E3 2011

E3: BioShock Infinite

| 8 Jun 2011 02:00
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We check out Infinite and love what we see.

When we first saw BioShock Infinite, many, myself included, summed it up as just being BioShock in the air - but didn't mean it as a compliment. Now, after seeing a gameplay demo, I can confirm that Infinite is indeed BioShock in the air, which is the best possible thing it could be. By moving the action out of water and into the clouds of Columbia, Infinite does something few sequels can truly manage: It recaptures the feeling of awe and wonder we experienced the very first time we saw Rapture.

Here's a quick refresher for anyone not up on the history of Infinite's flying city. Columbia is a flying World's Fair, a testament to the human drive to innovate and create. It's also a city on the brink of a new world order, and during the Boxer Rebellion, Columbia opened fire on civilians in China. The US cut ties with Columbia, which now roams the skies as a kind of roving boogeyman. Pinkerton Agent Booker DeWitt has been hired to find a young girl named Elizabeth, who's been kept prisoner in a tower for fifteen years. Her only companion has been her jailor, the enormous mechanoid Songbird.

The level we saw takes place about a third of the way through the game. Booker has managed to free Elizabeth, but can't get her out of the city just yet. She has powers that she neither understands nor can control, and she won't leave until she gets some help. Booker is hoping that Comstock, the leader of The Founders, can provide some answers. The Founders are one of the factions in Columbia, currently at odds with the Vox Populi, who started a peaceful counter to Founder leadership, but has since declared all-out war. Booker and Elizabeth must make their way through Emporia, the seat of Founder power, to Comstock House, where Elizabeth can hopefully get the information she needs, and Booker can finally get paid.

The demo began with Booker and Elizabeth poking around an old notions store in Emporia, which was filled with tourist trap-style junk. Songbird is after them, and the pair have to take cover as he looks through the window, letting out a god-awful shriek. The sound that thing makes might be the most terrifying noise ever featured in a videogame. Remember the first time you saw Jurassic Park and heard the T-Rex bellow? It's that kind of bone-rattling terrifying of a noise.

After Songbird clears off, Booker and Elizabeth continue making their way through Emporia, and we see a sampling of Elizabeth's powers when she comes across a dying horse. Apparently, she can tear through the fabric of reality and let other possibilities bleed through. She tries to open a tear that will result in a healed horse, but she can't control it and reality fluctuates between possibilities, finally resulting in Elizabeth and Booker standing in the middle of a street near a movie theater showing Revenge of the Jedi. She manages to repair things just in time to avoid being creamed by a truck.

Elizabeth's power can come in handy during combat situations, though. She can open a tear to pull through an object to use as cover or a new weapon, but she has to recover after each use of her ability. Areas open to tears appear in the world like outlines of static, as though there are objects just slightly out of phase with Columbia's reality. We got to see some of the gunplay as Booker found himself in an altercation with the Vox Populi, and after doing some damage on the ground, he took to Columbia's Skyline to shoot from the air. You can apparently hop from rail to rail, but the hands off nature of the demo makes it tough to determine if the mechanic is forgiving, or if you have to time your jumps or risk plummeting to your death. Hopefully it's the former; trying to concentrate on jumping while dodging bullets might rob what otherwise looks like a nonstop adrenaline rush of its thrill.

The nuts and bolts of Infinite certainly look appealing, but what's really changed my mind about this game is how it evokes the feeling of BioShock without copying it. Columbia, like Rapture, is a city stuck in time, tearing itself apart as differing ideologies vie for dominance. But Rapture was a claustrophobic space. Everywhere you went, you felt the oppressive weight of the ocean bearing down on you. Columbia, on the other hand, is a wide open space, with huge expanses and lots of room. Rapture was held down by tones of blue and brown, Columbia is brightened by reds and whites. The people of Rapture pushed inward on Jack, with communication that was strictly one way, but Booker can speak. His influence pushes outward into Columbia as he talks to Elizabeth. Infinite has enough in common with its predecessor to let us feel comfortable with it, but this isn't just BioShock all over again. The emotional interaction with the city is completely different.

The demo introduced us to Elizabeth, Songbird, and the high-flying Skyline hopping, but it was just a tiny sliver of the overall package. There were times when the conversation between Elizabeth and Booker felt a bit forced and artificial, but I'm certainly curious to know more about her powers and what they might mean for the factions of Columbia. Consider me converted - I'm an Infinite believer.

BioShock Infinite will be released for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC in 2012.

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