BioShock Infinite has remained one of our most eagerly awaited games since its announcement way back in 2010. However, the last time we saw the game over a year ago we were a little anxious about how different this entry was from the original. After spending almost four hours with the title this week, it is safe to say that any worries we had have been safely put aside. In order to avoid revealing too much, we won't discuss any major plot details or events but be warned that there may be some minor spoilers present.
Irrational Games have released the opening few minutes of the game in the form of a trailer to whet player's appetites and it is certainly an impressive beginning. Taking on the role of disgraced former Pinkerton agent Booker DeWitt, you are given the job of finding and rescuing a mysterious girl last seen on the floating city of Columbia. Arriving at a mysterious lighthouse in the middle of the ocean, it wasn't long before the plot thickened and Booker found himself among the clouds.
The start of BioShock Infinite is especially strong and draws heavily on the beginning of the original game. There are a variety of subtle references that capture the same spirit while cleverly subverting them, from the isolated lighthouse in the middle of the ocean to the very first moment you catch a glimpse of Columbia. it is a very evocative start that creates a different atmosphere from the other entries into the series, while retaining a similar focus on philosophical themes and ideologies. This was perfectly illustrated very early on as we found ourselves inside a gloomy, candle-filled church populated with white-robed worshippers.
Playing on an Xbox 360, we were impressed by the visuals, which are very distinctive. Their brightness and vibrancy is a million miles away from the dark, oppressive and watery corridors of Rapture. As Booker arrived on the streets of the city, the brilliant sunlight shone down on the cobbles as groups of cheerful people enjoyed the weather. It was a more low-key beginning than BioShock, exploring the city where nothing initially seemed amiss.
Moving through the crowds, it became clear that a celebration was underway as children waved flags and played together. Flags and banners were prominently displayed marking the anniversary of Columbia seceding from the United States. It was a jovial atmosphere with people reclining on deck chairs and picnic blankets while a barbershop quartet sang from a nearby floating barge. These residents were members of "The Founders", a group responsible for running Columbia.
Underneath these happy scenes there was a vague feeling of unease that was difficult to categorise and it didn't take long for the beautiful veneer to be chipped away. The Founders are a fiercely nationalistic group obsessed with keeping the city free from immigrants and those they consider impure. The themes of xenophobia and racism pervaded our playthrough, with racial segregation in place and disturbing propaganda posters "decorating" the walls. It was the mature and carefully employed handling of these subjects that made playing BioShock Infinite a really rich experience.
After an altercation, which we are hesitant to explain in greater detail, Booker found himself attacked by The Founders and Columbia's law enforcement. Here we had the opportunity to test out the title's combat and it felt more developed than in BioShock. One of our biggest concerns was how hectic and complicated the shooting mechanics would be, especially after the manic trailers that have been recently unveiled. Thankfully, it is remarkably smooth, intuitive and carefully introduced.
Unlike previous BioShock titles, Booker can now only carry two weapons at a time which are selected using the right bumper. Over the course of the playthrough we encountered pistols, shotguns, carbines and sniper rifles. The latter gun played an important part in our shootouts as the areas have vastly increased in size and scale from those in Rapture. Gaining a height advantage and using long-range combat was very effective against some of the ranged enemies, including turrets and those equipped with rocket launchers.
Key to mobility was the Sky Hook, a device acquired early on that allows you to use Columbia's Skyline, a form of aerial transport. The hook was magnetized, which gave us the ability to jump to special attachments or the rail itself. While it looks complicated, it was very simple to do and quickly was adopted into our combat repertoire. We also had access to a "Skyline Strike" which let us slam into enemies from above and it could also knock them off buildings, sending them plummeting to their doom.
The Sky Hook also doubled as a nasty melee weapon, as it comprised a series of rotating blades, and was easily accessibly with the press of a button. After enemies had received a significant amount of damage they could be executed with the hook, initiating a violent and grisly kill animation. It was rather visceral but did fit in with the dark and violent tone of the game. Unlike in BioShock, the Sky Hook did not have to be equipped separately (á la the wrench) and could be used at any time. This was especially useful when being rushed by opponents and bought us extra time to reload or re-equip.
In BioShock Infinite some changes have been made to special abilities, with Plasmids being replaced with "Vigors". These unusual shaped bottles hold different powers and we got to play with a variety of them, including Devil's Kiss, the spiritual successor to BioShock's Incinerate! Plasmid. This fireball-spewing ability was gruesomely imbued when Booker first drank from its bottle, horribly burning his hands with melted skin falling off the bones. Fortunately no permanent damage was incurred, but it was a pretty surprising and shocking scene. Each Vigor you initially drink from had a special animation that gave you an idea of what it could do.
In combat two separate Vigors could be equipped at a time and swapping them was straightforward, although changing Vigors could seemingly only be done when bottles were encountered in the game world. Each one we equipped had two functions: by tapping the left shoulder button you initiate a burst of the power whereas holding down the button deployed a trap that was activated when enemies were in range. The Murder of Crows Vigor sends a vicious flock of birds that will peck and claw at foes, but deploying a nest trap is a very useful strategy. If our health was too low we would drop a trap, blocking anyone from following us, allowing us to reload and heal then get back into the action.
