"So what are you working on next?" Those seven words have almost always found their way into conversations with creative director Ken Levine and the staff at Boston-based Irrational Games since the acclaimed release of the original BioShock in 2007. For nearly three years, the response has always been a usually sly deflection coupled with a coy look that made it clear Irrational Games had something cooking. The wait finally ended Wednesday night in New York as Levine took the stage at the Plaza Hotel and unveiled BioShock Infinite, a new entry in the franchise that's likely not what anyone was expecting.
Before we dive into the game, we should note that while BioShock Infinite carries the BioShock moniker, the game is an almost entirely different experience from Irrational's last title with that name. After our look at the game, we have to say that, in a strange way, BioShock Infinite appears to be setting the franchise up for a Final Fantasy-like run. No, the team hasn't added materia, summons, and chocobos to go along with its fantastical airborne setting. What the game appears to be doing is taking key elements that are central to the BioShock experience and reimagining them in the context of a new story. So, like with nearly every Final Fantasy game that has hit consoles, fans of the series will find plenty of familiar elements on hand, but they will be wrapped in a new experience.
So just what is BioShock Infinite's new experience? In two words: the sky. The game is once again set in a slightly skewed version of history where humankind manages to do something incredible. In this particular case, America has created a vast flying city called Columbia, named after the poetic name for the Americas and the feminine personification of the United States of America. The sprawling airborne metropolis is ostensibly meant to be a slick, showstopping testament to the nation's ingenuity and the benefits of a democratic system that travels the world. This does actually appear to be the case…for a little while. However, the humans included a few undocumented features in the utopian flotilla (a full complement of weapons), and things go sideways. While the specifics were hazy in the presentation, we think it's safe to assume that when all is said and done, there's probably a smoking crater someplace in the world in the wake of Columbia baring its teeth. The result is that Columbia disappears into the clouds.
This chain of event sets up the start of BioShock Infinite, which casts you as Booker Dewitt, a disgraced former member of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. For those not up on their history, the Pinkertons were a private US security guard and detective agency established by Allan Pinkerton in 1850. At its peak, the agency wound up having more agents than there were members of the army, making it the largest private law-enforcement organization. Dewitt's experience and unique skill set have made him a resource for those who have special needs. A mysterious figure taps Dewitt to find a young woman named Elizabeth, who has been kidnapped and is presently being held in Columbia. The request to find Elizabeth also comes with information on Columbia's whereabouts and how to find where she's being held, which starts Dewitt's journey to uncover the mysteries of the failed utopia.
We got a taste of Dewitt's adventure in the live demo of the game, which showcased the similarities to and differences from the original BioShock. The level opened up with the former agent regaining consciousness amid a bizarre collage of imagery taken from a poster that featured George Washington surrounded by minority caricatures that proclaimed, "It is our duty to protect against the foreign hordes." We got a taste of Columbia's unique architecture and construction as Dewitt began moving around. While his initial surroundings appeared to be an ordinary street alley, it became clear that was not the case as little details started to become apparent: the horse and cart making its way toward him on the street; a steam-punk-y horse mechanoid; movement beyond the shaded alley; massive buildings held aloft on blimps and hot-air balloons that appear to be in constant varied motion, a bit like waves in the ocean tide; and a smaller landmass, with a tall building and a ringing bell that comes slamming to the ground. The demo pushed Dewitt further into the clearly troubled city to reveal a grocery store on fire being sweeped, we hope, by a mechanical female. Beyond the shop, we saw a massive statue of Columbia kneeling while holding a flag. Just up the street from the statue we saw the corpse of a horse, which clearly made a case for why the locals opted for mechanical replacements.
As the demo progressed, Dewitt moved to a grassy area, which bumped up the game's unsettling vibe a notch as a very chatty resident's rant on bearing arms could be heard coming from further ahead. The journey to reach the speaker yielded a selection of disturbing signs ominously referring to a mystery group taking away a person's life, guns, and other liberties, as well as a troubled resident sitting on a bench alone with a flock of crows. Dewitt reaches the speaker, who appears to be someone named Saltonstall based on posters lying around. The tone of the city has taken a turn for the worse that's topped off by some kind of transformation in Saltonstall, who goes from an eccentric person to a totally crazy person with glowing bright-red eyes. The wizened speaker summons his compatriot, the crow-loving bench sitter, and asks him to attack Dewitt, who was able to collect a weapon from the buckets of rifles around Saltonstall. This results in an assault by every nearby bird, directed by Saltonstall's associate.
While the crows are a problem, the main issue is their master, whom Dewitt dispatches with a handy melee attack that boots his foe over a railing to an unceremonious death on top of a tram car a ways below. Saltonstall escapes by using a rail system, accessed by a handheld hook, that lets him shoot over to another one of the floating islands. As Dewitt attempts to find a way to follow, he is able to see the dead henchman on the tram car below his vantage point and a plasmid-bottle-style pickup that is for the "murder of crows" power. One quick telekinetically powered retrieval later and Dewitt is chugging down the liquid and gaining dominion over crows.
