Remarkably, the Bioshock infinite team has made the dizzying Skyrails work well as a game element.
Bioshock Infinite feels like Bioshock.
It seems strange to say it, but that is my strongest impression after playing the first three hours of Bioshock Infinite earlier this week.
I mean this as high praise, of course; the original Bioshock was not only an excellent and atmospheric first-person shooter, but was also a significant milestone for interactive storytelling and thematic maturity and depth in video games.
Columbia's racist imagery can be confronting.
Infinite seems determined to match its predecessor in every way. Its world, the flying city of Columbia, is both high-concept and deeply unsettling, much like Rapture before it. Rather than a libertarian capitalist wonderland, Columbia is a sheltered bastion of extreme nationalism, where patriotism has been fused with religious extremism, giving rise to an army of self-described patriots who love their floating city-state with evangelical fervour.
Bioshock's plasmids, genetically-engineered biological weapons that made your bare hands as dangerous as any gun, return in the form of "vigors". These vigors allow the expected flinging of fire and electricity, but also stranger effects such as commanding a murderous flock of crows to peck at your foes, distracting them while you take aim with your gun.
As before, there is a variety of weapons, all of them feeling pleasantly old school - pistol, machine gun, shotgun, and carbine rifle, among others. Combat is fast, brutal, and dangerous, and while it has clearly been finetuned and tweaked, it still feels a lot like the hectic gunplay in Bioshock. Also returning is the one-two combo of a gun in one hand and plasmid in the other.
There are subtle differences in the action this time around. There is a limit of two guns, and you can't carry a huge amount of ammunition for them. This adds to the chaos on the battlefield as you frantically snatch up weapons from fallen enemies while taking fire from their friends. The enemies did not seem to be super-smart, but they did engage in basic flanking manoeuvres, and were smart enough to take cover while reloading their weapons. Another simple but effective change is that your melee weapon now has its own button - you don't have to select it from your weapons list in order to use it.
This melee weapon is the Skyhook, a bizarre tool that allows you to latch onto and ride the Skyrail, Columbia's vertigo-inducing roller coaster-like aerial railway. This was one element of the game that I was concerned about them getting right. In early gameplay footage, the player was shown zipping around on the rails, using them to both advance quickly on enemies and escape from them when things got too hot. I had trouble believing it would work so smoothly within the real game.
Amazingly, they made it work. Riding the Skyrails is exhilarating and terrifying, a remarkably original piece of video game design. I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly I got a feel for this outlandish mode of transport, and before long I was zipping around in the sky, flitting swiftly to sniping vantage points or launching devastating aerial attacks on unsuspecting foes.
The game starts with an amusing parallel to the original Bioshock, with your character sitting in a rowboat in a rough sea and finding his way onto a city in the sky, instead of starting in an aeroplane and being plunged into a city under the waves.
Columbia is stunningly beautiful, and has been realised in amazing detail. Rather than one enormous flying mass, it is comprised of dozens, maybe even hundreds, of individual airborne pieces, ranging in size from single buildings to whole neighbourhoods. While it has been created in the Unreal Engine, same as the original, this is a radically upgraded visual experience. Even when it is creepy or disturbing, Columbia never stops being gorgeous.
Strangely, though, the horror still works. It is unusual to be engaging in tense, bloody battles in a brightly-coloured city beneath a clear blue sky, your battlefield bathed in golden sunlight, but somehow that mismatch between setting and content increases its disquieting nature, instead of defusing it.
Another big change is that the game's protagonist, a man named Booker de Witt, has a voice, and uses it. He will talk to people he meets, comment on events in the world, and shout obscenities when hurt or frightened. He is not alone, either. Early in the game, you meet and befriend a mysterious young woman named Elizabeth, who has a major impact on gameplay.
Elizabeth has strange supernatural powers that she can neither understand nor control, and it has been revealed that these powers will become very important as the game progresses. During the few hours I played, though, Elizabeth mostly made herself useful by autonomously scavenging for money and supplies, and sometimes tossing over a freshly-loaded gun when mine had run out.
More interesting than this, though, is de Witt's personal relationship with Elizabeth. She is the reason that he is in Columbia in the first place, having been sent there to retrieve her by some very bad people to whom de Witt owes a lot of money. While it is clear he views her as no more than a job at first, before long he starts to care about her as a friend.
Their growing relationship is a pleasantly healthy counterpoint to the sunlit horrors of Columbia. While it appears superficially to be a pleasant place, it is shot through by fascism, religious fundamentalism, and racism. Some of the propaganda on display is shocking, depicting glorious white people towering over cowering foreigners. This is a society in which black people are still kept as slaves and seen as less than human, though there are at least a few decent people who rail against this injustice.
The religious imagery is also disturbing, with Columbia's beloved dictator being hailed as a prophet, who received the technology to build the flying city from the archangel Gabriel himself. American founding fathers such as Benjamin Franklin are revered as religious icons, and residents of Columbia regard their home as a new ark, floating free from the "new Sodom" of the America below.
Despite the radically new setting and the many changes to gameplay, Bioshock Infinite still feels authentically like a Bioshock game. The combat is solidly-designed and entertaining, but as before it is the story that drives you forward, and this sequel features enough thrilling setpieces and tender character moments to keep you forging ahead to find out what happens next. Also, while there were no spoilers given, I was assured that Infinite will have a powerful and ambiguous finale that will keep gamers debating and disagreeing for months afterward.
All I know for sure is that I did not want to stop playing. I was back in the Bioshock magic and loving it, and its worldwide release date of 26 March cannot come soon enough.
How about you, readers? Are you hyped out yet, or are you still excited about Bioshock Infinite?
- James "DexX" Dominguez
DexX is on Twitter: @jamesjdominguez