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Bioshock Infinite E3 2011 In-Depth Preview

Bioshock Infinite astonished everyone here at the GameOn offices when we were treated to a presentation of the title at GamesCom 2010. The radically different setting, highly detailed, stylised visuals and a complex story certainly made an impression. So, it is fair to say that Bioshock Infinite is one of our most hotly anticipated titles. At E3 this year we were shown a gameplay demonstration taking place around one third of the way into the story. Could the game live up to the high expectations and match the impact of the original preview that we witnessed?

One of the most notable aspects of the Bioshock series is the complex, twisting narratives and the setting of Infinite certainly sets up another intricate story very well. The game takes place on board Columbia, a floating city initially set up as a demonstration of values and achievement by America that was transformed into a deadly aerial weapon. After attacking China, the United States disowned the city and it disappeared into the clouds, occasionally exerting its influence in certain locations from time to time.

Bioshock Infinite

The player takes the role of Booker DeWitt, a rather dubious character who is tasked with retrieving Elizabeth, a girl who has been locked in a tower aboard Columbia for 15 years. Elizabeth has a range of powers: however she doesn’t understand exactly what they are, or how to control them. The gameplay portion we witnessed saw the two protagonists searching for an important individual named Comstock, who may be able to help them.

The most immediate and striking element of Bioshock Infinite are the bright and crisp visuals, which are a stark contrast to the dark, watery corridors of Rapture. Initially it seemed difficult to detect the same atmosphere of a utopia gone wrong that was so crucial in creating the unique mood of the original game. However, as the demonstration progressed a sinister feeling of unease began to creep in, as subtle hints indicated dark goings on. DeWitt and Elizabeth entered into an eerily quiet fireworks shop, with the wind slowly blowing through the silent aisles.

Bioshock Infinite

Searching it for any useful supplies, DeWitt rummaged through a number of containers, collecting a handful of dollars and ammunition in the same style as previous entries into the series. He also collected a pistol and a “Vigor”, a container which confers a number of limited-use powers and abilities that function like the Plasmids from Bioshock. However, the unnatural silence inside the store was broken with an ominous shriek and the appearance of Songbird. This bizarre, mechanical winged machine was Elizabeth’s only friend and protector who kept her imprisoned for 15 years and is now searching relentlessly to recapture her. This means the two share a strange and far from straightforward relationship, which is genuinely intriguing.

As the two hid from Songbird the changes to DeWitt are especially prominent. Choosing not to have another silent protagonist, á la Jack and Delta, this time the player character is especially vocal, a decision that might take some adjusting to. As DeWitt is a rather grizzled ex-Pinkerton agent, much of his dialogue felt far too “American anti-hero” wisecracks. Part of the appeal of the Bioshock series was that the player was always an “everyman” you could apply your own personality to, but this is no longer the case. However, Elizabeth’s character was incredibly well animated, with some truly outstanding and subtle body language animations that communicated a great deal of information.

Bioshock Infinite

Having managed to shake off their pursuer temporarily, DeWitt and Elizabeth exited outside. They immediately encountered the bloody aftermath of a conflict between two of the warring factions seeking to control Columbia. The Founders are one such group, who act as the opponents in the early trailer for Bioshock Infinite. Their rivals are the Vox Populi, a rather sinister group who are ruthless in their persecution of their enemies. As the two heroes moved through the wreckage of a battle, they encounter a grievously wounded horse writhing in a pool of blood. Here a choice appears, similar to the Little Sister decision options from previous games in the series. DeWitt has the option to euthanize the horse with a swift bullet to the brain or to allow Elizabeth to attempt to use her powers to fix its serious injuries.

Here DeWitt allowed Elizabeth to attempt to save it, leading to a somewhat unexpected and jarring portion of the demonstration. Elizabeth’s powers initially worked, bringing the horse back and also mended the destruction caused by the factions’ battle. However, this did not last long and with a sudden flash the two found themselves in the middle of a street in an American city during the 1980s. Apparently, Elizabeth’s powers are linked to “tears”, which apparently involve the fabric of time and space. While this was only a temporary scene, it felt incredibly out of place in the series and was both surprising and bizarre. On this early evidence it is difficult to make a judgement, but hopefully these tears will be handled with caution by the development team and be more than just a strange sideline.