Dewitt's new power doesn't appear to be too useful, as Saltonstall's rantings are heard again and followed by a missile shooting off in the distance that quickly slams down nearby. With few options, Dewitt makes use of a hook to ride the rail system Saltonstall escaped on, and one dramatic rail change later, which includes smacking an incoming enemy into oblivion, he winds up on a new chunk of land in front of the missile launcher. Before Dewitt is blasted into a smear, he ducks into what appears to be a bar populated by a small smattering of seemingly docile locals who undergo a shift similar to Saltonstall and become glowing-eyed loons. One thing we noticed in the bar sequence was an odd warping to one of the portraits on the wall that seemed to happen around the same time the bar went crazy. Unfortunately, there isn't much time to scrutinize the room as Dewitt begins dealing with the locals. While he made liberal use of his weapon, we were intrigued to see a new use for the telekinesis power. Dewitt disarmed a foe by pulling his weapon away and proceeded to use telekinesis to aim and shoot the pistol at enemies.
The action shifts outdoors as Dewitt appears to be attempting to shake the angry bar patrons and pit the newly powered agent against a missile launcher. Fortunately, thanks to a telekinetically redirected missile, the fight is more lopsided than you'd think. The victory is short-lived, as more residents, not looking in their right minds, appear en masse (which is a hefty contrast to the modest crowds seen in the original BioShock). Fortunately the mysterious Elizabeth appears, rocking a fairly ornate dress for a former kidnapping victim, and creates a rain storm that sets up a logical scenario that Dewitt follows through on by firing an electrical blast that is amplified by the water and takes out a huge number of enemies in spectacular fashion, offering an opening to escape through. The two don't get too far and are soon pinned down behind an overturned horse cart by another mob of enemies. This time out, Elizabeth calls out that she has an idea and uses telekinesis to pull together random bits of debris into a tightly packed ball that Dewitt uses as a shrapnel grenade with his own telekinesis against the enemies in front of the pair.
In the wake of the massive explosion, Elizabeth falls to her knees, obviously exhausted from the exertion, saying she needs to catch her breath. Unfortunately, rest isn't an option, as a massive steam-punkish cyborg, shown in flashes in the teaser trailer, jumps down into view. The pair run to escape across a bridge but are blocked as the new enemy leaps in front of them and blocks their path. Dewitt's attempts at throwing debris at the mechanical foe only anger it and lead to a horse being flung at the pair. As the creature begins to advance, Elizabeth appears to grab a portion of the suspension bridge above the enemy with her mind and charge it with energy, calling out to Dewitt to act. Dewitt's blast strikes the portion of the bridge Elizabeth was holding and collapses it on the enemy, who is eventually flung back into the open sky along with other debris. Elizabeth falls to the ground again, this time bleeding from her nose from the exertion. Dewitt asks her if the creature was "the one" who was following her. She notes that it was not and points behind them. The camera shifts to show Dewitt adjusting his gaze to take in an even larger steam-punk-style cyborg that's birdlike in appearance and clearly about to jump down at the escaping duo. However, just as the creature prepares to come down, the demo ends, and Levine appears to close out the event.
The demo was dense with content, some of which we're sure will have greater significance in the context of the game, and it showed off a new, more action-packed flow to the experience. The greater number of enemies was impressive as were the spectacular effects from the explosions and power combinations. The new graphics engine is obviously tailor-made to showcase both the floating landmasses that make up Columbia and the environment in which it's traveling. So far, the result is the creation of a dramatically different aesthetic from that of the city of Rapture, and it offers an all-new sense of claustrophobia and discomfort. We have to say we were surprised by the unsettling mood that was created in such a bright, open environment. While you wouldn't think an open city with a light color palette could be creepy, Columbia is, and best of luck if you're afraid of heights. Between the official trailer and the live demo, we have to say we were already feeling some white-knuckle stomach-knotting anxiety just from watching.
The game's art style, while retaining the high level of detail and art deco approach of the original game, has seen a stylistic change that keeps the game looking fresh. In terms of gameplay, we were also intrigued by the hints of the choice mechanics on display: from the look of things, you'll have to be managing how often you take up Elizabeth's offers of help. Given the apparent physical cost to her when she uses her abilities, we can imagine some less-than-ideal outcomes if she's overused. Combining powers and weapons looks promising as well.
While it's sadly still a ways off, BioShock Infinite has made a winning first impression on us. While the unique game is an unlikely BioShock sequel, there's a lot to be excited by. The setting is fresh and more than a little unsettling, which is a feat considering how well lit Columbia is. The story is clearly packing its fair share of unsettling characters, twists, and mysteries to unravel that all add up to a pretty big hook for fans. The gameplay is mixing up old and new mechanics to create a new flow to adventuring that seems like a good fit. We're especially curious to see how Elizabeth fits into the mix. Will she be a catch-all savior like Elika from Prince of Persia (which we doubt), or will she be something else entirely? We'll be eagerly hunting for the answer to that question and more in the months and year to come. BioShock Infinite is slated to ship in 2012 for the PC, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360.