flip him a coin). Fortunately, she can’t be hurt by enemies, and so the game avoids having the player frustratingly depend on an AI’s ability to not get shot.
Elizabeth’s biggest contribution to the gameplay, though, is her ability to drag elements of parallel universes into this world. From what we saw, this often comes down to simply deciding if we wanted a friendly turret or extra cover. Simple, perhaps, but a nice touch that fits with and reinforces the game’s narrative, while also making Elizabeth a more independent and interesting character.
Up In The Air
Another mechanic we’ve seen a lot of in trailers is the skyline. Though, I’ll be honest, I was surprised to learn that the skyline was, in fact, a mechanic at all. More than simply a “press A to watch travel cinematic” device, the player stays in full control as they zip around these impossible roller coasters. You can speed up, slow down, shoot, turn around, jump to other rails. Enemies can also be pounced on from the rail in dramatic and satisfying lunge attacks.
These abilities, along with other versatile uses the wrist-mounted device allows, means the skyline feels less like jumping on a train and more like relying on a magnetic grappling hook. It feels less like effortless flying and more like constant, perilous falling. It gives an important sense of verticality to the world while, importantly, keeping the player aware that you are just a mortal human and with one false move you will be falling for a very, very long time. The sky can eat you up with about as little effort as the ocean.
It reinforces the extravagance and the absurdity of Colombia as a city, as everything in the game strives to do. And, really, that is Bioshock: Infinite in a nutshell. While both the underlying systems and the overarching themes might feel more like a refinement of the previous games than a revolution, Colombia as a place feels like somewhere completely and exhilaratingly new. Just as Ryan and Comstock took different paths to the same dystopia, Irrational are taking the player through a different world to the same, underlying, Bioshock — and it is a world I can’t wait to see more of.