Bioshock Infinite

After this unusual occurrence, Bioshock Infinite seemed to get back on track and felt more in keeping with the style of the series. DeWitt and Elizabeth found themselves walking through the aftermath of the battle, which the Vox Populi had won. They were busy rounding up any Founder survivors issuing beatings and hurling explicit insults at their unfortunate prisoners. It seemed that DeWitt could have intervened at any stage, but it was easier for the two of them to avoid attention and leave the Vox Populi to their sadistic fun. Yet, as DeWitt reached the top of several long staircases, a young Founder member was about to face execution. This finally prompted the protagonist to intervene and shoot his would-be killer. 

Bioshock Infinite

Here the demonstration became incredibly hectic, with around 10 minutes of large-scale combat and, for want of a better term, platforming. This is something which equally felt alien to the Bioshock universe and no doubt many fans will feel particularly hesitant. While there have been some epic set-piece battles in previous titles, this particular sequence was something very different and was much faster paced than anything from either existing Bioshock games. Perhaps the biggest change to the combat is that DeWitt can no longer carry multiple weapons permanently. Instead it is necessary to chop and change between arms depending on their availability and weapon supply. Throughout this sequence we saw the use of RPGs, handguns and rifles which had to be routinely swapped as their clips ran dry.

Bioshock Infinite

The combat was very fast paced and involved DeWitt having to avoid fire from multiple directions while trying to take out the biggest threats. Elizabeth was able to use her powers to strategically tear out objects, including extra weapons and boxes that could be used as cover. In one particular section, she tore out a large cargo container that crushed several of the attacking Vox Populi. The speed and intensity of the combat was rather confusing and their seemed to be little direction or guidance on how to tackle the situation, suggesting there is freedom on how to fight.

Key to the battle was the use of the Skyline transport system, which is very similar to the grind rails from the Ratchet & Clank series. This form of monorail that is ridden using a wrist mounted hook could be used to rapidly move around the environment and reach critical, tactical locations. DeWitt jumped onto it early in the combat and rode it to a small ledge, taking out a troublesome opponent carrying an RPG. At this stage an enormous airship loomed out of the sky with a devastating series of missile launchers attached that began to carpet bomb the area. However, the RPG DeWitt had recovered was not sufficient to take down the beast and he was forced to improvise.

Bioshock Infinite

This prompted a long and violent chase along the Skyline as he fought off enemies and routinely swapped tracks, in order to get close enough to jump on board the zeppelin and sabotage the engines. The combat on the Skyline seemed pretty disorientating at first and DeWitt was limited to using only one handed weapons to fight off the Vox Populi. After the airship was repelled, the two heroes were afforded only a brief pause to recover before an ominous shriek filled the air. Suddenly, Songbird emerged out of the clouds prompting a tantalising end to the demonstration.

Bioshock Infinite is still an incredible looking game, but some portions of this preview raised some concerns. The “tears” that can be accessed by Elizabeth, in particular the time travelling ones will need to be handled with caution in order for them to fit in with the universe and not feel so jarring. Perhaps the biggest concern is in retaining the spirit and atmosphere of the Bioshock universe, as the large scale, fast-paced combat that ran over large areas seemed very different to the familiar.

However, Irrational Games’ experience and knowledge will surely be able to mitigate these worries. Similarly, we have a lot of respect for them for trying something brave and fresh with the series. Bioshock Infinite is still one of our most anticipated titles, but we’re anxious to see that the unique ambience and feeling of the series remains intact. E3 demonstrations always showcase the most intense and action packed elements, so hopefully Irrational will showcase some different and more subtle portions before the projected release sometime next year.

evilgiraffeman | 10th June, 2011
Rasher's picture
Only just got around to reading this one this morning, i still love the direction that Bioshock Infinite is going for, nice write up, thanks Giraffe
Fat Tony's picture
This is a game I'm almost afraid of. I, like most, absolutely adored the first Bioshock game, and I thought the second one was just as good as the first. Infinite just seems so different. I know that it'd be silly to have another game set in Rapture (although I won't pretend I'm not gonna miss the place) but the videos I've seen so far just seem too bright and "cheerful" to have any real feeling of suspense. It looks bad-ass and all, just considerably more action-heavy than the other two. I'd really like them to work some more horror and thriller elements into it.
Dead Alive's picture
Never did like BioShock. Always thought it reminded me too much of System Shock, which wouldn't be a bad thing, but it was nowhere near as good, and I thought the sequel was bland with a dull multi-player.

Saying that, this looks interesting at least. I may give it a bash if coming videos and articles on it continue to make it sound/look alright.

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