Combining Vigors was immensely satisfying and where BioShock Infinite really managed to make its gameplay stand out. Using the Possession ability was very satisfying, turning enemies into temporary allies. This Vigor could even be extended to machines and turrets, which are very valuable companions in the more hectic encounters. One of our favourites was using the Bucking Bronco (a Vigor that hurls enemies into the sky) before swapping to Devil's Kiss and blasting them out of the air with a fireball. It was quite disturbing seeing their immolated bodies dropping from the air as nothing but a charred skeleton. Mixing up combat proved very enjoyable and nothing seemed quite as overpowered as the shock-shotgun combination from BioShock.
Vigors are powered by collecting "Salts" that can be purchased from vending machines, found in the environment or looted from enemy bodies. It also appeared that they are upgradable by buying expensive boosts from specialist vendors: one such option was to make every victim of The Murder of Crows have their body become a fresh trap. These upgrades were sadly too pricey for us to access in the playthrough, but will likely have an impact later on in the game.
Bioshock Infinite also makes changes to constant ability boosts (the Gene Tonics from BioShock and its sequel) and they now come in the form of "Gear". The rather vague title refers to items of what can best be described as clothing imbued with super powers. You are able to wear four pieces at a time, one from each slot (such as hats, waistcoats and breeches). While the idea is rather bizarre they are invaluable and cater for different playing styles and can prove invaluable. Midway through our playthrough we stumbled upon a top hat that allowed us to set enemies on fire. The more we thought about it, the less it seemed to make sense but at the same time anyone we touched burst into flames, which is undoubtedly a fair trade-off.
Health has also received something of an adjustment from previous instalments. Early on Booker receives a potion that generates a shield around him. Typically, any damage he is subjected to is initially negated by the shield but if it is diminished his health starts to suffer. Health is regained by collecting health kits or edible foods and Booker could not carry healing items with it in the portion of the game we played. It is one of the more disappointing new additions and felt like an inclusion entirely influenced by the trend towards regenerating health from most other mainstream games. While most other aspects of BioShock Infinite seemed to hark back to older gaming traditions, this felt jarringly out of sync.
One of the final major gameplay elements introduced is "Infusions": rare potions that can provide a permanent benefit in three areas. When collected we were faced with a choice of upgrading Booker's health, shield or the quantity of Salts he could carry. Once the choice was made it could not be undone and seemed that over the course of the game it would be possible to maximise all these traits by discovering 30 Infusions. It is worth noting that we encountered a number of side quests, such as recovering a key to unlock and ornate chest. They immediately felt at home in the game universe and task you with carefully exploring each area to gain extra benefits.
So, our experience of the gameplay was overwhelmingly positive and the atmosphere and story can easily match that. BioShock Infinite drew us in almost immediately with a richly detailed and carefully realised world. The background for the story and various people in Columbia is told via a combination of Voxophones (the equivalent of audio diaries) and Kinetoscopes. The latter are black and white silent film boxes that provide an insight into The Founders and their enigmatic leader Father Comstock. Their inclusion is very well judged and both the voice actors and writing are excellent.
Perhaps one of the real highlights of Bioshock Infinite is its ability to change moods in an instant. What can be a lovely, even beautiful, scene of family happiness and contended society can suddenly transform into something much, much darker before you realise it. Even large battles can be soon replaced with some creepy and disturbing tension. One of the standout moments for us was entering a building that was home to the Fraternal Order of the Raven. These sinister individuals worship the presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth and vilify Lincoln as a slave-loving demon.
Moving through the dark corridors, with shadows everywhere, and seeing shockingly racist statements and enormous paintings of their leader was deeply eerie. Moving further, flocks of crows flitted along the corridors to a chorus of horrible caws. We then entered into a large chamber containing a room full of black-hooded men, eerily reminiscent of white supremacist movements. It wasn't long before we were forced to fight for our lives and is an excellent illustration of why the game's atmosphere is so effective.
Booker eventually meets up with Elizabeth, the woman he has been sent to find and the two accompany one another. We do not want to spoil the details but the circumstance of their first encounter is impressive and a stand-out set piece that had us sweaty-palmed with excitement. Initially the prospect of us having to "babysit" an NPC filled us with dread, but Irrational Games have avoided that trap entirely. The characterisation of Elizabeth, especially in terms of her voice acting and very subtle body language means you warm to her quickly.
The writing between Booker and Elizabeth is also surprisingly deep and touching and the bond the two of you soon deepens, especially when you come to rely on her skills and abilities. During combat she can provide you with ammunition and health that she will recover from the battlefield. In one of the particularly violent encounters we found ourselves in, we were facing death but at a critical moment Elizabeth was there to throw a medical kit to us that she had just picked up. It felt oddly personal and a different type of relationship with an NPC.
Elizabeth is not an ordinary woman however and has some unusual abilities, including the power to initiate "Tears". These rifts, seemingly in space and time, can only be activated at certain points and are a type of wish fulfilment. The tears can lead to some interesting gameplay options too, as in certain areas Elizabeth can, if you so choose, bring in certain objects from a different plane. In our playthrough there were moments when she plucked out crates of ammunition, objects we were able to Skyline to and even a turret to support us. It was a very fulfilling sequence of gameplay that blended together Vigors, weapons and her abilities.
There is so much more we want to describe and detail, but we want to keep as much of the story as under wraps as possible. Spending an afternoon with BioShock Infinite was a nothing short of a joy and its gameplay, atmosphere and story all combined to create an experience that managed to live up to our very high expectations: something that is no mean feat. It is an incredible and at times emotional ride and one which looks set to be one of the most discussed games of 2013: and it is not even February. It already feels like it will be a long two months to wait until the game launches on March 26th. Columbia cannot come soon enough.