PREVIEW: BioShock Infinite [PC/PS3/X360]

BioShock is one of “those” franchises. It’s my personal favourite IP of this generation. When people finally see games as art, the first game in the museum will be BioShock. It deconstructed its own medium and punched you when you weren’t expecting to be punched – all while delivering spectacular gameplay in a very pretty package. I even thoroughly enjoyed the sequel, which took a lot of heat for simply being a retread of the first game in a lot of ways. Hell, I bought a PlayStation Vita just because an exclusive BioShock game was announced for it.

So when I say I got properly excited for Infinite around January 2011, when I saw the display with the giant inflatable Songbird at PAX East in Boston, I want that to carry some weight. I had done my reading, I’d seen the trailers and the gameplay demos, and still I was not quite prepared for this game.

For those who haven’t done said readings, Infinite takes place in the floating city of Columbia. You play as ex-Pinkerton agent and all ’round badass Booker DeWitt, tasked with rescuing Elizabeth, kept captive in Columbia because of her miraculous powers. Simply put, she can open gateways into other realities with a very bright, unsettling energy. The first time you see these “tears” (in the title menu no less), you get the feeling something is… off. At first I thought It was just that I was playing a game about a bright, beautiful city in the sky in a dark basement, but by the first hour I was doubting that was it.

Mechanically the game works very similarly to the other games in the series. Plasmids have been replaced by Tonics and Eve has been replaced by Salt. Among the groovy powers this time, we have standard telekinesis and fireballs, but my favourite tonic was Murder Of Crows, which literally throws a flock of (ahem) ravenous birds at the target.

There are a couple of interesting things that have been switched out. Booker can only carry two weapons and two tonics at a time. for FPS fans, this has been standard for weapons since Halo, but limiting your super powers isn’t something I’ve seen before. It leads to a swath of strategic options. Do you get rid of your machine-hacking power (oh yeah, hacking is done by Tonics. This will annoy fans of the franchise, I promise you) for fireballs or do you leave the fireballs and trust your shotgun will get you out of trouble?

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Getting around Columbia feels smooth. Most areas allow you to take your time wandering around, taking in the spectacular visuals. The Skyline mechanic is also a lot of fun. The best way I can describe it is a rail shooter, with movement controls, at about 100 mph (I must admit: I did have to stop a few times because of motion sickness).

Despite how wonderful the game looks, and it does look wonderful, something about this place, isn’t right. The anachronisms here are not limited to the fact that grenade launchers are available, and there are robots in the early 20th century, because that’s cool. Floating around Columbia, there’s a barbershop quartet singing God Only Knows by the Beach Boys. At one point I’m certain I heard Cyndi Lauper playing on a Calliope. It’s really unsettling and I couldn’t tell you exactly why.

Thematically, choice seems to play a big part in the game (mostly in the form of your mysterious employers). Aside from the two weapon restrictions, in the first few hours you are offered a binary choice three times. Two of them don’t really appear to matter (although I’m betting cash money they affect the outcome of the ending) and one that really does.

Without getting too spoileriffic, the people in Columbia are xenophobic and there comes a time where you must either condemn them for it or commit a horrible act yourself to blend in. I suppose it’s kind of like the Little Sisters of the previous games, but there doesn’t appear to be any “benefit” one way or the other. This is a test to see what kind of person you are. This makes the game kind of a litmus test for you humanity, or does it? Why is what you decide right? A few seconds after saving a life, you end another with a grappling hook, so what moral high ground do you have?

The main conflict, by no accident, is between two opposing extremes. The Founders who appear to be the personification of American Patriotism taken to its logical extreme, and the Vox Populi, kind of a combination of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the French Revolution. They both believe that Elizabeth is the key to winning their war. No side is really painted as “right”, which makes the binary choice aspect seem a little nihilistic and cruel. (Although, knowing Bioshock, that could be the entire point. Build the game around choice just to show you how little choice you have…)

There is a LOT of foreshadowing going on in the background as well. Clues that could be clues (or could be red herrings) are spread around all over the place, giving insights into both Booker and Elizabeth’s personalities. I have no idea how much is going to pay off yet, having only played a small portion of the game. I can tell you this though, I am sure as hell intrigued enough to find out.

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I placed my pre-order months ago, and if I hadn’t, these first couple of hours would have more than sold it to me. BioShock Infinite looks, plays and feels fantastic. It feels more like a sequel to the original BioShock than BioShock 2 ever did, and I have no idea what to expect next. I love that from my games.

I’d like to thank the lovely people at 2K Games for inviting me to the event! Thanks so much and see you next time!

BioShock Infinite is due out for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 from March 26th.

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